On 4 June 1989, when the Chinese Communist party (CCP) sent 200,000 soldiers in armoured tanks to suppress the peaceful pro-democracy protest in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, causing hundreds if not thousands of fatalities, it was unimaginable to me and most of my compatriots that, 25 years later, this barbaric regime would still be in power, and the massacre would be rendered a taboo. But despite the party's most ardent efforts to wipe the episode from history, memories of the massacre refuse to be crushed. On the milestone 25th anniversary, Tiananmen is more important than ever.
The death toll of the Tiananmen Democracy Movement may pale in comparison with the millions who perished in the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. Its significance, however, lies not in the number of casualties but in the nobility of its aspirations and the power of its legacy. The CCP and its western apologists like to claim that China, with its vast population, long, unbroken history and cultural traditions, has no desire – or indeed need – for constitutional democracy, and is much better off following its own "exceptional" path of political dictatorship combined with a market economy. But Tiananmen showed the world that the Chinese people are no different from everyone else. When given the chance to express their views freely, they seized it and howled in unison their desire for democracy, freedom and human rights. Although their understanding of the concepts was elementary, they instinctively grasped, like the protesters in Place de la Bastille and Wenceslas Square before them, that these ideals formed the foundation of any civilised and humane nation. To claim that the Chinese are unsuited to, or not yet ready for, democracy and freedom is to view them as less than human beings.
The party leadership insists that it has reached a "clear conclusion" on Tiananmen: it was a counter-revolutionary riot, involving a tiny minority of troublemakers, which needed to be crushed to ensure China's future economic development. This conclusion is clear, but incorrect. The democracy protests were neither "counter-revolutionary" nor a "riot". They were a spontaneous mass uprising, a jubilant national awakening, in which millions of students, workers and professionals gathered peacefully in public squares around the country for weeks on end to call for rights guaranteed to them by the constitution: freedom of speech, of the press and of assembly and freedom to elect their leaders – basic liberties that the west takes for granted. They were among the most orderly, restrained and self-disciplined protests the world has seen. Student marshals maintained crowd control; armies of volunteers distributed food and drink and provided free medical care. In the madness of 20th-century China, the Tiananmen protests were a moment of sublime sanity, when the individual emerged from the somnolent collective and found their true voice.
In this atmosphere of freedom, people used their innate creativity and intelligence to challenge and question state power. Teenagers strummed Bob Dylan ballads around campfires and danced in the dark. The Beijing Symphony Orchestra brought its instruments to the square and gave an impromptu performance of Beethoven's Ode to Joy. Art students erected a replica of the Statue of Liberty right opposite the huge portrait of Chairman Mao on the square's northern edge. The student leader, Wu'er Kaixi, rebuked Premier Li Peng on national TV, dressed in striped pyjamas. In a makeshift Democracy University, professors gave seminars on Thomas Paine and the French revolution. When the government rejected pleas for dialogue, hundreds of students tied white bandanas around their heads and went on hunger strike. On 3 June, Liu Xiaobo, then a lecturer at the Beijing Normal University, staged his own hunger strike on the square with the economist Zhou Duo, the rock star Hou Dejian and party member Gao Xin, to protest against martial law and call for a peaceful transition to democracy.
Tiananmen revealed the true face not only of the Chinese people, but of the CCP as well, which was exposed as a regime prepared to massacre its own unarmed citizens in order to maintain its power. It is both mistaken and morally repugnant to argue that the deaths were necessary to "re-establish order" and guarantee future growth. Taiwan is clear proof that the Chinese can successfully combine democracy with capitalism. China's rapid economic rise over the past 25 years is thanks in most part not to the Communist party but to non-unionised Chinese workers prepared to labour in poor conditions for low wages. An accountable, democratic government would have no doubt achieved a less frenzied, more sustainable economic rise, with less corruption and environmental devastation.
