Read TIME's 1989 cover story about the Tiananmen Square massacre
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It was only a matter of time. For seven weeks the world had marveled at the restraint demonstrated by both Beijing’s rulers and the thousands of demonstrators for democracy who had occupied Tiananmen Square. The whole affair, in fact, had developed the aura of a surrealistic ritual, with both sides’ forces stepping in circles as if they were performing some stately, stylized pavane. Violence, it seemed, was out of the question. And then, early Sunday morning, the dance ended in a spasm of fury, the worst day of bloodshed in Communist China’s history.
Until week’s end it appeared that the army would continue to hold back. On Friday unarmed soldiers in shirtsleeves made a desultory pass at dispersing the crowds but quickly turned back. By Saturday afternoon, however, the mood changed. At 2 p.m. troops popped tear-gas shells and beat up people trying to stop them from moving into the center of Beijing. An hour later, behind the Great Hall of the People, helmeted soldiers began lashing out at students, bystanders and other citizens who, as if summoned by some irresistible call to the barricades, rushed to the district by the thousands. Soldiers stripped off their belts and used them to whip people; others beat anyone in their path with truncheons, bloodying heads as they tried to pry an opening through the mob. For 5 1/2 hours the students held fast. Then the army inexplicably vanished. Within an hour, off Qianmen West Road on the southern end of the square, 1,200 more troops appeared. Once again they were surrounded by civilians; the soldiers again retreated.
But those forays were only the prelude to death. At 2 a.m. Sunday a convoy of 50 trucks with foot soldiers barreled along the crowded streets that empty into the square. Advance troops torched buses and trucks that had been set up as barricades, enabling the convoy to pass through. Suddenly soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army seemed to be everywhere: pouring out of the ancient Forbidden City, poised on the rooftops of the Great Hall of the People and Mao ) Zedong’s mausoleum, entering the vast, 100-acre square from side streets in a triple-fanged movement from the south, west and east. Ten thousand strong, the army mounted a deliberately vicious assault.
Leveling their AK-47 assault rifles, the soldiers began firing away at the mobs. The gas tanks of commandeered buses exploded. Huge streams of people fled in terror past blazing trees along Changan Avenue — the Avenue of Eternal Peace. As helmeted soldiers mounted automatic machine guns on tripods facing the square, policemen with truncheons chased people from the sidewalks and the ornate marble bridges leading to the Forbidden City.
The shooting grew most intense by 2:15 a.m. A Belgian tourist said he saw a hundred soldiers line up in front of the Museum of the Revolution and fire into the crowd. Panic-stricken people fell to the pavement or cowered behind the imperial city’s ornate stone lions. Many sought sanctuary at the Beijing Hotel complex, where military officers later combed through rooms searching for foreign journalists’ notebooks and audio-and videotapes.
Some protesters held fast, fighting with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Near a hotel entrance, a group of demonstrators saw two soldiers kill a civilian, then pounced on the pair and beat them to death. An armored personnel carrier that had sped into the square half an hour before the main assault was blocked by a barricade of bicycle racks. Protesters mummified the APC in banners and cloth, then set it ablaze with Molotov cocktails, trapping its crew of eight or nine soldiers.
The fighting spilled out of the Tiananmen area and into other Beijing neighborhoods. Trucks were set afire, and the sound of shooting filled the air. Troops firing from the rooftops and upper floors of Radio Beijing and the Minzu Hotel wounded and killed people who were asleep in their homes. Across town, reporters sighted tanks on the move, some of them firing their cannon indiscriminately down what appeared to be near-empty thoroughfares. Huge blazes swept across residential districts.
It was all too much for the overpowered civilians. By 5 a.m. Tiananmen Square was virtually emptied of all protesters; only the carcasses of smoldering vehicles and debris remained. Elsewhere in the city, sporadic skirmishes continued, but by then the great, peaceful dream for democracy had become a horrible nightmare. Hospitals reported receiving scores of dead and hundreds or even thousands of wounded. One anguished doctor reported at least 500 dead. When the government radio announced that 1,000 had died, the station’s personnel were quickly removed, and no further death toll was broadcast. Reports circulated that many bodies were being trucked away to be cremated, so the real count may never be known.
At sunrise the sky was enveloped in smoke. Some residents bravely regrouped and taunted the troops occupying the square, crying, “Beasts! Beasts!” Again shots were fired, and some 5,000 fled for their lives, scrambling into the narrow hutungs, or alleys, that snake through the city. On Sunday the P.L.A. newspaper Liberation Daily proclaimed a great victory over a “counterrevolutionary insurrection.” Still, reports of shooting and fighting in Beijing continued to pour in the following day. Additionally, citizens’ blockades have begun to go up in Shanghai, China’s largest city.
From his weekend home in Kennebunkport, Me., where he had arrived only a day earlier after his triumphant NATO meeting, a sorrowful President Bush said, “I deeply deplore the decision to use force against peaceful demonstrators and the subsequent loss of life.” A White House official told TIME that Bush, a former Ambassador to China, felt “personal anguish and even anger.” Secretary of State James Baker called the affair “ugly and chaotic,” and his department sent a message to China’s leaders urging them to “return to restraint.”
The Bush Administration feels it is in an acute dilemma. While the Administration wants to make clear that the U.S. Government is outraged over the brutality in Tiananmen Square, it does not want to jeopardize the ten- year-old “strategic partnership” between Beijing and Washington. Already there is congressional pressure to act. On hearing of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Senator Jesse Helms called for a cutoff of American military cooperation with the People’s Republic.
U.S. officials believe the attack on the students reflected desperation on the part of the country’s gerontocracy, led by Deng Xiaoping. But though the crackdown was obviously meant to intimidate the people-power movement, it could have the opposite effect. Disaffected Chinese citizens are calling for the people “to unite in the open or underground,” as one of them put it, “to seek revenge for all the deaths.”
