For a few heady days in May 1989 anything seemed possible


THE EVENTS in what became the biggest challenge to Communist Party rule in 40 years began in mid-April 1989 when public grief over the death of former party leader and popular reformer Hu Yaobang slowly took on a new dimension and students on the campuses of Beijing’s great universities began to call for democracy and greater steps to combat corruption.

Within weeks the students were encamped on Tiananmen Square, the vast plaza in front of the Forbidden City, with the Great Hall of the People at its side.

This was the symbolic power centre of China and the idea of students occupying the square was shocking and inspiring to democracy activists and anti-government protesters all over China.

For a few heady days in May 1989 anything seemed possible. The students went on hunger strike and the leadership was forced to come and talk to them. The government seemed unable to decide what to do.

A few months after the historic events that took place in Beijing 20 years ago next Thursday, in cities such as Leipzig, Budapest and Prague, governments decided not to act against their people, and the chain of events which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening up of eastern Europe began.

But in Beijing, China’s supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, architect of the same reforms which saw China end its long period of isolation, took a different line.

Premier Li Peng sent the People’s Liberation Army in to crush the fledgling democracy movement in Beijing and in other cities around the country.

The catalyst came during a visit by then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who had democracy and reform calls of his own to deal with it at home. The situation escalated and the whole world was watching.

There was a power struggle between the hardliners, led by Li Peng, and the moderate side of the party, represented by the Communist Party general secretary Zhao Ziyang.

This tense stand-off was dramatically described by Zhao in his recent memoirs.

In the end the country’s supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, backed the hardliners, and Zhao was placed under house arrest. The students were labelled counter-revolutionaries and hooligans and suddenly the police left Beijing, to be replaced on the night of June 3rd by the army who attacked the square and fired on the general population.

The testimonies were horrific. A promising discus thrower, Fang Zheng tells of a night of terror as tanks rolled in early in the morning and opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators. Along with fellow students, he ran for his life to the west of the square.

As they reached the Liubukou crossroads, grenades were thrown into the crowd from behind, and Fang heard the tracks behind him.

He saw the tank approach until he thought its barrel was right in his face. He was helping a female student into a side street when his legs went under the tracks and he was dragged along behind the vehicle before hauling himself clear.

Wu’er Kaixi, one of the student leaders on the square, was at one of the frontlines at Dongzhimen.

“People were stopping the soldiers, asking them: ‘Don’t kill your brothers’.

“It’s amazing how angry Chinese people were, very emotional, and the retaliation was irrational, unreal, the forces were incompatible, but it didn’t stop people from crying,” he said.

“One thing quite dramatic is that when a bullet flew past, and the wind hit my face, after you feel the bullet shot, you don’t know how far away it is from you, but when you feel the disturbed air in your face, you know it’s close. When PLA soldiers move as a company and all of a sudden someone gives them an order and they start to charge, that’s even more scary than the tanks,” he said.

“You know people are dying, I didn’t see the shots, but after they charge and they retreat, there are people being carried out, and you know they have been shot, and the rickshaw comes in and carries them to the hospital, and then the sound of gunshots. Very real. No firecrackers,” said Mr Wu’er.

We will probably never know how many people died on that night and in the bloody days that followed. The official death toll is 241, including 36 students, but thousands are believed to have died. Reporters who covered the story at the time went to hospitals in the surrounding areas and came up with more than 1,000 confirmed deaths.

The massacre shocked the world and China was marginalised by the international community, but as Deng Xiaoping reportedly said: “The West always forgets.”

The lure of China’s huge potential market was too appealing for condemnation to last long, and China was soon back at the high table of the international community.

Twelve years after the crackdown, China was a member of the World Trade Organisation and is now the world’s third largest economy.