The night they shot democracy in China


Four years ago the Chinese government sent in soldiers to clear Tiananmen Square of students, workers and other citizens who were demanding democratic reform. While the students and citizens sang the "Internationale", the army attacked. Hundreds died. KRISTIAN WHITTAKER had been sent to Beijing to report for Direct Action newspaper. Here he recalls the last 24 hours of the democracy movement.

Towards the end of May, the broad avenues, the streets and the alleys of Beijing by day came to be almost deserted. Premier Li Peng had declared central areas of the capital under martial law on May 20.

But at night the streets would come alive as citizens — students, intellectuals and writers, journalists, central government cadres, factory workers, small private entrepreneurs and members of nearly every profession — poured outdoors to discuss the political situation, the tactics of the student-worker movement, the issues of democracy and democratisation and just about everything else under the moon.

It was mostly by night that the People's Liberation Army attempted to enter the city in convoys of army trucks, and so it was by night that the populace would form human wedges and human barricades to stop them.

All agreed that official corruption and nepotism should end. And, they all asked, how could this happen without the democratisation of the Communist Party and state? A Chinese "glasnost" was needed, people said, real change.

Protest slogans ranged from the humorous to the sombre. On one night, a group of grey-suited workers from the Ba Bao Shan cemetery for great leaders and VIPs carried a banner: "Welcome, Li Peng!"

More common were the placards and banners that cried out: "Down With Official Corruption!", "Step Down, Deng Xiaoping!" and "We Reject Martial Law".

The square was a sea of often makeshift tents and fluttering banners denoting the Beijing and provincial campuses. Recordings of "The Internationale" seemed to broadcast continuously. Propped prophetically against the "Monument to the Peoples' Martyrs", a huge "large character" sign declared "The People Will Never Forget".

Also in the square, erected to face the huge portrait of Mao at the north end, was the "Goddess of Democracy" — perhaps called a goddess by the students as a response to the iconic nature of Mao's portrait.

On the afternoon and early evening of June 3, I was at Jianguomenwai, just to the east of the square, where a huge crowd was blocking a massive PLA convoy. Workers squatted on the bonnets of the great, green army trucks, pleading with the drivers and officers. Women passed cigarettes to the youthful soldiers, before launching into speeches on why the soldiers should support the students.

Later that evening, at the same spot, the body of a man crushed by an armoured personnel carrier (APC) was surrounded by an electrified crowd of protesters while a man wept, "How could the People's Liberation Army do this?"

Night-time, and thousands of hands shifted Beijing's huge articulated trolley-buses to form barricades at Dongdan intersection, closer to the square. Later still, roaming from crowd to crowd, the voices of students and others denouncing through their megaphones the imposition of martial law and the party leadership. Being followed by two ungentle-looking characters, probably plain-clothes security police, I decided to leave the square.

Later, after wending through APC-dodging crowds, I returned to Jianguomenwai. At first light, the ominous sounds of tank treads combined with the staccato of machine-gun fire coming from the east. Fleeing protesters were shot down as tanks ripped through the barricades like so much tinfoil. After a few moments, there was sustained gunfire from the square itself, and then silence as an entire city wept.

On the streets, I had hurried talks with students who were trying to flee the city. What can be said about a massacre? Their eyes portrayed it all, while throughout the inner city, abandoned, fire- bombed army trucks testified to the population's anger.

The next day came the official announcement: "No-one died in the square". Amnesty International and other reputable groups estimate at least a thousand dead on June 3-4, with thousands more wounded. Executions followed in other cities as well.

A long time later, a friend received a gift, intentionally with "black humour", from a friend in the army, a soldier: his medal commemorating the PLA's clearing of "counter-revolutionaries" during June 1989.