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eyewitness to tiananmen spring

Journalists and China specialists offer vivid accounts of how the events of spring 1989 unfolded, from the first student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square that spread throughout China, to the first attempt to send the People's Liberation Army into Beijing, to the final, brutal crackdown of the uprising on the night of June 3-4, 1989.

Jan Wong
Author and former Toronto Globe and Mail Beijing correspondent.

Tiananmen Square is in the heart of Beijing. It's right where the Imperial Palace is located, and it's the biggest square in the world. It takes quite a long time to walk from one side to the other. It's not human scale at all. If you can imagine a place that can hold a million people standing in one spot, that's how big Tiananmen Square is. Someone told me it could host the entire Summer Olympics and the Winter Olympics at the same time, that's how big it is.

It's not a welcoming place. It's not like Central Park, where you'd want to gather, because there is not a tree there; there's no shade. There [are] just big, tall lampposts with cameras on the top that swivel around, and if they see anything interesting, they're going to follow you. There are big loudspeakers so they can blast music or orders; very often they'll tell you what to do. There's not one single bench in the entire square. If you want to sit, you have to sit on the stones. And it's crawling with plainclothes [policemen]. … [I]f anybody ever tries to unfurl a banner, in less than a minute you'll be jumped. That's how many plainclothes police are there watching.

Orville Schell
China specialist and dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Well, prior to the demonstrations that broke out in the spring of 1989, there was a kind of very dyspeptic feeling in Beijing. There was inflation, a lot of corruption; there was a feeling that something was brewing. There was also a lot of nastiness about. What happened when these demonstrations began and when this small city began to arise in Tiananmen Square, with blocks marked off and different departments for different universities and hospitals and finance departments, is a feeling of an amazing kind of beneficence that came over people. Throughout the city, crime essentially ceased. …

Robin Munro
Researcher for Human Rights Watch

This was in a way the most extraordinary thing. ... [T]he whole tone and ambience of the protests was, first of all, absolutely peaceful. I am not aware of any violence that occurred throughout those several weeks of protest from the demonstrators' side. The second was a sense of extraordinary civic responsibility that people in Beijing at all levels of society consciously displayed. You talked to them, and they'd tell you: "We have a great responsibility here. We must not allow our peaceful pro-democracy movement to turn into disorder, chaos, violence of any kind."

People were on their best behavior, but also [they had] the feeling of being engaged in this totally unprecedented enterprise for China. The sense of empowerment they had was very much coupled with a deep sense of responsibility, so they were determined that nothing would upset the apple cart. …

Jan Wong
Author and former Toronto Globe and Mail Beijing correspondent.

I remember being so surprised by the kinds of people who were demonstrating. Of course, you always expect university students to demonstrate -- that's part of their job description -- but what shocked me in China was that you had policemen demonstrating; you had bankers, Bank of China employees, demonstrating; you had journalists, and journalists in China are special. They work as propaganda workers for the government. They're not journalists as we know it. They were very brave: They wore their journalist ID badges on their shirts so you would know exactly who they were and whom they worked for. You had doctors and nurses and scientists. There were army people demonstrating; the Chinese navy was demonstrating. I thought, this is extraordinary, because who's left? It's just the top leaders who aren't out there. …

Orville Schell
China specialist and dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

… I went one afternoon, and there was a little kiosk where traffic policemen normally stand in front of the portrait of Mao in Tiananmen. I walked up there, and you could see miles down either side of the Avenue of Eternal Peace [Chang'an Boulevard]. It was an amazing sight to see these hundreds of thousands of people flowing into the square like the tributaries of two rivers, all marching under these banners. There were people in heavy earth-moving equipment. I remember there were the honey bucket collectors and there were the pilots; there were the hotel workers. It was like this great cross section of Chinese society.

Timothy Brook
Author of Quelling the People: The Military Suppression of the Beijing Democracy Movement.

