What really happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989?

Twenty-six years after the alleged 1989 Tiananmen Square incident—and three Chinese Presidents later: Jiang Zemin (1993-2003), Hu Jintao (2003-2013), and now Xi Jinping (2013 – )—the U.S. media continues to annually remind the world of what might have happened.

I’ve heard from several Chinese American friends (now US citizens), who lived in China in 1989, that the student leaders behind the Tiananmen Square protest/massacre (April 14 – June 4, 1989) were supported by the CIA, and I asked myself if this was another conspiracy theory.

However, my curiosity was stirred, so I spent hours hunting the internet for clues that this might be true, and I discovered several coincidences that raised an eyebrow.

The U.S. Ambassador in China at the time, James Lilley (April 20, 1989 to 1991), was a former CIA operative who worked in Asia and helped insert CIA agents into China. President H. W. Bush (1989-1993) served as Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing (1974 – 1976), who then went to serve as Director of the CIA (1976 – 1977).

Why did President H. W. Bush replace Winston Lord as ambassador to China (1985-1989) during the early days of the Tiananmen Square incident with a former CIA agent? After all, Lord spoke some Chinese and was a key figure in the restoration of relations between the US and China in 1972.  Wasn’t he the best man for the job during a crisis like this one?

I returned to my friends and asked, “How do you know the CIA helped the student leaders of the protest?”

“It’s obvious,” was the answer. The reason, my friends explained, was the fact that it was very difficult, almost impossible, for anyone in China to get a visa to visit the United States before the 21st century. Yet most of the young student leaders of the Tiananmen Square incident left China quickly after the event and prospered in the West without any obvious difficulty. In addition, after these student leaders came to the West, many were successful and became wealthy.

I returned to my investigation to verify these claims. Let’s Welcome Chinese Tourists was one piece I read from The Washington Post documenting how difficult it was to get a visa back then to visit the United States from China. I read another piece in The Chicago Tribune on the same subject. And my wife told me her brother and two sisters were denied visas to the U.S.

After more sleuthing, I learned that Wang Dan, one of the principal student organizers of the Tiananmen incident, went to jail because he stayed in China when most of the other student leaders fled. Today, Wang lives in the West and cannot go back. Two others went to Harvard and a third went to Yale. Where did they get the money—it’s expensive to attend these private universities?

How about the other leaders who fled to the West? Time Magazine reported, “Some have reincarnated themselves as Internet entrepreneurs, stockbrokers, or in one case, as a chaplain for the U.S. military in Iraq. Several have been back to China to investigate potential business opportunities.”

Official figures of the dead during the incident ranged from 200 to 300. At the Chinese State Council press conference on June 6, spokesman Yuan Mu said that “preliminary tallies” by the government showed that about 300 civilians and soldiers died, including 23 students from universities in Beijing, along with a number of people he described as “ruffians”. Yuan also said some 5,000 soldiers and police along with 2,000 civilians were wounded. On June 19, Beijing Party Secretary Li Ximing reported to the Politburo that the government’s confirmed death toll was 241, including 218 civilians (of which 36 were students), 10 PLA soldiers and 13 People’s Armed Police, along with 7,000 wounded.

Chinese government officials have long asserted that no one died in the Square itself in the early morning hours of June 4, during the ‘hold-out’ of the last batch of students in the south of the Square. Initially foreign media reports of a “massacre” on the Square were prevalent, though later journalists acknowledged that most of the deaths occurred outside of the Square in western Beijing.

Several people who were situated around the square that night, including Jay Mathews, former Beijing bureau chief of The Washington Post, and Richard Roth, CBS correspondent, reported that while they heard sporadic gunfire, they could not find enough evidence to suggest that a massacre took place on the Square itself.

If the U.S. media annually reminds the world of the alleged Tiananmen Square massacre, why don’t they also remind us of another massacre that took place in Taiwan in 1947 where about 30,000 Taiwanese citizens were slaughtered during the 2-28 Massacre by troops of America’s ally Chang Kai-shek?

Can anyone explain why the deaths of a few hundred Chinese in Communist China in 1989 are more important than the slaughter of 30,000 civilians in 1947 by an American ally?

Thanks to a comment, I learned about another slaughter of citizens demanding democracy that took place in South Korea in 1980.