Until now, the only apparent victor of Tiananmen has been the CCP. The massacre destroyed its moral legitimacy, but like a resilient virus, it has mutated in unforeseen ways to ensure its survival. Under the slogan of authoritarian capitalism, it has filled the bellies of the Chinese people while shackling their minds; encouraged a lust for material wealth while stifling the desire to reflect on the past and ask questions about the present. But the party's victory is a hollow one. Its near psychotic repression of any mention of Tiananmen reveals its guilt for past bloodshed and terror of the truth.
Meanwhile the list of victims of Tiananmen continues to grow. Wu'er Kaixi and other student leaders still live in exile. Liu Xiaobo, despite winning the Nobel peace prize in 2010, is serving an 11-year prison sentence for state subversion, while his wife Liu Xia is under house arrest. Ahead of each anniversary of the massacre, activists are routinely rounded up, but this year the crackdown on dissent has been fiercer than ever. On 24 April, a 70-year-old journalist, Gao Yu, was arrested, together with her son and four cats, for disclosing a party memorandum that listed seven "unmentionable topics" the press were told to avoid, including universal values, press freedom, citizens' rights and the party's historical aberrations. She is now criminally detained and her son is missing. On 3 May, a seminar was held by 15 intellectuals in a private home in Beijing to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the massacre. Three days later, five of the 15 who attended, including the prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and the scholar Xu Youyu, both of whom have serious medical conditions, were criminally detained for "picking quarrels and provoking troubles". Public discussion of Tiananmen has never been tolerated, but now even private commemoration is outlawed.
Five years ago, I met the artist Chen Guang in his Beijing flat, and he talked to me about the trauma he suffered as a young PLA soldier in 1989 when his unit was ordered to expel the students from the square with assault rifles and bayonets, then later burn the tents, journals, clothes and banners flattened by the tanks. Before the 20th anniversary of the massacre, he was able to exhibit on his website – for the few days before censors closed it down – paintings inspired by photographs he had taken of soldiers and tanks on the square. This year he has not been so lucky. On 29 April, in front of a few friends in the Songzhuang artists' village, he donned a face mask and hurled whitewash over the dates 1989 and 2014 painted on a brick wall. A week later he was placed in detention. Three years ago, the artist Hua Yong went to the square, punched himself in the nose and with the blood that poured from it wrote on a concrete paving stone the numbers six and four, the common shorthand for 4 June. Plainclothes police dragged him away immediately. Two years ago, Hua Yong returned to the square, cut his finger and with the blood wrote six and four on his forehead. He was arrested and sent to a labour camp for 15 months.
These civil rights activists, lawyers, journalists and artists are the finest legacy and true victors of the Tiananmen Movement. Although they form a tiny minority in a country of 1.3 billion people, they are its greatest hope. By fighting peacefully for constitutional rights and refusing to forget the tragedies of the past, they show the way to a better future. Their courage is slowly shaking young Chinese from their political apathy. Since Pu Zhiqiang's arrest, China's internet has been ablaze with coded messages of support.
My most vivid memory of the Tiananmen days is the time I stood high on the Monument to the People's Heroes one afternoon in late May and looked down on a crowd of more than a million people assembled in the square. Every face beamed with hope and joy. The colourful swathe of humanity looked as peaceful as a meadow of wildflowers. There was a euphoric sense that after decades of tyranny, the Chinese people had found the courage to take full control of their lives and attempt to change the fate of their nation. Every person in that crowd was later a victim of the massacre, whether they lost their life on 4 June or survived, their ideals shattered and their soul scarred by fear.