When the army comes in on May 19, there is a huge groundswell of support, not so much for what the students were doing, but a groundswell of anger that the government would send in the army to solve the problem. …

So as the army appears on the streets of Beijing, the high-rises just empty out. People pour down into the streets to challenge the army and ask the army why they think they're coming in. …

Robin Munro
Researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Oh, they just came out in human-wave tactics and just stood in front of the advancing tanks. … All lanes on the highway going as far back as the eye could see [were] completely surrounded by tens of thousands of people, citizens blocking them in the front and by the sides. ... Young women, middle-aged housewives, elderly retired workers were coming out, climbing onto the troop trucks where the PLA [People's Liberation Army] soldiers were sitting with their steel helmets and AK-47s. ... Probably millions of Beijing citizens took to the streets that night, put themselves physically in front of those tanks and said: "We're staying. You're not coming in. Sorry, this is our city. Go back where you came from. You're not needed. There's no chaos. Leave us alone." ... This went on for days and days.

Timothy Brook
Author of Quelling the People: The Military Suppression of the Beijing Democracy Movement

They were stuck there for two, sometimes three days. They were being both treated well by the citizens. They'd bring them water and food, but they wouldn't let them leave. And they set up a kind of street seminar in which they took the soldiers through their responsibilities to the state, and those responsibilities included protecting the citizens, which meant that they shouldn't even be there in the first place. Beijing was for the people who lived in Beijing. Beijing was not for the army, and they wouldn't let the army leave until they had made that point clearly.

Jan Wong
Author and former Toronto Globe and Mail Beijing correspondent.

One of the reasons I think they did it is because, psychologically, they felt that the People's Liberation Army was not an enemy; the PLA was their friend. This is because of years of propaganda by Chairman Mao that the army is your friend. "The people love the army; the army love the people" -- that's an old slogan. Also, it had been an honorable place to send your sons and your daughters. … So the people had a good feeling about the army, and I think they didn't feel in any danger to go out and stop them. They just felt the army didn't really know the story, and if the people could just explain to the soldiers. …

Robin Munro
Researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Eventually, after a few days, the troops withdrew to temporary barracks in the suburbs of the city, ... and the police stopped coming onto the streets of Beijing. There was effectively no civilian authority imposed for those two weeks, and this makes it all the more extraordinary that crime didn't suddenly escalate, that there wasn't violence, that there wasn't disorder or anarchy of any kind during those two weeks. The sense of civic responsibility just got stronger, because "[Without] the government controlling us through police and troops on the street, our duty is even greater now to be restrained, reasonable, peaceful."

Orville Schell
China specialist and dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

When the army first came in, the citizens simply swarmed, but they swarmed somewhat fearfully, and they were very, almost innocent, as if the righteousness of their cause would be sufficient to stop this military force. And indeed it was. So you got these very curious situations where in some cases citizens would harangue the military, but very quickly they would be sympathizing with them, feeding them, sort of begging them to come over to the virtuous side from the dark side. …

I think that what happened was by the time the troops came into the city the second time, there was a level of humiliation that the leaders had experienced and a level of fearfulness that the whole proposition of the Chinese Communist Party's ability to rule unilaterally was slipping from their hands. This put [the government] on rather a hair trigger.

But one should never underestimate the role of the feeling of loss of face, of humiliation, in Chinese dynamics. I think the leaders had felt that they had been thwarted in the most obvious and humiliating manner, and the second time around, they brought in troops from far away who didn't have connections to Beijing, whose kids weren't in the square, and they decided they would brook no obstacle.

John Pomfret
Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post (1998-2003).

I think that the critical element there is not so much people power; it is the fact that within the higher echelons of the Party, they had not yet made their decision what they wanted the PLA to do. Yes, when the troops began to move towards the city, the common people did come out and did set up roadblocks, argue with them, give them food, talk to them. But I think the source of the chaos of those two weeks had to do with chaos within the Communist Party. They hadn't made up their minds exactly what they were going to do.

Jan Wong
Author and former Toronto Globe and Mail Beijing correspondent.

You couldn't see it in Beijing, but behind the scenes, Deng Xiaoping was ordering every military commander in every military district in China to contribute troops. He wanted to crack down, and he wanted everyone to participate, because if everyone participated, there could be no finger-pointing afterwards.

