Small spontaneous gatherings to mourn Hu began on 15 April around Monument to the People's Heroes at Tiananmen Square. On the same day, many students at Peking University (PKU) and Tsinghua University erected shrines, and joined the gathering in Tiananmen Square in a piecemeal fashion.
When Hu Yaobang suddenly died of a heart attack on 15 April 1989, students reacted strongly, most of them believing that his death was related to his forced resignation. Hu's death provided the initial impetus for students to gather in large numbers.
From 1983 to 1997, Hong Kong saw an exodus of emigrants to overseas countries, especially in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, which more than a million Hongkongers showed up on the streets to support to student protesters in Beijing. The Tiananmen incident of 1989 strengthened anti-Beijing sentiments and also led to the emergence of the local democracy movement, which demanded a faster pace of democratisation before and after 1997.
On 17 April, students at the China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL) made a large wreath to commemorate Hu Yaobang. Its laying-party was on 17 April and a larger-than-expected crowd assembled. At 5 pm, 500 CUPL students reached the eastern gate of the Great Hall of the People, near Tiananmen Square, to mourn Hu. The gathering featured speakers from various backgrounds giving public orations commemorating Hu and discussing social problems. However, it was soon deemed obstructive to the operation of the Great Hall, so police tried to persuade the students to disperse.
Starting on the night of 17 April, three thousand PKU students marched from the campus towards Tiananmen Square, and soon nearly a thousand students from Tsinghua joined. Upon arrival, they soon joined forces with those already gathered at the Square. As its size grew, the gathering gradually evolved into a protest, as students began to draft a list of pleas and suggestions (Seven Demands) for the government.
On the morning of 18 April, students remained in the Square. Some gathered around the Monument to the People's Heroes singing patriotic songs and listening to impromptu speeches by student organizers, others gathered at the Great Hall. Meanwhile, a few thousand students gathered at Xinhua Gate, the entrance to Zhongnanhai, the seat of the party leadership, where they demanded dialogue with the leadership. Police restrained the students from entering the compound. Students then staged a sit-in.
On 20 April, most students had been persuaded to leave Xinhua Gate. To disperse about 200 students that remained, police used batons; minor clashes were reported. Many students felt abused by the police, and rumours about police brutality spread quickly. This incident angered students on campus, where those who were not politically active decided to join the protests. Also on this date, a group of workers calling themselves the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Federation issued two handbills challenging the central leadership.
Hu's state funeral took place on 22 April. On the evening of 21 April, some 100,000 students marched on Tiananmen Square, ignoring orders from Beijing municipal authorities that the Square was to be closed off for the funeral. The funeral, which took place inside the Great Hall and attended by the leadership, was broadcast live to the students. General secretary Zhao Ziyang delivered the eulogy. The funeral seemed rushed, and only lasted 40 minutes, as emotions ran high in the Square. Students wept.
On 22 April, near dusk, serious rioting broke out in Changsha and Xi'an. In Xi'an, arson from rioters destroyed cars and houses, and looting occurred in shops near the city's Xihua Gate. In Changsha, 38 stores were ransacked by looters. Over 350 people were arrested in both cities. In Wuhan, university students organized protests against the provincial government. As the situation became more volatile nationally, Zhao Ziyang called numerous meetings of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). Zhao stressed three points: discourage students from further protests and ask them to go back to class, use all measures necessary to combat rioting, and open forms of dialogue with students at different levels of government.
On 23 April, in a meeting of around 40 students from 21 universities, the Beijing Students' Autonomous Federation (also known as the Union) was formed. It elected CUPL student Zhou Yongjun as chair. Wang Dan and Wu'erkaixi also emerged as leaders. The Union then called for a general class boycott at all Beijing universities. Such an independent organization operating outside of party jurisdiction alarmed the leadership.
Zhao's departure to North Korea left Li Peng as the acting executive authority in Beijing. On 24 April, Li Peng and the PSC met with Beijing Party Secretary Li Ximing and mayor Chen Xitong to gauge the situation at the Square. The municipal officials wanted a quick resolution to the crisis and framed the protests as a conspiracy to overthrow China's political system and major party leaders, including Deng Xiaoping. In Zhao's absence, the PSC agreed that firm action against protesters must be taken.
On the morning of 25 April, President Yang Shangkun and Premier Li Peng met with Deng at the latter's residence. Deng endorsed a hardline stance and said an appropriate 'warning' must be disseminated via mass media to curb further demonstrations. The meeting firmly established the first official evaluation of the protests from the leadership, and highlighted Deng's having 'final say' on important issues.
Organized by the Union on 27 April, some 50,000–100,000 students from all Beijing universities marched through the streets of the capital to Tiananmen Square, breaking through lines set up by police, and receiving widespread public support along the way, particularly from factory workers.
The government's tone grew increasingly conciliatory as Zhao Ziyang returned from Pyongyang on 30 April and resumed his executive authority. In Zhao's view, the hardliner approach was not working, and concession was the only alternative. Zhao asked that the press be opened to report the movement positively, and delivered two sympathetic speeches on 3–4 May.