EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS OF THE TIANANMEN SQUARE MASSACRE
At 2:00am on June 4th 1989, People's Liberation Army tanks and 200,000 soldiers moved into Tiananmen Square in Beijing to crush a large pro-democracy demonstration that had been going on for seven weeks. The tanks rolled over people that got in their way and soldiers opened fire on groups of protesters. Hundreds of students and supporters were killed. Hospitals were filled with casualties and P.L.A. troops in some cases prevented doctors from treating wounded demonstrators. The figure 2,000 dead is often cited but nobody but the Chinese authorities know how many people really died.
The exiled writer Zheng Yi, who now lives in the United States, wrote in his memoirs: “At 9 pm on 3rd June, 1989, at Muxidi Bridge on West Chang’an Avenue, the crowds on the broad street linked arms to form a surging human wall two or three hundred meters deep. The slogans were deafening. The soldiers responsible for clearing the roads had helmets, shields, batons. They attacked the crowd mercilessly. The protesters fought back by throwing stones at them while retreating slowly. By 10 pm, the crowd had retreated onto the overpass, and the two sides were separated by a barricade of cars. The troops dared not circle past the streetcars to attack the crowds directly, so they sent their tanks to the front line.” [Source: “All You Want Is Money! All I Want Is Revolution!: Before the Tiananmen Square massacre, everyone loved China; now everyone loves the renminbi” by Liao Yiwu, The Nation, November 17, 2015 ]
Another witness wrote: “One tank drove at full speed towards the streetcars blocking the overpass. But under the direction of a few people standing higher up, several thousand people rushed toward the wall of streetcars just as the tank was speeding toward it, on the count of ‘One… two… three!’ There was a terrific crashing sound, but the cars remained where they were. The crowds hooted and cheered. The two sides faced off like this for a while. The roar of the tanks was always followed by a simultaneous rush toward the streetcars. Then the tanks would retreat and the crowds would cheer again. This happened several times, until the troops began to fire tear gas on the crowds. The tear-gas canisters were shot past the streetcars and exploded among the crowds, who were forced to run for cover. The tank took the opportunity to power ahead toward the streetcars again. There was a terrific crash, and a couple of the cars were crushed, leaving a two-meter gap in the barricade. When the tank reversed so that it could pick up speed for another attempt, thousands of students and other protesters surged forward, pushing the overturned streetcars back to their original position to close the gap, and leaning up against the wall to prop up the swaying vehicles with their own bodies in defense against the tanks.”
Zheng Yi again: “In the early hours of June 4th, on Chang’an Avenue, just north of the congressional Great Hall of the People, the crowds began to march eastward, attempting to storm into Tiananmen Square in aid of the students who had been surrounded by troops. They clashed with the army outside the square. Linking arms to form a human wall, they advanced slowly, while singing anthems aloud. Time and again, their ranks would be depleted by gunfire, and they would regroup and continue to press forward slowly. Every time dozens of people fell, others would join in to take their place, so that eventually it became clear that the protesters were engaged in an unwinnable tug-of-war with the army. At dawn, the tanks rolled out of Tiananmen Square and took their positions in a row across the street. They revved their engines and began to advance toward the human wall., “Suddenly, one reckless protester simply lay down in the street. Others followed, and soon there were several hundred people lying all across Chang’an Avenue.
“Despite the menacing tank treads, no one fled. The tanks lost this first battle of willpower and courage. The first tank screeched to a halt ‘so suddenly that the streets shuddered, and the top half of the tank lurched forward.’ Eventually, the tanks fired tear-gas bombs at the crowds to disperse them. They then mowed down the protesters who were fleeing the choking yellow smoke, and killed at least a dozen people on the spot. Five young protesters were killed at the southwest corner of Liubuko Junction. Two of them were crushed onto bicycles, their corpses mangled together with the bikes.”
