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From the NS archive: Bearing witness at Tiananmen Square

16 June 1989: The Deng regime says no students died in Tiananmen Square. Here, a student who escaped asserts that a deliberate massacre took place.

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On 4 June 1989 Chinese troops murdered protesters who had gathered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing to call for constitutional reform. The authorities tried to ensure that news of the massacre in which hundreds, possibly thousands, of protesters died did not get out. This report, by one of the protesting students, showed that they failed. The testimony was introduced in the magazine by the following words: “The Beijing regime claims that no-one was shot in Tiananmen Square in the early hours of Sunday, 4 June. That claim has already been contradicted by reports in the western press. But, here, for the first time in Britain, is the direct testimony of an anonymous student who escaped from the Square. He describes the deliberate shooting down of students beaten from the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the middle of the Square. This account is in part corroborated by previous press reports, but is at odds with others. After careful checking, we believe it to be essentially true, if perhaps exaggerated at points by the author’s grief and shock.”

***

I am a student at Qinghua University. I am 20 years old. I spent last night sitting on the steps of the Monument to the Heroes of the People. I witnessed from start to finish the shooting and suppression by the army of students and citizens.

Many of my fellow students have already been shot dead. My clothes are still stained with their blood. As a lucky survivor and an eye witness, I want to tell peace-loving and good people across the world about the massacre.

Frankly speaking, we knew early on in the evening that the troops intended to suppress us. Someone whose status I can’t reveal phoned us at four o’clock on Saturday afternoon. (The call was to a neighbourhood phone station in an alley near the Square.) The caller told us that the Square was about to be invaded and cleared. We went on to alert. After a discussion we took some measures. We did our best to alleviate contradictions and avoid a bloodbath.

We had 23 submachine guns and some incendiary bombs that we’d snatched from soldiers during the previous two days. The Autonomous Students’ Union called a meeting and decided to return these weapons forthwith to the martial law troops to show that we intended to promote democracy by non-violent means. On the rostrum at Tiananmen Square beneath the portrait of Chairman Mao we liaised with troops about this, but an officer said that he was under higher orders not to accept the weapons.

So the negotiations failed. At around one in the morning, when things had become really critical, we destroyed the guns and dismantled the bombs. We poured away the petrol so that bad people couldn’t use it and the authorities couldn’t point to it as “proof” that we were out to kill soldiers. After that, the Union told everyone in the Square that the situation was extremely grave, that bloodshed seemed inevitable, and that they wanted students and citizens to leave the Square. But there were still 40,000-50,000 students and about 100,000 citizens determined not to go. I, too, decided not to go.

The mood was extraordinarily tense. This was the first time we’d ever experienced such danger. I’d be lying if I said we weren’t afraid, but everyone was psychologically braced and tempered. (Some students, of course, didn’t believe that the troops would shoot to kill.) In a word, we were imbued with a lofty sense of mission. We were prepared to sacrifice ourselves for China’s democracy and progress.

After midnight, after two armoured cars had sped down each side of the Square from the Front Gate, the situation became increasingly serious. Official loudspeakers repeatedly blared out “notices”. Dense lines of steel-helmeted troops ringed the Square. Despite the darkness, you could clearly see the machine-guns mounted on top of the History Museum. There was not the slightest attempt to hide them.

We students crowded round the Monument to the Heroes of the People. I carefully estimated the crowd. Two thirds were men, one third were women; about 30 per cent from universities and colleges in Beijing. Most were students from other cities.

At four o’clock sharp, just before daybreak, the lights in the Square suddenly went out. The loudspeakers broadcast another order to “clear the Square”. I suddenly had a tight feeling in my stomach. There was only one thought in my head: the time has come, the time has come.

The hunger-striker Hou Dejian (a Taiwan pop-singer now working on the mainland) and some other people negotiated with the troops and agreed to get the students to leave peacefully. But just as they were about to go, at 4.40am, a cluster of red signal flares rose into the sky above the Square and the lights came on again.

I saw that the front of the Square was packed with troops. A detachment of soldiers came running from the east entrance of the Great Hall of the People. They were dressed in camouflage. They were carrying light machine-guns and wearing steel helmets and gas-masks.

As soon as these troops had stormed out they lined up a dozen or so machine-guns in front of the Monument to the Heroes of the People. The machine-gunners lay down on their stomachs. Their guns pointed toward the Monument. The rostrum was behind them. When all the guns were properly lined up, a great mass of soldiers and armed police, wielding electric prods, rubber truncheons and some special weapons of a sort I’d never seen before suddenly rushed at us. We were sitting quietly. There were two differences between the troop and the armed police: their uniforms were different, and so were their helmets. The police helmets were bigger than the troops’ and had steel flaps going down over the ears. The soldiers and the policemen started violently laying about us. They split our ranks down the middle and opened up a path to the Monument. They stormed up to its third tier. I saw 40 or 50 students suddenly spurt blood. Armoured troop carriers and an even greater number of troops that had been waiting in the Square joined the siege. The troop carriers formed a solid blockade, except for a gap on the museum side.

