June 4th Incident: What is it?


In Mainland China, the June 4th incident is often phrased as 1989年春夏之交的政治風波 (the political tempest that occurred between Spring and Summer in 1989) by the government. Western media and governments refers to it as the Tienanmen Incident or Massacre. The general course of events is phrased as the Democratic Movement of 1989 (八九民運).

Historical Background

The 1980s for China was a period of exploration. The trial and conviction of the Gang of Four in 1980 marked the end of the Cultural Revolution.

There is a yearning for reform throughout the country, but no one is sure how it should be done. This sentiment is best captured by Deng Xiaoping description: 摸著石頭過河 (to cross the river by feeling the stones on the river bed).

Economic Background

Starting from a planned economy, China took gradual market reforms, embracing the market for some aspect while retaining control in others.

Such economic reforms, while necessary, were often difficult for the people as it caused inflation and unemployment. The chasm between planned economy prices and market prices gave rise to rampant corruption.

Officials involved in producing and providing daily necessities to the people would horde such supply instead and sell them on the market at market prices, pocketing the difference. This phenomenon was known as 官倒 (resale by officials). One of the primary demands of the June 4th Movement is an end to such malpractice.

Political Background

The reforms led by Deng Xiaoping had their skeptics, notably the conservative faction in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) who maintained that China should be communist.

While the government took on market reforms, it also began to be gradually more lenient towards granting civil rights and freedoms. Free speech and expression flourished as the people were allowed to express their views (with limits) on the direction the nation is taking. Even though the state still cracked down when certain red lines were crossed, media and public intellectuals became more audacious and critical.

There was a general expectation before 1989 that as China continues to embrace reform, it would eventually become a liberal democratic society.

Before June 4th

Hu Yaobang, a liberal reformist and top official in the CCP was forced into retirement for allowing the liberalisation of the bourgeoisie in 1987. His passing away in 1989 triggered massive commemoration from the people, who saw him as one of the leading figures of reform. Hu Yaobang was also remembered for being clean from corruption.

The commemoration turned into a demand for an end of corruption, greater civil liberties, democracy and improvement in government accountability in the following months. Rhetorics between the government and student protestors slowly got heated over time. Occasional demonstration of good will by either parties did not last long enough to alleviate the increasing tension. The democratic movement also coincided with Gobarchev’s historic visit to China, which marked a restoration of relations between the Soviet Union and China.

As the movement spread nationwide, an editorial in the People’s Daily on 26th April 1989 characterised the student movement as an anti-party revolt, needing to be opposed by all of society resolutely. A curfew in Beijing was declared on 20th May. On the evening of 3rd June, state television warned residents in Beijing to stay at home. By the early morning of 4th June, the Army cleared Tiananmen square of its protesting students with force including tanks, tear gas and live ammunition.


As the incident became a political taboo in Mainland China, a full and independent enquiry was never held. The suppression of information prevents a reliable account of the total number of causalities on the fateful night. Estimates vary from 300 deaths (according to the initial iteration from the Chinese government) to 10000 (according to declassified US report).


Mainland China continued to embrace market reform but curbed political reform since 1989. Those who sympathise with the government cite the country’s current economic success as justification for the clampdown.

Just as the international community was appalled and horrified by the actions taken by the government, Sino-US relationship was dramatically affected by the incident. Prior to the Tiananmen Incident, the two countries share a close relationship in its opposition to the Soviet Union. At its heights, US intelligence was operating within China to monitor Soviet activities. In that sense, Sino-US relationship prior to 1989 was comparable to US-Iranian relationship before the revolution. While the US public was outraged by the incident and the US government imposed sanctions accordingly, the Chinese leadership maintains the position that the June 4th incident is a domestic affair and that it should not affect diplomacy.

Hong Kong’s perception of China was changed dramatically by the episode as well. The lingering fear of the handover was validated by the harsh actions taken by Beijing. Concessions of democracy in Hong Kong that was originally open for discussion during the drafting of the Basic Law was also scrapped. Good will between the democratic factions of Hong Kong society and Beijing dissipated since then and continues to mark Hong Kong politics to this day. The disillusionment towards the CCP led to a massive exodus of Hong Kong people before 1997.

To this day, the United States and the European Union continues to impose an arms embargo on China.


By Ben Kong


Disclaimer: The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of ICE