Twenty-five years ago on June 4 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) turned on Chinese citizens in a ruthless display of violence, not for the first time, slaughtering many in the streets of Beijing to crush a pro-democracy movement lead by university students.

From April 1989 they had occupied Tiananmen Square at the heart of the nation’s capital, some engaging in a hunger strike, to draw attention to their demands for democratic reforms. They also campaigned against rampant corruption and nepotism. It was a campaign that captured the imagination of many Chinese and people all over the world. It ended in tragedy, one that was perhaps most eloquently expressed in a People’s Daily editorial issued in conjunction with celebrations of the CCP’s 40th anniversary in power later that year on Oct. 1 when it praised the dedication and hard work of crematorium workers. Apparently they had been over-fulfilling their quotas in the aftermath of the Beijing massacre.

Fernando Mezzetti was covering these events as correspondent for the Italian newspaper La Stampa. In a recent interview he told me about his experiences in the weeks and final hours heading up to June 4, 1989, as the student occupation of Tiananmen Square cast wider ripples through the murky depths of Chinese politics. In his view the students were naive and out of their depth, not knowing what they wanted or how to achieve that, improvising an agenda that ultimately failed to consider realistic possibilities and goals. He also questions to what extent the students really understood democracy and its principles, pointing out their organizational approach replicated the CCP with a central committee, politburo and even bodyguards. He recalls when three students defaced a large portrait of Mao and were handed over to the police by fellow students. In his view this suggests the students were pro-Mao Zedong and anti-Deng Xiaoping, but ironically, “it was only thanks to Deng, that they could dare to demonstrate.” Philip Cunningham, author of “Tiananmen Moon” (2014), was inside the students’ encampment and responds: “Not so simple. Mao is an unavoidable meme in China, but it was not about him and a lot of the Mao stuff was tongue-in-cheek or just provocative without an accompanying ideology.” Much else remains disputed.

The students’ presence at Tiananmen Square, and the wider sympathy and support they generated in society, poised a challenge to the CCP. The students began by demanding that the government reassess the legacy of purged Party Chairman Hu Yaobang who died April 15, 1989. Since 1981, Hu served as the front man for Deng’s economic reform policies, but in doing so made many enemies in the party’s old guard opposing this agenda. Subsequently, Hu was ousted as general secretary of the CCP in 1987 for refusing Deng’s demand to crack down on the 1986 student protests and banish their leaders from the party. But even after his ouster Hu remained popular with many who supported his efforts to rehabilitate those who had been persecuted during the Cultural Revolution (1966-71), a paroxysm of violence unleashed by Mao that convulsed China in the name of purging “revisionists” and counter-revolutionaries. Hu also apologized to Tibetans for misguided policies, worked to promote reconciliation with Japan, advocated greater freedom of speech and the press, unleashed an anti-corruption campaign and was not shy in speaking his opinion and dismissing Maoist orthodoxy.

On the eve of Hu’s funeral, tens of thousands of students descended on Tiananmen Square in a show of respect, demanding that the party officially acknowledge that he had been wrongfully purged for backing political reforms. Hu’s death sparked this protest, one that ignited pent up anger about other grievances, escalating into the pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen Square. His name became taboo, but he was posthumously rehabilitated in 2005. The events his death set in motion remain a forbidden subject.

Zhao Ziyang was Hu’s successor as general secretary, described by journalist Jasper Becker as the Mikhail Gorbachev China never had. Zhao was also sympathetic to the students’ demands and perhaps symbolizes the opportunity China missed toward creating a more democratic and pluralistic state. Zhao’s support for a softer approach and dialogue with the students got him ousted from power by Deng and his octogenarian oligarchy. He visited the student hunger strikers on May 19 tearfully lamenting that, ” I came too late.” What he meant remains unclear, but the Politburo had already decided to declare martial law on May 20 and send in 300,000 troops and columns of tanks after 1 million people took to the streets in support of the demonstrators. Zhao missed his Boris Yeltsin moment, quietly fading from the scene instead of climbing atop a tank and rallying the forces opposing party rule.

There is controversy about Zhao’s role in the decision to crush the student movement as he signed off on a hard-line front-page editorial published April 26, 1989, in the People’s Daily while he was on a trip to North Korea. This editorial expresses Deng’s views on the need for the party to crush political dissent and warned that the state would not tolerate “turmoil.” By accusing students of being reactionaries with ulterior motives and threatening them with harsh measures, the editorial enraged and radicalized student leaders, further escalating tensions. The following day, tens of thousands of students from many Beijing universities marched from their campuses to Tiananmen Square, eliciting strong support from large crowds of workers who cheered them on. Zhao then made two conciliatory speeches pointing out that the hard-line approach was mistaken, exposing a deep rift in the leadership. Zhao pushed for dialogue, Deng and Premier Li Peng for repression.

Complicating matters, Soviet leader Gorbachev was due to visit from May 15, the first Sino-Soviet summit in three decades, with a welcoming ceremony planned at Tiananmen Square. On May 13, students started a hunger strike there to press their demands, forcing the government to shift the welcoming ceremony to the airport. Media coverage of the hunger strike stirred widespread sympathy for the students and the pro-democracy, anti-corruption movement. After Gorbachev’s departure, the international media lingered, drawn to the prospects for a showdown.

As Mezzetti told me, “Many of my colleagues mistakenly thought this was a rerun of the 1968 protests in Europe, but for the CCP it was a matter of regime survival.” While others thought the looming confrontation was mere shadow boxing, Mezzetti was so certain of the impending carnage that he called his editor in Italy to hold the front page for the following day. He was alarmed by the restive masses gathering on the streets, disarming and taunting soldiers, and reports about tank and troop movements. As he predicted, the standoff spiraled toward a savage denouement. Since then, the party has tried to wash away the bloodstains on its reputation.

First of three parts in a series on Tiananmen Square. Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.