It took two weeks to get everybody on that side. There was a lot of reluctance; the military didn't want to bring guns into the capital. This was unprecedented. Nobody had done this before. Even Mao had not dared to bring army troops into the capital.

So there was this buildup of troops on the outside, and the troops were kept incommunicado, because the problem before, when martial law was declared, the people had told the soldiers: "We're protesting against corruption. We're good people. We're not ruffians; we're not hooligans. Don't believe the government." This time the government took the precaution of not letting the people talk to the soldiers; they were kept separated until the order to come in. So in Beijing, people were really not expecting the huge number of soldiers. They were taken by surprise, and they were not expecting violence, because they had already talked to the soldiers, and there had been no problem.

Timothy Brook
Author of Quelling the People: The Military Suppression of the Beijing Democracy Movement

So when June 3 comes around, the people go out into the streets and try and repeat what they did on May 19, but the army went in this time with live ammunition, knowing that if necessary it would use it. There is this difference of expectation on the two sides that perhaps caused the citizens to be bolder than they would have been.

Jan Wong
Author and former Toronto Globe and Mail Beijing correspondent.

The troops came in from the four corners of the city, but in the west end of the city when they came in, they happened to pass by an area called Muxidi. … Everybody in Beijing knows Muxidi is the apartments for the highest officials -- not the Politburo level, but pretty high, so you had Supreme Court judges living in there, and you had ministry officials living in there. … [But] the soldiers from outside of Beijing who had been brought in especially to suppress the demonstrators would not have known this. They did not know where they were.

… That Saturday night the army started coming in … the city, and so the people rushed out again. This was becoming a regular occurrence: Every time people said, "The army's coming," everybody would rush out and stop them. And they rushed out this time, except the army shot them, and so they started running down the alleyways.

People in [the Muxidi] apartment buildings could hear all this. It was summertime and the windows were open, so they heard the gunfire; they heard people screaming; and they saw the soldiers shooting at people. They would lean out their windows and scream at the soldiers and curse them and throw things. I had that feeling myself. I wanted to throw things out the window of the Beijing Hotel because you just felt anger: "Why are you doing this to the people?" …

What they did was they just raked the buildings with their gunfire, and they were shooting people. People were being killed in their own kitchens because these bullets were very lethal. … They just shot at them because they were trying to get into the city. They had been ordered to take Tiananmen, and they were going to get there no matter what it took.

Timothy Brook
Author of Quelling the People: The Military Suppression of the Beijing Democracy Movement

The first rounds of fire catch everybody by surprise. The people in the streets don't expect this to happen. There are a couple of hospitals right near Muxidi, and the casualties start showing up within 10 or 15 minutes of the first round of gunfire. The casualties run very high because people didn't expect to be shot at with live ammunition. When they start firing, people say, "Oh, it's rubber bullets." Even after it becomes clear, even after they realize that the army is going to go ahead at any cost, people still pour into the streets. This is the amazing thing: People were just so angry, so furious at what was happening in their city that they were not going to step back and let the army do what it was doing. This is why the casualties from Muxidi on east towards Tiananmen Square were so high. This is the major military confrontation of the evening.

Jan Wong
Author and former Toronto Globe and Mail Beijing correspondent.

What was amazing was that the army used battlefield weapons … in a city of 10 million people, many of whom are on the street. You're shooting into them with weapons that are designed to pierce the armor of another enemy tank, and these are people with no weapons, wearing summer dresses. … They used tanks, and they used AK-47s, which are semiautomatic rifles, Kalashnikovs. The difference, also, is that the bullets were intended for battlefield use. … These bullets are the size of a man's thumb, and they're encased with this soft outer coating that, when it's fired, it unfurls and it twists. They're like dum dums, I guess -- they twist. So when they go through the victims, they tear up the victim inside. … And [they] can go through 10 bodies at close range. There were many, many wounded and dead that night because they kept firing into the crowds.

