The first part of this essay was adapted from a post by Sun Feiyang.  The rest was put together by Roderic Day. For the sake of readibility, the essay is written in a single narrative voice.
Most of what we hear about Tiananmen in 1989 focuses on student activists, since they dominated Tiananmen square itself and waved banners demanding “freedom and democracy.” However, the real history of the protests is a bit more complex.
For starters, democracy — American or otherwise — was far from the minds of the students when the protests first kicked off. The primary three demands were related to price controls/inflation, official corruption, and labor market competition.
Deng Xiaoping launched what is known as Reform and Opening-Up in 1980, in an effort to recover from what he deemed costly “Left” errors of the preceding era. These reforms had China embracing market economy, scaling back welfare programs, and aimed towards integration with the global economy. Relaxing price controls massively improved the lot of Chinese farmers and led to spiking crop yields, but the flip side is that the boost to farmer incomes led to price increases in urban areas for staple foods. This was compounded by inflation shocks throughout the 80s, which had also shaken urban residents. “With food prices and wages both climbing and the system flush with cash, overall inflation skyrocketed, averaging nearly 19 percent in both 1988 and 1989.” 
The driver of these inflation shocks were reforms proposed by the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang, who originally was the target of the protestors’ ire. Stories of official corruption had also united various factions of protestors, with handbills pointedly asking “How much does Zhao Ziyang pay to play golf?”
Concerns over prices weren’t solely due to absolute levels of privation, however. The complaints were heavily tinged with elitism. Students and urbanites were not happy to see peasants and farmers do so well relative to them. This “economic anxiety” had manifested itself a year earlier in Nanjing, where students affected by cuts to tuition subsidies took out their anger on African exchange students. “From December 1988 to January 1989, students in Nanjing, China waged violent protests against visiting African students.”  The writing on the placards was very revealing:
Like most foreign students, the Africans enjoyed greater standards of living in China and some dated local women. Among the signs in the crowd at Hehai on Christmas Eve 1988 were placards demanding greater democracy alongside ones proclaiming, “death to the black devils”. 
Although the protests are usually described as “student-led,” the situation on the ground was rather more complicated. Worker organizations also rallied at the square, but they were received with contempt:
The Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation activists saw the same treatment being given to the Construction Workers’ Union, which for a period was located at the eastern reviewing stand:
The students were especially unwilling to meet with them. The student pickets were always driving them away… In reality, a lot of people have this attitude toward construction workers from the villages, saying they’re convict labourers.
Despite their alliance on the square, educational and class differences continually hampered their relations. The students were not, after all, laobaixing [common people]. They exhibited a wariness about the articulation of economic demands by other groups, and wanted to keep the movement exclusively under their control. 
Far from a spurious allegation, this was happily confirmed by Wang Dan, a student leader at Tiananmen, in an interview with the New York Times in 1989:
The movement is not ready for worker participation because democracy must first be absorbed by the students and intellectuals before they can spread it to others. 
In the early days of the protests, the students even went as far as to cordon off their own protests so that the hoi polloi couldn’t protest with them. Eyewitnesses recount their experience:
The marchers on the periphery of the parade held pink colored packaging twine that circumscribed the marchers. It was meant to exclude anyone else. If you weren’t a student from that particular school, you couldn’t just join in their march. They didn’t even want anyone marching beside them: I walked a block maybe, asking questions about what their demands were and what they hoped to achieve, and was basically told to bugger off. 
[the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation] began to lose their patience when the students on the square began to change their attitude toward [General Secretary] Zhao Ziyang and the people around him.
No sooner had Zhao Ziyang gone [to the square] and cried, the students’ words changed. Now they were saying that Zhao Ziyang was going to be removed from power, that Zhao Ziyang was good, that we should protect him. 
Nevertheless, protests went on despite these tensions, and the students were surprised to find that there existed a good deal of sympathy for them, both from the general public and from the government itself (as evidenced by sympathetic editorials in newspapers). And so the nature of the demands began to shift. Hardliners within the protest movement began to speak of going beyond addressing corruption and price controls, and started speaking of overthrowing the government. A standout figure among them was Chai Ling, a 23-year-old woman critical of the Beijing Students’ Autonomous Union, which she criticized for lacking “leadership quality” and opposing hunger strikes. She considered herself the uncompromising “chief commander” of the square. 