Good Websites and Sources on the Tiananmen Square Protests: ; Tiananmen Square Documents gwu.edu/ ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; BBC Eyewitness Account news.bbc.co.uk Film: The Gate of Heavenly Peace has been praised for its balanced treatment of the Tiananmen Square Incident. Gate of Heavenly Peace tsquare.tv. Books About Tiananmen Square: “Quelling the People: The Military Suppression of the Beijing Democracy Movement” by Timothy Brook is regarded as the most complete book on Tiananmen Square. According to Ian Johnson it is “a work by a classically trained historian who turned his powers of analysis and fact-digging on the massacre. Even though Brook’s book doesn’t include some important works published in the 2000s (especially the memoirs of then Party secretary Zhao Ziyang and a compilation of leaked documents known as The Tiananmen Papers). Quelling the People remains the best one-volume history of the events in Beijing.” One should also note the works of Wu Renhua, a Tiananmen participant and author of several Chinese-language works, as well as a a book by Jeremy Brown of Simon Fraser University.
Tiananmen Square Killing
The student activist Lu Jinghua later recalled, "The night the army came, I finally left the square at 2:30am and made my way out. It was terrible. They were shooting people, there was blood everywhere. I was mad, sad, scared—everything together. I just didn't want to die. I didn't know whether to walk or run." [Source: The Independent]
Victims were shot, run over with tanks, clubbed to death, caught in crossfire. Fang Zheng, a student at Tiananmen Square who is now China's disabled discus champion, had his legs crushed and later amputated after a Chinese army tank ran him down and dragged him for 30 feet.
Wu Pei, a school teacher, told Newsweek, "Around 4:00am, soldiers encircled our group. Several hundred in our group lined up and filed off peacefully. But when we got to Beijing Music Hall [west of Tiananmen Square], some students started screaming, 'Don't panic, nobody panic!' Everyone started to run. Suddenly gun shots crackled around me and the air filled with gas. Just then a tank rolled through the bike lane, crushing people behind me who couldn't get out of the way. I still can't endure that [memory]. I'll never forgive them for that."
Time correspondent Jaime FlorCruz recalled, "In front of my apartment, about 2 k east of the square, a convoy of army trucks stood bumper-to-bumper. Students had blocked their advance, chanting Xia lai! Xia lai! (Come down!). Amid the commotion , an armored personnel carrier plowed through the crowd, made a U-turn, then sped off, knocking over a truck loaded with students. In an instant one man lay on the ground, his head a mush of red and pink, on the gray concrete. 'They're killing us,' shrieked a woman. Civilians pushed towards the army vehicles, beseeching the military to go home."
"For the first time in my life I saw a man die," one student told National Geographic. "The left side of his face was blown away by a bullet." The same student found the soldier who shot the man and hit him over the head with a metal bar similar to "the sort a cook uses to stir or mix a large pot." [Source: Ross Terrill, National Geographic, July 1991]
There was a report of one tank crushing 11 civilians. Qi Zhiyong, a 33-year-old construction worker who lost his left leg from the knee down after he was shot by Chinese troops, told AP, “I saw people being run over. Blood sprayed everywhere. The tanks kept moving as if the people weren’t there. My hair stood on end. I was chilled to the bone.”
Liao Yiwu on Tiananmen Square Participants
“Bullets and Opium: Real-Life Stories of China After the Tiananmen Square Massacre” by Liao Yiwu is a series of portraits of ordinary, working-class Chinese who defended Tiananmen Square and bore the brunt of the violence and had their lives ruined by long prison terms. Liao spent seven years researching the book. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, June 27, 2019]
Liao Yiwu wrote in the NY Review of Books: “Bullets and Opium” is about the fates of more than a dozen “violent criminals” of June 4, 1989. These were people who fought back against the troops enforcing martial law. Their weapons were rocks, sticks, and fire—primeval man against the equipment of the regular army. In this unfair confrontation, Tank Man appeared—Wang Weilin, as he was called. The pictures of his heroic stand went around the world. On the night of June 4, there were almost a million unarmed “violent criminals“ trying to stop the army. At first, tanks and armored vehicles broke through the barriers. And then they opened fire, and everybody was screaming. Every shot drew blood; people were mowed down like weeds. [Source: Liao Yiwu, NY Review of Books, June 3, 2014, Translated by Martin Winter]
Liao Yiwu wrote in “Bullets and Opium”: “Wu Wenjian was only nineteen in 1989. Against his parents’ wishes, he joined the street protests on the morning of June Fourth, and he was lucky that a bullet only grazed his scalp rather than piercing his heart. He published a speech expressing his outrage; it was called “We Demand the Repayment of This Debt of Blood.” It earned him a comparatively short seven-year sentence in prison. [Source: Isabella Steger, Quartz, May 7, 2019; Translated from the Chinese by David and Jessie Cowhig and Ross Perlin]
“Wu explained how thugs like him were treated after the massacre. For instance, seven of the first eight people convicted of arson—they had been charged with setting army tanks on fire—were promptly executed. The only one spared was Wang Lianxi, a sanitation worker who was found to be severely mentally disabled. As a result, his sentence was commuted on appeal to life in prison. After eighteen years, he was released, shortly before the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“Another man called Lu Zhongqu, who had also committed property damage by setting vehicles on fire, was nearly beaten to death by troops on a rampage. “We saw the soldiers drag him into a tank and take him directly to a detention center,” Wu told me. “By then he’d already lost his mind. He was covered from head to toe with bruises. He also had no bowel or bladder control left. He walked around in his own world and spoke to no one. He eventually disappeared, just like Tank Man.”
