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Remembering Tiananmen Square | The Nation

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Remembering Tiananmen Square

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The Bloody Road to Tiananmen

About the Author

Robin Munro
As a researcher in 1989 for Human Rights Watch in Beijing, Robin Munro witnessed first hand the weeks of pro-democracy...

There were more than 1,000 foreign journalists in Beijing on the night of the army's final drive to clear Tiananmen Square, and many of them followed the advance of the main People's Liberation Army (P.L.A.) assault force through the western suburbs as it plowed murderously through the crowds of laobaixing that formed at all points to block its path. Most of the foreign film footage of the massacre was shot in this sector of the city, in neighborhoods like Muxidi, Fuxingmen and Liubukou, where hundreds of unarmed protesters and innocent bystanders were mowed down by random gunfire from semiautomatic weapons. The troops apparently made no distinction between these people and the small number who hurled stones, rocks and Molotov cocktails or set fire to vehicles that had been used as roadblocks. Since this main theater of the massacre was by and large well covered by the foreign news media, we will focus here on some lesser-known aspects of the action along western Changan and Fuxingmen—subsequently dubbed "Blood Boulevard" by the people of Beijing.

As far as is known, the first violence came at around 10:30 P.M. on June 3 at Gongzhufen, some two miles west of Muxidi, where vanguard contingents of the assault force used about twenty armored personnel carriers (A.P.C.s) to crash through bus barricades that were blocking the circular intersection. A West German student living in Beijing at the time witnessed the incident and reports that many people were crushed to death as the A.P.C.s went through and soldiers fired indiscriminately at the crowd. A Finnish journalist who was also standing nearby reports seeing two soldiers with AK-47 assault rifles suddenly descend from the tenth truck of a convoy of fifty or so that drove through the gaps in the barricades. "They were torn to pieces" by the crowd, she says. "It was a horrible sight." The pattern of the night's conflict, then, was set from the start: Random and brutal killings by the army came first, followed swiftly by a small number of revenge killings of troops by distraught, and increasingly insurgent, citizens.

Why did the troops behave with such savagery? At Gongzhufen they had been alerted to the lethal realities of mass resistance, provoked by their violent invasion of the city and by their evident determination this time (in contrast to the halfhearted effort of May 20) to retake Tiananmen Square. Once they saw that terror tactics had conspicuously failed to subdue the crowds, the troops were fearful for their lives, and as they advanced slowly toward Muxidi, they responded by escalating the level of terror. From there on, the P.L.A. acted almost as if it were confronting Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap's battle-hardened armies in the hills along the Sino-Vietnamese border rather than unarmed civilians. Local residents and Western journalists who visited the hospitals in western Beijing that night describe them as resembling abattoirs.

Accidental factors, too, may partially explain the army's paroxysm of killing. The troops had intended to meet up at Muxidi with a unit of 600 local officers of the People's Armed Police (PAP). (They may well have expected major resistance, for three people had been crushed to death by a PAP jeep at Muxidi the previous night, provoking angry protests.) But the PAP detachment, which was familiar with the layout of Beijing and was supposed to spearhead the army assault and lead the troops into the square, never made the rendezvous: It had been surrounded, blocked and in the end dispersed by the laobaixing as it made its way through the alleyways around Yuetan Park, about a mile and a half northeast of Muxidi. This unexpectedly deprived the troops of their paramilitary escort.

For political reasons, also, the army had its reasons for not being found wanting. As early as May 24 or 25, Gen. Xu Qinxian, commanding officer of China's elite 38th Army, had been arrested for failing to carry out martial-law orders (he was later court-martialed). This no doubt left other units eager to prove their zeal against the "counterrevolutionary rebellion." It is still widely believed in the West that most of the carnage was inflicted by the 27th Army. But according to military sources, the deputy commander of the 27th was booed when he appeared at a high-level Beijing conference on "propaganda theory" last September. He is said to have thrown down his cap in anger and frustration and exclaimed, "We in the 27th are being saddled with the blame for what our army brothers in other units did. Yes, we opened fire, but I guarantee that we didn't kill any of the laobaixing!"

China may have come closer to a Romanian-style military revolt than is generally recognized. According to a report in the South China Morning Post on December 28, P.L.A. Chief Political Commissar Yang Baibing revealed in a confidential speech earlier that month that "21 officers and cadres with ranks of divisional commander or above, 36 officers with ranks of regimental or battalion commander, and 54 officers with the rank of company chief 'breached discipline in a serious manner during the struggle to crush the counterrevolutionary rebellion' in June. In addition, 1,400 soldiers 'shed their weapons and ran away.'"

In the days that followed the massacre, the Chinese authorities repeatedly televised an astonishing piece of footage that showed dozens of A.P.C.s being torched by the crowd in the vicinity of the Military Museum, just west of Muxidi. The commentary said that many of the occupants had preferred to be burned alive rather than open fire on their compatriots; it also clearly implied that this had occurred in the early evening of June 3, before nightfall. This footage was a cornerstone of the government's "Big Lie," evidence of the "counterrevolutionary rebellion" that had obliged the government to respond with force.

The reality was very different. At about 9 A.M. on Sunday, June 4, several foreign witnesses, inspecting the devastation of the previous night, were stunned to see a column of some three dozen A.P.C.s suddenly appear from the west and come to a halt at the Muxidi intersection. The first vehicle had struck the remnants of a barricade; a second had run into its rear, bringing the convoy to a halt. A large crowd materialized from the neighboring alleyways and surrounded the now silent armored column. The first troops to emerge were beaten, and at least one is thought to have been killed. Only the intervention of student pickets, who negotiated safe passage for the troops, headed off a pitched battle and, perhaps, a fresh round of killing. Several hundred soldiers simply walked away, leaving behind their lethal hardware for the crowd to muse over. Within half an hour, all the A.P.C.s had been set on fire, and a towering column of black smoke could be seen for miles.

It may be no coincidence that this incident took place right outside the main offices of Central Chinese Television, from whose rooftop the scene was exhaustively videotaped. But a more significant explanation is that the troops actually deserted. A prominent West German Sinologist who was present described seeing soldiers escorted away from their vehicles. One A.P.C., he says, "opened the top lids, and a hand appeared waving a white piece of cloth. Soldiers emerged and gave their automatic rifles to the young men receiving them. They hugged."

I witnessed a somewhat similar scene on the night of June 3 to the east of Tiananmen Square, at the Jianguomen overpass, where a column of several dozen troop trucks was halted by large crowds as it tried to cross Changan Boulevard. Several foreign witnesses saw soldiers openly fraternizing with civilians and even posing for photographs. Just after midnight I saw one group of soldiers climb down from their truck and wander off slowly with tears in their eyes. Minutes later an A.P.C. came charging at full speed across the overpass from the east and smashed through the line of P.L.A. trucks, lifting one of them several feet into the air and splashing a young man's brains on the ground. Evidently the troops on the overpass had been identified as traitorous by the high command.

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