Evidence suggests that this was not an organic development. Embedded within the leadership of the student movement and working closely with Chai Ling was the CIA’s man in China, Gene Sharp, who wrote the book on “color revolutions” for the United States.  Sharp even had the audacity to smear the worker and union activists at Tiananmen as CPC agent provocateurs in later interviews:
Earlier that afternoon, we had heard a very provocative speech on a loudspeaker by a so-called “autonomous workers’ union” calling for violence against troops: “Don’t let any soldiers escape! Kill them all!” 
Another important external influence which contributed to the intensification of rhetoric and passion was a visit from the General Secretary of the CPSU, Mikhail Gorbachev, in May 1989. Betraying zero awareness of the tragic destiny that would soon befall the people of the Soviet Union (only two years after his visit!), he bragged about his own decidedly liberal reforms:
In a speech in Beijing, Gorbachev told his Chinese audience that “economic reform will not work unless supported by a radical transformation of the political system.” This is why, he explained, the Soviet Union had held contested elections the previous month, for the first time in generations. “We are participating in a very serious turning point in the development of world socialism,” Gorbachev explained, in which many socialist countries were embracing freedom of expression, protection of rights, and democracy. Hardliners in Chinese government prevented the broadcasting of Gorbachev’s speech. 
Such mission creep was not met with broad consensus from the protestors. Chai Ling and her then-husband Feng Congde related how they faced multiple “coups” from various factions:
The impression we got was that things were really chaotic. There was endless factional in-fighting, and sanitary conditions were terrible. We began to doubt whether anything positive could come out of this on-going stalemate. … Often we had to suppress 3 or 4 coups a day. At the time I even joked, “Now I finally understand why [Premier of the PRC] Li Peng wanted to suppress the students.” 
Attrition exacted its toll, and by May 30 a significant portion of the students had left the square. This caused the student leaders to shift their exclusivity policy, and start to allow worker protestors previously banned from the square in order to boost their numbers.
By the time martial law was declared the central premise of the protests was muddled. Was it still about official corruption? Inflation? Or now about democracy and free press? Moderate student leaders argued that, having made a point, the students should withdraw and live to fight another day. Chai Ling commanded them to stay:
The students keep asking, “What should we do next? What can we accomplish?” I feel so sad, because how can I tell them that what we are actually hoping for is bloodshed, for the moment when the government has no choice but to brazenly butcher the people. Only when the Square is awash with blood will the people of China open their eyes. Only then will they really be united. But how can I explain any of this to my fellow students? 
Of course, this was all very brave talk by someone who already had acquired a US visa in secret, who pointedly said that her situation was “different” and that she couldn’t be sacrificed unlike the other students. The CIA coordinated with the intelligence agencies of Britain, Canada, Australia, Germany and other colonizer nations in order to extract Chai Ling and other key assets in the aftermath. This story of cynical manipulation and betrayal is portrayed in the Western press as a daring prison-break in which capitalists and human traffickers appear as heroes:
Like more than 500 other Chinese dissidents over the past seven years, Wu’er was rescued by Operation Yellowbird — an underground railroad run by an odd alliance of human-rights advocates, Western diplomats, businessmen, professional smugglers and the kings of the Hong Kong underworld. 
While it certainly wasn’t the intention of all the remaining students to die as martyrs, it was certainly what Chai Ling wanted. Students who had felt that the protests accomplished part of what they had set out to do (or became disillusioned with the infighting) had voted with their feet and left the square. It’s a great credit to other leaders such as Hou Dejian and even the late Liu Xiaobo that they were able to convince the students to peacefully vacate the square on June 4th after speaking with the army.
Before moving on to discuss the tragedy, I want to travel forward in time.
The events of that day have acquired a remarkably versatile place in the modern political imaginary, compared to others such as the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The abstract pro-democracy, pro-freedom rhetoric of the students has allowed reactionary political groups to commemorate Tiananmen as a symbol of protest against socialism and Communist Party rule, while left-liberal commentators such as Naomi Klein characterize it as a socialist protest against capitalism. In other words, no matter one’s political orientation, China is bad.
I think some of this ambiguity can be resolved by examining the thinking and trajectory of two major figures of the student movement: hardliner Chai Ling and moderate Liu Xiaobo.
After the tragedy, Liu Xiaobo remained in China, and carried on a lifetime of “dissidence” until his death in 2017. For his efforts, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch referred to his recurring arrests as “China’s Mandela problem.” 
