Massacre a lesson in brute power

By Michael Fathers, Andrew Higgins

Michael Fathers, in a dispatch from the time, tells how the People’s Army brought death and terror to Beijing.

Bicycle commuters pass through a tunnel while, above, tanks are positioned in Beijing, two days after the Tiananmen Square killings. Photo / AP
Bicycle commuters pass through a tunnel while, above, tanks are positioned in Beijing, two days after the Tiananmen Square killings. Photo / AP

It will go down in the annals of China's Communist Party as The Glorious Fourth of June when the army turned on the unarmed citizens of Peking to destroy a peaceful student-led democracy movement.

The killing around Tiananmen Square started soon after midnight. It was a different army from the unarmed one which had tried to enter the square on Friday night and failed. This one was told to kill, and the soldiers with their AK-47 automatic rifles and the armoured personnel carriers with their machine guns opened fire indiscriminately.

Lined up in rows across the Avenue of Eternal Peace, they advanced slowly, shooting in the air, then they would halt and kneel and fire directly into the crowd. They did the same at the southern end of the square by Zhengyang Gate. When both ends of the square were cleared, they switched off the lights and encircled the thousands of students who had crowded together on the Revolutionary Heroes' monument. Dawn broke and riot police moved in with truncheons.

No one expected such ferocity. There were more than 100,000 soldiers.

I was at the southern end of the square at midnight, walking along the main boulevard to see the student barricades. Suddenly, two armoured personnel carriers roared down the boulevard, smashing through the barriers. They were followed by about 3000 soldiers who positioned themselves near the square. One APC stalled and was set on fire by the mob.

I kept walking towards a barricade of buses a mile away, where four lorries with troops and two earth-moving vehicles were trapped by buses and people. Then flares and tracer bullets shone from behind me and the crack of automatic gunfire could be heard. The troops were advancing on the square. My colleague, Andrew Higgins, was behind at Qianmen Gate, the front entrance to the square. He said the troops surged past and were met with a hail of bricks before they opened fire.

To the north, more gunfire could be heard. I moved up a side street heading for the Avenue of Eternal Peace, where tanks had broken through a barrier of burning buses. It was 1.30am and the start of a huge troop advance to the square. About 50 Chinese and I hid at the entrance to a tiny lane and watched them. The armour was followed by troop trucks and lorries with mesh trailers for prisoners.

The Avenue of Eternal Peace was deserted. Cracks of gunfire mingled with explosions from two burning buses behind me. On the northern side of the avenue was New China Gate, the entrance to Zhongnanhai, the compound of China's Communist Party leaders.

I looked behind as I walked along the pavement. A squad of army goons, waving pistols, electric cattle prods and batons were running towards me. They jumped me, screamed at me, pointed a pistol at my head, beat me about the legs with their batons and dragged me across to New China Gate. Several soldiers ran to me, punching me, kicking me with karate leaps in the back, thighs and chest. They pushed me down into a kneeling position and whacked me across the back with their rods and kicked me until I fell over. They pulled off my spectacles and crushed them into the ground. They screamed at me. Then they took me behind a stone lion guarding the gate. They put two guards beside me.

The People's Army behaved like the Red Guards, with a frenzied brutality. They were the institution that was once called to protect China from the Red Guard excesses. Now they were killing civilians.

The smooth face of the Chinese Communist establishment appeared two hours later, dressed in cream flannels and a pastel T-shirt, the very image of "moderation" that the UK Foreign Office has come to believe is the new China. "You have committed an unfriendly act," he said. I thought that was a bit much. "You fell over, didn't you? That's why you have that bruise on your arm." I also had boot marks and bloodstains on my shirt from a baton blow. My right knee was swollen, my trousers were ripped. He confiscated my notebook and gave me a pass to get beyond the army lines.

All the while the lorries kept rumbling forward until the citizens of Peking were pushed back from the northern end of the square.

Higgins was by now crawling in the mud in front of the vermilion-painted grandstands beside Mao's portrait at the Gate of Heavenly Peace, as bullets whizzed over his head. At first, he said, there was some panic among the young soldiers when they saw the huge crowd. But they were ordered to open fire. An APC was set alight. The crew were pulled out and beaten, but students intervened and rescued them.

The army had nabbed me at 2am. By 4am when they let me go, the gunfire could still be heard from the square. At one stage some students came from side streets, shouting "go home, go home" to stalled lorries outside the leadership compound. They were scattered by militia men with clubs like axe-handles.

Along the streets beside the Forbidden City, groups of people were talking softly, scared but curious. They treated me as a bit of a hero when they saw my bruises and carried me on their bicycles to the rear entrance of the Peking Hotel. Soon after I arrived, about 10 tanks and 20 APCs rumbled past the hotel. Two buses were smouldering nearby.

It was a battlefield. It was a lesson in brute power. I blubbed when I got back to my hotel near midday. I couldn't stop. Perhaps it was shock, or maybe it was because of the carnage. I was weeping for the people of Peking. I cannot see how they are ever likely to trust their leaders again.

June 4, 1989: 'A city under siege'

University students’ seven-week campaign triggered the onslaught of violence. Photo / AP
University students’ seven-week campaign triggered the onslaught of violence. Photo / AP

It was the worst single act of violence against the Chinese people since the Communist Party took power in Peking 40 years ago. Hundreds were dead, many more wounded and still the People's Liberation Army continued into the early hours of this morning to fire on citizens.

Tanks and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) which had blasted their way into Tiananmen Square spread out across the centre of the city, opening fire at groups of people on the streets.

The capital had become a city under siege. Fires could be seen burning, the chatter of gunfire and the thunder of an electric storm shook the night. The people of Peking continued to challenge the military. Students, whose seven-week campaign for political change triggered the onslaught, paraded corpses of fallen comrades at their universities.

The streets of central Peking were covered with bloodstains, rubble and the wreckage of Saturday night's pitched battle. At the western end of the Avenue of Eternal Peace, a long line of APCs were gutted and smoking. Several miles in the other direction, the burned body of a soldier was strung up from an overpass. Headless corpses, crushed by tanks, were lying on other roads.

State radio, quoting the army newspaper, Liberation Army Daily, said the armed forces had achieved a great victory and crushed counter-revolutionary violence. The official media gave detailed accounts of military casualties, saying 1000 soldiers had been hurt. It acknowledged only that there had been some civilian casualties.

Reports in Peking said the civilian death toll could be as many as 1400.

Across the city, hospitals were overflowing with bodies lying in blood-smeared corridors. Doctors said they were unable to cope with the carnage and many injured were likely to die for lack of attention.

State radio mimicked the infamous American adage in Vietnam that to save the village you had to destroy it. In explaining the military assault, the radio said: "It was necessary to undertake that action to save lives and property."

- Independent

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