Tiananmen Square, Beijing (goodfreephotos.com)
Tiananmen Square, Beijing (goodfreephotos.com)
" “In all of China it may come to pass that not one article, not one posting or tweet, not one family’s remembrance, not one victim’s photo, and not one explicit word about events at Tiananmen will see the light of day” "
I used to jog some mornings around the great square in the center of Beijing — the length of each side is about the length of the breakwater in Rockland — past the Forbidden City and Mao’s huge portrait, past the Great Hall of the People, past the Monument to the People’s Heroes with its sculpted reliefs of peasant rebellions and student protests, past the Museum of Chinese History, and then a quarter mile along Chang An Avenue to return to my room (for more than a year) in the Peking Hotel. That spring of 1980, in the early mornings, the great square south of Heaven Peace Gate was almost empty, except for a small group of soldiers raising the national flag.

Nine years later — and 30 years ago this month — the great square looked very different.

The events of that spring of 1989 move still in the memory of millions. In April of that year a former party leader considered friendly to reform dies, and the “mourners” place wreaths and banners on the steps of the Monument to the People’s Heroes, in a veiled critique of the Communist regime. The mood in Beijing is unsettled. The reforms of the 1980s have brought more personal freedom and prosperity, but state jobs and state housing are no longer guaranteed, and state pensions are threatened by inflation. Many officials sport expensive watches that suggest corruption. University students, unlike their parents, have grown up unexposed to political violence and are full of vague longings.

Soon those students pour forth from their campuses in the northwest of the city and march to the square — about the distance from Camden to Rockland. They sing and carry banners for “democracy” and “freedom” and against “corruption.” Many spend nights on the square in tents. Charismatic speakers compete for megaphones. Several weeks into the swelling protests, a hunger strike captures public sympathy as nurses care for fainting students. A gigantic plaster “Goddess of Democracy” takes shape in the square, with her upraised torch.

In May, Soviet leader Gorbachev arrives in Beijing from an Eastern Europe on the verge of revolution. The Chinese leaders are forced by the tumult in the square to arrange a state welcome at the airport instead of the steps of the Great Hall of the People — a loss of face for the increasingly nervous leadership group, itself split between liberal reformers and conservatives. Soon, in the leadership councils the hardliners obtain Deng Xiaoping’s consent to use the army. Battalions of troops from faraway provinces, many of whom have never been to Beijing, and some of whom barely speak its Mandarin dialect, make camp in the outskirts of the city. One evening, Premier Zhao, the leading liberal voice in the government, and until then Deng’s chosen successor — knowing his political future is over —arrives at the square to urge the students to leave for their own safety. In tears he apologizes through a megaphone, saying, “I have come too late.”

The regime declares martial law, though at first nothing drastic occurs. On several occasions truckloads of ill-led and unarmed soldiers attempt to reach the square, but they are surrounded by angry Beijing citizens and forced to turn back. Some young soldiers are beaten and stoned by Beijing crowds, and some are killed. At the square the mood turns somber, and many Beijing university students drift back exhausted to their campuses, perhaps with a premonition of things to come. Students from other provinces, arriving late at the scene, predominate on the square in those last weeks. Debates about leaving the square grow more urgent as rumors circulate of military action and government helicopters drop leaflets urging the students to abandon the square. In the last hours of the last days, the offices of celebrity Western journalists in the Peking Hotel — they have come to Beijing to cover the Gorbachev visit and they stay to cover the protests in the square — are invaded by police, who disconnect their video feeds in the middle of their broadcasts.

I was not in Beijing on the fateful night that ended on the morning of June Fourth, but friends of mine were. As were the students and soldiers and journalists whose recollections and photos have been prominently featured this month in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Near midnight, loudspeakers in the square urge the students to leave. Meanwhile, columns of armored vehicles and tanks, and brigades of young inexperienced soldiers, this time armed with rifles and live ammunition and some submachine guns, begin moving down the several miles of straight, wide avenues from their staging grounds to the square.

The soldiers are confronted along the way by barricades of buses, hostile disbelieving crowds, stones, and at least some crude firebombs that end up burning a number of armored personnel carriers, and some of the young soldiers in them, during the night. Some troops rake apartment buildings with live fire; some aim their guns down the straight, wide avenues that frame the square. In the direction they aim, some students — expecting rubber bullets — hold up their thin padded jackets as a shield. As the troops and vehicles surge through barricades some young bodies and bicycles are crushed. The streets of Beijing in those years are not brightly lit, adding to the confusion. Rumors fly as fast as young legs on bicycles can carry them. The troops need several hours to advance just several miles, but they finally reach the square.

It is clear from their indiscriminate fire that the brigades and their commanders have been ordered by the government leaders to retake the square “at any cost” — regardless of civilian casualties. But it also seems clear, in retrospect, given the tracer bullets arcing high over the level streets, and the actions of the soldiers after they reached the interior of the square, that the troops were not ordered to commit a massacre. However, at least hundreds, and more probably thousands, die in Beijing in those hours.

Dawn comes to the square, and the tall vague lamps in the square are extinguished, and after hours of mayhem and confusion and live fire in the approaching streets, the troops finally move through the square itself, and through its abandoned tents and sleeping bags. Several hundred students are huddled together — a living frieze — around the Monument to the People’s Heroes, which, significantly for those students’ survival that night, is positioned in the middle of the square, and is not in the line of fire with any avenue of approach.

The remaining students at the monument take a voice vote and then leave the square, unscathed and unobstructed by the companies of youthful rural soldiers they file silently past. Some students, though, only live another few minutes, as they are overtaken in a nearby narrow street by some careening tanks and are caught under their blind treads.

The next day, near noon, in a city restored to a tense calm, a column of tanks departs the square and then comes to a sudden halt in front of the Peking Hotel. A lone young man, in some private agony of grief or valor, dressed in a simple white shirt and dark pants, stands erect and motionless directly in the path of the lead tank. The young commander halts the tank a few yards from the standing youth. Several breathless minutes pass, forever fixed on film by a foreign journalist shooting from the upper floors of the hotel (near my old room), while the youth and the tank face each other, unmoving. Then someone darts from the crowd and pulls the youth to safety. No one knows what has happened to him since.

On that day after the Fourth of June 1989, all these people are China: the lone young man standing impossibly there, his rescuer, and the nervous crowd, and the young soldier in the tank.

Now 30 years later, the ruling party in China has made sure that discussions of that spring’s events are a political taboo, tirelessly suppressing any attempt to reconstruct or document those eventful days. Any Chinese citizen within the so-called “great firewall” of China who searches online for the place name, the date, or the names of those involved, or even searches simply for the word “today” on the anniversary itself, will see the search aborted or find the site blocked. The government breaks up private discussion groups, arrests dissidents, warns editors, denies visas, censors the blogosphere and scrubs websites.

During this month’s anniversary — even though thousands still alive were eyewitnesses to those events, and thousands more know of lost friends and relatives — in all of China it may come to pass that not one article, not one posting or tweet, not one family’s remembrance, not one victim’s photo, and not one explicit word about events at Tiananmen will see the light of day, except to be erased within seconds by government censors. And it is worse now than it was five years ago, when a version of this column first appeared in The Free Press. Certainly, no journal today in China could bear the name of this newspaper.

The public square of China’s political memory lies silent and deserted.

Until the Chinese people may speak and write openly about their past, about the spring of 1989, and about other events in their history, no conscientious Chinese can pay full respect to the flag raised by soldiers with such guarded precision each dawn at Tiananmen Square.

Nor should any conscientious American.