They used tanks, … [and] they plowed over people. If you were in their way, they would just run over you. The tanks are incredibly heavy, so heavy they leave an imprint on the asphalt. They just go over it, and there's the tank tread. That's how much they weigh. I mean, you can imagine it: When they go over a human body, they leave hamburger. That's what it looks like, just hamburger meat underneath the tank treads, and you scrape the person off the street afterwards. … It was really traumatic for the people who thought they were facing rubber bullets. They didn't know they were going to get shot at with battlefield weapons.

John Pomfret
Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post (1998-2003).

… I saw people on the backs of three-wheeled pedicabs being bicycled to health stations and to hospitals. You had doctors outside involved in mouth to mouth resuscitation with red faces from, you know, stained from blood. The health stations were overflowing with casualties. Beijing's biggest military hospital couldn't deal with all the casualties, there were so many people shot. …

… It's interesting. There is an expression in Chinese that says, "The calf does not fear the lion; the calf does not fear the tiger." There was a naivete about the Chinese in regards to what the People's Liberation Army could do to them, which is ironic considering that maybe 15 years ago, the society was replete with stories of state-sanctioned murder and terror.

They were caught up in an extremely romantic, idealistic pursuit, and they thought an idea somehow could shake the Communist Party. This is a party that killed more than 30 million, perhaps up to 50 million of its own people in this peacetime and still stays in power. But there was a sense of being shocked that the People's Liberation Army, the army of the people that "swam with the people like fish swimming in the sea," as they said in China, would do this to the common Beijinger.

Timothy Brook
Author of Quelling the People: The Military Suppression of the Beijing Democracy Movement

The army was ill prepared. They had a plan of which units would move in along which corridors to try and get to Tiananmen Square, but the details of the operation were a shambles. The army went in without sufficient provisions, without sufficient medical teams. They didn't seem to anticipate the damage they would cause. They didn't anticipate situations they would get in. APC drivers didn't even seem to have maps of the city. The soldiers didn't know how to behave. I think a lot of the soldiers had never even been in a city before; they were country boys. They didn't have the proper equipment; they didn't have the proper training. It was a mess.

There's any number of different techniques that you can use to try and intimidate urban crowds into dispersing. None of these were used. All they could do was send in APCs with teenage soldiers with AK-47s, and of course the destruction and the violence were beyond imagining. …

John Pomfret
Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post (1998-2003).

I got into the square by cycling around the Forbidden City and going to the square from the northeast, where [the students] had arranged the Goddess of Democracy, their takeoff on the Statue of Liberty. I walked through the tents to the Monument to the People's Heroes, which is a big obelisk in the center of the square. Around that obelisk were what seemed to be several hundred -- definitely not more than 1,000 -- students, a few foreigners, some professors perhaps, teachers, older people, the workers from the Beijing Autonomous Workers Union [sic]. …

The lights [were] on; there was lots of noise from firing weaponry to our north. And people were extremely afraid. People were singing "The Internationale" to try to back up everyone's spirit. Then we heard this roar of male yelling, saw on the steps of the Museum of Revolution History and across the way, on the steps of the Great Hall of the People, hundreds, even thousands of soldiers, just saw the glint of their weaponry on those steps. And it was clear to everyone from that point on that we were absolutely trapped. You had the military coming in from the west with their tanks. We knew there were tanks coming in from the south of Tiananmen Gate, and now on both sides of the square you had hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers. …

Robin Munro
Researcher for Human Rights Watch.

... [At] about 4:15 in the morning, suddenly all of the lights in the square went out -- pitch, pitch dark. This was very frightening. ... We knew that the troops had orders to clear the square by dawn -- that was the deadline. Dawn was approaching. Dawn came at 5:00 a.m. in Beijing. ... We could hear a lot of noise; there seemed to be a clattering of boots over on the west of the square. ... I thought, this is it; this must be the signal. They're going to start the attack now; they're going to start firing. ... [B]ut, in fact, nothing happened.