As one might expect by his being so-dubbed, Liu Xiaobo constantly grappled with laws against advocating for the overthrow of the government. The comparisons were always complicated by the stark difference between Mandela’s politics and his own, however. As a vociferous student leader in 1988, he spoke in glowing terms about colonialism in the context of what it would take for China to realize a true historical transformation:
[It would take] 300 years of colonialism. In 100 years of colonialism, Hong Kong has changed to what we see today. With China being so big, of course it would require 300 years as a colony for it to be able to transform into how Hong Kong is today. I have my doubts as to whether 300 years would be enough. 
Later on, as a public figure, he supported US President George W. Bush’s 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, his 2003 invasion of Iraq, and subsequent reelection. From his public writing:
[U.S.-led post-Cold War conflicts are the] best examples of how war should be conducted in a modern civilization… regardless of the savagery of the terrorists, and regardless of the instability of Iraq’s situation, and, what’s more, regardless of how patriotic youth might despise proponents of the United States such as myself, my support for the invasion of Iraq will not waver. Just as, from the beginning, I believed that the military intervention of Britain and the United States would be victorious, I am still full of belief in the final victory of the Freedom Alliance and the democratic future of Iraq, and even if the armed forces of Britain and the United States should encounter some obstacles such as those that they are currently facing, this belief of mine will not change… a free, democratic and peaceful Iraq will emerge. 
Thus wrote the moderate student leader who came to be known as the “Chinese Nelson Mandela.”
What about the hardliner, the “chief commander of the square,” Chai Ling?
After being smuggled out of the country, she received an invitation to attend Princeton University, and studied international relations at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs — not precisely an anti-imperialist institution. Graduation landed her a ritzy job at Bain & Company, a top management consulting firm. Here she met her second husband, Robert A. Maginn Jr. She went on to earn an MBA from Harvard in 1998, converted to Christianity in 2009, and has testified for US Congress against China 8 times. Within the last decade, her various businesses and charities hosted fund-raisers for decidedly right-wing politicians such as Marco Rubio, and her husband served as the Chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party from 2011 to 2013. 
In 2015 her software management company Jenzabar was sued by an employee on grounds of religious discrimination. Chai Ling’s deep involvement with the most reactionary domestic elements of US politics was once again in display, this time in hiring FOX News legal analyst Mercedes Colwin as her lawyer. Depositions put in evidence how Chai Ling demanded that her employee “seek the will of God in her life on a daily basis through study of God’s Word and through prayer, along with regular weekly corporate worship” and also declared that her work “at all times was motivated and guided by the teachings of Jesus Christ.” 
In a separate legal incident, Chai Ling attempted to suppress the taped interview where she admitted to deliberately hoping to drive her fellow students into a blood-bath in order to achieve regime change. She sued the production company of the film The Gate of Heavenly Peace, but the lawsuits were deemed so frivolous that she was forced to pay $500,000 in attorney fees for the defendant. 
We could go on similarly for other leaders, such as Wang Dan:
Today, the man who was jailed for more than three years after the Chinese army’s crackdown, has a new image. He has traded his glasses for contact lenses, his headband for a tie and his loudspeaker for a beeper. The onetime firebrand appears almost bored by questions about democracy. What he would like now is the chance to go into business and get rich. … “The pursuit of wealth is part of the impetus for democracy.” 
As we return to 1989, I hope there is no doubt that these student leaders were “freedom fighters” only in the most conservative and reactionary American tradition. This is important not because we wish to diminish any sympathy with the victims of the day, but because it helps explain the sheer confidence with which Western media moved to turn this painful memory into a vicious propaganda weapon. The student leaders would not have been lionized in the Western press if they were in fact socialist revolutionaries, since that could have had unexpected undesirable consequences.
Much has been written about what the most iconic image of the incident hides in plain sight.
“Tank Man” is usually introduced to Western audiences as an everyman attempting to stop a murderous, imperious authority. In reality, the picture shows tanks leaving the square after the incident. Far from a haunting still, there is video of this vignette. It is rarely aired because it demonstrates precisely the opposite of what our media wishes to convey: “Tank Man” boldly climbs onto the tank, opens its hatch, and engages in dialogue with the troops inside. 
Another crucial misrepresentation has to do with the fact that there were no deaths on Tiananmen Square itself. This was confirmed by journalistic and diplomatic testimony at the time, kept secret until the leak of private diplomatic cables:
ALTHOUGH GUNFIRE COULD BE HEARD, GALLO SAID THAT APART FROM SOME BEATING OF STUDENTS, THERE WAS NO MASS FIRING INTO THE CROWD OF STUDENTS AT THE MONUMENT. WHEN POLOFF MENTIONED SOME REPORTEDLY EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS OF MASSACRES AT THE MONUMENT WITH AUTOMATIC WEAPONS, GALLO SAID THAT THERE WAS NO SUCH SLAUGHTER. 
