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Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square: An enduring symbol of the Chinese Communist Party's illegitimacy


This week the Communist Chinese Party is holding a congress at the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. The purpose of the congress is to cement Xi Jinping's genocidal, imperialist autocracy. This post explains the centrality of Tiananmen Square to the Chinese dictatorship, and to the Chinese people victimized by the dictatorship.

In brief, ever since the proclamation of the People's Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949, Tiananmen Square has symbolized the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. The proclamation of communist rule was issued from Tiananmen, which the Party intended to transform into an icon and an instrument of its absolute power. That power reached a zenith in 1966, when millions thronged to hear Chairman Mao incite the Cultural Revolution. Yet a decade later, Tiananmen Square became the site of mass protest against Mao's tyranny. Then in 1989, the Square was occupied by students demonstrating for democracy; the students were guarded by workers throughout the city who set up barricades to attempt to stop a military invasion. The military's brutal assault demonstrated to the world that the Chinese Communist Party rules by violence and not by consent—as in 1949 and 1989, and so too today. As Mao and his party intended, Tiananmen Square does perfectly exemplify the "New China" they created: a totalitarian kleptocracy who power is maintained by force against the democratic will of the people.

This post is adapted from David B. Kopel, "The Party Commands the Gun: Mao Zedong's Arms Policies and Mass Killings," pages 1864-1964 in online chapter 19 of Firearms Law and the Second Amendment: Regulation, Rights, and Policy (3d ed.), by Nicholas J. Johnson, David B. Kopel, George A. Mocsary, and E. Gregory Wallace. Complete citations to Chinese history may be found therein.

Mao Zedong declared the People's Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949, while standing at a rostrum on Tiananmen (Heavenly Peace) Gate–the northern entrance to the old imperial government complexes in Beijing. The Tiananmen area was large enough for a crowd of tens of thousands. Earlier in the century the Square had been a site of several historic protests, such as against the Versailles Treaty's shabby treatment of China.

The symbolism of Tiananmen was so powerful that on September 30, 1949, the day before the proclamation of the new government, the CCP leadership spent its time giving final approval to major renovation of the Tiananmen area. Buildings around the gate would be razed, so that much larger crowds could gather to hear speeches by the CCP leadership. In an open area, at the opposite side from Tiananmen gate, there would be a huge obelisk monument of China's revolutionary martyrs. Tiananmen Gate and Mao became the leading symbols of the "New China."

The national socialist rallies of 1966

By the early 1960s, Mao's power was weakening, even within the apex of the CCP. The agricultural collectivization of the "Great Leap Forward" had caused the worst famine in history, killing tens of millions. Mao's racist aggression against Tibet had caused a huge armed revolt; although the revolt had mostly been suppressed by the early 1960s, China's international standing had been seriously damaged. Moreover, Mao had realized that killing small farmers, small business owners, and the like had not killed bourgeois thought. Even within the high levels of the CCP, many people preferred rational thinking rather than Mao's cult of personality. So Mao initiated the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

On August 18, 1966, a million youths were assembled in Tiananmen Square, where defense minister Lin Biao exhorted them to "Smash the Four Olds": "all old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits of the exploiting classes." Two weeks earlier, the first murder in the Cultural Revolution had taken place. The victim was Bian Zhongyun, an assistant headmistress at the Girls' Middle School (a secondary school) attached to Beijing Normal University. She was tortured to death for hours by a mob of students. At the Tiananmen rally, one of the murderous student leaders—a daughter of one of the top generals of the revolution—was given the honor of putting a Red Guard armband on Chairman Mao's sleeve. Mao changed her given name from Binbin (suave or refined) to Yaowu (be martial). Song Yaowu became an instant national celebrity. The school where the murder took place changed its name to "the Red Martial School."

At Beijing's Foreign Languages Institute, Wang Rongfen was studying German. She observed the similarities between Lin Biao's speech and Hitler's speeches at his Nuremberg rallies.  She sent Chairman Mao a letter: "the Cultural Revolution is not a mass movement. It is one man with a gun manipulating the people." He sent her to prison for life. In prison, her manacles bore points to dig into her flesh. She had to roll on the floor to eat. She was released in 1979, three years after Mao's death, with her spirit unbroken.

Even at elementary schools, which were for students up to age 13, student mobs were encouraged by the Cultural Revolution to attack teachers. The Minister of Public Security instructed the police to support the mobs: "Don't say that it is wrong for them to beat up bad people. If in anger they beat someone to death, then so be it." The violent students called themselves "Red Guards," since they were guarding Chairman Mao and his totalitarian program. When Red Guards assaulted the police, the police were forbidden to fight back.

While murders by students had initially been only in the Beijing area, the lethal mobs spread nationwide as students returned home from the Tiananmen rally. The Red Guards were declared to be reserve forces of the Chinese military, and so the military was ordered to assist their travel. For the rest of the year they were given free rail and bus transport plus free accommodations and food. Quite a change from the usual CCP rules against leaving one's registered city or village.