Though of greater magnitude, the massacre was gruesomely reminiscent of the Tiananmen Square riots of 1976. Widespread revulsion over that bloodbath led to the downfall of the infamous Gang of Four, headed by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, and the ascendance to power two years later of Deng. Unable to accept the new world crying out from the streets, Deng appears to have reverted to a hoary Maoist maxim: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” With devastating carnage, Deng proved he could unleash the firepower. But now that his regime is riding the military tiger, can it dismount without being torn to pieces?
The troops brought to the capital from all over China during the past few weeks are said to be loyal not to some central command but to various factions in the leadership. Thus while numerous units remained behind barricades, others, like the 27th Army, wreaked destruction in the city. Reports of heavy fire inside the Forbidden City, where police and P.L.A. units are routinely billeted, led to speculation that the rival units were shooting it out with one another. Furthermore, said a Western academic in Beijing, “there was very clearly a battle between two different army units on the road to the airport.”
The bloody denouement of the demonstrations seemed to be the direct result of Deng’s attempts to retain the upper hand in a protracted power struggle among China’s leaders. The disarray was signaled by the failure in recent weeks of party elders to reach consensus on the formal ouster of party chief Zhao Ziyang, who had lost favor because he sympathized with the student protesters. Within the party rank and file, the hard-liners’ attempts to brand Zhao a counterrevolutionary had met with silent resistance and even mutters of bu dui (not correct).
Added to that was the sudden re-emergence early in the week of a quartet of octogenarian revolutionaries, among them economist Chen Yun and former President Li Xiannian. This seemed to indicate that Deng was seeking support against Zhao from the very men he had once sidelined for resisting his economic reforms. Analysts in Beijing feared that Deng had cast his lot with this ideologically rigid Gang of Elders, as the group was dubbed. Such fears were buttressed by renewed government denunciations of “bourgeois liberalization,” the phrase that presaged a conservative crackdown two years ago. Some Chinese found a good deal of irony in the awkward situation. “The 80-year-olds,” commented one wag, “are calling meetings of 70-year-olds to decide which 60-year-olds should retire.”
Apparently Deng’s strategy prevailed. Throughout the week, party documents circulated detailing the events that contributed to Zhao’s unofficial removal. As recounted by President Yang Shangkun in these papers, Zhao’s offenses included failing to support a harsh editorial in the People’s Daily that condemned the demonstrators and refusing to join other Politburo members in backing martial law.
The rumor-heavy press in Hong Kong suggested an altogether different scheme. Newspapers claimed that the ultimate target of the Gang of Elders was not Zhao but Deng; the elders, it was said, intended to force Deng out of his role and replace him with the more conservative and orthodox President Yang. Beijing analysts discounted the theory as overly sensational. In fact, Deng is the most hard-line enemy of the students. Only the party turmoil may have delayed him from lining up support for his position. The massive sweep through Tiananmen could not have been facilitated without the cooperation of the various military factions that owe fealty to such veterans of the revolutionary war as Yang, Li and Peng Zhen.
Many suspect that Yang is the true champion of the military push into Tiananmen. While Deng heads the shadowy but omnipotent Central Military Commission, the President has placed relatives in key positions in the military hierarchy; one of the units involved in the Tiananmen massacre was under the personal command of his brother Yang Baibing. If Deng, through loss of face or life, ceased to rule China, Yang Shangkun might attempt to maneuver himself into the leadership of the Central Military Commission and replace Deng as China’s most eminent leader.
In the days before the attack, the government began to show its desperation. It organized antiliberal rallies that became unwitting parodies of the strident Red Guard style of the ’60s. The authorities tried to rein in the press. Foreign correspondents were warned to stop covering student activities, but few reporters took heed. Chinese television ceased live coverage from Tiananmen Square and began carrying statements from leaders expressing support for martial law. “Nobody takes the news broadcasts seriously these days,” said an office secretary. “They are all a sham.”
Meanwhile, students holding out on the square knew that their numbers were dwindling and that their protest was turning into a minor sidelight to a power struggle. A few days ago, in a flash of their earlier exuberance, they erected a “Goddess of Democracy” at the northern end of the square. The 30-ft.-high sculpture, fashioned from plaster-covered Styrofoam and bearing a marked resemblance to the Statue of Liberty, drew contemptuous comments from the government — and admiration from thousands of onlookers.
The bloody assault by Deng’s armed troops ended all that, and also the Goddess of Democracy, which was crushed by a tank once the troops gained control of the square. Even so, the events of the past seven weeks immunized vast numbers of people against the traditional propaganda bromides and convinced them that the government was not invulnerable: it was only an agency of brutal power. If the student campaign failed, it at least succeeded in forging a historic new link between China’s intellectual community and its masses. As an observer said earlier in the week, “It will be impossible to turn back the clock.”
Although the link could prove tenuous, the observer just may be right. And if he is, that bond between two once disparate elements could haunt Deng and his successors for a long time to come. A similar connection between intellectuals and workers gave rise to the Solidarity movement that rocked Poland in the early ’80s. China’s leaders had been fretting about the similarities between the student movement and the Solidarity campaign. Tellingly, when officials ordered arrests last week, three of the 14 people who were briefly detained were members of a new, unauthorized union.
In the thousands of years spanned by Chinese history, unspeakable atrocities have occurred. Millions have suffered from the machinations of cloistered emperors, empresses and eunuchs; whole cities have been slaughtered by marauding invaders and warlords. Until Sunday, that all seemed safely in the past. No one quite expected it to happen again. The shock will ease with the passage of weeks. The tremors will be felt for years.