Beginning on May 4th, college students staged a series of demonstrations to protest the terms of the Versailles Treaty, which ceded German territories in China to Japan rather than returning them to China after World War I. These demonstrations inaugurated a new phase of national consciousness in China, and the term "May 4th Movement" came to symbolize the spirit of patriotism among youths. In modern Chinese history, the term "May 4th Period" signifies an era of intense intellectual debate concerning the roles of traditional Chinese culture, modern science, and Western style democracy.


Atop Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) on October 1, Mao Zedong proclaims the establishment of the People's Republic of China.


A ten-year period which Mao calls "the Cultural Revolution." Since Mao's death, it has often been referred to as "the ten years of turmoil." The period is characterized by power struggles among the Chinese leadership, by the rise of "Red Guards" and "revolutionary rebels" among the populous, and by extensive political persecutions involving all sectors of Chinese society. Deng Xiaoping and many other high ranking leaders fall from power.


Premier Zhou Enlai dies on January 8. In April, thousands of people gather in Tiananmen Square to commemorate him and criticize Mao's closest associates. Clashes between mourners and police result in the "Tiananmen Incident," which the government brands as a counter-revolutionary event.

Mao Zedong dies on September 9. On October 6, Mao's four closest associates--including his wife, Jiang Qing--are arrested. Deng gradually rises to power once more, and the official verdict of the "Tiananmen Incident" is overturned.


Deng Xiaoping launches economic reforms and proclaims the "Four Modernizations," in industry, agriculture, science and defense.

A stretch of construction wall near a busy commercial district in Beijing attracts nation-wide attention as the "Democracy Wall," a place where people put up posters to voice their criticism of the political system.


On January 1, the United States and the People's Republic of China formally establish diplomatic relations.

Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping arrives in the U.S. on January 28, the first official visit ever by a senior Chinese Communist leader.

The government suppresses the "Democracy Wall" and arrests several activists, the most famous among them being Wei Jingsheng. Wei is sentenced to fifteen years in prison.


In June, Hu Yaobang is appointed as the Party General Secretary.


In late fall, college students in several cities stage demonstrations to demand political reform.


In January, Hu Yaobang is accused of being soft on the student protests and on "bourgeois liberalism," and is forced to resign. Later, Zhao Ziyang becomes the General Secretary of the Communist Party, and Li Peng the Premier.


The Central Committee endorses Premier Li Peng's policy to slow the pace of economic reforms, a setback for Zhao Ziyang.

PART TWO: 1989

April 15

Former Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, deposed in 1987, dies of a massive heart attack. People began to gather in Tiananmen Square to commemorate Hu and voice their discontents.

April 22

The official memorial service for Hu Yaobang is held in the Great Hall of the People. Demanding to meet with Premier Li Peng, three student representatives carry a petition and kneel on the steps of the Great Hall in front of the 100,000 students who have gathered in the Square the night before. Li Peng does not respond, and the students refuse to let minor officials pass on the petition. Angered by official apathy, students begin boycotting classes.

April 26

The Communist Party newspaper People's Daily publishes an editorial accusing a "small handful of plotters" of stirring up student unrest and creating turmoil in order to overthrow the Communist Party and the socialist system.

April 27

Ignoring warnings of violent suppression, students from more than 40 universities march to Tiananmen in protest of the April 26th editorial.

May 4

Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, in a meeting with foreign bankers, makes a speech which in essence contradicts the April 26th People's Daily editorial.

May 13

Several hundred students begin a hunger strike at Tiananmen Square in the afternoon.

May 14

Second day of hunger strike. In the afternoon, elected student representatives charged with the responsibility for dialogue with the government begin formal talks with the government. The talks breaks down because the promised broadcast does not materialize. In the early evening, twelve of China's most famous writers and scholars present their emergency appeals at the Square, calling on the government to acknowledge the movement as a patriotic democracy movement and calling on the students to end their hunger strike. Their efforts fail.

May 15

Third day of hunger strike. Gorbachev arrives in Beijing for the first Sino-Soviet summit since 1959. The government cancels plans to welcome Gorbachev at Tiananmen Square.

May 18

Sixth day of hunger strike. Li Peng summons several student leaders for a televised talk at the Great Hall of the People. Nothing is achieved. [Full transcript of this televised meeting available.] The government prepares to declare martial law.

May 19

Seventh day of hunger strike. The government's plan for martial law is leaked to student leaders, who call off the hunger strike and declare a mass sit-in.

The Independent Workers Union (IWU) is founded at Tiananmen Square.

In an evening speech, Premier Li Peng calls for "firm and resolute measures to end the turmoil swiftly." [Full text of speech available.]

May 20

The government formally declares martial law in Beijing, but the army's advance towards the city is blocked by large numbers of students and citizens.

May 23

The troops pull back to the outskirts of Beijing.

The Alliance to Protect the Constitution is set up in order to coordinate the actions of the various groups involved in the movement.

May 24

The Defend Tiananmen Square Headquarters is set up. Chai Ling is named Commander-in-Chief.

May 27

The Alliance to Protect the Constitution decides by a unanimous vote to recommend that the students end their occupation of the Square on May 30th. The resolution is announced at a press conference in the Square.

May 28

The Defend Tiananmen Square Headquarters rejects the May 27th resolution to end the occupation of Tiananmen Square.

[Read an account of the above events in Black Hands of Beijing, by George Black and Robin Munro.]

Chai Ling gives a long interview to Philip Cunningham, an American journalist. A transcript of the complete interview in its original Chinese is available.

May 30

The ten-meter-high Goddess of Democracy is unveiled. [Read more about the Goddess in Wu Hung's "Tiananmen Square: A Political History of Monuments" in Representations 35, Summer 1991.]

June 2

At 5:00 pm, Liu Xiaobo, Hou Dejian, Zhou Duo and Gao Xin start a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square.

June 3

Troops receive orders to reclaim Tiananmen Square at all cost. Around 10:00 pm, soldiers open fire on people who try to block the army's advance, as well as on those who are simply shouting at the troops. Tanks and armored personnel carriers move toward the center of the city. Many people in the streets are killed or wounded, including bystanders.

June 4

Around 1:00 am, troops surround Tiananmen Square and await further orders.

Around 4:00 am, the four men who began a hunger strike on June 2 negotiate with the troops to allow the students to leave the Square.

Around 5:00 am, several thousand students, and their teachers and supporters leave the Square at gunpoint.

[Read a detailed account of the night of June 3-4 in Black Hands of Beijing, by George Black and Robin Munro.]

June 9

Deng Xiaoping, in a nationally broadcast television appearance, speaks to the commanders of the martial-law units. [Full transcript of his speech available.]


The documentary film, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, focuses on the events of April-June 1989 as they occurred in Beijing. The protests that spring, however, were not isolated to the capital; while time did not allow the film to examine events in other cities, additional readings on this topic are available on this site. See The Pro-Democracy Protests in China, edited by Jonathan Unger.