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The night the lights went out: what really happened in Tiananmen Square

Thirty years on, the events that took place in Beijing remain misunderstood – and the Chinese government wants to keep it that way. 

 

During the hot night of 3 June 1989, an announcement blared from the loudspeakers in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Metallic, epicene, it sounded like the patter of a hypnotist: “Go home and save your lives. You are not behaving in the correct Chinese manner. Go home and save your lives.”

Upturned faces listened in the orange street lights: this was the authentic voice of Marxism-Leninism, which China had obeyed for 40 years. Now, though, the spell was broken. Young men began a war dance in front of our camera, waving coshes, knives and bricks. One brandished six bottles filled with petrol: Molotov cocktails. These weren’t the high-minded, peaceable students whom I’d spent the previous three weeks filming. They were working-class people from the housing estates and hutongs of Beijing, whom the Communist Party was supposed to represent but didn’t. After the long years of repression, they wanted revenge.

Thirty years later, the events of May and June 1989 are much misunderstood. We assume it was about the shooting down of hundreds of innocent people demanding greater democracy. But far more than that was going on. The Communist Party leadership came close to being overthrown, and there was a major uprising against the state on the streets of Beijing. While we spent our days in Tiananmen Square, a struggle for power was going on in the Great Hall of the People, aimed at getting rid of the elderly, faltering Party overlord, Deng Xiaoping. The student protest in the square became unintentionally mixed up with all this. Scarcely any of the student leaders, let alone the rank-and-file, grasped this wider political picture. If the students had been savvier they could have linked up with Deng’s critics at the top of the leadership and overthrown him before the troops could be sent in. But they were too naive and too disunited; and as a result they were crushed. The longing for greater democracy and greater personal freedom in China has still never been satisfied.

By May 1989, there had been serious political infighting for three years, and there was discontent in the universities over the slow pace of economic liberalisation. The Party’s reformist general secretary, Hu Yaobang, had tolerated student protests, but during 1986 they intensified. The conservatives accused him of failing to provide firm leadership, and in January 1987 Hu was forced out. When he died of a heart attack in April 1989, the students mourned him as a martyr, and there were fresh protests. The hardline premier, Li Peng, demanded strong action; Zhao Ziyang, the new Party secretary, a corrupt but committed reformist, favoured conciliation. Real power, though, lay with Deng Xiaoping, witty, cynical and shrewd. His only official positions were the chairmanships of the state and Party Central Military Commissions, but he dominated his colleagues through his influence and determination. Under Mao Zedong, Deng had argued for greater economic freedom, but during the Cultural Revolution he was dismissed and humiliated, and in 1968 a gang of Red Guards threw his son Deng Pufang out of a fourth-floor window. Deng senior had to get a job in a tractor factory, and went home each night to nurse Pufang, who was now paraplegic. Eventually, of course, Mao died, the ultra-leftist Gang of Four was overthrown, and Deng made his comeback. But his judgement had been skewed by his experiences, and when the students took over Tiananmen he was certain the Red Guards had returned to challenge him once more.

Nothing could have been farther from the truth. Yet even if the students’ motives were peaceful, their tactics were ruthless. They occupied the square and began a mass hunger strike on Saturday 13 May, two days before Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet president, arrived for a state visit. It was a major humiliation for the Chinese leadership, whose hardline members reacted with predictable hostility. Yet Zhao Ziyang, who was Deng Xiaoping’s main challenger, staged a clever stunt. At the summit meeting for Gorbachev in the Great Hall of the People, Zhao took advantage of the fact that the television microphones were live to chat to him in apparent confidence about Deng’s anomalous position – lacking any major title, yet in unquestioned control. “We need his helmsmanship on all the most important issues,” Zhao told Gorbachev – and the huge Chinese television audience; and he added, “This information has never been made public before.” Zhao was signalling that Deng was responsible for the leadership’s opposition to the students. In the square, it had an immediate effect. The students had been attacking Zhao’s undoubted corruption, but later that day a student leader I interviewed declared that Deng, rather than Zhao, was now their chief target.

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My Wednesday 17 May, it looked as though the struggle to get rid of Deng was succeeding. A million people crowded into the square to support the students and criticise Deng. Dozens of flatbed trucks inched their way through the crowds, draped with banners praising the students, loudspeakers blaring. Every major arm of the Communist state seemed to be represented. The main newspapers had their floats, and so did China Central Television. “Don’t Make Us Lie Any More!” said one journalistic banner. Most government ministries were represented. So were the courts, the judges, the police, the city council, and the army’s General Staff. A uniformed policeman waved a flag that read “The Students Will Surely Win!” There was a contingent from the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and even a float from the Ministry of State Security. When the secret police come out into the open, change must be on its way.