“Kun was a real patriot and had been honorably discharged from the army. The night of June 3, he was at Muxidi Bridge, one of the people directing the crowds of protesters from above to collectively resist the tanks. Someone later betrayed him to the military police, and he was convicted on charges of subversion and given a death sentence that was later commuted to life in prison. His wife left him not long after, taking their child with her. By the time he was released, years later, he was single and living with his eighty-year-old parents.
“One time Kun was cleaning the toilets at work, when two shirtless businessmen came in. One was a former neighbor of his who had battled the tanks side by side with Kun during the movement. “I got lucky and slipped away into the crowd,” the neighbor told Kun after recognizing him. “They had no proof that I’d taken part in the protests, and I denied my involvement strenuously. Eventually I got away with nothing more than making a self-criticism at work.”
Communist Party Members with a View of the Tiananmen Massacre
Li Rui, an early member of the Communist Party and one of Mao’s personal secretaries, lived in a building reserved for high-ranking cadres near the Muxidi intersection in western Beijing. Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books: “It was there that the several armored units began their assault on the city and there that hundreds of ordinary Beijingers assembled to stop their progress toward the students in the square. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, June 27, 2019]
“Li’s perspective is simpler because he witnessed the massacre unfold from his balcony. But coming from a high-ranking party member, someone who had a reputation for being upright and uncompromising, it is damning. His diary entry for June 4 begins with two English words, “Black week-end.” It then goes on to describe how soldiers shot indiscriminately, including into his building, killing a neighbor.
Then he recounts phone calls with outraged party members and the opinion of a friend and former general, Xiao Ke, who had written Deng weeks earlier warning of the disastrous consequences of deploying the army in the capital: Han Xiong’s call was deeply dejecting. What has the party been reduced to? When I hung up, my tears could not stop flowing. An Zhiwen called to ask about the situation; he sighed and wondered how it could be the party [that did this]! The whole day I felt restless and constantly wanted to wail. Xiao Ke predicted: [the party will be] condemned through the ages and [this event] will go down in history as a byword for infamy.
Zhao Ziyang said he could hears shots from automatic rifles from his home. “While siting in courtyard with my family , I heard intense gunfire.” he wrote, “A tragedy to shock the world had not been averted, and was happening after all.” Never before had the People's Liberation Army turned its weapons on the Chinese people with the intention of murdering so many of them. Demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in 1976 and 1987 had been broken up with batons and tear gas not guns and tanks.