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the lusty love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

Finalist in Fiction & Literature – Historical Fiction
The National “Best Books 2010” Awards


Honorable Mentions in General Fiction
2012 San Francisco Book Festival
2012 New York Book Festival
2012 London Book Festival
2009 Los Angeles Book Festival
2009 Hollywood Book Festival

Subscribe to “iLook China”!
Sign up for an E-mail Subscription at the top of this page, or click on the “Following” tab in the WordPress toolbar at the top of the screen.

About iLook China

China’s Holistic Historical Timeline

19 Responses to What really happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989?

  1. […] of times you’ve heard of China’s Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. In fact, when I posted What really happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Michael Brant left this comment, “This could have been written by the PRC media spin […]

  2. Michael Brant says:

    Wow – this blog, while always a little dubious in its apologetics for the current regime – a stain on the many great achievements of Chinese culture – this piece really takes it over the edge with minimizing the Tiananmen suppression, and the continuing crushing of independent thought, demonstrated virtually every day with new arrests and decrees. This could have been written by the PRC media spin department.

    • LOL – apologetics, I don’t think so. How can anyone apologize for reporting reputable facts that cast doubts on propaganda from China’s enemies?

      Early in Mao’s leadership of China, he allowed the peasants—as he had promised them during the Civil War—to purge the wealthy landowners and about a million of those land owners were executed. Mao is guilty of doing nothing to stop the one sided trials and executions.

      Then there was the night the PLA went out and executed about one million alleged drug dealers to get rid of the illegal drug trade—China was then free of illegal drugs until after Mao died.

      There were also Mao’s purges against anyone in and outside of the CCP that he saw as a threat to his leadership—many who were not killed were sent to labor camps where they worked at hard labor for sometimes decades—one of my wife’s uncles was one of them and he was released on a meager pension, along with other survivors of the purges, after Mao’s death.

      And then there was the Cultural Revolution during the last decade of his life, and Mao is responsible for starting it, but after he started it, he sat back and let millions of Chinese youths, known as the Red Guard, who were mostly not members of the CCP or the PLA, do all of the work to get rid of anyone who might be considered a threat to socialist ideology and a support for the type of capitalism that had plagued China during the colonial era that started with the Opium Wars in the early half of the 19th century and culminated in 1949 when the CCP won the Civil War against the nationalists led by the brutal dictator and American Ally, Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang Kai-shek ruled Taiwan under martial law as a brutal dictator until his death in 1975. Mao died in 1976. After their deaths, life in both countries improved dramatically.

      For instance, “Taylor points out that Chiang did many bad things, and not always for reasons that made sense. He aligned himself with Shanghai gangster boss Du Yuesheng, who brutally massacred the communists and labor activists in Shanghai. He raised funds by taxing rather than suppressing the opium trade, unleashed an enormous flood that killed millions of peasants by breaking the dikes of the Yellow River in order to slow the Japanese advance, tolerated corruption among his military officers and his wife’s relatives, oversaw assassinations and kidnappings and torture by his security people as part of a series of ruthless political wars, and intervened unwisely in the tactical operations of his generals in the field. Toward the end of the war with Japan, his fear of being deposed by some of his generals led to his denying supplies to troops in some important battles. He underestimated the strength of the Chinese Communist Party and his own troops’ weaknesses in the early phases of the civil war. With his son, he carried out a white terror against activists and democrats on Taiwan. Taylor remarks that Chiang showed no remorse over many “innocent lives lost by violent acts that he justified as vitally necessary.”


      I’ve been to China about ten times, and I can tell you that the CCP is not crushing independent thought. The Chinese are very opinionated and difficult to manage. Most of the people in China just don’t go out into the town square and step up on a soap box while waving banners demanding democracy. How can you demand democracy when you’ve never experienced it and even most of those Chinese who have lived in a democracy and returned home don’t demand it—and millions of Chinese are free to travel to any democracy they can afford to visit and many do. In fact, many Chinese citizens own second homes in North America and Europe.

      The CCP stopped the brainwashing slogans in the public schools after Mao died. In the public schools in Shanghai, there are signs over the classroom doorways that say there is more than one answer for a question.

      How can the CCP crush independent thought when they allow tens of millions Chinese citizens the freedom to travel to any country on the planet at any time? In fact, more Chinese are global tourists than any other nationality. And China’s middle class is now larger than the entire population of the United States.


