U.S. government documents posted online by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks offer a window on the events of 1989 at Tiananmen Square in China.
The documents are “diplomatic cables,” or memos, filed by U.S. State Department personnel all over the world. Chelsea Manning (who previously went by the name Bradley Manning), a U.S. soldier with access to the electronic files, gave WikiLeaks more than 250,000 cables in 2010. A database of the material has been posted on various websites.
The Chinese government has blocked access to most of the sites containing the so-called “Cablegate” database. However, one site has remained available in China: http://cablegatesearch.net/
Students in the data journalism class at Northeast Normal University searched that site for references to the 1989 demonstrations at Tiananmen Square. About 300 cables mention the incident. Most of these cables (about 200) originated from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing or from U.S. consulates in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shanghai or Shenyang.
The first cable on the subject was dated April 19, 1989, in the early days of the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square. The last cable, dated Feb. 17, 2010, was a memo from the U.S. secretary of state urging the European Union to retain its arms embargo against China; the embargo had been imposed “following the violent suppression of protestors at Tiananmen Square in 1989,” the cable noted.
Here is a chronology of the diplomatic cables sent during and shortly after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. We have provided summaries of key cables. Unless otherwise specified, the cables came from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
Date: 1989, April 19
Subject: Pro-democracy Demonstrators Flood Tiananmen Square in Second Night of Demonstrations
Summary: “Thousands of students from Beijing universities flooded Tiananmen Square in central Beijing for a second night on April 18. They crowded around the base of the Martyrs’ Monument at the center of the square chanting pro-democracy slogans and singing patriotic songs. Ten to fifteen thousand peaceful but sympathetic onlookers surrounded the core of student demonstrators. Late in the evening between two and three thousand students marched to the Zhongnanhai Leadership Compound several blocks from the square and sat at the gate. Although Poloff [political officer] at the square witnessed no violence, the Xinhua News Agency reported on April 19 that a police officer sustained a minor injury when a small number of students attempted to force their way into Zhongnanhai in the early morning hours.
“Last night’s demonstration was among the largest unofficial gatherings at the square since hundreds of thousands of Beijingers flooded Tiananmen to commemorate the death of Zhou Enlai and protest the Gang of Four in April, 1976. Tiananmen was also the scene of pro-democracy student gatherings in late 1985 and late 1986. A student attempt to demonstrate there fizzled in mid-1988. This time students appeared better organized than in the past, as evidenced by the prevalence of students wearing dark mourning clothes, coordination of the Zhongnanhai march, and slogans apparently agreed upon in advance.”
Date: 1989, May 21
Subject: Sitrep No. 6: The Scene on Tiananmen, the Military Situation, Possible Central Committee Meeting, Chinese Press Play
Date: 1989, May 21
Subject: Sitrep No. 8: Tiananmen Square Crowds Grow to 300,000 or More on the Evening of May 21; Government Denies Li Peng Has Ordered the PLA to Attack Students Early on May 22
Summary: “Activists and onlookers returned to Tiananmen Square in large numbers on the evening of May 21 amid widespread rumors that PLA troops would attack the square in the early hours of May 22. By 2100 (local time), the crowd had grown to over 300,000. There were at least 50,000 activists in the square, with more arriving every minute. The government denied claims by students that Premier Li Peng had ordered the Army to move into the square at 0500 on May 22 and kill or capture all the students there. Students had a bus in position to block the possible emergence of troops from the west exit of the train station, and were using large contingents of activists to block major intersections near Tiananmen Square.”
Date: 1989, May 22
Subject: Sitrep No. 9: Tiananmen Square on May 22: The Long Vigil to Morning
Summary: “On May 21, once again students and their supporters went all out to block an expected entrance by PLA troops into Beijing. Once again, roadblocks were set up at all major intersections and manned by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. And once again, the Army did not show. The sense of victory which the weary demonstrators celebrated at daybreak appeared larger than just one more night of defiance, the ninth night of the Tiananmen occupation. A widespread view among demonstrators was that after this night and forty-eight surreal hours of non-enforced martial law, the proverbial ‘mandate’ — political legitimacy — of the current leadership has been lost. It remains to be seen, of course, whether the leadership agrees.”
Date: 1989, May 22
Subject: Sitrep No. 10: View of Tiananmen Square
Date: 1989, June 2
Subject: Back To School — Northeast China Streets Are Quiet As Students and Their Movement Return to Campuses
Origin: Consulate Shenyang (China)
Summary: “Life in the Northeast has been drifting back to normal. There has not been a public student demonstration since Monday, May 29, when small bands of Shenyang and Changchun students staged funeral marches (wearing white headbands and carrying wreaths). Hard core groups of more committed activists continue the struggle at Shenyang’s Northeast University of Technology and Changchun’s Jilin University. The majority of the students are turning their attention to classes while waiting for signals from Beijing students.”
