Beijing site fenced off as anniversary nears; scores still imprisoned
| STANDOFF: A
demonstrator confronts Chinese tanks in Tiananmen Square
in Beijing on June 5, 1989. Bystanders pulled him away.
It was a darkness tinged with red.
Every June 4, I remember the flags and the flames, flickering and red; the warm summer darkness filled with screams and sobs and gunfire, the firelight playing over the enormous vermilion walls of the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing, the odor of sweat and gasoline and burning rubber, the blood on people's faces, chests, arms, hands.
But each year, the memory grows more phantasmagoric, outlandish, unreal. Now, at a decade's distance, I have trouble believing it ever happened, more trouble making up my mind what it really meant. I was there, but today in an era when Chinese students are throwing rocks and bottles at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and Chinese spies are apparently ferreting out America's nuclear secrets, I am not really sure where there was.
Tiananmen seemed mythical, even during the moments it was unfolding. It was like living inside a movie whose screenplay was being written off camera, someplace else. The actual shooting script came to us minute by minute.
We all had our parts to play: demonstrator, rabble-rouser, impassioned bicyclist-messenger, trishaw ambulance-puller, diplomat, foreign journalist, evil prime minister, People's Liberation Army officer, obedient soldier with semi-automatic rifle . . . .
Detainee. Counterrevolutionary traitor. Prisoner for life.
Exile, expelled from the Motherland forever.
Shooter, target, corpse.
Tiananmen came about almost astrologically, by a unique alignment of events. First, the moderate former secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Hu Yaobang, died of a heart attack on April 15, 1989. Students began laying bundles of wreaths honoring Hu at Tiananmen's Monument to the Revolutionary Martyrs.
Then came the 70th anniversary of the movement of May 4, 1919, when students had demonstrated angrily over Japan's being given territorial concessions in China at the end of World War I. A massive demonstration was held in the heart of Beijing, and students called for ''Mr. Science'' and ''Mr. Democracy'' to lead China into the 20th Century.
The third alignment was the visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in mid-May. As long as Gorbachev was in town, the authorities were loath to create an ugly incident.
A million in the square
Things snowballed. By mid-May 1989, there were more than a million people in Tiananmen Square. The center of Beijing looked like a wild, anarchic carnival.
Flatbed trucks with banners, and jammed with exuberant students, were careering up and down the Avenue of Boundless Peace (Chang An), and thousands of people, young and old, from all over China were camping out at the square. You could bicycle down the middle of Chang An, into the forecourts of the Forbidden City, right under the huge portrait of former Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong.
No one who saw it can forget the chaotic atmosphere of those days. The square was a jumble of tents and blankets and sleeping bags. The students danced to Western rock 'n' roll. Plastic soda bottles were underfoot in millions.
Young people crawled up into the arms of gigantic stone statues and sat there like babies cradled in stone. Silk flags fluttered everywhere, and everywhere there was a racket of bullhorns.
The city was placed under martial law.
charismatic students, the demonstrators went on a hunger strike.
When Premier Li Peng agreed to meet with them in the Great Hall
of the People, it was a disaster. Dragging their IV tubes, the
students shouted at the uncharismatic premier, and Li lost his
temper, live, on national TV.
A deceptive lull
As June drew near, there was a sense of weariness over the standoff. Crowds at the square were thinning. The piles of garbage reeked in the heat of summer. The star student leaders were no longer there; they were giving interviews to foreign reporters in air-conditioned hotel rooms. The hunger strike was over. Given time, the demonstration might simply have wound down on its own.
On May 30, students from the Beijing Art Institute set up a 30-foot-high statue made of plaster and styrofoam, called Min Zhu Zhi Shen, the ''Goddess of Democracy.'' She carried a torch and seemed to breathe life back into the demonstrations. Thousands came to be photographed in front of her.
The weather continued warm and hazy. It hadn't rained since May 23. The square positively stank. Only a few thousand people hung on there.
Then, on the night of June 2, a column of 8,000 unarmed soldiers came jogging down Chang An from the east. It may have been an attempt to reoccupy the square without force, but it backfired badly. Thousands of angry people swarmed into the streets and blocked the column by sheer force of numbers.
Units got separated. Exhausted, they flopped down beside the road. Pitying them, some people brought them water. The next morning, a triumphant cavalcade of bicyclists streamed through the city, shouting ''Ba Gong! Ba Gong!'' (''Strike! Strike!'') They were urging workers to lay down their tools.
RETRIBUTION IS HARSH
Soldiers are poised to kill
The next night, the evening of June 3-4, the army struck back. This time, the soldiers were armed and had orders to shoot to kill.