But it wasn’t. Deng kept his nerve and refused to resign. Li Peng and the other hardliners started a fightback against Zhao Ziyang and the moderates. For the moment, though, Zhao managed to stop Deng using force to clear the students out of the square by proposing that the Party leaders should visit the hunger strikers in hospital. Reluctantly, they agreed. With Chinese television trailing after them and broadcasting the whole thing live, Li Peng and the others sat down at the students’ bedsides and tried to persuade them to start eating. It didn’t work.

The next day, a group of student leaders, including the assertive Wu’erkaixi, the son of a Party boss from the strongly Uighur region of Xinjiang, were brought from hospital to the Great Hall of the People to negotiate with Li Peng. They were still wearing pyjamas, and were hooked up to oxygen tanks. An angry argument flared up directly, and Wu’erkaixi wagged his finger at Li Peng – again, live on television for everyone to see. “The students have certain requirements, which must be granted,” he bellowed. “We won’t leave the square unless you meet our conditions.” The leadership was enraged. By the evening Zhao Ziyang, a beaten man, went into the square and stayed on into the early hours, begging the students with tears in his eyes to give up their hunger strike. If they’d agreed it might have saved Zhao, even then; but they were too divided. The next morning, on 20 May, martial law was declared, and Zhao was arrested. He was never seen in public again.

All this while, Deng had been consulting his top military contacts. Getting their support wasn’t easy. Some generals had children of their own who were demonstrating; others openly sympathised with the protests. Over the following days the demonstrators managed to block two different columns of troops advancing on the square. But on the night of 3 June, detachments from at least 11 army groups forced their way through. Defiantly, the students and their working-class supporters packed into the square – perhaps a hundred thousand people altogether.

Shortly after midnight, two armoured personnel carriers drove down Chang’an Avenue to the edge of the square. One was set on fire by the angry crowd. We filmed as the terrified soldiers inside were forced out; they were lucky to survive. The army arrived in force at 1.30am. We filmed from a seventh-floor balcony in Chang’an Avenue as the soldiers drove past, spraying our building and those around it with bullets. A South Korean cameraman on the next balcony to ours was hit. I counted 41 dead in the street below.

At 4am the lights in Tiananmen Square were switched off. In the darkness there was more shooting, and many of the students were beaten before being marched off and arrested. The Chinese authorities have always maintained that no one died in the square. It may be true, but the avenues leading up to the square were killing zones. Hundreds died – perhaps as many as a thousand. In all this horror, there was one transcendent act of non-violent courage. Later that morning my cameraman spotted a man with two shopping bags standing in front of a line of tanks to stop them advancing. Finally, the man clambered on to the leading tank and gave the soldiers inside a piece of his mind. Our footage was seen around the world. To this day, no one knows his name or what happened to Tank Man. He was never arrested.

The next morning, I reluctantly left for Hong Kong to prepare a special report on the massacre. The main roads were blocked, and my driver had to make a huge detour to get to the airport. In suburb after suburb, I saw that dozens of police stations, security police centres and Communist Party offices had been attacked. Outside one, the corpse of a policeman who had been burned alive was propped up in a doorway, his police hat at a jaunty angle on his head and a cigarette stuck between his blackened lips.

The Chinese authorities nowadays hate any mention of what happened at Tiananmen: it was an uprising against Marxist-Leninism itself. At one point the 38th Combined Army Corps, mostly recruited from Beijing, came close to opening fire on the 27th Combined Corps, which had been shooting people down in the streets. The entire affair was clear evidence of the genuine loathing that many ordinary people had for the system. Nowadays, that system has made them far richer. But there’s no indication that the Communist state is anything more than tolerated.

There’s one other reason for the government to want to forget what happened. On that extraordinary day of demonstrations, Wednesday 17 May, thousands of young Party apparatchiks went to the square to pay homage to the students and show their contempt for the old Party leadership. Today, some of them must be right at the very top of Chinese officialdom. What was the 35-year-old Xi Jinping, now president, doing that day? Or the 33-year-old Li Keqiang, now premier? No wonder the Communist Party is desperate to put the whole terrible business behind it. 

John Simpson is the world affairs editor of BBC News

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article appears in the 31 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Theresa May’s toxic legacy