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Tiananmen: A reporter’s first-hand account

June 3, 2009

By Guy Dinmore

Published: June 3 2009

Beijing serene in spring sunshine. Students gaily acting as traffic police. Normally surly bus conductors and shop assistants suddenly becoming models of politeness. Tiananmen Square a circus fairground of banners, tents and clapped out vehicles bringing exuberant demonstrators from across China.

In those two weeks 20 years ago – in that brief illusion of space created by the absence of all signs of authority when the Communist party and security forces seemed to have completely melted away – the People’s Republic finally appeared just that: a country run by the people for the people.

Wang Dan

They were heady times. Driven by anger at corruption, inflation and tight social and political controls, pro-democracy rallies were breaking out across the country. Railway lines were being blocked, workers – led in Beijing by the charismatic Han Dongfang – were establishing independent trade unions.

Up to a million people, bringing unfamiliar accents from distant provinces, were filling Tiananmen – which means Gate of Heavenly Peace – to support student hunger-strikers. Amid confused debates over democracy and freedom , some sang the Internationale, the communist anthem, and everyone had a giddy if uncoordinated sense of making history.

And to cap the party’s humiliation in an extraordinary scene broadcast on state television, Wang Dan, one of the hunger-striking student leaders, wagged his finger and scolded Li Peng, the unpopular prime minister and a senior politburo member.

No wonder that on May 19, 1989, behind closed doors, Li with the support of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping warned a senior party meeting of “nationwide major turmoil” that posed a “serious threat” to their leadership.

Demanding swift action, party elders ordered up units of the People’s Liberation Army. His face as dark as the black Mao suit he was wearing, a furious Li went on state television the next day to declare martial law in some areas.

The leadership was humiliated again. Crowds swarmed over the army trucks, blocking their path, offering confused soldiers cigarettes and sweets. The People’s army would never hurt the people, said Beijing’s citizens. After a long tense day the troops returned to their barracks.

Veteran western correspondents were among those carried away by the euphoria of the next fortnight, proclaiming the dawn of democracy in China, the end of four decades of revolution. More sober heads cautioned that the empire’s ingrained fear of chaos and the party’s determination to survive would mean that blood-spilling order would eventually prevail.

Indeed, behind the scenes, Zhao Ziyang, the party’s general secretary and a moderate, had already been ousted by hardliners and would spend the last 16 years of his life under house arrest. Knowing what lay ahead for the students, he had ventured into the square at dawn on May 19 in a desperate bid to persuade them to leave peacefully. A suspicious Li followed him into the square.

But little was known then of the party’s internal splits and two further half-hearted attempts to send soldiers into the heart of the city meant that the ferocity of the eventual crackdown, on the night of June 3-4, came as an even greater shock.

Approaching from the west along the Avenue of Eternal Peace, columns of armoured personnel carriers and tanks came up against barricades of buses erected by demonstrators armed with stones and petrol bombs. Wild automatic gunfire raked the crowds and apartment blocks lining Beijing’s main avenue.

It was there, close to the Muxidi intersection – a few kilometres west of the square – that I joined people fleeing, as the dead and wounded were ferried from the battle on bicycle carts normally used for transporting vegetables.

Bodies piled up in the morgue of one clinic I came across as doctors and nurses, their feet slipping along corridors of blood, did what they could.

With most – but not all – of the casualties inflicted in the suburbs, the Communist party has clung to the official line that no one died in the square itself that night in what it called “the Tiananmen Incident”.

Indeed, as my colleagues reported from the square itself, many people fled the approach of the army and a withdrawal was negotiated – in part by a Taiwanese singer, Hou Dejian – for the hard core that remained in the square.

The official death toll was put at 241, including an unstated number of soldiers. Journalists trying to piece together events believed the number to be several times higher.

Getting moral support from countries and communist parties that would soon no longer exist – like Czechoslovakia and East Germany – and punished relatively mildly by a western arms embargo, China’s geriatric leaders acted to shore up their hold on power.

Summary executions of unknown “counter-revolutionary” ringleaders were broadcast on state media. Journalists and dissidents were rounded up, and the party purged of doubters like Mr Zhao. Wang Dan, the student leader who had personally offended the prime minister, was jailed for seven years, while other students fled China through organised escape networks.

I was possibly the last journalist to catch a glimpse of Mr Wang as he was being driven off to prison in the back of a police van at the end of his perfunctory trial. A plainclothes policeman pursued me down the street to stop me taking pictures. After the crackdown I was kept under surveillance for the next two years, tailed almost constantly by the security services, often on motorbikes and once in an ominous black Mercedes that chased me around an empty football stadium.

Most of the activists have since disappeared into obscurity. A few have even returned. About a dozen years after the massacre, I met one former student activist by chance at a British embassy reception in the Middle East. With a slightly apologetic smile he explained he was now representing his country as a diplomat. China, he said, had moved on and was reclaiming its place in the world as a great economic power.

Guy Dinmore was Reuters bureau chief in Beijing from 1987 to 1991. He is currently the Financial Times bureau chief in Rome.

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