At 12:14 a.m., a maverick armored car came swerving madly down Chang An, west to east. It was being pursued by hundreds of young men on bicycles and by crowds on foot, like hounds in full cry after a steel fox. ''Xia lai! Xia lai!'' (''Come down! Come down!''), they shouted at the driver. He did a U-turn and headed back up the avenue toward Tiananmen with the crowd in pursuit.
It turned out this armored car had run over a bicyclist and crushed his skull. His body lay on the Jianguomenwai overpass, the bicycle a knot of steel, the young man with his head flattened. When the pursuers caught up with the armored car, they set it on fire, pulled out the soldiers and beat them.
Another soldier in the southern suburbs of the city was killed and disemboweled by the crowd, his intestines strung from a pedestrian overpass, after he opened fire on a crowd and shot an old woman.
As the armored car roared away into the night, I decided to approach the square by a roundabout way, through alleys that snake through eastern Beijing, to the Dong Hua Men or East Flowery Gate of the Forbidden City, to the lordly Nan Chi Zi archway.
In the distance, the armored car was on fire and its flames lit up the scarlet plaster of the palace walls. There was a sound of thousands of loud, angry voices coming from the avenue. They were, of all things, singing!
They were singing the Internationale, the hymn of worldwide socialism. They were moving like an unstoppable river of flesh toward ranks of soldiers drawn up at the northern extremity of the square.
I joined them, without thinking.
Then the soldiers opened fire.
BLOOD OF THE PEOPLE
Dangerous bravado seen
The fusillade lasted half a minute. There was a tremendous shriek, and the crowd began fleeing wildly. I was pedaling a Flying Pigeon bicycle, a sturdy old steel thing, and trying not to get thrown off. Some people were running as fast as I was pedaling at nearly full tilt. The bicycle seemed airborne. Willow fronds slapped my face and stung my eyes from trees beside the avenue.
The headlong retreat paused outside the old Beijing Hotel. Then the crowd re-formed and began to sidle back westward, toward the army. When the demonstrators were about 200 yards away, they halted. Some sat down cross-legged on the pavement, daring troops to come on.
In a stubborn show of bravado, one bicyclist in a white T-shirt zigzagged back and forth across the avenue, well in front of us, shaking his fist at the soldiers, daring them to shoot. I've never seen such lunatic bravery.
The first wounded were now being brought out. A white ambulance whizzed by. Wiry-legged trishaw drivers carried those who had been shot, pedaling their bikes madly. I glimpsed the face of a young man, horribly pale, riding limply in the back of one. His whole chest looked as if it had exploded. It was sopping with blood.
One man in
pajamas had been helping the wounded. When he handed over his
dying charge to a trishaw man for transport, he looked at his
hands and held them up, screaming tearfully: ''See the blood of
the Chinese people on my hands!'' Of all the sights I saw that
night, those bloody hands have lingered longest.
Fear turns your eyes to telescopes. I imagined I could not only see the soldiers, but make out the buttons on their uniforms, even see the muzzles of their rifles, staring at us with the dark sincerity of an eye-pupil.
At 3:13 a.m., the crowd began marching toward the soldiers, unrepentant. The people behaved as if they were immortal and bulletproof. Their anger carried me along. I remember thinking how crazy this was, how we were going in the wrong direction!
The soldiers' response was lethal. A burst of machine-gun fire, thousands of rounds, loosed continuously for more than a minute, drove us back like a whip-crack, like a flail in the night. We fled again, I bending over, hump-spined, shrinking into myself, head low, legs flung wide for balance on the bicycle, tree fronds slapping me in the face all over again.
Between 2:52 a.m. and 3:13 a.m., I saw 13 people carried out of the crowd -- two women, 11 men. Some of them surely died. (The official government death toll from Tiananmen was 236. But other, unofficial sources, relying on blood requests to the International Red Cross and collected eyewitness reports, put the figure as high as 2,700.)
At least three army corps fought their way into the city that night, and the next morning the killing went on in daylight. Day after day, the crowds formed, advanced. The soldiers fired. The crowds fled, re-formed, advanced again.
THE MAN AND THE TANK
A striking confrontation
June 4 was the morning of the famous confrontation between the solitary man and the tank, outside the Beijing Hotel. The man's name has never been learned. It is said that he was captured and put to death shortly afterward, safely off camera.
That night, however, the battle's outcome seemed in doubt. Distant loudspeakers were blaring, telling the last few people huddled on the Martyrs' monument to vacate.
