HKFP’s Ilaria Maria Sala shares previously unseen photos from the 1989 Tiananmen protests – before the tanks rolled in. Read her firsthand account of Beijing’s student movement in Part 1.


Beijing, April 1989. After the death of popular pro-reform Communist leader Hu Yaobang, students from the capital’s colleges brought down to the square a banner defining Hu as “China’s Spirit” (中國魂). Here, students protect the banner, and this early demonstration, from the arrival of security personnel and other provocateurs.

After the students started the hunger strike on May 13, some medical personnel – both professional and from the medical schools – established emergency clinics in a few buses stationed in Tiananmen Square. The vehicles were driven to the square by pro-demonstration bus drivers. Here, one of these emergency clinics is seen in a picture taken at dawn, with a student sleeping nearby.

A pickup truck carrying demonstrators to the square. In the background are nurses and medical personnel who were stationed in Tiananmen square after the students started the hunger strike.

During the days of the occupation, students and other demonstrators would carry banners and slogans around the square. Here, the slogan “Silence equals death” can be seen on a banner. The slogan refers to the danger of not standing up for the protesting students, and is also a reference to the April 26 People’s Daily editorial telling people to stop protesting.

Students hold hands and march under holding banners emblazoned with slogans and the names of their schools. The white banner reads: “the news must tell the truth” while the red banner reads”Beijing University of Chinese Medicine.”

Buses, brought down by bus drivers in support of the demonstrators, were used as headquarters of some impromptu organizations – for medical purposes, for example. On the windows of the buses, the students attached some of the newspapers articles that came out during the short window of the nearly-free press that preceded the imposition of martial law in the city.

“China’s Spirit” – a banner brought to the square by the students, that was eventually hung under the portrait of Hu Yaobang that was attached to the Monument of the People’s Heroes.

Crowds gather on the rooftop of a building along Xin Jie Kou Avenue, near Beijing Normal University, watching a demonstration underneath.

At Beijing Normal University, students read posters calling for support and demonstrations on the anniversary of the May Fourth Movement.

Students from the Academy of Song and Theatre joining the demonstrations from a pickup truck on May 4th, 1989, with brass instruments.

Soldiers keeping watch from outside of the Forbidden City, overlooking Tiananmen Square, in May 1989.

Citizens watch the demonstrations, searching for a better birds-eye view by climbing on trees. This photo was taken near the red wall surrounding the Forbidden City.

Dawn on Tiananmen Square, May 15, after the beginning of the hunger strike. Students and supporters wake up in the occupied square as rumours of talks between the student leaders and Chinese authorities started to spread.

A Beijing family watch demonstrators walk towards Tiananmen Square on May 4, 1989.

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Ilaria Maria Sala

Ilaria Maria Sala is an award winning writer and ceramic artist based in Hong Kong. She has been living in Asia since 1988 - first in Beijing, then Tokyo and Hong Kong, with long detours in Shanghai and Kathmandu. Her byline has appeared in Le Monde, the New York Times, the Guardian, ArtNews, El Periódico and La Stampa, among others. Her latest book is Pechino 1989, published by Una Città in 2019. Follow her on Twitter.