Thousands of Chinese students take to the streets in Beijing to protest government policies and issue a call for greater democracy in the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The protests grew until the Chinese government ruthlessly suppressed them in June during what came to be known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
During the mid-1980s, the communist government of the PRC had been slowly edging toward a liberalization of the nation’s strict state-controlled economy, in an attempt to attract more foreign investment and increase the nation’s foreign trade. This action sparked a call among many Chinese citizens, including many students, for reform of the country’s communist-dominated political system.
By early 1989, peaceful protests against the government began in some of China’s largest cities. The biggest protest was held on April 18 in the capital city of Beijing.
Marching through Tiananmen Square in the center of the city, thousands of students carried banners, chanted slogans, and sang songs calling for a more democratic political atmosphere. The government’s response to the demonstrations became progressively harsher.
Government officials who showed any sympathy to the protesters were purged. Several of the demonstration leaders were arrested, and a propaganda campaign was directed at the marching students, declaring that they sought to “create chaos under the heavens.”
On June 3, 1989, with the protests growing larger every day and foreign journalists capturing the dramatic events on film, the Chinese army was directed to crush the movement. An unknown number of Chinese protesters were killed (estimates range into the thousands) during what came to be known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
In the United States, the protests attracted widespread attention. Many Americans assumed that China, like the Soviet Union and the communist nations of Eastern Europe, had been moving toward a free market and political democracy. The brutal government repression of the protests shocked the American public.
The U.S. government temporarily suspended arms sales to China and imposed a few economic sanctions, but the actions were largely symbolic. Growing U.S. trade and investment in China and the fear that a severe U.S. reaction to the massacre might result in a diplomatic rupture limited the official U.S. response.