What is the Tiananmen crackdown?

On 4 June 1989, Chinese troops opened fire on students and workers who had been peacefully protesting for political reforms in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Hundreds – possibly thousands – of people were killed, including children and older persons. Tens of thousands more were arrested across China in the suppression that followed.

Join us in commemorating the crackdown and read on for more information.

What were the protests about?

In April 1989, university students in Beijing gathered in Tiananmen Square to draw up a list of demands broadly centred on political and economic reforms, but also including calls for an end to corruption, censorship and limits on basic rights. In the weeks that followed, their demands drew wide public support, from pensioners to veterans to farmers. Millions joined peaceful demonstrations that took place across China.

The Chinese authorities failed to persuade the demonstrators to return home. As tensions escalated in Beijing, martial law was declared on 20 May 1989. On the night of 3 June 1989, heavily armed troops and hundreds of armoured vehicles moved into the city centre to ‘clear’ the pro-democracy demonstrators from Tiananmen Square.

How many people were killed?

An official report issued by the Chinese authorities at the end of June 1989 claimed that “more than 3,000 civilians were wounded and over 200, including 36 college students, died during the riot”. The report also stated that several dozen soldiers died. While the exact figures remain unknown, the official figure for deaths is likely a serious under-reporting.

Relatives of victims, survivors and human rights defenders who have come together as the Tiananmen Mothers have, despite severe threats and intimidation, collected their own tally of fatalities and call every year for the government to provide a full account and acknowledgement.

How has the Chinese government responded?

Immediately after the military crackdown, the authorities began to hunt down those involved in the demonstrations. Many civilians were detained, tortured, or imprisoned after unfair trials. Many were charged with ‘counter-revolutionary’ crimes.

In the 35 years since the crackdown, all discussion of the incident has been heavily censored in China, as authorities have effectively attempted to erase it from history. Public commemoration or mere mention, online or off, of the Tiananmen crackdown is banned. 

Regularly since 1989, activists in mainland China have been detained and charged with “subversion” or “picking quarrels” if they commemorate those who were killed, call for the release of prisoners or criticize government actions during the Tiananmen crackdown.

The government has never accepted responsibility for the human rights violations during and after the military crackdown or held any perpetrator accountable. With each year that passes, justice becomes ever more elusive. 

What happens on the Tiananmen anniversary?

Commemorating the Tiananmen crackdown has long been forbidden in mainland China. However, every year on 4 June from 1990 to 2019, up to hundreds of thousands of people joined a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to remember those killed. They called on the Chinese authorities to reveal the truth about what happened and accept accountability for the fatalities. 

The vigil was banned in 2020 and 2021, ostensibly on Covid-19 grounds, and since then repressive new laws such as the 2020 National Security Law have effectively criminalized peaceful protest in the city.

Every year the vigil in Hong Kong featured a recorded message from the Tiananmen Mothers, who are still seeking a full government account of the deaths, lawful compensation and investigation of criminal responsibility.

What happened to people who commemorated Tiananmen in Hong Kong?

The Hong Kong Tiananmen vigil was organized for 30 years by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (Hong Kong Alliance).

Alliance vice-chairperson Chow Hang-tung and 25 activists were prosecuted in 2020 simply because they insisted on lighting candles in Victoria Park despite the government prohibiting the vigil that year, ostensibly on Covid-19 grounds. In 2021, after the police banned the vigil once again, Chow was arrested on 4 June after encouraging people on social media to commemorate the crackdown by lighting candles. 

Ultimately, Chow was jailed for 22 months for taking part and inciting others to take part in an unauthorised assembly. She and fellow Hong Kong Alliance leaders Lee Cheuk Yan and Albert Ho have also been charged with “inciting subversion” under the National Security Law and all three face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. 

What is Amnesty doing?

Amnesty International has continually demanded justice for those killed or unjustly jailed in the Tiananmen crackdown 35 years ago, and for those who have been targeted for commemorating it in the years since.

Despite the authorities’ suppression of any activism related to the crackdown, people in Hong Kong, in mainland China, and across the world continue to fight for the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in China. Once again, on this 4 June, Amnesty will stand with them to commemorate the anniversary.

What can you do to help?

Show solidarity with Tiananmen protesters past and present by demanding action from the Chinese and Hong Kong governments. You too can join the commemoration by signing our petition and using our “Remembering Tiananmen Square” Instagram filter. Together, we can show them that the world is still watching, and that the horror of Tiananmen will never be forgotten. Peaceful protest can be ruthlessly suppressed, but it can never be completely silenced.

Join this year’s virtual vigil

keep the memory of tiananmen alive