Protests by students began with the death on April 15 of disgraced Communist Party chairman Hu Yao-bang (Hu Yoa-pang) (1915-89), a liberal reformer ousted in 1987 for not halting student demonstrations for democracy and human rights. In Beijing, university students eulogized Hu as a symbol of "modernization" and made peaceful daily marches of protest to Tiananmen Square, where they openly danced and debated over politics and corruption.

To commemorate the 70 years since the May 4th movement of 1919, hoards of students descended on Tiananmen Square, protesting for more freedoms.  They went as far as creating a 'goddess of freedom', modeled after the US Statue of Liberty and defacing the portrait of Mao Zedong in the center of the square.  The protests were largely peaceful, and very organized.  For about 4 weeks, the students camped in the square.  During this time, the Soviet premier Gorbachev visited Beijing in what officials described as a 'planned state visit'.  The real purpose of the meeting was to gain advise from the Soviet Union on how to handle the uprising.  Having only about 18 months of life left, the Soviet Union advised China to work with the student protest leaders in enacting major reforms, ending in the transition to a more democratic government.

What could have been the foremost political revolution in Chinese history was blindsided by far- right communist party officials, fearing their communist legitimacy and loss of power.  Government leaders under Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-ping) (1904-97) ordered military forces to disperse the crowds and regain control.

Supported by tanks and other armored vehicles, helmeted soldiers moved into Tiananmen Square and other Beijing neighborhoods late Saturday night June 3, 1989, and in the early morning hours the next day began throwing tear-gas shells and chasing students and others from the square. Some protesters held fast behind barricades, fighting with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Troops began firing their AK-47 assault rifles at the mobs, while tanks fired their cannons indiscriminately down thoroughfares.

Within hours on June 4, the square was virtually emptied of all protesters, and hundreds of wounded were hustled away among smoldering vehicles and debris. The Chinese government proclaimed a great victory over "counter-revolutionary insurgents," and later issued harsh martial laws ordering the arrest of pro-democracy leaders and dissidents, similar to the practices in the Chinese "Cultural Revolution". An estimated 5,000 (numbers have been as high as 10,000) citizens were killed that day in Beijing. Chinese leaders since have largely silenced democracy and human-rights advocates, many of whom have been jailed or exiled.