Date: 1989, June 3
Subject: Sitrep No. 28: Ten to Fifteen Thousand Armed Troops Stopped at City Perimeter by Human and Bus Barrricades
Summary: “Ten to fifteen thousand helmeted, armed troops moved toward Beijing during the late afternoon/early evening hours of June 3. As of 1930, large convoys have been stopped as before by bus and human barricades. The largest concentration of troop trucks is on the western side of the city in front of the new World Trade Center, about 5-6 kilometers from Tiananmen Square. Emboffs [Embassy officers] saw at least twenty trucks there, but more than one hundred had been seen heading toward the city on that route, so we estimate that there are one hundred plus troop trucks at that location. The troops are helmeted and are carrying automatic weapons. Most of them seem to be staying in their trucks for the time being. More than 35 trucks filled with helmeted, armed troops are stopped at the Second Ring Road overpass, directly in front of the Jianguomenwai diplomatic housing compound. There are reportedly 82 trucks blocked by four large dump trucks along the road to capital airport. We also have reports of twenty six trucks stopped and surrounded by city residents between the Lido hotel and the Great Wall Hotel in the northeastern suburbs. There are about two thousand troops just west of the Great Hall of the People in a standoff with city residents which has been going on since early afternoon. The population appears hostile to PLA movements into the city. …
“The troops have obviously not yet been given orders permitting them to use force. Their large numbers, the fact that they are helmeted, and the automatic weapons they are carrying suggest that the force option is real.”
Date: 1989, June 3
Subject: Sitrep No. 29: Article Justifies Martial Law; PLA to Use Any and All Means to Enforce Martial Law; Defense Minister Appears, So Does Li Peng; Tension on Tiananmen Square
Summary: “The June 3 edition of the People’s Daily carried a front page article indicting ‘a small group of people’ who allegedly incited the present turmoil in Beijing and justified martial law. The article was issued by the Beijing Municipal Party Committee …
“The evening television news on June 3 broadcast a sternly worded Martial Law Headquarters announcement stating that troops will use any and all means to enforce martial law in Beijing. As this cable is drafted, the Martial Law HQ is warning Beijing citizens to stay off the streets in repeated television broadcasts.”
Date: 1989, June 3
Subject: Sitrep No. 31: Tiananmen at 0245 on June 4: Gunfire on the Square, Two APC’s Burning on the North Side of the Square
Summary: “Emboff saw tracers being fired over the square. ABC journalists said that two armored personnel carriers were on fire at the northeast and northwest corners of the square. A barricade near the intersection of Fuxingmen and the Second Ring Road was breached as troops advanced on the square from the west. As of 0250, the situation in the center of the city was very confused. Troops appear to be attempting to clear the square from west to east. We have no accurate count of dead and wounded, but casualties no doubt will be high.
“Demonstrator who laid down in front of an advancing APC [Armored Personnel Carrier] and was run over. Unconfirmed accounts cite seventy dead and many wounded. Given the aggressive PLA moves reported by ABC News reporters, we expect final counts of dead and injured to be very high.”
Date: 1989, June 4
Subject: Northeast China Students React To Beijing Massacres
Origin: Consulate Shenyang (China)
Summary: “Northeast students today responded to news of the People’s Liberation Army’s firing on pro- democracy demonstrators in Beijing by organizing orderly funeral processions and protest marches to spread the word to stunned and sympathetic citizens. The students attacked the use of brutal force, mourned the dead, and carried banners demanding the strangling of Li Peng. Some Shenyang students paraded through an industrial district, but no workers joined in the marches.”
Date: 1989, June 5
Subject: Taiwan Reactions to the Tiananmen Massacre
Origin: American Institute Taiwan, Taipei (Taiwan)
Date: 1989, July 12
Subject: Latin American Diplomat Eyewitness Account of June 3-4 Events on Tiananmen Square
Summary: “During a recent meeting, a Latin American diplomat and his wife provided Poloff an account of their movements on June 3-4 and their eyewitness account of events at Tiananmen Square. Although their account generally follows those previously reported, their unique experiences provide additional insight and corroboration of events in the square. They were able to enter and leave the square several times and were not harassed by troops. Remaining with students by the Monument to the People’s Heroes until the final withdrawal, the diplomat said there were no mass shootings of students in the square or at the monument.”
Date: 1989, Aug. 9
Subject: PRC Goals After Tiananmen: The Official View from the Ministry of Justice
Date: 1990, March 26
Subject: Blood and Bitterness: A Soldier’s Tale of Tiananmen
Origin: Consulate Shanghai (China)
Summary: “A soldier attached to the 38th Army reportedly told villagers in his hometown he was tricked into firing on unarmed demonstrators on June 4, 1989, in Beijing. We report this story, told to us third-hand, as an example of the type of Tiananmen tale circulating in rural East China nearly ten months after the Beijing massacre.”