After about 10 minutes, the lights came on again, but not the normal lights of the square. They stayed off. Instead, they put on the special display lights that lit up the Great Hall of the People from the front, which was an extraordinary sight. ... It was like this Gotterdammerung ["Twilight of the Gods"] effect of this vast cavernous Great Hall of the People, lit-up floodlights and smoke rising all around. At that point, we could see that thousands and thousands of troops were running out of the Great Hall of the People onto to the steps and deploying ... in the front of the Monument to the People's Heroes. It was clear that this was the crunch time. [For] the students, this was their last chance to get out. ...

John Pomfret
Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post (1998-2003).

… What happened next was the three hunger strikers, including Hou Dejian -- he was a Taiwanese rock star -- began, unbeknownst to the students, negotiations with the military authorities for some type of a peaceable withdrawal from that square. Hou Dejian came back, and "Should we stay or should we go?" was put to a voice vote among the students there. It was clear to me that the stay votes were much, much, much stronger, but Feng Congde, who was a student leader at the time, basically said that the gos have it. They then organized themselves into a phalanx, and we walked out of the square. …

Robin Munro
Researcher for Human Rights Watch.

… [W]ithin a few minutes, people started getting up off the monument. They ... started filing out. The column was about five, six, seven people across, gradually formed, and they began walking away from the square. ... I'll never forget those faces, those young people's faces. They were walking out with their heads held high. They'd finessed their retreat from the square so well. They'd performed so bravely, and finally ... they'd made the right decision. There would have been no point in staying there. Everybody would have been killed. ...

... The students' decision to peacefully evacuate the square minutes before the final assault was definitely going to come, was a triumph of rationality over violence. It was a triumph of political wisdom and sanity over what was, on the government's side, panic, fear, cowardice in mobilizing an army against an unarmed citizenry. ... The future prevailed in the sense of those students who walked out of the square and said: "We've made our point. OK, you have the tanks. We're not going to let you kill us pointlessly."

Jan Wong
Globe and Mail Beijing correspondent.

… I was really afraid the students would get massacred, but they weren't. They gathered them, and … then they forced them to go out through a gauntlet, literally a gauntlet, where they hit them as they left. Then the students filed out through the south end past Chairman Mao's mausoleum; they turned right at Kentucky Fried Chicken; then they went back north to the Boulevard of Eternal Peace [Chang'an Boulevard]. Then just at that intersection, when they arrived at the Boulevard of Eternal Peace, some students swore at the tanks who were waiting, and the tanks turned on their motors and crushed about 10 or 11 students. This is about 6:00 a.m., so it's daylight because it's June, so everyone can see this. …

That day, of course, when the sun came up, everybody was really angry. Remember, the whole city heard it. Ten million people heard the army coming in, and they heard the sirens, and they heard all the screaming and shooting. So they gathered at the corner, and about 50 or 60 or 80 people cursed the soldiers who were now guarding the square. … You could see the commander give an order, because suddenly all the rifles would come up. There would be one row of soldiers kneeling, one row standing. It was like a shooting range. Then all the people realized that the guns were pointed at them, and they'd go running past the hotel. I felt like I was watching some terrible opera: The people [would] go running past the hotel, and then the soldiers would fire in their backs. They would fall right in front of the hotel. Maybe five or six people would be shot. And then, unlike the night before, when you could rescue them, if you tried to approach them, they would shoot. They would shoot anyone who tried to help those people, so they would just be lying in the square. … The soldiers shot everybody -- doctors, nurses, anybody, rescuers. Just everybody was being shot at. …

But the odd thing was that after a little while, like 40 minutes, an hour, people would gather their nerve again and crawl back to the corner and start screaming at the soldiers. … The commander would eventually give another signal, and the soldiers would raise their rifles again, and the people go, "Oh, my God!," and they would run away, and they'd shoot more in the backs. This went on more than half a dozen times in the day. It was to me unbelievable that I'm just watching it and counting the bodies. … I just can't believe it.

The only reason they left is it started to rain around late afternoon, a nice, gentle drizzle, and everybody went home. I thought, such a strange country -- they're not afraid of dying, but they don't want to get wet. So that was the end of that. …

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posted apr. 11, 2006

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