      How can the CCP crush independent thought when they allow hundreds of thousands of young Chinese university students to attend colleges annually in North America and Europe exposing them to a democratic way of life and thought, and then those young Chinese return home after they graduate four to ten years later? For instance, my wife arrived in the United States on a student visa to go to college in 1986 where she earned an MFA in film from the Chicago Art Institute.

      Top 10 countries of origin of mobile students:

      China (694,400 students studying abroad)
      India (189,500)
      Republic of Korea (123,700)
      Germany (117,600)
      Saudi Arabia (62,500)
      France (62,400)
      United States (58,100)
      Malaysia (55,600)
      Viet Nam (53,800)
      Iran (51,600)


      How can the CCP crush independent thought when they can’t stop the flow of DVDs that arrive in China with Chinese tourists arriving home—films that are censored in China?

      What’s really ludicrous is that the CCP censors books printed in Mandarin but not in other languages and you can find books printed in English in state run bookstores that are censored if printed in Mandarin—but learning to read and speak English has been mandatory in their public schools for years—in fact, China hires thousands of American and Canadian English teachers to work in their schools, again exposing young Chiense students to democratic ideas.

      For instance, my wife’s first book, a memoir, Red Azalea, has been black listed and censored in China since it was published in 1992 but my wife had no problem finding a copy on the black market in China that had been translated into Mandarin. She read it and said the translator did a pretty good job.

      “Pirated DVDs of the latest Hollywood films are easily obtainable in Chinese cities, often costing little more than $1 a piece.”


      The next piece/link is on the transformation process of publishing in China since China joined the WTO.

      Click to access china_buchmarkt_en_2014_44724.pdf

      I respectfully suggest you look in the mirror to see who has really been brainwashed. I also suggest you look at the 2015 Index of Economic Freedom that is published by the conservative Heritage Foundation in the United States to see where China ranks against all of the world’s countries.

      There are 178 countries on that list. China is ranked #139, and it isn’t even on the Repressed list. China shares the Mostly Unfree list with 60 other countries. And did you know that India (#128) is also on that Mostly Unfree list, and India is supposed to be the world’s largest democracy?

      “What is economic freedom? Economic freedom is the fundamental right of every human to control his or her own labor and property. In an economically free society, individuals are free to work, produce, consume, and invest in any way they please. In economically free societies, governments allow labor, capital, and goods to move freely, and refrain from coercion or constraint of liberty beyond the extent necessary to protect and maintain liberty itself.”

      Do you know where the U.S. ranks on that list? #12 under the Mostly Free category. The Free category only has five countries and Hong Kong, ruled over by China, is #1.

    • Debbie says:

      Goodness – what a smile this post brought to my face! You have obviously never read much of the Chinese internet which is chockablcok with independent thought, often in no uncertain terms and often with a touch of colourful choice words.
      I wonder if you have ever been to China?

      for the thirteen years i have been living here, I find people often critical of the government. But perhaps not in the way you would like.

      I recall living in Guangdong many years ago, when the bombing of the Chinese embassy by planes from USA occurred.
      The locals in the street were very vocal in their criticism – they wanted to government to do MORE to protest against such an outrage.

      I wonder how the USA would react if Chinese planes “accidentally” had bombed one of it’s embassies?

      The mind boggles.

      There’s new arrests and new decrees every day, in every country. Without specifics, such comments are meaningless.

      Oh, I wonder if you took time to follow the links.

      There you will find many independent witnesses of people who were actually were in Tiananmen at the time. Including Spanish TV ( who saw no massacre in the square) and the Chilean Ambassador ( who saw no massacre in the square.

      Throughout history people have given the tag “propaganda” to that which they do not like.

      From all independent accounts – if you had taken the trouble to follow the links – you will find that EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS concur with what the Chinese government was saying all along.

  3. You don’t need to go that far for the Taiwan 2-28 incident. Actually less than a decade before the 1989 Tiananmen incident, there is another massacre that happened in another Asian country, the Gwangju Massacre in 1980 in South Korea. But for some reason the media seems not interested in it.


    • Thank you for sharing this. I had no idea but now I do. And the traditional U.S. media might not be interested, but I found this video on YouTube.

      “In 1980, South Korea was struggling to achieve democracy. Under the martial law, Gwangju people courageously stood up against injustice power. This is s brief documentary based on real photos and video footage.”