Tiananmen was a defining moment for my generation. More recently it has changed my life once again: since the Chinese edition of my Tiananmen novel, Beijing Coma, was published in Taiwan three years ago, the authorities have banned me from returning to the mainland. On 3 June this year, I will attend a Tiananmen seminar in Sweden and place an empty chair where the journalist Gao Yu would have sat. On 4 June, back in London, I will phone my friend, the economist Zhou Duo, who as usual will be marking the day with a private hunger strike in his Beijing home. I will light candles in honour of those who died in the massacre and the Chinese dissidents who are in jail or under house arrest. I will think of the vast, jubilant crowds that filled the square in 1989 and remind myself that the values they espoused are universal, and mightier than the tyranny that still strives to suppress them. Then I will hope that before another 25 years pass, the mausoleum and portrait of the mass murderer Mao will have been removed for ever from Tiananmen Square and replaced by a Monument to the Heroes of 1989, and that the Chinese people will be free to assemble there, punch themselves in the nose if they wish, mourn all the victims of past tragedies, discuss liberty and democracy, and sing their odes to joy.
© Ma Jian
Translated by Flora Drew
China was the world’s biggest story in the summer of 1989 when several hundred thousand students, labor leaders and other dissidents occupied the 5 million square foot concrete piazza known as Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing.
For seven weeks as the world watched, some 500,000 “pro-democracy” demonstrators descended on Beijing’s most sacred site to protest corruption, human rights violations and one-party rule.
The protest would ultimately end in the early morning hours of June 4 with the deaths of at least 800 demonstrators (the Chinese Red Cross puts the number closer to 3,000 with 12,000 wounded) in what the world has come to know as the “Tiananmen Square Massacre.”
Ron Yates in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Today all evidence of that bloody night has been obliterated. Tiananmen Square is scrubbed and shimmering as it awaits the hundreds of thousands of summer visitors who will wander past the colossal portrait of Mao Zedong that hangs above the Forbidden City's Gate of Heavenly Peace on the north end of the plaza and through the mausoleum that displays his waxy remains on the south end.
China today is relatively sanguine and confident. Profits, not protests are the driving force among most Chinese. However, that was not the case in 1989 when Tiananmen Square was turned into a squalid, fetid tent city of protestors.
For many young Chinese, the tragedy that unfolded in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago is ancient history—an event that has been glossed over, covered up and generally purged from the national consciousness by a nation eager to put forth its most dazzling and alluring face for tourists and the international business community.
Demonstrators parade past the Gate of Heavenly Peace and the portrait of Mao Tse-Tung, toward rally in Tiananmen Square of striking students, Thursday, May 18, 1989, Beijing, China. (Sadayuki Mikami/AP)
But on June 3, 1989 as I walked through what is generally regarded as the planet’s largest city square, the world was just a few hours from seeing China at its most ruthless and ugliest.
The square that day was a hot, grubby place, strewn with refuse, canvass tents and other makeshift dwellings. Under the towering “Heroes of the Nation” obelisk demonstrators cooked rice and soup while others linked arms and sang a spirited rendition of the “Internationale,” the world socialist anthem. Thousands of others dozed under flimsy lean-tos or blasted music from boom boxes.
Near the middle of the square, the 30-foot tall “Goddess of Democracy,” a pasty white statue constructed by art students and made of styrofoam and papier-mâché, stared defiantly at Mao’s giant portrait—almost mocking the founder of modern day China. A truck swept by periodically spraying billowing clouds of insecticide and disinfectant over everything and everybody in its path.
A man tries to pull a Chinese soldier away from his comrades as thousands of Beijing's citizens turned out to block thousands of troops on their way towards Tiananmen Square early Saturday morning, June 3, 1989. (Mark Avery/AP)
Hawkers guiding pushcarts containing ice cream, soft drinks, rice cakes, candy and film encircled the students doing a brisk business. Even if the students in the square had not been able to topple China's ruling hierarchy, at least there were profits to be made.
One enterprising entrepreneur raked in several hundred yuan within a few minutes after he began renting stepping stools for the hundreds of amateur photographers and tourists who arrived to have their pictures taken next to students or standing at the base of the "Goddess of Democracy" statue. Tiananmen, I wrote at the time, had evolved into a “Disneyland of Dissent.”
By June 3 the number of students occupying the square had dwindled to about 20,000 as thousands had already packed up and headed back to their provinces. But some students I talked with that afternoon were not ready to leave and a few shared an intense sense of foreboding.
