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Remembering Tiananmen Square | The Nation

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Remembering Tiananmen Square

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The Journalists

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...

But according to a widely reprinted "eyewitness" account, which first ran in a Hong Kong paper and was purportedly written by a student from Beijing's Qinghua University, nearly all of us had already been killed, mowed down at point-blank range by a bank of a dozen machine guns just after 4:00. The survivors were then either chased across the square by tanks and crushed or else beaten to death with clubs. This story was picked up by, among others, The New York Times (although reporter Nicholas Kristof quickly challenged it), The Washington Post and the San Francisco Examiner. In terms of lurid invention, it was in a class of its own. Astonishingly, however, it is only one of several such accounts, most of which say the mass slayings took place just before 5:00. Wuer Kaixi, one of the principal student leaders, said he had seen "about 200 students" cut down by gunfire in the predawn assault. But he was not there: He had been driven to safety in a van several hours earlier. How could these fabrications have gained so much acceptance?

There were, by my count, ten Western journalists in the vicinity of the monument at the time in question, as well as a handful of diplomats and Hong Kong Chinese. At least two of the reporters—Claudia Rosett of The Asian Wall Street Journal and John Pomfret of the Associated Press —filed accurate accounts of the evacuation, but these were isolated paragraphs buried in long reports from other parts of the city. With Roth and Williams of CBS under arrest in the Great Hall of the People, not to emerge until 5:30, the only foreign film footage of the evacuation is that taken by the Spanish TV crew, who insist they saw no killing. In an interesting footnote, their reporter, Juan Restrepo, who was separated from his crew all night, says that their film of the night's events was garbled by his editors at Television Espanola in Madrid, creating the false impression that killings had taken place during the evacuation of the square.

Of all the comments by TV reporters who left the square, perhaps the most telling are those of John Simpson, whose BBC news team won a raft of awards for its coverage of events in Beijing. Simpson, as we saw, felt remorseful about leaving. But his account for Granta reveals how the sense of impending disaster that led the news media to abandon the square also predisposed them to believe that the worst then actually happened: "Someone should have been there when the massacre took place, filming what happened, showing the courage of the students as they were surrounded by tanks and the army advancing, firing as it went." As dawn drew near on June 4, from a safe but very incomplete vantage point half a mile away on an upper floor of the Beijing Hotel (from which the Monument to the People's Heroes is completely hidden from view), Simpson wrote, "We filmed the tanks as they drove over the tents. . . . Dozens of people seem to have died in that way, and those who saw it said they could hear the screams of the people inside the tents over the noise of the tanks. We filmed as the lights in the square were switched off at four a.m. They were switched on again forty minutes later, when the troops and the tanks moved toward the Monument itself, shooting first in the air and then, again, directly at the students themselves, so that the steps of the Monument and the heroic reliefs which decorated it were smashed by bullets."

As Simpson's crew was filming, Japanese photojournalist Imaeda Koichi was in the northern part of the square. Koichi reports seeing no killing there, although he also says, "I did see some students in the tents, not many, only in three of the tents." Restrepo of Television Espanola had earlier checked all the tents in the vicinity of the Goddess of Democracy and says, "I can assure you that there were not more than five people inside the tents at around 3 A.M."

Richard Nations and I also witnessed the army's advance from the north. At 5:00, from a position next to the monument, where the evacuation was continuing, we saw that the goddess had vanished. We headed back north to investigate, walking for several hundred yards through the deserted tent encampment. A long line of tanks and A.P.C.s was rumbling toward the monument, crushing everything in its path—tents, railings, boxes of provisions, bicycles. The possibility remains that a handful of students were still in the tents. The Chinese government claims soldiers checked the tents for sick or exhausted students, but we clearly saw that the advancing infantrymen walked behind the tanks.

Back at the monument again, five minutes later, we saw that the top level was now swarming with soldiers, their guns pointed skyward. In our absence, the writer Lao Gui had witnessed what happened: "A small detachment of soldiers dressed in camouflage uniform rushed up to the monument, occupied the top of it and fired incessantly into the air. . . . Soon, there was no more sound from the broadcast station. The soldiers had shot the loudspeakers apart." The Spanish crew was also there when the commandos stormed the top level; they saw no killings. Claudia Rosett and Imaeda Koichi concur, although Kenneth Qiang told me later that one student on the second level had been shot in the leg. (A widely circulated Hong Kong magazine, Chai Ling Zibai Shu, quoted Qiang as saying he had seen "twenty to thirty students in a row at the front mowed down by gunfire"; this, he says, was a pure invention by the magazine.) By 5:30, the students had left the square. Moving back at precisely the same speed as the advancing A.P.C.s, they extracted every last ounce of moral victory from their retreat.

Lingering doubts about a small group of students who may have remained on the top level of the monument are dispelled by a recent remarkable eyewitness account by Yu Shuo, a former professor at People's University who now lives in exile in Paris. "As I was talking to [an army] officer," she says, "I suddenly realized that I was the last person left at the monument. As I walked down the terrace, I saw a line of characters on the relief: 'On June 4, 1989, the Chinese people shed their blood and died for democracy.' As I turned around, I saw that a soldier was about to pierce a bed with his bayonet. I saw two feet sticking out from it. . . . I rushed forward and dragged the feet. A boy fell down from the bed; he was not completely awake yet. He was the last student to leave the square."

It will probably never be firmly established what happened to the only two other significant groups of people left in the square at that late hour. One was the medical team from Beijing United Medical College; they were the last people seen by a South American diplomat as he left the square at 5:20. The second was a small crowd of laobaixing outside the Great Hall of the People. Richard Roth and Derek William were amazed to see these people still there when the journalists were brought out at 5:30.

The two Americans were driven by jeep directly across the square to the Children's Cultural Palace just to the northeast, where they were detained for about eighteen hours. "We saw no bodies in the square," Williams recollects. His account of this short ride is crucial: It seems inconceivable that the troops would have taken foreign journalists through the square if, as was widely rumored, they were busy covertly disposing of dead bodies at the time.

By now it was broad daylight; the evacuation was complete. At the southern end of the square, Nations and I witnessed one final skirmish between stone throwers and soldiers who opened fire before running off with the crowd on their heels. We finally decided it was time to get the hell out. As far as we can ascertain, we were the last foreigners to leave Tiananmen Square. It was 6:15.

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