      Should we conclude that if you are a U.S. ally and you cooperate with U.S. corporations and U.S. billionaire oligarchs, you get a free pass for slaughtering your own people when they demand democracy and freedom?

  4. Every time we meet someone who worked for the State Department and was stationed at vacation hot spots like Moscow, Indonesia, and Vietnam … and then they assure us, with great sincerity, they were NOT CIA … both Garry and I raise eyebrows. Of COURSE they were CIA. Who believes they weren’t CIA? How naive can you be?

  5. Debbie says:

    Very interesting piece Lloyd – and something I never considered. Would be very interesting if you were able to bring up more ‘proof’ – what you have said so far sounds quite convincing.

    • Alas, I think that if the CIA was involved, it’s always difficult to impossible to find evidence that wouldn’t be circumstantial. But we do know that the CIA supported the Dalai Lama for years and the money was used to buy weapons for the 1% resistance to free Tibet from being part of China, because the Dalai Lama admitted it publicly and then promised to stop taking the CIA’s money. I’m sure that didn’t stop other Tibetans from taking it though. Then there have been accusations that the CIA has been supporting the unrest from the Uyghur Muslim Ethnic Separatists in Xinjiang.

      Maybe this piece might help:

      Turmoil in Hong Kong, Terrorism in Xinjiang: America’s Covert War on China


      Or this piece:

      Left out of the Aljazeera report is the fact Uighur Muslims were present at Osama bin Laden’s CIA-ISI and Saudi funded training camps in Afghanistan prior to 2001. According to journalist Eric Margolis, the CIA used third parties in the effort to train the Uighur.

      “The CIA was going to use them in the event of a war with China, or just to raise hell there, and they were trained and supported out of Afghanistan, some of them with Osama bin Laden’s collaboration. The Americans were up to their ears with this,” Margolis told Scott Horton in 2008.


      And one more that I just found through Google that might be the most convincing:

      It seems plausible that the student protests in China during the late 1980s may, at their origin, have been spontaneously generated, but there is no shortage of evidence – facts not in dispute – that the entire student movement was quickly hijacked by the US.

      There is little reason to question the assertion that a major part of US foreign policy then, as today, lay in attempts to destabilise China and perhaps instigate a massive revolution that would open the door to US influence and control.

      The student democracy movement was a large part of that strategy. And, though evidence is thin, it begins to appear that the worker’s revolt may also have had “outside help”.


      • Debbie says:

        Dear Lloyd, thank you for this extensive reply and linked articles.
        Whilst not surprised, I admit to feeling slightly sick at how easy it has been for the western media to manipulate so much.
        and on it goes— i recall last year an Australian journalist interviewing “tank man” – and basically the interview was trying to make much out of nothing.
        with the ‘student leaders’ receiving so much in terms of free education, cushy jobs etc in the usa afterwards – that seems evidence enough.
        Thank you again for the original post and the links – more people should be reading this.

      • You are welcome. I think a good question to ask is: Who benefits the most if the CCP and its socialist policies are gone from China and democratic politicians supported by capitalist oligarchs are elected to control the political process?

        For instance, India is the largest democracy in the world and has many political parties, but it also has one of the highest if not the highest poverty rates in the world in addition to an extremely high illiteracy rate. In fact, several thousand children still die in India every day from malnutrition or starvation. If that cause of death has held steady for the last 60 years, that means almost 100 million children died, but in China 95% of the world’s poverty reduction took place in the last thirty years, and there have been no famines since 1961. If there had been, we can bet on the U.S. media reporting it and splashing that news on the front pages of every major newspaper. But the deaths of about 1.5 million children annually from malnutrition and/or starvation in India doesn’t even deserve a footnote on the last page of most if not all major magazines and newspapers in the U.S.

        I want to also point out that the 2014 global corruption index ranked India almost equal to China for corruption. In addition, if we look at the map for the 2014 corruption perception index, we discover that China and India are not alone and many countries are worse. Of 175 countries ranked, 75 were ranked worse than China. Why don’t we hear more about those other 75 countries? I think the answer would be interesting.


      • Debbie says:

        Yes indeed. I looked around at all your links last night and then some…
        and have made a post on my own blog. The whole “Tank Man” mythology comes into question also in light of the gross misrepresentation of events in the western media.

        thankyou for the links and the information

Comments are welcome — pro or con. However, comments must focus on the topic of the post, be civil and avoid ad hominem attacks.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: