The phrase "Tiananmen Square massacre" is now fixed firmly in the political vocabulary of the late twentieth century. Yet it is inaccurate. There was no massacre in Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3. But on the western approach roads, along Chang'an Boulevard and Fuxingmen Avenue, there was a bloodbath that claimed hundreds of lives when the People's Liberation Army found its path blocked by a popular uprising that was being fueled by despair and rage. To insist on this distinction is not splitting hairs. What took place was the slaughter not of students but of ordinary workers and residents - precisely the target that the Chinese government had intended.
"Tiananmen Square massacre" is the shorthand that observers in the West distilled from the hours of dramatic television footage and thousands of column inches of press reporting. Although hundreds of journalists were in Beijing that night, few were present for the army's climactic clearing of the square itself in the predawn hours of June 4. Many of the press were on the real killing grounds of western Beijing, several miles away, and they reported vividly and accurately on what they saw. Some who tried to remain in the square were arrested and did not see the final PLA assault. Others were pinned down behind roadblocks. Still others were working in their hotels to meet early-morning filing deadlines for media in distant time zones. But most of the reporters who remained near the square after one o'clock in the morning, when the first army units got there, left in haste and out of legitimate fear for their safety.
The lack of eyewitnesses was the first problem in establishing what happened on that fearsome night in Beijing. But there were other, more profound questions about how the foreign media saw their role in the Beijing spring. (1) The pacifist idealism of the young students triggered memories of the 1960s and America's civil rights movement, and the students' adept use of Western symbols, like headbands inscribed with Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty, or give me death," riveted Western attention on the students, which caused the crucial role of the workers and the laobaixing to be largely overlooked.
There was more: some predisposition, perhaps, to believe in the massacre in the square, even though no one actually saw it. Whether or not it happened in reality, it was the necessary consummation of an allegory of innocence, sacrifice, and redemption. To this, the rhetoric of the students themselves contributed mightily. On the first day of the hunger strike, they declared, "Our bodies are still tender and not full grown, and the prospect of dying frightens us all; but history calls and we must go." Chai Ling, such a magnetic presence for the foreign news cameras, spoke of sacrifice in almost mystical terms. On May 28, with the students in disarray over the issue of withdrawing from the square, she said that "it would take a massacre, which would spill blood like a river through Tiananmen Square, to awaken the people." One Western sinologist recalled a student telling him in the final hours: "We are now ready to face death, and we don't want you to have to be part of that. Please go home."' And the media, for the most part, did so.
Imagination filled the gaps. Into the vacuum rushed the most lurid tales of the supposed denouement in the square. Wu'er Kaixi, flamboyant to the last, reported that he had seen "about two hundred students" cut down by gunfire in the army's predawn assault, but it was revealed later that he had been spirited away to safety in a van several hours earlier. A widely recounted eyewitness report, purportedly from a student at Qinghua University, spoke of the students on the Monument being mowed down at point-blank range by a bank of machine guns at four in the morning. The survivors had then either been chased across the square by tanks and crushed, or clubbed to death by infantrymen. But it was all pure fabrication.
By the time historians began to correct the record, the episode was enshrined in myth: Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students had died in a massacre in Tiananmen Square. As Tom Hayden would write in the Los Angeles Times, it was the equivalent of the slaughter of the entire graduating class at the United States' top universities.
No one had been listening to what Peng Zhen said: The students were not the problem. Indeed, the Party's line never varied after Deng Xiaoping first defined it for the April 26 People's Daily editorial. "Emotionally excited young students" were never the issue. The official conspiracy theory demanded other threats and other scapegoats - "outside elements" with "ulterior motives." This meant dissident intellectuals and workers. After their ruthless repression under Mao, the intelligentsia had been granted a kind of historic compromise by Deng. But by the spring of 1989, they had come to be seen as the agents of bourgeois liberalization, of China's "peaceful evolution" toward Western-style pluralism. After Tiananmen, they would be singled out for punishment. The working class, meanwhile, had become the carrier of an even more dangerous virus - the Polish disease.
The Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation, tiny though it may have been, was the "cancer cell" the authorities feared. The Goddess of Democracy represented the arrogant intrusion of decadent Western values into the symbolic heart of Chinese Communism, rupturing the sacred cosmology, the feng shui of the great square. But the crude red and black banner of the BWAF, less than a hundred yards away, signified the more terrifying power of the workers awakened.
The students initiated the Tiananmen movement, and they brilliantly outmaneuvered and embarrassed a leaden-footed government. But after the mass demonstrations of mid-May, the threat from the students was dwarfed by the intervention of much broader social forces. This threat was like a pyramid. At the base were the laobaixing, with their outpouring of spontaneous human sympa-thy, a million or more ordinary people, like Lü Jinghua with her cold drinks and her pork dumplings. The second level was the ideological defection of the Party apparatus itself. By mid-May, much of the Chinese press had rallied to the cause of democracy; even sections of the Public Security service, the law courts, and the military - the very backbone of the People's Democratic Dictatorship - had begun to break free of the Party's iron grip.
Faced with the crumbling of its power, the Party imposed martial law on May 20. But again it miscalculated. Its inner defections had progressed further than anyone realized; it did not even have control over its own secrets, and it failed to anticipate that its tanks would be halted by a human wall of protesters. Age, and years of unchallenged authority, had atrophied the Party's judgment, leaving it incapable of foreseeing the action groups that now formed spontaneously throughout Beijing. After May 20, the pickets, the Dare-to-Die squads, and the Flying Tigers virtually took over the day-to-day running of the city. The PSB and the traffic police disappeared from view. (3) And, finally, there was the apex of the pyr-amid: the specter of an incipient organization of all classes, symbolized by the Capital Joint Liaison Group.
The students, in the final analysis, were marginal to the threat. But ironically, one of their main arguments for prolonging the occupation of Tiananmen was that they had nothing to lose: Since they were the heroes and focal point of the movement, the incarnation of all the government hated, it therefore followed that they would suffer the fiercest repercussions. Chai Ling had been shaken by a conversation with a plainclothes police officer in the early days of the movement. She had asked him what the maximum sentence was for counterrevolution. Seventeen years, the man answered. (4) Chai Ling gasped. Seventeen years? She would be forty by the time she got out.
But the government saw the matter quite differently: To deal with the students, it was enough to drive them from the square and herd them back to their campuses. Mass self-criticisms would follow, and probably bad job placements. In the case of the more obstinate ringleaders, those who refused to repent, short jail sen-tences might be necessary. But the larger threat could be eradicated only by the application of brute force, terror, and exemplary punishment. The specter of organized popular unrest had to be exorcised not for a year or two, but for an entire generation.
. . . The northern end of the square was now almost deserted. (7) Another APC, its tracks jammed with iron bars, blazed in the northeast corner, near the Goddess of Democracy. Three of its crew had been beaten to death; the fourth was escorted to safety by student pickets. Several dead bodies lay under the portrait of Mao on Tiananmen Gate.
The students' tent city appeared abandoned. The southern part of the square, below the Mao Mausoleum, was littered with burning cars and buses but empty of people. In the north end, almost the only sign of life was the emergency tent of the Beijing United Medical College. Surrounded by a thin circle of student pickets, doctors worked feverishly to save a steady stream of casualties. By then, almost all the students had withdrawn to the three tiers of the Monument: between three thousand and five thousand of them, perhaps, huddled tightly together. They seemed calm, almost resigned. Some quietly wrote their wills. There was no sense of panic, though the steady chatter of gunfire could be heard on the fringes of the square and in the darkness beyond. Abruptly, the remaining loudspeakers burst to life with an endlessly repeated warning: A "serious counterrevolutionary rebellion" had broken out; everyone was to leave the square immediately.
The main invasion force, entering the city from the west, arrived at the smoldering ruins of the BWAF tents at 2:00 A.M. The first column of troop transport trucks entered the square hesitantly, moving forward at walking pace. Groups of infantry escorted them, at first just a thin line, but soon increasing to a dense column, thousands of troops, all wearing steel helmets and carrying assault rifles. They took about an hour to deploy fully along the northern edge of the square. Several hundred troops moved across from Tiananmen Gate to seal the northeast entrance to the square. A student named Ke Feng, one of the main organizers of the Goddess of Democracy project, was hiding in the small park outside the Museum of Chinese History. In the first five minutes or so, he saw about twenty people in the vicinity of the pedestrian underpass hit by stray bullets, including "five people who fell and couldn't get up again." The soldiers, Ke Feng recalled, were "jumping for joy, as if playing a game." The PLA sealed off the entire square by 3:00 A.M. Thousands of silent troops, each carrying an AK-47 and a long wooden cudgel, positioned themselves along the steps in front of the museum. On the other side of the square, in front of the Great Hall of the People, it was the same. Only a small exit corridor in the southeast would be left open.
At the stroke of 4:00 A.M., all lights went out . . . . But still the attack on Tiananmen Square did not materialize. For a quarter of an hour after 4:00 A.M. there was nothing but darkness and silence. The students remained seated on the Monument, as before. No one made any move to leave. Noiselessly, as if in a dream, a busload of student reinforcements appeared from the southeast. The loudspeakers on the Monument crackled back on and a voice announced - deadpan, as if reading a railroad schedule - "We will now play the Internationale, to raise our fighting spirit." The famous words, "Arise, ye starvelings of the earth," floated across the square to the soldiers, who had been taught to sing them by the Party.
At about 4:15 A.M., an array of lights suddenly came on all across the front of the Great Hall of the People, filling the west side of the square with a soft, luminous glow. At the same time, floodlights went on along the facade of the Forbidden City. Next, the southernmost doors of the Great Hall swung open, releasing a river of gun-toting troops, many of them with fixed bayonets. These soldiers formed an L-shaped blocking line across to the front of the Mao Mausoleum. Troops fired warning shots at the Monument from the steps of the Museum of Chinese History, and sparks flew from the obelisk, high above the students' heads.
Just after 4:30 A.M., the loudspeakers came on again, and someone who introduced himself as a leader of the Beijing Students Autonomous Federation took the microphone. "Students! We must on no account quit the square. We will now pay the highest price possible for the sake of securing democracy in China. Our blood shall be the consecration." There was a tense pause, and another voice, less educated, rang out. It was an anonymous leader of the BWAF. "We must all leave here immediately," he cried, "for a terrible bloodbath is about to take place. There are troops surrounding us on all sides and the situation is now extraordinarily dangerous. To wish to die here is no more than an immature fantasy." The struggle between immolation and compromise - or, as some of the students would have it, between principle and surrender - continued to the last.
On the government side, every vestige of reason seemed to disappear. But in the end reason triumphed, after a fashion, among the protesters who held on in the square. For that, the four members of the seventy-two-hour hunger strike could take the greatest credit. In the final predawn hours, they went among the crowd at the Monument, persuading some demonstrators to surrender their sticks, chains, and bottles, arguing with them that resistance was futile. To their horror, they discovered one fifteen-year-old at the foot of the Monument with a machine gun, hidden in padded quilts, trained on the advancing army. The boy was incoherent with grief. Someone said they had killed his brother. The gun was wrested away from him, and Liu Xiaobo, the professor who had recently returned from New York, took it and smashed it to pieces.
The hunger strikers then confronted the ragged remnants of the student leadership - Chai Ling, Feng Congde, and Li Lu. They told them that there was no choice but to negotiate with the army. The rock singer Hou Dejian and the economist Zhou Duo, an unlikely pair, walked across the darkened expanse of the square to seek out the officers in command. (8) Chai Ling declined the invitation to go with them. She was commander in chief, she told them; she could not abandon her people.