At the edge of the square, overlooking Mao's darkened mausoleum, about 50 older people were standing in the dark, oddly calm, discussing the siege as if it were a spell of unusual weather. They didn't seem frightened, only curious.
Emboldened by their boldness, I glided down a concrete ramp and out into the vast, jumbled rectangle of stone.
It seemed floored with glass. I worried about a flat tire. Several gasoline fires burned, the oily flames reflected in the glass shards, which lay everywhere, like crushed ice.
At the northern end of the square, there was an unnatural peace. Mao's portrait was smiling tranquilly down on about 1,000 soldiers, many seated on the pavement. Just before 4 a.m., I heard an order barked out and the soldiers stood up.
They seemed to be carrying silver batons, not rifles. Something was going to happen. I bicycled to the southern end of the huge square, past Mao's mausoleum, and scribbled a few notes by the light of a burning bus.
Then I heard cadenced singing. A vast detachment of soldiers was marching up Qianmen Dajie in the dark. It looked ominous. The square was going to be pincered, north and south.
I fled. I managed to make my way back to our office about 5 a.m. and called my newspaper, The Miami Herald. Then I sat down to write what I had seen.
I got part of it wrong. I assumed, having seen so much indiscriminate slaughter on Chang An, that the final assault on the square was going to be equally bloody. It wasn't. Elite commando units were sent in to clear the square of its last stubborn resistance. The last demonstrators were allowed to march away, singing. Some were arrested, but none was shot.
The Goddess of Democracy was bulldozed in the blue light of dawn.
June 4 was a Sunday. Resistance and killing continued for the rest of the week. Tanks were deployed at intersections, and troops were stationed all over the city. For months afterward, when you drove down Chang An avenue, your tires hummed as they rolled over the corrugations in the asphalt left by the tank treads.
There is nothing more exhilarating than living through a battle without a scratch. In the weeks after Tiananmen, I seemed to walk on air. History had turned on its hinge, and I had seen it all. Nothing would be the same.
ON ITS OWN CLOCK
China defies predictions
I was, of course, wrong. The great thing about China is its perpetual power to confound you.
Before Tiananmen, it was hard for Westerners to grasp just how furiously dissatisfied millions of Chinese were with their government. Things had been loosening up for years, people were bustling, and the country was opening up to the Western world.
Immediately after Tiananmen, one felt certain the government couldn't last much longer. Communism was falling worldwide -- East Germany, Romania, Albania.
Pursy-mouthed Li Peng, the Bela Lugosi lookalike premier who ostensibly ordered the massacre -- the man whom the angry students shouted should be dismissed, decapitated and deep-fried -- would surely never finish out his term, we predicted. He would be the scapegoat for Tiananmen, we thought.
China would pay a heavy economic price, we believed. Foreign business people would refuse to clasp the bloody hands of butchers. China would become an international pariah.
It didn't turn out that way.
Leaders retain power
Within weeks, McDonald's cut a lucrative deal to open a hamburger restaurant near the fateful square. Li Peng finished out his full term. President Jiang Zemin, who as Communist Party boss in Shanghai had nine people shot when they set fire to empty trains in the aftermath of Tiananmen, is the president of China today. He has shaken hands with President Clinton.
Scores of people who took part in the ''counterrevolutionary rebellion,'' as the government calls it, are still in prison, some of them sick, some of them reportedly driven insane by ill treatment.
U.S. and other foreign business people, after a lull of some months, flocked back to China, and there are more than 50 McDonalds in Beijing today. The United States was running a $3 billion trade deficit with China in 1989, the year of Tiananmen. Today it is $40 billion. Just this month, other students were pelting the U.S. Embassy with firebombs, rocks and excrement in the wake of the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
Looking back over the past 10 years, one simply has to conclude that China moves by its own clock. Tiananmen was just one of many massacres and mischances, one more event to be absorbed by the masses.
The fire and blood of that far-off evening have not been forgotten, but they have been internalized. Calls for the government to apologize for Tiananmen have gone unheeded. The great square is fenced off, ostensibly being refurbished, as the 10th anniversary approaches -- a convenient closure.
''The debt of June 4 must be repaid in blood,'' was a common graffito in Beijing after Tiananmen.
Last week in Beijing, a gory exhibit opened, full of photos of the bombed Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Tens of thousands of people have already visited it, and some have signed the guest book: ''The debt should be repaid in blood.''
Michael Browning lived in Beijing for nine years when he was a
correspondent for The Miami Herald. He now works for The Palm
Copyright 1999 Miami Herald