Secret cable: 10,000 killed in China's 1989 Tiananmen crackdown

A newly released British diplomatic cable claims that at least 10,000 people were killed by the Chinese army during the Tiananmen Square crackdown. The estimate is 10 times higher than commonly accepted figures.

The secret diplomatic cable seen by the AFP news agency at Britain's National Archives gives gruesome details of the 1989 Chinese army clampdown on pro-democracy protesters.

"Minimum estimate of civilian dead 10,000," the British ambassador at the time, Alan Donald, said in a telegram to London on June 5, 1989, a day after the violent suppression.

The document was made public more than 28 years after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The secret cable puts the Tiananmen Square civilian death toll almost 10 times higher than the one of several hundred to more than a thousand deaths that is commonly accepted.

News | 24.08.2014

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a French China expert, told AFP the British figure seemed credible as it was also supported by recently declassified US documents.

"That's two pretty independent sources which say the same things," said Cabestan, who is a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Alan Donald's report was "not particularly astonishing considering how crowded it was in Beijing [and] the number of people mobilized" against the Chinese government," he said.

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Remembering Tiananmen Square, 1989

Goddess of Democracy

As the sun rises at Tiananmen Square, protesters build a 33 feet tall Goddess of Democracy statue out of foam and paper-mache over a metal armature. In the early morning of June 4, soldiers backed by tanks and armored cars toppled the statue which had stood directly facing the Mao portrait at the Forbidden City.

Remembering Tiananmen Square, 1989

Singing Police Woman

In the often tense days leading up to the Chinese government crackdown, local citizens often gave gifts to soldiers and police officials. Sometimes troops would sing patriotic songs with demonstrators. In this picture, a police woman sings out loud in Tiananmen Square a few days before troops retook control of the area and crushed the democratic movement.

Remembering Tiananmen Square, 1989


A woman is caught in the middle of a scuffle between pro-democracy protesters and People's Liberation Army soldiers near the Great Hall of The People on June 3, 1989, the day before one of the bloodiest military crackdowns of the 20th century. Later that night, the 38th army would open fire on unarmed civilians overtaking the occupied Tiananmen Square.

Remembering Tiananmen Square, 1989

Captured Weapons

Thousands of protesters surround a bus with a display of captured weapons just days prior to the crackdown. During the government's enforcement of martial law, soldiers and the public performed a delicate dance of give and take. Sometimes protesters offered gifts to soldiers and sometimes troops withdrew.

Remembering Tiananmen Square, 1989

Fight for Democracy

On the late evening of June 3, a group of protesters cornered an armored personnel carrier (APC) at the gates of the Great Hall of The People. It had just crashed through barricades of street dividers which the crowds had put up to stop the advance of military vehicles. At the same time, soldiers were preparing to open fire on the demonstrators a short distance away.

Remembering Tiananmen Square, 1989

Burning APC

On the late evening of June 3, protestors set fire to an armored personnel carrier on the Chang'an Avenue near Tiananmen Square. The picture was the last image before photographer Jeff Widener was struck in the face by a stray protestor brick. Though he sustained a serious concussion, The Nikon F3 titanium camera absorbed the blow sparing his life.

Remembering Tiananmen Square, 1989

The Crackdown

On June 4, a truck manned by People's Liberation Army troops patrol down the Chang'an Avenue in front of the Beijing Hotel the day after the bloody crackdown on student-led pro-democracy supporters. A similar truck full of soldiers had shot tourists standing in the lobby of the Beijing Hotel that day.

Remembering Tiananmen Square, 1989

'Tank Man'

A lone man with shopping bags walks to the center of Beijing's Chang'an Avenue and temporarily stops the advance of Chinese tanks a day after the crackdown. Over two decades later, the fate of the man is still a mystery. The incident has come to symbolize the events at Tiananmen Square and is considered one of the most iconic images ever taken.

Remembering Tiananmen Square, 1989

Dead Heroes

On June 5, a group of people at the Chang’an Avenue show a picture of dead protesters at a local morgue after being shot by Chinese soldiers of the 38th Army during the recapture of Tiananmen Square. The troops used expanding bullets which created larger wounds. At least 300 civilians were killed, according to Amnesty International.

Remembering Tiananmen Square, 1989


The remains of a burned out bus on Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue as two women sweep up debris following the military crackdown. The demonstrations led to widespread burning of buses and military vehicles which left several soldiers dead or injured.

Remembering Tiananmen Square, 1989

Guarding Mao

Soldiers and a tank stand guard in front of The Forbidden City and across from the occupied Tiananmen Square a few days after the riots.

Remembering Tiananmen Square, 1989

Brothers in Arms

Associated Press photographers Jeff Widener (left) and Liu Heung Shing pose in front of Beijing's Forbidden City in late May 1989 just days before the Chinese government's military crackdown at Tiananmen Square.

Horrific details

In June 1989, several thousand Chinese college students and disgruntled citizens from all walks of life gathered in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to publicly mourn the death of purged high-level official Hu Yaobang, as well as demand government accountability, freedom of the press and a stop to the rampant corruption plaguing the country. As demonstrations escalated, the Chinese government deployed the military to crack down on the protesters, opening fire on unarmed civilians and killing unknown numbers.

Nearly three decades since Beijing ordered tanks and troops into the Tiananmen Square to crush the student-led pro-democracy uprising, any public commemoration of the event remains banned across the Chinese mainland, where the government has never released an official death toll from the brutal crackdown.

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The man behind the 'Tank Man' photo

During the military operation on the night of June 3-4, 1989, armored personnel carriers (APC) "opened fire on the crowd (both civilians and soldiers) before running over them," wrote Donald in his telegram, saying he was citing a "reliable" source.

Once the Chinese soldiers arrived in Tiananmen Square, "students understood they were given one hour to leave square but after five minutes APCs attacked," Donald wrote.

"Students linked arms but were mown down including soldiers. APCs then ran over bodies time and time again to make 'pie' and remains collected by bulldozer. Remains incinerated and then hosed down drains."

"Four wounded girl students begged for their lives but were bayoneted," Donald said, adding: "Army ambulances who attempted to give aid were shot up."

The Chinese government justifies the bloodshed by labeling it a suppression of the "counter-revolutionary riots." Beijing claims some 200 civilians and several dozen police and military personnel were killed during the crackdown.

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