Written by Jackie Sheehan.

It was 24 years ago today that 130,000 troops from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) entered central Beijing to end the occupation of Tiananmen Square which had begun in mid-May. From late in the evening of June 3, to get to the remaining student and worker activists and sympathisers still in the Square, they moved in along Beijing’s wide boulevards from all directions, smashing and shooting their way through makeshift barricades and human road-blocks. The crowds at the intersections were composed not of students in the main, but of workers, school-children, and pensioners, ordinary Beijingers who could not believe that the soldiers were using live ammunition until they saw bodies start dropping in the streets.

Most media outlets outside China, drawing on the cuttings from previous anniversaries, will say that “scores, perhaps hundreds” died in Beijing. But there is no “perhaps” about it. Leaving aside that this count ignores many other deaths in the 1989 Democracy Movement – those in other towns and cities all over China, those in Beijing in the days after June 4, when army units often seemed to fire on civilians at random, and the executions of those found guilty of capital offences – this is not even an accurate assessment of the night’s casualties in the capital.

The Chinese Red Cross went round the hospitals in central Beijing and counted bodies, announcing a total of 2,600 as of the morning of June 4. It soon withdrew the report, hardly surprising, given its precarious position as an NGO in a state which was even less tolerant of them then than it is now. But as methods for assessing casualties go, counting the dead strikes me as a sound one. Its overall estimate of deaths was 5,000, compared to a NATO figure of 6,000 civilians and 1,000 troops, and a PLA defector’s total of 3,700 from internal documents.

Does it matter how many died? It does for all those people who saw a loved one go out onto the streets that night to try to help hold back the troops, as the people of Beijing had managed to do on May 19-20 when martial law was first declared, and never saw them come home.

After June 4, some relatives of the missing eventually found a body; others had only ashes returned to them by the authorities; and some did not even get that. Retired general Wang Zhen, one of the “Eight Elders” who took the decision for martial law after the Politburo Standing Committee was deadlocked, said the protesters deserved “death and no burial”, so he at least must have been pleased with this outcome. There have been attempts to reckon the death toll by collecting information on the missing, but it’s the kind of undertaking that gets people put in jail.

Other aspects of what happened in the centre of Beijing have entered inaccurately into public memory as well. One is the idea that the martial-law troops were not equipped with non-lethal riot-control equipment, so they had no option but to use battlefield weapons against unarmed civilians. But the Guardian’s John Gittings and other foreign witnesses near the PLA headquarters in Muxidi saw troops firing baton rounds (rubber bullets) before switching to live ammunition, and they used tear gas throughout the night.

The army also used rifles with fixed bayonets, tanks and APCs, truncheons, whips, and flame-throwers. Against them, the people of Beijing had stones, Molotov cocktails, and pieces of wood from the makeshift stands where groups like the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation had signed up members and broadcast ordinary people’s views in the days leading up to the crackdown, but they still managed to destroy 60 army vehicles that night. The big guns on those tanks and APCs were fired, too; residents in the hutongs off Qianmen showed the spent shells to any foreign witnesses they could find.

The CCP government has always insisted that no-one died that night in Tiananmen Square, and this claim might actually be true, if we only count the area inside the roads as the Square and deem anyone who took a step onto Chang’an or Qianmen Avenue as off the Square. Deaths on those roads, and on the steps of the National Museum on the east side of the square, were witnessed and filmed. There never was any pile of bodies in the Square, although the desperate parents searching for their missing offspring the next morning didn’t know that, and when they tried to push through army lines on Chang’an Avenue to find out, they were fired on.

The last man still in jail on charges of “counter-revolution” from 1989 was released in late 2012, at the age of 73 and suffering from Alzheimer’s, although the Duihua Foundation believes a handful are still detained on other charges; some were imprisoned for 20 years for throwing stones at tanks. Nor should we forget journalist Shi Tao, still serving out his 10-year sentence for publicizing the 2004 instructions to Chinese press on how to handle June 4’s 15th anniversary. Others have been jailed for up to 15 years planning commemorative events which never even took place.

Internationally, the only unfinished business from June 4 is the EU arms embargo against China. It does more harm to EU arms companies than to China, and there are regular calls to repeal it, but if that happens, the world will finally have said to China’s rulers, “You sent an invading army against your own citizens and killed thousands who were only asking for a bit more accountability, but as of today, we don’t care – you got away with it.”

By the time that happens, I hope the relatives of the missing will have their answers. I don’t insist on a new 1989 panel being carved on the Monument to the People’s Heroes, just a list of all the dead and for their relatives not to be forced out of town or put under house arrest at the end of every May. And before too many more anniversaries pass, those who have no grave to visit should at least be allowed to gather together in remembrance. As it is, anyone in China who puts a candle in their window tonight or follows Hu Jia’s suggestion of wearing black risks joining the ranks of those detained or disappeared for attempting to remember June 4.

Jackie Sheehan is Associate Professor in Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham.


  1. This was a very FAIR account of the massacre in 1989. Bradley Manning leaked US Beijing embassy communications to wikileaks, stating that no one died inside the square itself. As this article states it still doesn’t negate the thousands who perished outside the squares perimeter.

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