Twelve million Red Guards traveled to Beijing over the next several months, to wait weeks until Mao would appear on a balcony and acknowledge them, in seven more rallies from August 31 to November 26. The trains and buses were hideously overcrowded and filthy, and so were conditions in Beijing. The result was a meningitis epidemic that killed 160,000. There was no money for antidotes because government spending was oriented to the Cultural Revolution. European governments eventually donated vaccines.

Although some students just took advantage of the opportunity for free travel and left Beijing to visit scenic or historical places, many others came home empowered. Under state direction, rage mobs roamed the streets, attacking women for bourgeois behavior such as wearing dresses or having long hair. They ransacked homes of suspected anti-communists and of loyal communists. Poor street peddlers, barbers, tailors, and anyone else participating in the non-state economy were attacked and destroyed. Many of them were ruined and became destitute. Street names that referenced the past were replaced with communist names. Historic artifacts, public monuments, non-communist historic sites, religious buildings, tombs, and non-communist art were destroyed.

It was all great fun for the Red Guards. But Mao could not contain the violence and disorder he had unleashed. By 1968, he had to cede control of most of the government to the military. Any young person who had participated in one of the 1966 Tiananmen rallies was shipped off to the countryside for forced labor. About 3.5 million people who had joined the Cultural Revolution were affected.

The 1976 mourning of Zhoe Enlai

In January 1976, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai died. All over the nation, huge, spontaneous, and unauthorized crowds assembled to mourn him. The crowds considered him relatively less totalitarian and oppressive than Mao. Unlike the Tiananmen rallies of the early Cultural Revolution, which originated from the top down, the crowds that gathered to mourn Zhou expressed people power. "The country had not witnessed such an outpouring of popular sentiment since before the communists came to power in 1949," observed Mao's personal doctor, Li Zhisui.

While there were demonstrations at over 200 locations throughout the country, the flashpoint was in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, which saw the largest spontaneous demonstration ever in China. On April 4, Tomb-Sweeping Day, a traditional day for honoring one's ancestors, an immense crowd gathered at the Monument to the People's Martyrs in Tiananmen Square. Erected in 1959, the monument honored Chinese revolutionary martyrs from 1840 onward.

At the monument, poems were read aloud, then transmitted throughout entire square by relay teams shouting each line, as the people wrote them down. One poet said:

In our grief we hear the devils shrieking;

We weep while wolves and jackals laugh.

Shedding tears, we come to mourn our hero,

Heads raised we unsheathe our swords.

The masses denounced Chairman and Madame Mao, indirectly: "Down with Franco!" (recently deceased Spanish fascist dictator), "Down with Indira Gandhi!" (Indian Prime Minister who had recently overturned democracy and was ruling by decree), "Down with the Empress Dowager!" (Manchu Dynasty ruler of China 1861-1908).

That night, the government dispatched fire engines and cranes to remove the tens of thousands of wreaths deposited in honor of Zhou. The next day, a worker's militia was sent to disperse the crowd, but it was hesitant to act, for many members themselves had laid wreaths for Zhou.  Police and more militia surrounded the square. People could leave but not enter. Some protesters broke into government buildings, destroyed propaganda vans, toppled and burned cars, or attacked security guards and militia.

As dusk neared, a final poem was pasted on the monument. Three lines brought the crowd to silence. As they were relayed, no one else spoke. The listeners quickly scribbled the words onto paper.

China is no longer the China of yore

Its people are no longer wrapped in ignorance

Gone for good is the feudal society of Qin Shi Huang.

Mao had long compared himself to China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. Both had imposed totalitarian rule, murdered millions, and enslaved the nation. Everyone understood that denouncing the first emperor was the same as denouncing Mao.

That night, the Tiananmen revolutionaries were attacked by the Capital Militia Command Post (a/k/a the "Cudgel Corps"). In Beijing as in Shanghai, the militia were under the command of the Gang of Four, a group of extreme leftists led by Madame Mao.

China's then-minister of defense estimated that over ten thousand people in the crowd of a hundred thousand might have been killed. Another official said there were only a hundred deaths. Newer scholarship argues that the violence lasted only 10-15 minutes; people were beaten bloody but no one was killed.

The next evening, and two succeeding evenings, the government ordered in large crowds to express their loyalty to Mao. Together they yelled, "Resolutely carry the struggle against the right deviationist attempt to reverse correct verdicts through to the end."

Hundreds of workers had tried to scrub off all the blood in Tiananmen. But as Anne Thurston writes in Enemies of the People: The Ordeal of the Intellectuals in China's Great Cultural Revolution, the cleanup was incomplete. On the Martyrs Monument, "gleaming like a red neon light, was one stain of blood that somehow had been missed."

Not that it mattered. As Lady Macbeth had said, "Out, damned spot! … What need fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?"

The 1989 democracy protests

Mao died several months later, and was eventually replaced by Communist leadership that, while totalitarian, was more pragmatic than Mao. But like Mao, they would never allow the people to challenge the Chinese Communist Party's absolute power.

