June 11, 1989: with up to 7,000 already dead, the killing goes on, Jon Swain finds in Beijing
by Jon Swain
I witnessed the sickening reality of murderous repression last Friday morning and checked my watch. It was 11.42am, five days after the People’s Liberation Army launched its devastating assault on Tiananmen Square.
Then, the soldiers stabbed and slashed at students and onlookers with their bayonets, shot them with their pistols and rifles before tanks mangled their bodies in an act of barbarity that will be remembered as one of the – darkest days in China’s history.
More than ever last Friday morning, Beijing was a city of anguish and fear. Troops and secret police were out in force to arrest anyone suspected of involvement in the pro-democracy movement.
CCTV, the state television network that just a week before had been broadcasting honest news about the pro-democracy demonstrations, was again fettered, giving telephone numbers for people to denounce and rat on “counter-revolutionaries”. In a grim exercise in propaganda it showed pictures of people being led away to confess their crimes.
With the hardliners of the Communist party under Deng Xiaoping, China’s senior leader, relentlessly gathering power this was, above all, a moment to remain inconspicuous.
For one young man whose world had collapsed on bloody Sunday in Tiananmen Square, the struggle against oppression went on despite the reign of terror. He fearlessly rode his bicycle out of a side Street on the east side of the square, waving a red student protest banner in a lone act of defiance against the crackdown.
He was only in his twenties, dressed in slacks and a white shirt. As he emerged onto the main Boulevard of Eternal Peace, two armed policemen seized him and tore the banner from his hand.
There was no struggle and no time to cry for democracy or liberty. With sickening thuds, truncheon blows rained down on the young man in full view of a gathering crowd. He was dragged to an army tent beneath the high red walls of the Forbidden City. From there came a single shot.
A few in the crowd shouted angrily. Abrupt orders to disperse, backed up by a menacing wave of rifles, stilled the dissent.
By such an event one knows that China has reverted to a police state, its ideal of more democracy crushed. The People’s Liberation Army is supposed to love the people, but since the massacre a week ago its soldiers, with rare exception, have been behaving like a foreign army of occupation.
After the slaughter, western diplomats say the army now arouses as much dread and hatred as the Gestapo did in occupied Europe. At a bus stop in the centre of the city on Friday a man said: “This is a fascist state. If we had guns we would overthrow it now.”
The trigger-happy soldiers, who had gunned down people with abandon throughout the week, had by Saturday occupied positions across Beijing. “They have a knife at the city’s very throat,” said an attendant at one leading hotel. “I was in Tiananmen on Sunday morning and my best friend was killed.”
Estimates of western intelligence officials range from 3,000 to 7,000 dead and 10,000 wounded. It seems bizarre, but the first event that led to the bloodbath was a traffic accident. Until that moment, despite the imposition of martial law, both sides had shown remarkable restraint.
Then a police vehicle crashed into cyclists, killing at least one. As word of the accident spread, it generated fresh anger and revitalised the flagging protest movement.
Many atrocities were committed by troops that night. A western military attaché told how a young mother in the Avenue of Eternal Peace had pleaded with the troops to shoot her but spare the baby in her arms. A soldier bayoneted her to death.
One had only to stroll through a residential area of Beijing yesterday to gauge the revulsion for the regime. A statue to youth and vitality was garlanded with Wreaths in memory of residents who had been cut down by the army. They included a six-year-old girl and a member of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament.
Pinned to a wreath was a simple statement: “June 4, the darkest day in the history of the motherland.”
Jon Swain was international reporter of the year in 1989
Source: The Sunday Times, From the Archive, 12 April 2009, p. 21