Tiananmen Square


I don't like to talk about what happened to me at Tiananmen Square.

It's not light cocktail party conversation, and I didn't behave particularly heroically. In fact, when the army started coming after us I ran in the other direction so fast that the Chinese spectators laughed.

Running away down the Chang'an Avenue, I ripped open my foot on one of the students' barricades and spent much of the darkest hours of the night in a Chinese hospital getting stitches and a tetanus shot.

But my time in Tiananmen is part of the story of my time in Hong Kong, so I will talk about it here.


June 2. In Tiananmen Square, with the Goddess of Democracy.


I had originally planned to visit Beijing during May with one of my South China Morning colleagues. Just an ordinary tourist visit - maybe see the Temple of Heaven, make a day trip to the Great Wall.

That visit never came to pass, however, because of a typhoon in Hong Kong kept all airplanes grounded.

At the newspaper, we also heard that there had been some unrest involving the pro-democracy camped out in Tiananmen Square. Apparently the army had been called in to clear them away, but the commanders of local Beijing units refused to attack. The protests seemed to be dying out, anyway, and I really didn't see them as much of a factor when I rescheduled my trip for June 1.

When I arrived, however, it was soon clear that nobody in Beijing wanted to talk about anything else.

People on the street pressed into my hand Xeroxed sheets full of pro-democracy slogans, asking me to distribute them if I could. At the Temple of Heaven, some college-age Chinese girls told me in English they'd heard "it was going to happen" that night, June 2. 'It' was another crackdown on the students in the square.


I went to the square itself to visit, which was a mess - blankets and tents and plastic bags of half-eatn food and people, people, people, along with some kind of loudspeaker blaring democracy slogans in Mandarin.

I met more English-speaking students who were eager to chat with a foreigner. They'd told me they'd come on the train from the provinces, just to be part of the demonstrations.

We took photos of each other, and they had autograph-style books they wanted visitors to sign. They asked me to write something about freedom in it.

I tried the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights, although I found them not particularly interested in the First Amendment freedom of religion.

Since at the time university students were still assigned careers and jobs in China, I made up something about "freedom to decide your own destiny," which the students liked very much.

The students had pitched tents in Tiananmen Square and said they were ready for whatever happened.

I met the students


When I came out, crowds had started to gather.

The daytime hours of June 3 were unremarkable for me. I explored the Forbidden City, which was empty and windy, and visited some sort of memorial to Chairman Mao's youth.

After a nap at the hotel, I chose a restaurant nearby for an early dinner of Peking Duck. It was excellent.

When I came out of the restaurant, however, it was clear that something was going on. There were huge crowds in the streets, blocking what appeared to be army personnel carriers. People were climbing up to look inside the trucks, or lifting up their children for a better view.

There was tension in the air. No fool - I was, after all, a reporter - I figured that "it" was indeed happening, and I moved through the crowds towards Tiananmen Square.


The students had set up metal barriers along the streets to block tanks, but they were easy for pedestrians to penetrate.

When I got to Tiananmen, everything was as I had left it the day before - the tents, the mess, the screaming slogans on the loudspeaker. I was easily able to easily find the students I'd met the previous day - at least the men. "We sent the girls home," one told me, "because tonight is going to be the night."

There were rumors. People said troops on the way were not from Beijing - like the commanders who had refused to shoot in May - but from the south of China, near the border with Laos. Peasants who had joined the army during a famine, they were battle-hardened veterans and used to killing, people said. They spoke no Mandarin, so no one in the crowd would be able to persuade them to disobey orders. And their heads had been filled with lies about how the students in the square had brutally murdered and defiled the bodies of some of their army colleagues.

Suddenly, the loudspeaker went silent.

We heard that the tanks had broken through the barriers and were on their way. At that point, I left the square.

Tiananmen Square at dusk

Tensions near Zhongnanhai

But I didn't leave the area. I wandered around amid the crowds, stopping to watch an argument outside the gates of the communist leaders' compound at Zhongnanhai, which was well protected with dozens of troops in horizontal rows.

And I walked back towards the northwest corner of the square, where there was a contingent of fifty young soldliers, sitting oddly on the ground with their guns.

One of the student protesters was speaking to them, loudly and earnestly. Someone explained to me that she was from their region of China and knew their dialect.

She wasn't trying to tell explain democracy to them - that was too abstract for these young, uneducated soldiers - but trying to win them over with stories about the corruption of high officials and their children. The soldiers listened with blank faces. Later, there were suggestions that they had been drugged.

Just after sunset, the first tank rolled into the square. Someone fired a Molotov cocktail at it, and it burst into flame, immolating anyone inside. A cheer went up from the crowd.

A few minutes later, however, as darkness fell, there was screaming, and people starting running from the square. Somehow, I got the idea that the army had started to attack.

I ran too, and as I did more tanks passed me, going towards the square. And that is all I know.


Next: The Hong Kong goodbye party

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