The Democracy Movement I Knew in 1989

On June 4, 1989, the Chinese Communist Party slaughtered untold numbers of student protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. What did those college students know that today’s have never learned?

By Chenyuan Snider Published on June 3, 2024

Thirty-five years ago, a student-organized Democracy Movement erupted in the capital of Beijing (April 17 – June 4, 1989). Revisiting its historical context helps better grasp this phenomenal event.

At the end of 1976, the Cultural Revolution came to a close. Two years later, Deng Xiaoping, who controlled the Chinese Communist Party, initiated a new economic policy called Reform and Open Door in order to save the party from an impending economic collapse. China thus embarked on a journey from a controlled economy (a socialist model) to a market economy (capitalism).

However, a true market economy requires political accommodations, such as equality under the law, free speech, and a free press. Since those elements would threaten the CCP, the government decided not to undertake a full-fledged market economy.

As a result, two economic systems appeared in China. The government still controlled production with a fixed quantity and a predetermined low price. If this could not meet market demand, more products were allowed to be produced. They would be sold at market price, which usually was higher than the government-controlled price. Consequently, the same product would have two prices, dubbed “prices of two-tracks.”

This created an opportunity for reselling items at a profit — but only those in power were able to do that. This lucrative gain encouraged corruption among government officials. It was called “Guan Dao (a profit by power),” and spread faster than an infectious disease. Enraged by the conspicuous corruption, many began to realize that economic reform without political change would only lead back to the old course and bring no benefit to ordinary people. The Chinese began to yearn for political reform.

Exciting Times

Meanwhile, a few high-ranking CCP leaders — including Hu Yaobang — advocated tolerance, allowing freedom of intellectual exploration. The decade from 1979 to 1989 became the most lenient period of the CCP’s rule. The Western ideas of democracy, free press, and human rights were the most talked-of subjects among students and young intellectuals. Those were exciting years to study in college. Inspired by Western thought, we believed it was our generation’s destiny to transform China into a free country like the U.S.

The only issue was when this was to take place. Like dry branches, we were waiting for the spark.

I realized there was something stronger than fear, nobler than going with the flow, more beautiful and lasting than surrendering under pressure. I thought if courage still existed in China, one day it would become a free country.

Hu Yaobang was among the few high-ranking CCP leaders who truly felt remorse about the atrocities committed by the CCP. He attempted to endorse a political reform to build a free democratic China. But in 1987, he was ousted by those who were loyal to the tyrannic ideology of Marxist communism. This further infuriated the public.

On April 15, 1989, Hu suddenly passed away. His untimely death proved to be the blasting fuse igniting an earthshaking event.

Two days later, college students in Beijing began to gather at Tiananmen Square, mourning Hu’s passing. They also carried banners with messages against corruption, for democracy and for freedom. Right away, the mourning evolved into a movement demanding political reform and an end to corruption.

Soon students from other cities joined the cause. It turned out that the student movement struck a chord with people from all walks of life.

Like a mighty hurricane sweeping through the nation, it confronted everyone, leaving no one ambivalent. My father became furious after learning that my sister’s boyfriend, her classmate in college, chose to stay in the classroom to study rather than join the demonstrations. I remember his angry and disappointed expression. “What kind of young man is he?” he asked. “There isn’t one drop of young blood in him!”

The Massacre

At that time, I was 600 miles away from Tiananmen Square, teaching Chinese as a second language at a university in Xi’an. I took part in the local demonstrations with students and other young professors. The throng of demonstrators was without beginning or end, like an ocean of people. My friends and I walked many hours each time, sustained by our lofty aspirations, and never felt hunger or thirst. When the situation reached a fever pitch, I chose to continue to protest rather than go to the classroom to teach, considering my country’s future to be infinitely more significant than my personal interests. If I lost my job, I reasoned, so be it. After all, the buoyant vibe had convinced me that a democratic China was within our reach.

Then came June 4. Without a free press, very few outside Beijing knew what had happened at Tiananmen Square: With one million protestors gathered there, the CCP sent in the military to crush it for good. They opened fire; no one knows how many people actually died, but some estimates say it may have been as many as ten thousand.

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Only after immigrating to the U.S. did I learn the truth. But on that day, I could sense a political storm was coming fast. The once-crowded sports field at the university — the starting point for the demonstrations — was empty, with only a few people lingering. The loudspeakers on the campus and in the residential area made it very clear that the government was willing to be magnanimous toward those who had been “misled” during the “anti-revolutionary riot” of the preceding days. However, from then on, anyone carrying on the “riot” would be judged differently and receive punishment accordingly.

Looking at the empty field, I felt utterly dejected, realizing that people could easily participate in a popular movement, but few were willing to pay the price for a good cause.

A little later, I heard that there would still be another demonstration the next day. I decided to check it out. When I reached the sports field at the appointed time, a few young professors were gathered there, but not one student. So they decided to go to the demonstration in a truck instead of on foot, which would have a better effect. When the truck started, I jumped on it. I wasn’t thinking about the prospect of my country’s democracy and freedom, for I knew it was over. It was the bravery of the young professors who were only a decade older than I that touched my heart and compelled me to show my support.

Stronger Than Fear

With wind blowing on my face, I shouted slogans with the others till my voice completely gave out. I knew it would be my last protest, and standing on the fast-moving truck augmented that solemn, heroic and tragic feeling, an incredible experience. In it I realized there was something stronger than fear, nobler than going with the flow, more beautiful and lasting than surrendering under pressure. I thought if courage still existed in China, one day it would become a free country.

Though the movement originated in Beijing and the June 4 slaughter at Tiananmen Square received most of the foreign press coverage, the movement outside Beijing was just as fervent and heroic. In fact, the leaders in other cities, including both students and young intellectuals, received much more severe punishment than those in Beijing.

The foreign press coverage of the student leaders in Beijing offered of a measure of protection for them, forcing the government to hide its true face. Yet, outside Beijing, the government had no need to mask its grotesque countenance. Many leaders in other cities paid a grievous price, even death. Even today, their audacious deeds remain unknown in the West.

Fortunately, the only punishment I received was being forced to write a self-criticism confessing my “abominable act” against the government after June 4. In my confession, I recounted exactly what I did after June 4 and why.

In Part 2 I will discuss why the movement failed, and what we can learn from it.


Chenyuan Snider was raised in Communist China and majored in Chinese language and literature in college. After immigrating to the U.S. and studying at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School, she became a professor at Christian colleges and seminary. Recently, she sensed God was leading her to use her unique voice to warn Americans about the various Marxist influences in our society. She lives in northern California with her husband and has two grown children.

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