‘Tell the world they are killing us’

Remembering the crackdown at Tiananmen Square, 25 years on

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BEIJING (May 28, 1989) — The sun is setting behind the Great Hall of the People, and it casts a yellow, earthy hue on the sprawling tent city of protest that inhabits Tiananmen Square.

This is an earthy place. It is a place where people live and go about their business in the open. Where they go to the bathroom. Where they rub their eyes and yawn and sleep under make-shift lean-tos. Where they eat bread from cardboard boxes. Where they sit for hours next to smelly piles of garbage that provide evidence of their many meals here, and of their tenacity.

At the same time, this place seems not of this earth. Spotlights start to pick up the vast monuments and majestic buildings of Tiananmen against the darkening sky. The statues of socialist heroes, the portrait of Mao and the other symbols of past struggles lend the scene a sense of history that seems to move it from this moment to some timeless place where revolutions live.

So began the first story I wrote about the last great democracy movement in China before it was crushed in bloodshed at Tiananmen Square 25 years ago.

I was an editor for a Gannett newspaper covering turmoil-free New Jersey and had just finished an Asian studies fellowship at the University of Hawaii. The democracy movement was peaking — having spread from city to city and drawn as many as a million people to Tiananmen Square — so my next stop was Beijing.

Reformist Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang had died the month before, bringing mourners to Tiananmen and giving students a rare opportunity to gather in force to advance his ideals. Soon they were marching in the tens of thousands, then the hundreds of thousands, calling for … it wasn’t always entirely clear, but more freedom to speak their minds and hold their leaders accountable.

I flew to Hong Kong, then Beijing, grabbed a cab to Tiananmen Square and arrived as the late evening sun lit up the Forbidden City of emperors, the monumental city of Chinese communism and the jerry-rigged city of bedraggled college students.

At this point, many of the Beijing students had been on the square for a month. The government had sent troops to dislodge them, but the people of Beijing had clogged the streets, plying the soldiers with food and drink and imploring them not to shoot their fellow citizens. And they didn’t.

This totally unnerved hardline Communist Party leaders. They purged the reform-minded general secretary who favored negotiation and brought in masses of troops from outlying provinces who didn’t much like haughty Beijingers anyway. The soldiers were isolated in camps on the outskirts of the city and it was drilled into their heads that they soon would have to save China from counterrevolutionaries who had taken over the heart of their nation’s capital.

On the square, the student leadership began to fracture over strategy. Many of the movement’s founders, exhausted, thought it was time to declare victory, go home and push for reform in classrooms and workplaces. They knew the army would be back.

But new leaders kept popping up, and some thought the government might collapse if they kept up the pressure. Fresh-faced students kept pouring in from the countryside eager to make history. They didn’t want the excitement to stop just as they’d arrived.

Their excitement was further ramped up as art students assembled on the moonlit square a glowing, torch-bearing “Goddess of Democracy.” The iconic portrait of Chairman Mao looked on from Tiananmen Gate where he’d declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China 40 years earlier.

BEIJING (June 4, 1989) — The Chinese government invaded its own capital yesterday, killing untold numbers of people, to oust protesting students from Tiananmen Square.

The afternoon of June 3, I followed a crowd swarming around a corner of the Great Hall of the People. The military had been sneaking troops into the building through tunnels and sidestreets and a hundred or so got surrounded by protesters at the western entrance. The soldiers looked like teenagers, squatting, rifles pointing upward on their knees, paralyzed with fright. The mob cursed them, threw trash at them and ripped apart one of their jeeps panel by panel, wire by wire.

That night, around 10, I was at an intersection near the square when a long line of troop carriers approached from the south. People had blocked the street with buses and the railings used all over Beijing to separate cars from bikes.

The soldiers in the first truck stopped. People climbed up to chat and offer treats.

I waited a half-hour or so and finally figured that maybe the people in the streets were going to win again.

A short time later, as I sat outside my nearby hotel having a beer with a tourist from Minnesota, a Belgian backpacker came racing up on his bike and shouted, “They’re shooting! They’re killing people on Chang’an!”

We jumped on our bikes, the Belgian waved us forward, and we didn’t get three blocks before we saw a bus on its side, railings tangled in piles and a troop truck on fire. We got swept up in a surge of people and nearly crushed against a wall.

Just south of Tiananmen, the crowd chased a group of about 40 soldiers toward the square and trapped them in the elbow of a building. There seemed a pause, decisions were made, and the shooting began.

The corner of my right eye saw people running and falling, the corner of my left eye sized up escape routes, the middle of both eyes focused on my feet, which could not find the pedals on my bike. I felt like a cartoon character, my feet all action but no forward motion.

Finally, the pedals caught, and the Minnesotan, the Belgian and I wound our way north toward Chang’an Avenue, the largest east-west road through central Beijing.

People were screaming and running toward us, some bloodied, away from Chang’an. A troop carrier had been overturned and a furious mob was leading soldiers stripped of their uniforms into the night.

By the time we reached Chang’an, the main thrust of troops and tanks charging Tiananmen Square had just barreled through, spraying bullets. Jeeps, trucks and buses were toppled over, burning. Windows were shot out, as high as 20 stories up.

Near the Muxidi neighborhood, where one of the fiercest battles of the night took place, people tended to the wounded and dying. Over and over, people pleaded, “Tell the world what they are doing to us. Tell the world they are killing us.”

Lagging troop carriers flew down the broad boulevard, shooting and weaving to avoid obstacles and capture. We leaped behind a low rock wall. As the gunfire receded toward Tiananmen, we watched as people built instant memorials, placing stones around warm pools of blood.

I raced back to my hotel to shout my story into a sputtering long-distance telephone connection. No cells phones back then, no Internet.

The angry confrontations lasted another two days, growing fewer in number as tanks took up positions, troops roamed and sporadic gunfire took down more angry protesters. The death toll remains unclear — hundreds at least, perhaps more than 1,000, a relative handful of soldiers among them.

Beijing was locked down and the hunt for protest leaders began. Two American tourists and I took a train three hours east to Tianjin to see what was happening elsewhere. All the trains were crammed with students escaping or going home.

We ended up at Nankai University, which had nearly emptied but still sheltered local students and new arrivals from Beijing. The campus was eerily quiet.

It got stranger. That night, we danced and drank and sang with students on the roof of a high-rise dorm, rock music blaring. Releasing stress, I suppose.

Word spread that the campus had been surrounded by public security, and someone ordered up a university car for the Americans to leave. As we pulled up to the front gate and pulled aside the curtains in the back seat to display our faces and documents, we saw the campus ringed by men in dark pants and white shirts.

A few days later, we learned that the arrests at Nankai had begun.

Greg Victor is the op-ed/​Forum editor for the Post-Gazette (gvictor@post-gazette.com,412-263-1570).

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