As it happened June 4-5, 1989: Tanks rumble out of Tiananmen Square

30 years later, a look at a report from the field during the bloody crackdown in China on pro-democracy protesters, with the death toll unknown to this day

FILE - In this June 5, 1989 photo, Chinese troops and tanks gather in Beijing, one day after the military crackdown that ended a seven week pro-democracy demonstration on Tiananmen Square.  (AP Photo/Jeff Widener, File)
FILE - In this June 5, 1989 photo, Chinese troops and tanks gather in Beijing, one day after the military crackdown that ended a seven week pro-democracy demonstration on Tiananmen Square. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener, File)

BEIJING, China (AP) — This AP story was first published on June 5, 1989, two days after China began a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The story is being republished for the 30th anniversary of the violence in which hundreds, if not thousands of people are believed to have died.


Troops again opened fire on thousands of angry civilians Monday as China’s capital lay paralyzed after two days of a military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators that has left at least 500 people dead.

About 50 soldiers began firing heavily at a crowd of nearly 3,000 on the main street northeast of central Tiananmen Square. It was not immediately known if anyone was hit, but one bicyclist was dragged off and beaten by troops.

Later, soldiers fired indiscriminately in an area near foreign embassies and charged into a residential neighborhood near the square. More than 20 tanks and personnel carriers were moving slowly eastward from the square.

Artillery fire was also heard for the first time Monday in Beijing’s far northwestern suburbs.

Soldiers let off several bursts of automatic rifle fire as seven military trucks moved on an intersection in eastern Beijing where crowds had set several army vehicles ablaze.

In this June 5, 1989 file photo, a Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing’s Changan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square (AP Photo/Jeff Widener, File )

There were no immediate reports of injuries in the latest military action, which occurred after hundreds of thousands of people returned to the streets to block troops who cut a bloody swath through the city during the weekend to clear protesters from the square, the country’s symbolic political heart.

Troops also fired at citizens in at least one incident late Sunday, and protesters were reported blocking streets in Shanghai, China’s largest city. However, no troops were there, according to Shanghai radio.

The slaughter that left at least 500 dead, perhaps thousands, drew worldwide condemnation but failed to completely quell the 7-week-old student-led campaign.

Chinese sources said senior leader Deng Xiaoping ordered the bloody assault from a hospital where he is seriously ill with prostate cancer. “Even if they’re functioning out of ignorance, they are still participating and must be suppressed,” Deng, 84, was quoted as saying of the protesters.

The sources were from the office of Li Xiannian, the former president and now the head of an important advisory body. Officials never have confirmed Deng is seriously ill.

The State Council, the chief executive body, charged in a statement on national television Monday that a “small group” of people trying to overthrow the government had led rioters, who had killed dozens of troops and police. It also accused the protesters of wrecking more than 100 military trucks and public buses, beating soldiers and police, looting stores, and attacking the Great Hall of the People and other public buildings.

The bodies of dead civilians lie among mangled bicycles near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in this June 4, 1989 file photo. (AP Photo/File)

The statement, which did not mention civilian casualties, said the government had been too soft on its enemies and would “fight to the end.”

It identified the protest leaders as advocates of “bourgeois liberalization,” or Western political and social ideas, and followers of the ultra-leftist “Gang of Four” who sought to seize power during the final years of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

Student leaders, meanwhile, called for a general strike. The response of workers was not immediately clear.

Areas of the capital were dominated by hundreds of thousands of angry citizens who bolstered barricades to restrict troop movements Sunday.

Tens of thousands of troops were stationed around the 100-acre Tiananmen Square. As many as 200,000 more were believed camped in the outskirts of the city. Later, more than 100 tanks and armored personnel carriers moved into the city from the east.

Chinese students marched tearfully in Taipei, Paris, London, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Oslo, Vancouver and other cities. In Hong Kong, which is to revert to Chinese rule in 1997, about 200,000 people rallied to mourn the Beijing slaughter.

In this June 10, 1989 file photo, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops stand guard with tanks in front of Tiananmen Square after crushing the students pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing. (AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami, File)

Western governments and some communist regimes expressed outrage over the violent crackdown. Some Western leaders called for diplomatic action or economic sanctions.

The military entered the city to enforce martial law, declared May 20 but not enforced then because of a government power struggle caused by the protest movement. The struggle pitted hard-liners such as Deng and Premier Li Peng against moderates such as Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang, who has reportedly lost his post.

Soldiers began shooting, beating and running over Beijing residents late Saturday as they finally started their push to Tiananmen Square, where students were ending the third week of a sit-in. Flames from burning military vehicles seized by protesters lit up the sky, and bodies were scattered in the streets.

On Sunday evening, about 100 troops charged into a residential area just north of the square, shooting into narrow alleys as women clutched their babies and people fell to the pavement. After the attack, residents came out again and taunted the soldiers with cries of “Fascist!”

Civilians hold rocks as they stand on a government armored vehicle near Chang’an Boulevard in Beijing, early June 4, 1989. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

Except for the area around Tiananmen, the city was generally free of troops, although there were reports the army planned to move into the university campus area in the northwest.

Troops shot indiscriminately during the march to Tiananmen. Citizens responded by hurling rocks. No casualty toll was available, but a doctor said 500 people died and others said the death toll may be in the thousands.

Several thousand were hurt.

One doctor said he was aware of a young man who was strangled by troops with chains.

Official government announcements on the army attack, broadcast repeatedly on national television, said the troops “suppressed a counterrevolutionary riot” and achieved a “great victory in the struggle to end turmoil in the capital.”

In this June 4, 1989 file photo, a rickshaw driver peddles wounded people, with the help of bystanders, to a nearby hospital in Beijing after they were injured during clashes with Chinese soldiers in Tiananmen Square. (AP Photo/Liu Heung Shing, File)

The Beijing municipal government said soldiers and police “strictly observed discipline.”

The reports said three soldiers were killed and more than 1,000 injured by “thugs,” but did not mention civilian casualties.

An announcer for the English-language Radio Beijing, monitored in Washington, said thousands of people, mostly civilians, were killed. The station later switched announcers and returned to reading government pronouncements.

The evening news showed a tank knocking down the “Goddess of Democracy,” a 33-foot-high replica of the Statue of Liberty that was put up by students.

In this May 28, 1989 file photo, students rest in the litter of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, as their strike for government reform enters its third week. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener, File)

The student-led protests began April 15, with students calling for talks with the government on increasing social freedoms and ending official corruption. Ordinary citizens joined the protests, and at times 1 million people poured through the streets.

On May 13, students began a round-the-clock occupation of Tiananmen. Martial law was declared seven days later, but efforts by troops to move against the student were thwarted peacefully by huge throngs who blocked convoys, urging soldiers not to fight them.

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