In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section 1989 People's Movement

  • Introduction
  • Document Collections
  • Visual Materials
  • Comparative Studies
  • Protests and Protesters
  • Government Actors and Perspectives
  • Crackdown and Massacre

Chinese Studies 1989 People's Movement
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Yidi Wu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0097


The People’s Movement began in mid-April 1989, with gatherings of students in Beijing. They ostensibly turned out to mourn Hu Yaobang, a recently deceased Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official associated with reformist ideas, who had been General Secretary and Deng Xiaoping’s heir apparent as paramount leader until being demoted for taking a soft line on campus unrest in 1986–1987. The students used the mourning ceremonies to speak out on issues that concerned them, especially official corruption and nepotism. In later weeks, the struggle spread rapidly in geographical and social terms and increasingly became a fight for political liberalization and the right to protest. In Beijing, local students, who made Tiananmen Square their main protest site, were joined on the streets by intellectual, workers, and even sympathetic journalists and cadres, as well as by educated youths who streamed into the capital from other cities. By late April and May, very large crowds were filling Tiananmen Square, site of some of China’s most important political monuments, while smaller but still significantly sized crowds gathered at the central squares of other cities. The most dramatic events of the movement included a high-profile hunger strike by student leaders, which increased popular support for the protesters, and the creation of a “Goddess of Democracy” statue, which combined design elements from America’s Statue of Liberty with traditional Chinese features. The struggle ended in June with the government using force to put down demonstrations, after condemning the movement as an effort to create “turmoil” (a code word for Cultural Revolution-style chaos) backed by foreigners wishing to destabilize China. The most significant repression took place in Beijing, where soldiers killed many protesters and bystanders—estimates of casualties range widely, but at least several hundred deaths occurred—on the streets near Tiananmen Square late on the night of 3 June and early in the morning of 4 June 1989. Common names for the upheaval include “Tiananmen Movement,” “June 4th Movement” (the most common term in Chinese language publications is Liusi, literally “Six Four”), “Democracy Movement,” “Beijing Spring,” and “1989 Student Movement,” but “People’s Movement” has two advantages. First, it underscores the multiclass, multilocale nature of the struggles and the repression (demonstrations in scores of cities, a massacre in Chengdu as well as Beijing); and it avoids giving the impression that the sole issue was “democracy” (anger at corruption and a desire for increased personal freedoms were also important).

General Overviews

Many kinds of works—from memoirs in both Chinese and in Western languages to narratives by foreign journalists, collections of original language and translated Primary Sources, and scholarly books and articles—treat the People’s Movement in its entirety, as opposed to zeroing in on specific topics. Some works published in the immediate aftermath of the June 4th Massacre remain important, while others took longer to gestate. Given how crucial Beijing events were and the unusually well documented nature of things that took place in the capital (thanks in part to the presence of large numbers of foreign reporters, some of whom had come to cover the Sino-Soviet Summit between Deng and Gorbachev, and then stayed to cover the struggle), there is a tendency for overviews to focus largely, sometimes even exclusively, on what happened in and around Tiananmen Square. There are, however, some general narrative works, such as Unger 1991, and Document Collections, such as Wu, et al. 1989 and Zhang, et al. 2001, which are more national in scope.

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