The troops and policemen who had stormed the monument smashed our loudspeaker installations, our printing equipment, and our supply of soda water. Then they beat and threw down the steps the students still occupying the third tier. We’d stayed put all along, holding hands and singing the Internationale. We’d been shouting: “The people’s army won’t attack the people”. The students packing the third tier had no choice but to retreat under the blows and kicks of such a large body of men. While this was going on, the sound of machine-guns started up. Some troops were kneeling down and firing. Their bullets whizzed above our heads. The troops lying on their stomachs shot up into the students’ chests and faces. We had no choice but to retreat back up onto the Monument. When we reached it the machine-guns stopped. But the troops on the Monument beat us back down again. As soon as we’d been beaten down, the machine-guns started up again.*

*This manoeuvre was plainly designed to avoid troops firing directly onto the Monument, and chipping or pocking the stone fresco of heroes (though, as television news has shown, they did hit a few).

The dare-to-die brigade of workers and citizens picked up anything that served as a weapon – bottles, pieces of wood – and rushed towards the troops to resist them. The Students’ Union gave the order to retreat to places outside the Square. It was not yet five o’clock.

A great crowd of students rushed toward the gap in the line of troop carriers. The heartless drivers closed the gap. Thirty-odd carriers drove into the crowd. Some people were crushed to death. Even the flagpole in front of the Monument was snapped off. The whole Square was in massive chaos. I’d never thought my fellow-students could be so brave. Some started to push at the troop carriers. They were mown down. Others clambered over their corpses and pushed too. Finally they managed to push one or two carriers aside and open up a gap. I and 3,000 other students rushed through under a hail of fire. We ran across to the entrance to the History Museum.

There were large numbers of citizens in front of the Museum. We joined up with them. Seeing how bad things were, we immediately ran off to the north in the direction of the Gate of Heavenly Peace. But we’d only gone a few steps when rifle fire broke out from a clump of bushes alongside the road. We saw no people-just the bursts of fire from the gun-barrels. So we turned and ran off south towards the Front Gate.

I was running and weeping. I saw a second batch of students running off under machine-gun fire. I saw lots of people lying on their stomachs on the road that we were trying to escape along. We were all crying – running and crying. When we reached the Front Gate, we were suddenly confronted by a batch of troops. They didn’t open fire. They were armed with big wooden staves. They beat us furiously.

Then a large crowd of citizens came pouring out of the Front Gate. They clashed violently with these troops. They protected us while we escaped in the direction of Beijing railway station. The troops pursued us. It was five o’clock. Dawn was breaking. The gunfire on the Square seemed to have died down a little.

Later I met a fellow student at the International Red Cross. He told me that at five o’clock the last group to escape had broken out. The machine-guns continued to rake the Square throughout, for 20 minutes or so.

I’ll never forget another student from Qinghua who was shot and wounded but still carried on running with us. He was determined not to give up. As we ran along he touched me on the shoulder and said, “Could you please support me for a bit?” I was already supporting two physically weak female students, one on each arm. I could do nothing for him. I put him down on the ground. The crowd trampled over him. . . There’s no way he could have survived. Look, this is his blood on my back. Half his body was covered in blood.

I will never forget my fellow-students being mown down by machine-guns. Others selflessly, and with complete disregard for all danger, dragged away the corpses and tended to the wounded. Women students took off garments to make bandages for people’s wounds. Soon some were almost naked.

After we’d run off to the railway station, I and two other students went back to the Square. By then it was 6.30am. A great crowd of citizens surrounded the Front Gate. I followed them further into the Square until I got to the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall. Lines of armoured troop carriers blocked the way. Troops formed a human wall. I went to the side of the road and climbed a tree. I could see soldiers on the Square putting the corpses of the students and citizens in plastic bags, one corpse to a bag. Then they piled them up under a big canvas.

The troops weren’t letting ambulances of the International Red Cross enter the Square to help the wounded. I with another student hurried off at once to the Red Cross first aid centre at Peace Gate. We saw many casualties being taken there by trishaw.

The doctors told me that an ambulance trying to get into the Square had been shot at and set on fire. I saw students there from the second, third, and fourth batches of escapers. They said that many students who had fallen to the ground wounded were still lying on the Square.

At around 7.20am, I went back to the Square for a second time. I asked what was happening. I particularly questioned a group of a dozen or so elderly people. They said that corpses were lying in long rows on the pavement round the Square and that the troops were hanging up sheets of canvas so that the citizens could not see them. They said that lots of trucks had driven into the Square and taken away the wounded.

At about 7.30am the troops on the Square suddenly launched gas canisters at these people. A large group of soldiers charged us. I ran back to the railway station. On the way I saw students from the first and second break-outs, all crying.

The Students’ Union assigned us Beijing students the job of escorting students from outside Beijing to the railway station. I was hoping to put them on to trains, but a railway official said none were running. There was nothing for it but to leave the station. We were besieged by a great crowd of citizens who wanted to take the students to their homes and hide them. They were sad. They were all crying. The people of Beijing are truly good, they are truly good.

Am I pessimistic? No, I’m not. I’ve seen the heart of the people, I’ve seen their true mettle, I’ve seen the hope of China. Some of my fellow students died, even more are bleeding from their wounded bodies. I am a lucky survivor. I know how I must live my life henceforth. I cannot forget my fellow students who have died. I know that upright people throughout the world will understand us and support us.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)