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Remembering Tiananmen Square | The Nation

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Remembering Tiananmen Square

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The Darkness Before Dawn

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...

Abruptly, on the stroke of 4 o'clock, all the lights in Tiananmen Square went out. Back at the southeast corner of the monument, we waited anxiously, but the assault did not come. The students remained seated on the monument, just as before. No one made any move to leave. Noiselessly, as if in a dream, two busloads of student reinforcements appeared in the square from the southeast, coming to a halt yards from where we stood. The student loudspeakers crackled back to life and a voice announced—deadpan, as if reading a railroad schedule—"We will now play the 'lnternationale,' to raise our fighting spirit." I wondered what the soldiers were feeling, out there in the dark. Were the students counting on the embarrassment factor to save them if all else failed?

But still the attack did not materialize. When some people set fire to the abandoned tents and piles of garbage to the west of the monument— perhaps so the assault would not take place in darkness—the student leadership rebuked them: "Keep order, stay calm. We must create no pretext whatsoever for them."

At about 4:15 an array of lights, like fairy lights on a Christmas tree, 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, disgorging a human river of gun-toting troops, many with fixed bayonets. According to CBS's Derek Williams, who was close by, "They came around and joined a large blocking force which stretched in an L-shape down the west side of the street and then cut across the square in front of the Mao Mausoleum." Troops now began firing at the monument from the History Museum steps, and we could see the sparks flying from the obelisk, high above head level.

It was now just after 4:30. The square was empty of people, and scattered with the forlorn debris of the abandoned encampment. The 3,000 or so students remained huddled on the steps and the three levels of the monument. Again, the student loudspeakers crackled to life, and someone who announced 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." My heart sank. After a few minutes, someone else spoke, this time a leader of the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Federation: "We must all leave here immediately, 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." A lengthy silence ensued. Then Hou Dejian spoke. (Hou, a Taiwan-born popular singer, was one of four people who had begun a hunger strike on the monument on June 2.) "We have won a great victory," he said. "But now we must leave this place. We have shed too much of our blood. We cannot afford to lose any more. . . . We four hunger strikers will remain on the monument until everyone else has left safely, and then we too will leave."

As Hou spoke, Richard and I decided to make one final trip to the monument. We picked our way slowly up the steps toward the hunger strikers' tent on the top level, through the tight ranks of seated students, who seemed largely oblivious of our presence (many were writing out their wills and farewell letters to their families). There was no hysteria, only courageous resolve. As we descended again by the steps on the east side, the loudspeakers had fallen silent. But a distant rumbling came from the northern sector of the square: The tanks had started up their engines.

Minutes passed, with nothing to break the spell. In the end, it took an obvious, even mundane move to break the tension: Someone took the microphone and proposed a voice vote. Opinions vary as to whether the shouts of "Stand firm!" were louder than the shouts of "Evacuate!" In any event, it was announced that the democratic decision had been in favor of leaving the square.

The question of what happened next has probably been the single biggest point of controversy in the reporting of the events of June 3-4 in Beijing. Correspondent Richard Roth of CBS had time to file one last report before soldiers arrested him and took him into the Great Hall of the People. "Soldiers have spotted CBS News cameraman Derek Williams and myself and are angrily dragging us away. And a moment later it begins: powerful bursts of automatic weapons, raging gunfire for a minute and a half that lasts as long as a nightmare. And we see no more." The film was confiscated. Roth's dramatic commentary, aired on the June 4 CBS Evening News and accompanied by footage shot two hours earlier, left the clear impression that troops had opened fire on the students as they evacuated the monument.

But there was no slaughter. Fermin Rodriguez and Jose Luis Marquez, a film crew from Television Espanola, shot the only known footage of the entire evacuation. Like Roth, they heard the sound of semiautomatic rifle fire as soldiers stormed the monument, but they say it was aimed at knocking out the student loudspeakers. Interviewed by Richard Nations, both men say they left the monument with the last of the students and saw no deaths. "There was absolutely nobody killed at the monument," said Rodriguez. "Everyone left and no one was killed."

What Nations and I saw, from our position twenty-five yards southeast of the monument, was unforgettable. For an agonizing minute, it seemed as if the students might not comply with the decision to leave. Then, slowly, they began to stand up and descend from the monument. As the first group filed past us, heading toward the open southeast corner of the square, we burst into spontaneous applause. Many in the ten-deep column, each contingent following the banners of its college, had tears rolling down their cheeks. All looked shaken; many were trembling or unsteady on their feet. But all looked proud and unbeaten. One group shouted, "Down with the Communist Party!"— the first time I had ever heard this openly said in China. Richard, ever the professional, continued to take notes. In his notebook, he remarks, "The students' leaders had pulled off the most difficult maneuver in politics of any human enterprise, an orderly retreat."

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