One of those was Chai Ling. Chai, who had been elected "chief commander" by the dissidents, was the only woman among the seven student leaders of the pro-democracy protests. As we sat cross-legged on the hot pavement she talked about the protests and just what the students had accomplished during their 7-week-long occupation of Tiananmen.
“There will be a price to pay for all of this,” the 23-year-old child psychology graduate warned, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Some people will have to die for democracy, but it will be worth it.”
Chai, the object of a year-long nationwide search by the Chinese government after the violence in the square, would eventually escape China to Hong Kong sealed for five days and nights in a wooden crate deep in the hold of a rickety ship. She managed to elude capture in China by adopting a series of disguises, by learning local Chinese dialects and by working variously as a rice farmer, laborer and maid. Eventually she would come to the United States, be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and graduate from the Harvard Business School.
Barely eight hours after my conversation with Chai her warning would become reality. Late in the evening of June 3 and during the early morning hours of June 4 the lethargy of weary demonstrators and the cacophony of boom box music would be replaced by shrieks of terror, gunfire and the guttural roar of tank and armored personnel carrier engines as the People’s Liberation Army rolled into the square, crushing tents and firing indiscriminately at protesters and anybody else who got in their way.
A couple of hours before the violence erupted a few of us foreign correspondents had enjoyed a quiet meal together in the venerable Beijing Hotel on Chang’an Avenue a few blocks from the square.
While dining we discussed the events of the night before when several thousand young unarmed military recruits were sent marching toward the students in Tiananmen Square. Before they got very far an estimated 100,000 Chinese civilians poured from their homes near the square and confronted the soldiers—berating them for even thinking of entering Tiananmen to clear it of the thousands of students who had occupied it since late April.
This rather benign event was nothing more than a probe to determine what kind of resistance armed troops might face when they stormed the square. For several weeks some 200,000 Chinese troops—most from provinces far away from Beijing—had been massing on the outskirts of the city.
A student pro-democracy protester flashes victory signs to the crowd as People's Liberation Army troops withdraw on the west side of the Great Hall of the People near Tiananmen Square on Saturday, June 3, 1989 in Beijing. (Mark Avery/AP)
As Beijing entered its 15th day of martial law, it was also obvious that the government was still unable to enforce that decree. The government did admonish members of the foreign media to "observe regulations on news coverage" as they relate to martial law.
"Foreign journalists must not talk with student protesters and any news coverage of any kind in Beijing must receive prior approval," said a statement by Ding Weijun, spokesman for the city.
The statement also warned the hundreds of foreign reporters still in Beijing against inviting Chinese citizens to their offices, homes or hotels to conduct "interviews regarding prohibited activities." Several foreign reporters had been expelled from the country for violating those rules.
Many of us ignored those edicts and talked to anybody who wanted to talk anywhere that was deemed away from the prying eyes and ears of government authorities. I also ignored the curfew, often riding my red and white Sprick bicycle down dark streets from my hotel to the Tribune's offices that were located in a foreign housing compound a half-mile away. I got to know most of the Chinese police who were supposed to enforce the curfew. They would smile and wave as I peddled past.
The morning of June 3, once again ignoring marital law rules, I took the Tribune car and my nervous Chinese driver and we drove outside of the square and into several neighborhoods where streets leading toward Tiananmen had been shut down by angry civilians intent on keeping the Chinese Army from reaching the students. Dozens of intersections were blocked with buses, trucks, and makeshift barricades. Neighborhood leaders proudly showed me their arsenal of weapons—rows of gasoline-filled bottles complete with cloth wicks, piles of rocks and bricks, shovels, rakes, picks and other garden tools.
“We will protect the students,” a man named Liang Hong, told me.
“But how?” I asked. “The army has tanks, machine guns and armored personnel carriers. They will kill you.”
“Then we will die,” he replied. Several dozen others quickly echoed his words. “Yes, we will all die. These are our children in the square. We must help them even if it means death.”
Several days after the attack on the square when the authorities allowed people to travel once again in the city, I drove back to this same neighborhood. True to their word, I was told that Liang Hong and several of his neighbors had died or were wounded attempting to keep the army from entering the square.
After dinner in the Beijing Hotel I decided to take one more stroll through the square. As I rode into the square on the bicycle I had purchased after my arrival in Beijing from Tokyo two weeks before, I could see that many of the students were obviously spooked—not only by the unarmed incursion of the night before but by the intelligence pouring in from the neighborhoods surrounding the square that the army was on the move.
“I think something will happen tonight,” one of them told me. “I am very afraid.”
I stopped at the foot of the Goddess of Democracy. The statue was illuminated by a couple of small spotlights as it looked toward the Forbidden City and Mao’s portrait. On the edge of the square I bought a bottle of Coca Cola then pushed my bicycle toward the four-story KFC restaurant on the south end of the square. It was about 8:30 p.m. and the restaurant (the largest KFC store in the world) was almost empty.
I then rode the 2 miles down Jinguomenwei Avenue to the Jinguo Hotel where I was staying. I needed to file a story on the day’s events—specifically my conversation with Chai Ling and the other students that afternoon. I finished writing my story around 10 p.m. and decided, despite the curfew, to ride my bicycle back to the square for one more look around. I parked my bicycle on Xuanwumen Dong Avenue near the hulking Museum of History and Revolution on the east side of the square and began walking toward the “Heroes of the Nation” obelisk which had become the headquarters for the students.
I hadn’t gotten very far when the sound of gunfire erupted. The firing seemed everywhere, amplified by the massive buildings that surrounded the square. I ran toward my bicycle, not wanting to be trapped in the square should tanks roll in. Moments later I ran into BBC correspondent Kate Adie who was walking toward the square with her camera crew.
“What’s going on,” she asked.
“Looks like the army is making a move tonight,” I answered. I explained that I hadn’t seen any troops or tanks in the square at that point, but I did see muzzle flashes from the roof of the Great Hall of the People on the west side of the square. A day before several hundred troops had massed behind the Great Hall and I assumed they had been positioned on the roof.
I rode my bicycle north toward Chang’an Avenue and hadn’t gotten very far when I noticed a line of Armored Personnel Carriers moving toward the square flanked by hundreds of soldiers with fixed bayonets. Seconds later the dark sky was interlaced by red and yellow tracer fire and I could hear bullets ricocheting off of concrete. I turned my bike around and raced back toward the south end of the square. Like a lot of my fellow correspondents I never thought the government would use deadly force against the students.
As the firing intensified thousands more residents poured out of their houses and formed human blockades where streets entered the square. They quickly became targets for the machine gun and small arms fire. As the casualties mounted, the crowds became increasingly belligerent. They armed themselves with bricks, bottles, iron rods and wooden clubs and attacked some of the military contingents, including tanks.
An infuriated mob grabbed one soldier and set him afire after dousing him with gasoline. They then hung his still smoldering body from a pedestrian overpass. It was one of the many examples of instant justice meted out that night. The crowd accused the soldier of having shot an old woman to death.
I watched the wounded and the dead being carted from the square and the area surrounding it on the flatbeds of three-wheeled vehicles. The stinging stench of tear gas hovered over the embattled city and burned my eyes.
“Tell the world!” the crowds screamed at me and other foreign journalists they saw. “Tell the United States! Tell the truth! We are students! We are common people-unarmed, and they are killing us!”
Around 2 a.m. at the height of the armed assault, a maverick tank careened down Jianguomenwai Avenue in an attempt to crack open the way for troop convoys unable to pass through the milling crowds.
With its turret closed, the tank was bombarded with stones and bottles as it sped down the avenue. Young cyclists headed it off, then slowed to bring it to a halt. But the tank raced on, the cyclists deftly avoiding its clattering treads by mere inches.
On the Jianguomenwai bridge over the city's main ring road, where a 25-truck convoy had been marooned for hours by a mass of angry civilians clambering all over it, a tank raced through the crowd. It sideswiped one of the army trucks, and a young soldier clinging to its side was flung off and killed instantly.
A huge crowd gathers at a Beijing intersection where residents used a bus as a roadblock to keep troops from advancing toward Tiananmen Square in this June 3, 1989 photo. Friday June 4, 1999 is the 10th anniversary of the military assault on pro-democracy protestors who had occupied the square for seven weeks. Hundreds died in the early hours of June 4, 1989 when troops shot their way through Beijing's streets to retake the square. (Jeff Widener/AP)
The worst fighting of the night occurred around the Minzu Hotel, west of the square, where grim-faced troops opened fire with tracer rounds on milling crowds blocking their access to the square. Bullets ripped into the crowd and scores of people were wounded. The dead and wounded were thrown on the side of the road among a pile of abandoned bicycles as the troops moved on to take the square.
One tank ran into the back of another that had stalled on Chang’an Avenue. As they hurriedly bounced apart, the machine guns on their turrets began to train on an approaching crowd of about 10,000. The machine guns erupted, sending tracers above the heads of the crowd. Men and women scurried for cover, many crawling into the piles of dead and wounded along the side of the road.
In my haste to return to the square I had forgotten to bring my camera. Even though it was night, the square was illuminated by street lamps and the sky above it was lit almost continuously with tracers and bright flares. I decided not to ride my bicycle in order to avoid becoming a larger target. At the same time, I didn’t want to lose the only form of transportation I had, so I pushed it wherever I went, sometimes crouching behind it. Finally, I found a small tree and padlocked it to the trunk.
For most of the night I found myself caught between trying to cover the tragedy unfolding in and around the square and watching my back. I didn’t want to be caught in the sites of some trigger happy soldier.
At one point several hundred troops successfully occupied a corner of the square and I watched as a crowd of some 3,000 howling unarmed students surged toward them on foot and by bicycle, intent on breaking through their line with their bare hands. A few in front of the main body rammed their bikes into the troops and were quickly beaten to the ground by soldiers using the butts of their rifles or clubs.
“Fascists! Murderers!” the crowd chanted.
As the main body of the crowd got within 50 yards of the first line of troops, an army commander blew a whistle and the soldiers turned and fired volleys of automatic rifle fire. Screams of pain followed.
The protesters threw themselves and their bikes on the pavement of the Avenue of Eternal Peace. Dragging their bikes behind them, they crawled to safety, pursued by rifle fire and the throaty war cries of the soldiers.
When the firing momentarily stopped, the crowd regrouped and slowly crept back toward the square. Then the volleys rang out again, more intense this time. Two lines of soldiers began to chase the mob, alternately firing tear gas and bullets. I watched several people stagger and fall to the ground.
The acrid smell of tear gas triggered a paroxysm of coughing in the crowd. People ripped off shirt sleeves and used them as handkerchiefs over their mouths. The bodies of three women were laid out on the pavement of a side street to await transport. A crowd gathered around them, waving fists and cursing the government.
“How many people did you kill?” they shouted at steel-helmeted soldiers who stood stonily with AK-47 assault rifles cradled across their chests.
The fighting continued throughout the night as exhausted students and other dissidents engaged in hit and run battles with soldiers, tanks and APC’s. Some students, many of them wounded, scrambled aboard abandoned buses seeking refuge and aid. I watched soldiers pull them out and beat them with heavy clubs.
Several of the students, bleeding from head wounds, ran toward where I had taken cover behind a low stone wall. One of the students, a girl of maybe 16, had been shot through the shoulder and was bleeding profusely. She was falling in and out of consciousness and looked to be in shock. I looked behind me to see if there was some way to get her assistance.
In the distance I saw a man waving at me from a doorway of a brick wall. He was motioning me to bring the girl and other wounded students to him, all the while carefully watching for soldiers. I pulled her up and with the help of another reporter, dashed with her and several other wounded students to the gate. The man quickly wrapped a blanket around the girl and took her inside the compound with the other students.
“Thank you,” he said. “I am a doctor. I will take care of them.”
I jogged back to the low wall where I had been kneeling before. I recall thinking that if I were wounded at least I now knew where I could go for help. For the next few hours I moved from one location to another, trying to find a spot where I could see what was happening while making sure I had an escape route should I come under fire.
The square was finally cleared at dawn when four personnel carriers raced across it, flattening not only the tents of the demonstrators but the“Goddess of Liberty” statue. I looked at my watch. It was about 5:30 and dawn was breaking over the city.
Ten minutes later a negotiated settlement allowed the hard-core remnants of the democracy movement—some 5,000 students and their supporters—to leave by the southeastern corner of the square. As they left singing the Internationale, troops ritually beat them with wooden clubs and metal rods.
The army had been ordered to clear the Square by 6 a.m and it had done so, but at a terrible cost.
As daylight broke over the Avenue of Eternal Peace dazed knots of Chinese, many of them weeping and all of them angry at their government, stood at intersections, reliving the events of a few hours before when tracer bullets and flares turned the black Beijing sky into a deadly torrent of crimson.
The bodies of dead civilians lie among mangled bicycles near Beijing's Tiananmen Square early June 4, 1989. Tanks and soldiers stormed the area overnight, bringing a violent end to student demonstrations for democratic reform in China. (AP Photo)
Along the roadside leading into the square lay several wounded, some perhaps already dead.
“They murdered the people. . . . They just shot the people down like dogs, with no warning,” said a man whose shirt was soaked with blood. “I carried a woman to an ambulance, but I think she was dead.”
“Please,” he said, “you must tell the world what has happened here. We need your protection from our government.”
Perhaps the defining moment of the massacre came a bit later that morning when a student jumped in front of a column of tanks on Chang’an Avenue and refused to move. This student, as yet still unidentified, shouted at the tank commander: "Get out of my city. … You're not wanted here." Each time the tank would attempt to maneuver around the student, he would jump in front of it. The column of tanks turned off their motors and then several other students ran out and pulled the student to safety. To this day nobody is sure who the student was or what happened to him. Most Chinese still refer to him as the “tank man.”
A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. The man, calling for an end to the recent violence and bloodshed against pro-democracy demonstrators, was pulled away by bystanders, and the tanks continued on their way. (Jeff Widener/AP)
I walked back to where I had left my bicycle and rode to the Jianguo Hotel. As I peddled along mostly deserted streets I tried to make sense out of what I had seen. With the students already dispersing from the square or planning to, the attack by the army was unnecessarily brutal.
There was little doubt that what I had witnessed was an assault designed to punish the demonstrators for embarrassing China’s leadership—Premiere Li Peng and DengXiaoping, the ailing leader of China’s Communist Party.
China's hard-line rulers, clearly in control after the bloodbath, issued a statement that morning that said:
“Thugs frenziedly attacked People's Liberation Army troops, seizing weapons, erecting barricades and beating soldiers and officers in an attempt to overthrow the government of the People's Republic of China and socialism.”
Bicycle commuters, sparse in numbers, pass through a tunnel as above on the overpass military tanks are positioned in Beijing, China, two days after the Tiananmen Square massacre,on Tuesday morning, June 6, 1989. The slogan on the wall at left reads, "Strike down martial law." (Vincent Yu/AP)
China’s leaders have not forgotten the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989. Unnerved by turbulence among Tibetans and always nervous about the possibility of human rights protests in the heart of the capital, China barred live television coverage from Tiananmen Square during the 2008 Beijing Olympics—just as it had in 1989. It will probably do the same on the 25th anniversary of the slaughter.
However, it remains to be seen whether or not such a ban will exorcise the ghosts of June 4, 1989 that still hang over Tiananmen Square. There is little doubt that time has not healed the deep wounds inflicted on China’s people that terrible night 25 years ago.