Tiananmen Square already had a long history as a staging ground for political unrest.
Hu Yaobang’s sudden death in April 1989 began another chapter in that history. In a scene similar to the one that followed Zhou Enlai’s death in 1976, mourners flocked to the square to honor the liberal Hu. Deng tripped up when he challenged the protestors’ patriotism in a People’s Daily editorial, causing tempers in the square to flare.
The protests could not have happened at a more complicated time for China’s leadership. Soviet leader Gorbachev was expected in Beijing on May 14th, and the cameras and satellites of the world were trained on the Chinese capital. After a hunger strike and an awkward televised meeting between students and the leadership, Zhao Ziyang entered the square to make one last plea with students to back down. For his actions, Zhao Ziyang was deposed by Deng Xiaoping, and spent the rest of his life confined to his home, No. 6 Fuqiang Alley.
This clip from Taiwan shows the scene in Tiananmen in May, and Zhao Ziyang interacting with hospitalized protesters.