Tea Leaf Nation

A Time-Lapse Map of Protests Sweeping China in 1989

A Time-Lapse Map of Protests Sweeping China in 1989

Twenty-five years ago in the southern Chinese province of Hunan, a group of small-town high school students listening to shortwave radio heard news of a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators nearly 1,000 miles away in the capital of Beijing. Although it was late at night and pouring rain, they grabbed metal washbasins and took to the streets, clanging the pots and shouting, "There’s been a massacre!" For the next two days, they demonstrated, with factory workers joining their ranks. They handed out fliers and hung a banner in front of the town cinema showing the official government tally (later revised downwards): "300 dead, 7,000 wounded." 

This anguished scene, captured in the 1991 book The Pro-Democracy Protests in China: Reports from the Provinces, played out in different ways across China in the days leading up to and following the massacre of protesters in central Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Protesters took to the streets in the southern metropolis of Shanghai, the regional capital of Urumqi deep in China’s west, and in countless towns in between. In some cities, the marches were massive: They swelled to a reported 400,000 in southern Guangzhou, and in Shanghai, Tianjin, and Nanjing, many tens of thousands marched. Participants wore black armbands, sang dirges, laid wreaths, and built coffins in tribute to those shot by soldiers or run over by tanks in downtown Beijing. Indeed, dozens of protests swept China in the days leading up to, and following, the Tiananmen uprising. The below map shows some of those protests as they occurred, from April 22 to June 8, 1989:

The map assuredly does not contain every protest in China in the time period it covers, but does reflect over 115 distinct data points sourced from The Tiananmen Papers, by the pseudonymous Zhang Liang and edited by scholars Andrew Nathan and Perry Link, one of the few books to catalog the protests based on internal government documents. (The authenticity of those materials cannot be verified because the ruling Communist Party has not made its internal deliberations from that period public.) It says protest activity was recorded in at least 181 cities, including all provincial capitals. Those figures point to something that many forget to this day: What many call China’s 1989 "Beijing Spring" was not limited to one city. It was a nationwide movement.

The Tiananmen-inspired, funeral-tinged demonstrations in 181 cities from June 5 to 10, 1989, were the capstone to weeks of protest that had been bubbling across China. Some of the campaigns were inspired by events in Beijing; others were emphatically local, and only coincided with developments in the capital. Many focused on universal complaints, such as corruption and income inequality. Others were triggered by distinct local grievances that student protesters in Beijing had probably never heard of.

The movement flowered prior to mobile phones, Internet, or email, but students across the country developed ingenious ways of sharing information. They created digests of BBC and Voice of America broadcasts and mimeographed them for posting on light poles or to hand out as fliers from rickshaws.

Nevertheless, much of the fine detail of those countless scattered protests remains buried in history. A quarter-century after the fact, there is no comprehensive research illuminating which Chinese cities and towns saw protests and their scale or focus. “No one in China has been able to map it out,” Jonathan Unger, a professor at the Australian National University, told Foreign Policy via Skype from Canberra. “I think it will be lost to history.”

Some memories will prove hard to erase. Deborah Pellow, a professor of anthropology at Syracuse University, was in Shanghai that year and recalls that demonstrations there started quickly after news of the death of senior leader Hu Yaobang, who had been sympathetic to earlier student protests in 1987. "I was in bed reading and I heard glass breaking," Pellow told FP via email. It was "to represent the ‘breaking’ of [then-leader] Deng Xiaoping," whose name is homophonous with "little bottle."

Kristen Parris, a political science professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, was in Hangzhou, near Shanghai, studying for her Ph.D. in 1989. "I witnessed many demonstrations during that spring in Hangzhou, including many marches and also a sit-in and hunger strike at the city square," Parris told FP via email. She said that for much of May 1989, the demonstrations in Hangzhou were notable for their "collective effervescence." "The carnival feeling, sense of fun, and joy in the air was palpable," she said.

Bethany Allen and Shujie Leng contributed research. Map via Emma Carew Grovum.