Tiananmen Square Victims
Liao Yiwu wrote in The Nation: “Ding Zilin’s son, Jiang Jielian, was only 17 in 1989, a high-school student swept up in the fervor of the patriotic student movement, who gave himself over to the street protests. On the night of June 3, he was shot in the chest and died before reaching the emergency room. His grieving parents decided to speak out about their family’s ordeal and publicly accused the government of their son’s murder. With Ding and her husband in the lead, those who had lost loved ones in the massacre spoke out one by one and became the Tiananmen Mothers movement. Now, 25 years later, the murderers still govern this country, while the parents who lost their children grow old and die under the gaze of the secret police. [Source: “All You Want Is Money! All I Want Is Revolution!: Before the Tiananmen Square massacre, everyone loved China; now everyone loves the renminbi” by Liao Yiwu, The Nation, November 17, 2015]
Liao Yiwu wrote in the NY Review of Books: “Lü Peng was only nine; she woke in the middle of the night from the shots, sneaked outside, and was hit by a stray bullet. Xia Zhilei was twenty-two, a university student from the south. A little past four in the morning of June 4, she was retreating from the square with the other students. They were already at Dongdan Street. Shots burst forth, and she stumbled and said: “Faster! Faster! Look for a place to take a break. I think I’ve been hit.” She grabbed her chest, but the blood gushed out under her fingers. Her girlfriends tore down her blouse and found the bullet wound under her left breast. The blood could not be stopped. It was still dark, and the troops were closing in from all sides. They didn’t know what to do, so they held her arms while she fainted, and on they walked, on and on. Minutes later, she suddenly woke up. Speaking to her friends, she made her last self-deprecating joke: “Students! My blooming season is gone. My name is Xia Zhilei, “summer’s bloom.” Those flowers of summer don’t last very long.” [Source: Liao Yiwu, NY Review of Books, June 3, 2014, Translated by Martin Winter ***]
Wang Zhengqiang, a 28-year-old office workers, was cycling home in the early hours of June 7 with six friends after an evening of playing cards. They were stopped by a voice in the darkness that said, “Don’t move!” [Source: Jane Macartney, Times of London, May 31, 2009] Wang told the Times of London. ‘suddenly it was bang, bang, bang. It was the People’s Liberation Army. They opened fire on us. We all fell flat. I didn’t know what had happened t the others. They fired another round, I was completely panicked.”
Wang crawled to the edge of a building and lay as still as he could. A soldier who looked no more than 20 approached him. “He came towards me until he was about seven or eight meters away. He pointed his automatic weapon at me. Neither of us said a word. Because the distance was a little far I thought that if I spoke it would be in a loud voice and that might make him nervous. If I spoke in a low voice he might not fear me. After a while he just opened fire. Paff, paff, paff, a round of bullets was fired at me. I was hit.”
When the soldier came closer Wang held up his hands and said, “You’ve made a mistake. I was just passing through.” He then heard another soldier say, “This one is still alive.” Wang was pulled him to a footbridge. Of the other six, one was dead, two women were let go. Zhou and his brother and two friends were watched over through the night by the soldiers. They heard shots off and on through the night. When he started to stand up, one of the soldiers told him “Don’t move or I’ll shoot.”
Wang said he drifted in and out of consciousness. “They realized they that they had made a mistake. But the hospitals were too afraid to send out an ambulance. In the end they put me in an armored personnel carrier and took us to the hospital.” Wang was badly wounded and needed months of treatment. It was not until some time later that he was told brother had died. He had been shot in the lung and probably would have survived had he received immediate medical care. Wang’s own injuries were so severe that he was unable to have children.
Activist Who Lost His Leg at the Tiananmen Square Crackdown
William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “A 33-year-old construction worker at the time of the Tiananmen protests, Qi took a detour that night toward the central Beijing square with co-workers out of curiosity, not activism. Qi, who later converted to Christianity, now likens the moment that troops fired without warning at the crowd around him to a baptism of sorts. “The veil was lifted from my eyes, and I saw the party for what it really was,” he said. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, June 2, 2013 ~~]
“In the hospital, he said, as doctors tried to salvage his bullet-torn left thigh, he took a purple antiseptic liquid and, to their chagrin, angrily scrawled on his leg: “This bullet belongs to the Communist Party’s army.” After the amputation, he was forced to give up his construction job and has not found work since.
“To this day, Qi said, his amputated stump hurts whenever he hears the crack of fireworks. He avoids passing Tiananmen Square, he said, because he tastes blood whenever he gets too close. In the end, suppressing all mention of June 4 in front of his daughter proved impossible. And after his daughter turned 10, a teacher made a passing reference to the date while talking about the physical space of Tiananmen Square. That night, with Qi’s wife still at work, his daughter mentioned it to him, and the memories poured out. The clacking advance of tanks. The shocking sound of gunfire. The blood he saw all around him and the sudden pain and darkness. ~~
Looking for Victims From Tiananmen Square
The mother of a victim named Zhou Lind told Time, "We heard gunfire around Tiananmen Square...I told them not to go, but they promised they'd be back early. They weren't going far: we live on an alley...only two blocks from the square." [Source: Su Bingxian, Time, June 7, 1999]
“At 4:00am on June 4, Zhou Lind still hadn't returned home, so I set out to find him. I headed towards the square, but it was overrun with soldiers. I went to nearby hospitals; carrying his photo. I worked my way through the sick rooms to the morgue. The bodies were in drawers. We pulled out one after another looking for him."