In 1989, democracy demonstrators did start to threaten the one-party state. Beginning in mid-April, they demonstrated and camped in Tiananmen Square. Against the armed force of the Chinese military, they knew their only hope was the moral force of nonviolence.

The government declared martial law on May 20. The evening before, the army had been sent in to clear the protesters. But as soon as army forces were spotted moving into Beijing, huge crowds assembled to block them. The army had not been given orders to shoot if necessary, and so the military halted.

The people of Beijing had come out en masse, and they stayed out en masse, fortifying their city against invasion by the army. Street barricades were constructed with overturned buses, bicycles, cement blocks, or whatever else was at hand. A spontaneous network spread the word on how to immobilize a vehicle column: use gravel to stop the lead vehicle, let the air of its tires, and then remove or cut the ignition wires.

A few days later, the army pulled its forces back outside Beijing, leaving many stranded vehicles behind. The army began preparing for a second assault. Inside Beijing, tactical knowledge continued to disseminate. For example, if a whole armored column cannot be stopped, surround and stop the final third of the column. Then as the reduced vanguard moves forward, isolate and halt its rear third, and so on.

While the students were concentrated in Tiananmen Square, the city itself was defended by people of all backgrounds and classes. New citizen militia self-defense forces, with names such as "Dare-to-Die-Corps," vowed to defend the students at all costs. The people desperately hoped that the army would never obey orders to fire on the people. With many military personnel stuck in immobilized caravans, there were plenty of opportunities for friendly conversations, and some soldiers vowed never to harm the people. But most of the soldiers who would soon attack Beijing never had an opportunity to interact with the people. They were told by their officers that the protesters were just bunch of hooligans who were endangering public safety.

The possibility that some military units might actually fight for the people was apparently considered a serious risk by the regime. The military deployment aimed at Beijing included anti-aircraft rockets—of no use against land-based protesters, but handy in case some of the air force switched sides.

On May 30 the democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square, now numbering over a million, raised a statue of the Goddess of Liberty. She directly faced and confronted Mao's giant cult portrait hanging in the square. Around the city the masses were singing with new meaning the global communist anthem, The Internationale:

For reason in revolt now thunders and at last ends the age of cant.

Now away with all your superstitions.

Servile masses arise, arise!

We'll change forthwith the old conditions and spurn the dust to win the prize….

On our flesh too long has fed the raven.

We've too long been the vultures' prey.

But now farewell to spirit craven.

The dawn brings in a brighter day …

No savior from on high delivers.

No trust have we in prince or peer.

Our own right hand the chains must sever,

Chains of hatred, greed and fear …

Each at his forge must do his duty

And strike the iron while hot.

The military's senior officer corps was not sympathetic to the protesters. They were veterans of the 1949 revolution and owed their power to the Communist Party.

On June 3-4, the army followed orders from the CCP leadership.  This time, use of deadly force was authorized. Soldiers attacked the people with AK-47 automatic rifles and machine guns, plus clubs and garottes. The army had infiltrated plainclothes soldiers, posing as civilians, into the Tiananmen area. They were on standby waiting for delivery of firearms. The street barricades did stop some movement by army forces, but many of the barricades were knocked away by armored personnel carriers running at full speed. As the noose tightened around Tiananmen, the students decided to surrender. Most were allowed to leave peacefully through one exit.

Most fatalities were not in Tiananmen Square, but in the city, as the PLA shot and rammed its way through the people. The highest estimate of city-wide fatalities of the PLA attack is ten thousand, according to a secret British diplomatic cable sent the next day. The Chinese government claims only a few hundred. Preliminary estimates by the Red Cross and the Swiss Ambassador suggested about 2,600 or 2,700.


The events of June 3-4, 1989, confirmed was had been true ever since the first minutes of the People's Republic of China, starting October 1, 1949. The Chinese Communist Party rules by military force and not be consent of the people. Despite the official name, the form of government is monarchy or oligarchy, not a republic. The people do not rule China.

So too in 2022. In reality, although not officially, the Monument to the People's Martyrs is understood to honor not only the Chinese who fought foreign colonialism in the 19th century, or the Japanese imperialists in the 20th–but also the Chinese who bravely stood against domestic tyranny in 1976 and 1989. More broadly, the Tiananmen and the Martyr's Monument stands for the Chinese who today bravely resist the governing kleptocracy, and for their predecessors, such as Wang Rongfen.

One day, Tiananmen's giant cult picture of Mao the mass murderer will lie on the ash heap of history. One day, China will have government that acknowledges the truth: the Chinese Communist Party has never been the legitimate ruler of China. Its self-aggrandizing attempts to refashion Tiananmen have backfired. Tiananmen Square does demonstrate the CCP's power—to assemble millions of brainwashed violent youths, to enslave them a few years later, and to annihilate popular assemblies that demand the People's Republic of China live up to its name. Yet as Tiananmen Square also shows, powerful as the Chinese Communist Party may be, it can never eradicate the natural human desire for liberty.