So, although the event is carefully framed to evoke the sense of a greatly expanded Kent State situation, one of defenseless students unmercifully gunned down by impatient troops, the reality was, again, far more complicated. A photojournalist recalls witnessing something more akin to civil war:
I saw a lot that day that I will never forget. A tank treading on two flattened bodies, a burned-out army personnel carrier and the charred corpse of a soldier inside. 
Discussions of the incident in social media often feature participants challenging the tidy narrative by sharing pictures depicting such gruesome incidents, but I could not find any instance of establishment news media hosting them for mainstream audiences. 
Jay Mathews, Beijing bureau chief of The Washington Post in 1989, much later confessed how he and his peers shaped the narrative that became dominant:
Probably the most widely disseminated account appeared first in the Hong Kong press: a Qinghua University student described machine guns mowing down students in front of the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the middle of the square. The New York Times gave this version prominent display on June 12, just a week after the event, but no evidence was ever found to confirm the account or verify the existence of the alleged witness. Times reporter Nicholas Kristof challenged the report the next day, in an article that ran on the bottom of an inside page; the myth lived on. Student leader Wu’er Kaixi said he had seen 200 students cut down by gunfire, but it was later proven that he left the square several hours before the events he described allegedly occurred.
Most of the hundreds of foreign journalists that night, including me, were in other parts of the city or were removed from the square so that they could not witness the final chapter of the student story. Those who tried to remain close filed dramatic accounts that, in some cases, buttressed the myth of a student massacre. 
Richard Roth, for CBS News, was more succinct:
There was no “massacre in Tiananmen Square.” But there’s no question many people were killed by the army that night around Tiananmen Square, and on the way to it — mostly in the western part of Beijing. Maybe, for some, comfort can be taken in the fact that the government denies that, too. 
Constitutively and pathologically unable to simply own up to a past journalistic crime, the propaganda apparatus merely substitutes a new lie for the old one. The official death toll according to the Chinese government is, in fact, a matter of public record:
Beijing Municipality has checked and double-checked all the figures from the Martial Law Command, the Public Security Ministry, the Chinese Red Cross, all institutions of higher education, and all major hospitals. These show that 241 people died. They included 23 officers and soldiers from the martial law troops and 218 civilians. The 23 military deaths included 10 from the PLA and 13 from the People’s Armed Police. The 218 civilians (Beijing residents, people from elsewhere, students, and rioters) included 36 students from Beijing universities and 15 people from outside Beijing. 
Western organs such as Amnesty International scoff at these figures. Without substantiation, but duly referencing all of the aforementioned myths, they insist on figures in the 1,000-10,000 range. 
First accused by the student leaders of corruption, then identified as an ally for repeatedly breaking with Communist Party consensus in terms of how to handle the crisis, Tiananmen marked the end of General Secretary Zhao Ziyang’s career.  Capitalists and liberals in the West still reminisce today about what they could have accomplished with the “Chinese Gorbachev” at the helm: “a striking figure with his Western suits,” “far more open-minded than one expects of a leader who came up through the ranks of the Party,” and willing to “make a great leap forward, to borrow their language.”  Existing market reforms stayed in place, but the lessons from liberalization remained, informing China’s careful avoidance and handling of crises in decades since.
Perhaps some readers find these clarifications superficial, bordering on aesthetic, or that bringing them up constitutes a kind of nitpicking. After all, some students were massacred, and not even the government denies that. Does it really matter if it was a cold-blooded and dramatic execution at the square, or the result of chaotic surrounding skirmishes in which the PLA had a decisive upper-hand? I’d argue it does. The fact that the capitalist world considered it expedient to carefully curate the memory for so long, with so little dissent, should give us pause.
So, what else must we do to get a sense of the scale of this tragedy? One essential way is, of course, much derided: the necessity of comparing it to other similar incidents.
Throughout May 18 to May 27 1980 the US-backed military dictatorship of the Republic of Korea put down the Gwangju Democratization Movement:
On 17 May 1980, martial law was declared by South Korean military leaders trying to quell a growing demand by the people for democratisation. … Official figures put the death toll at 200, with another 1,000 protestors injured. But according to other estimates between one and two thousand actually died. 
It should strike us as strange that this comparable incident is not taught, to the best of my knowledge, to anyone in the West, let alone commemorated in a yearly fashion.