"My husband and I finally found Zhao Long on June 6 at the No. 3 Hospital. Doctors recalled a boy in the morgue dressed in the yellow T-shirt, blue jeans and Nikes I described. He had been carried in by two students during the shooting. The doctors refused to let me look at him; they feared I would drop dead, as another mother had.”
Hospitals Near Tiananmen Square
Jiang Yanyong, a doctor who worked at a hospital where the victims were brought told the Washington Post: “I could not believe my eyes. Lying on the floor and the examination tables were seven young people with blood all over their faces and bodies. Two were confirmed dead after EKG tests...After another salvo of gunshots, more wounded young people were brought to the emergency room by people with pull carts and pedicabs. All 18 surgical rooms were used.”
“During the two-hour period from 10 p.m. to midnight, our emergency room accepted 89 patients with bullet wounds. Seven died despite emergency treatments. Doctors in three groups spent most of the night performing surgery to save all who could be saved.” Another doctor who treated Tiananmen Square victims brought to his hospital said that many had been hit by bullets designed to break apart inside the body and damage internal organs.
“I never forgot one who died,” Jiang said. “He was a young man in his twenties...This young man and his fiancee went to the streets when they heard the gunshots outside. When they ran to the Five Pines Crossroad, a salvo of gunshots sprayed on them. The girl turned and ran. When she found her boy friend did not follow her, she went back. She found him lying in the roadside in a pool of blood. She pulled him, but he would not move. People nearby came forward to help and brought him to the emergency room. A nurse checked his blood pressure. There was none...The girl cried as if she were crazy.”
PLA Journalist’s Account of Tiananmen Square Carnage
Jiang Lin was a journalist and a lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during the Tiananmen Square massacre. Chris Buckley wrote in the New York Times: Chinese Army rolled through Beijing to crush student protests in Tiananmen Square....The memories tormented her — of soldiers firing into crowds in the dark, bodies slumped in pools of blood and the thud of clubs when troops bludgeoned her to the ground near the square.” [Source: Chris Buckley, New York Times, May 28, 2019]
The day of the massacre, “She remembered the people she had seen on the square earlier in the day. “Would they be killed?” she thought. She headed into the city on bicycle to watch the troops come in, knowing that the confrontation represented a watershed in Chinese history. She knew she risked being mistaken for a protester because she was dressed in civilian clothes. But that night, she said, she did not want to be identified with the military. [Source: Chris Buckley, New York Times, May 28, 2019]
“Ms. Jiang followed soldiers and tanks as they advanced into the heart of Beijing, bursting through makeshift blockades formed with buses and firing wildly at crowds of residents furious that their government was using armed force. Ms. Jiang stayed close to the ground, her heart pounding as bullets flew overhead. Bursts of gunfire and blasts from exploding gasoline tanks shook the air, and heat from burning buses stung her face.
“Near midnight, Ms. Jiang approached Tiananmen Square, where soldiers stood silhouetted against the glow of fires. An elderly gatekeeper begged her not to go on, but Ms. Jiang said she wanted to see what would happen. Suddenly, over a dozen armed police officers bore down on her, and some beat her with electric prods. Blood gushed from her head, and Ms. Jiang fell. “Still, she did not pull out the card that identified her as a military journalist. “I’m not a member of the Liberation Army today,” she thought to herself. “I’m one of the ordinary civilians.”
A young man propped her on his bicycle to carry her away, and some foreign” journalists rushed her to a nearby hospital, Ms. Jiang said. A doctor stitched up her head wound. She watched, dazed, as the dead and wounded arrived by dozens. The brutality of that night left her shellshocked. “It felt like watching my own mother being raped,” she said. “It was unbearable.”
Image Sources: AP, YouTube
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated August 2021