Two men came forward to meet Hou and Zhou. They introduced themselves only as Commissar Ji and Commissar Gu. "There is only one way the troops will not, by mistake, do any harm to the students in the square while carrying out our orders," they told the hunger strikers tersely. "The students and other people must leave unconditionally. You have until daybreak. The southeast corner of the square has been left open. If you could persuade the students to leave," the officers added, "you will be praised."
While the negotiations went on, Chai Ling and Li Lu made their final appeals to the students. Li Lu, feeling helpless, urged everyone to be calm. "We will stick to the principle of nonviolence to the very end," he said, echoing what the BWAF leader had said four or five hours earlier, what seemed like a lifetime ago. "We won't swear when sworn at, we won't hit back when hit." But Chai Ling's last speech was more wrapped than ever in the mystique of blood. "There is a story", she began, "about a clan of a billion ants who lived on a mountain. One day there was a terrible fire on the mountain. The only way for them to escape was to hold each other tight into a ball and roll down the mountainside. But the ants on the outside of the ball would be burnt to death. We are now standing on the Monument. We are the ones who stand on the outside of our nation. Only our sacrifice can save it, only our blood can open the eyes of our people and the rest of the world."
Zhou Duo and Hou Dejian came back. They told the students the outcome of their talks; there was no option but to leave immediately. They had no bargaining chips left. Too much blood had already been shed. Hou promised that the hunger strikers would guard the retreat and would be the last to leave. There was a mo-mentary silence, then furious shouts of "Shame!" and "Surrender!" From the northern sector of the square came a distant rumble; the tanks had started their engines.
Minutes passed with nothing to break the spell until Li Lu proposed taking a final vote. Given the darkness, a show of hands would not work. They would have to make do with a voice vote. There were two choices: "Evacuate!" or "Stand Firm!" Some swear to this day that the "Stand Firm!" voices were louder; others say opinions were equally divided. But Li Lu, opting this time for wisdom over the clamor of the masses, announced that those who favored evacuation had won. The occupation of Tiananmen Square would end.
1. The most comprehensive analysis of the performance of the foreign media (though extremely guarded in its criticisms) is a study of eight U.S. news organizations conducted by the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The center's report, entitled "Turmoil at Tiananmen: A Study of U.S. Press Coverage of the Beijing Spring of 1989," analyzes the television news reporting of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and Cable News Network (CNN); and the print coverage of the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and Time magazine.
2. This comment was made by the scholar Ross Terrill of Harvard University during an interview on a June 29, 1989, ABC-TV special by Ted Koppel. Koppel, to his credit, noted that the bulk of the killing had not taken place within the physical confines of Tiananmen Square, but he downplayed the distinction as a "loophole" that could be exploited by the Chinese government.
3. In one of the lesser but more startling images of the Beijing Spring, the city's growing contingent of thieves and pickpockets declared a temporary halt to their activities after the imposition of martial law.
4. A technically incorrect answer, in fact. Some counterrevolutionary offenses are punishable by longer sentences, even by death.
. . .
7. The account that follows is drawn largely from the personal observations and recollections of Robin Munro, who remained in Tiananmen Square during the entire night of June 3-4, leaving with the final departing columns of students at dawn. His memories are supplemented in places by the freelance journalist Richard Nations. Munro's complete account, "Who Died in Beijing, and Why," was published in The Nation, June 11, 1990, pp. 811-22.
8. Hou Dejian eventually published an extensive account of the final hours in the square that was published in a number of overseas Chinese newspapers. Extracts also appeared in People's Daily, since Hou's account tended to give credence to the government's narrow contention that there had been no killing in Tiananmen Square itself. The complete text of Hou's account, entitled "Blame Me If You Want!", is included in Yi Mu and Mark V. Thompson, Crisis at Tiananmen: Reform and Reality in Modern China (San Francisco: China Books, 1989) pp. 239-49.Black Hands of Beijing: Lives of Defiance in China's Democracy Movement, by George Black and Robin Munro (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1993), pp. 234 - 246. Excerpted by permission of publisher, John Wiley &Sons, Inc. To order a copy of this book, please call 1-800-225-5945, or visit your local bookstore.
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