Moving forward to 1989, on February 27, only months before Tiananmen, the right-wing Venezuelan government of Carlos Andrés Pérez had begun implementing a US-backed economic shock therapy program called The Great Turn. This resulted in a wave of protests that lasted 9 days, throughout which demonstrators were massacred by the Venezuelan military:
Official figures originally put the death toll at around 300, but human rights groups estimated it was much higher. In Tuesday’s statement the government said about 1000 people had been killed. 
I grew up in Latin America and I never learned about this incident until I left. I did, however, once write an essay for English class about how Chinese search engines censored images from Tiananmen. When I finally began to learn about the real history of my own continent, I quickly found that the right-wing press refers to this atrocity as “the foundational myth of Chavismo.”  It turns out Chinese blacklists were but a blunt hammer compared to the much more surgical tools of spin and saturation which were operating on me all along.
Later in 1989 the United States invaded Panama in order to depose an agent they once had on CIA payroll, Manuel Noriega. Operation Just Cause, helmed by President George H. W. Bush, lasted over a month, from mid-December to late January.
The University of Panama’s seismograph marked 442 major explosions in the first 12 hours of the invasion, about one major bomb blast every two minutes. Fires engulfed the mostly wooden homes, destroying about 4,000 residences. Some residents began to call El Chorrillo “Guernica” or “little Hiroshima.” Shortly after hostilities ended, bulldozers excavated mass graves and shoveled in the bodies. “Buried like dogs,” said the mother of one of the civilian dead. 
According to the US military, 202 civilians were killed. According to the the United Nations, 500. According to the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights in Central America, somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000. 
As with the leaders of the Tiananmen Student movement, we could go on. Any serious effort at contextualizing the tragedy of Tiananmen would inevitably render the simple truth that what has made Tiananmen an exceptional event in modern history had nothing to do with its brutality, or that it happened in a period that we have retraoctively imagined as peaceful, or the virtue of the fallen students. What keeps it a yearly staple of our media diets is simply its sheer utility in destroying international proletarian solidarity with China, and so safeguarding the stability of bourgeois rule in the West.
How is it possible that countries like Canada hold yearly remembrance of Tiananmen, broadcasting images in public screens portraying far-away China as an eternal sinister empire from all the way over in North America, while the atrocities in which the US was directly and indirectly involved are completely forgotten, if not actively made light of? We are obviously dealing with an extremely sophisticated ideological program.
Some socialists are untroubled, however. They consider a serious treatment of this predicament unbecoming. The mere act of trying to contextualize and rationalize Beijing’s actions is itself considered a kind of thought-crime. If asked for a justification, they will bray “self-critique is how we demonstrate we are better than the capitalists!” However, the careful observer will notice that these vociferous Western critics are not implicating themselves in crimes, but Chinese socialists. Not only do they neglect their duty to hold their own rulers to account, they in fact actively and enthusiastically collaborate with them, distorting reality into absurd anti-communist fables. Some, surely, are being deliberately disingenuous, seeking to carve a permanent niche for themselves as compatible or controlled opposition. Others, however, are sincere in their belief that a willingness to condemn socialism abroad makes them the most valiant defenders of socialism at home.
The legendary Italian communist Domenico Losurdo has identified that when it comes to these “socialists” we are not dealing with self-criticism but with self-contempt:
Despite any seeming parallel, self-critique and self-contempt are contradictory attitudes. Self-criticism, with all of its sharpness and particularly its radicalism, expresses a consciousness of the necessity to examine one’s own history; self-contempt represents a cowardly running away from this history and away from the ideological and cultural struggle that is expressed in this history. If the foundation of self-criticism is the revival of Communist identity, then self-contempt is another word for capitulation and the denial of an autonomous identity. 
Losurdo argues that we have a duty to reject a bourgeois cultural hegemony in which “categories, judgments, historical comparisons are today all ultimately extracted from the dominant ideology.” Specifically, we need to reject the bourgeois injunction to loudly denounce all Communist history, positioning ourselves as better-thans. Being recognized as the idealistic herald of a nonexistent imagined utopia is a worthless proposition befit a court jester.
The tragedy of Tiananmen Square should never be forgotten. It will be remembered, in its full complexity, on our terms.
Han Minzhu, 1990. Cries for Democracy: Writings and Speeches from the Chinese Democracy Movement. Princeton: Princeton University. ↩
Chris Miller, 2016. The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR. ↩
Compiled by Zhang Liang, 2001. The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership’s Decision to Use Force, in Their Own Words. Public Affairs. ↩