The Day China's Heart Froze


"His head was heavily damaged, so we wanted someone to perform cosmetic work. But it was impossible, it had been too long." Zheng Yujian’s eyes cloud over at the memory of his colleague’s corpse, collected two weeks after he was gunned down by the People’s Liberation Army on a Beijing street on the night of June 3–4, 1989.

"His parents were so heartbroken — he was the only son. He had only been married, if I recall, less than a year. We didn’t want his wife to see his face, but she insisted. When she saw him she immediately fainted."

There must be thousands of stories like Zheng’s that have gone largely untold for 20 years. With his long hair and goatee, the Hong Kong-based academic looks younger than he is — only tiny flecks of grey give away his age. But in 1989 he was a young researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, freelancing as a documentary writer on a series about China’s decade-old reforms.

"Because of the series we were very sensitive to the news, and when former General Secretary Hu Yaobang died it was obvious something would happen." Ousted in 1987 for failing to deal "correctly" with earlier student unrest, Hu’s passing in April 1989 was the catalyst for a new wave of protests. Zheng’s documentary team headed up to Beijing University, the "Oxford of China", and started recording the birth of a mass pro-democracy movement.

In the same part of Beijing, Zheng’s friend, academic Liu Suli, was already marching with his students from the China University of Political Science and Law (Zhongguo Zhengfa Daxue). Today Liu is the middle-aged proprietor of a well-known bookstore in Beijing’s University District. Back in 1989 he was a part-time academic. "The day after Hu Yaobang’s death I was already involved in the protests," he states matter-of-factly, speaking in a quiet, measured way. "After May 13 I was on the Square virtually 24 hours a day."

The demonstrations centred on Tiananmen Square, and found a sympathetic ear in the reform-minded Communist Party General Secretary, Zhao Ziyang. "I think if there had been no other forces at the highest levels opposing Zhao, then it could have been peacefully resolved in early May," reflects Zheng. "At that time students were actually going back to their classrooms in many universities. But on 13 May Gorbachev arrived, providing a chance to make voices larger through international media, and from May 13 through to June 4 the Square was almost always occupied."

Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit was the first by a Soviet leader since the split between China and the USSR at the end of the 1950s. The world’s press flooded into Beijing and two days later, on the 15th, student protesters declared a hunger strike. Workers and ordinary citizens became involved as unrest spread across the country.

The movement was disparate and vague in its demands, but there is little doubt it was fuelled by widespread discontent at Government restrictions and endemic corruption. For Liu at least, the aim was clear: "I wanted the collapse of the Communist system, and that is still today’s objective. We wanted something like Western-style democracy, even if in retrospect that aim was too simplistic."

The protests totally disrupted Gorbachev’s visit and left the Government humiliated. Hardliners like Premier Li Peng were furious, and on 20 May the Government declared martial law. Unarmed troops were deployed, only to be swamped by Beijingers who cut their fuel lines and encouraged the soldiers to join the demonstrations.

In response, the Government marshalled forces from outside Beijing, comprising troops who had been kept isolated from news in the capital. On the evening of 3 June they began moving down Chang’an Avenue, an east-west thoroughfare that dissects the city’s south and cuts across the top of Tiananmen Square.

"On the night of June 3 I was about two miles north of Chang’an, near the National Library, at the birthday party of a close friend," recalls Zheng. "Someone called us on the phone a little after 10:00pm and said something is happening. We went out with bicycles and headed south. About halfway down we could already see a flood of people running. We didn’t go further because people said tanks were already crossing the intersection ahead, at Muxidi."

Zheng didn’t know it at the time, but the Muxidi intersection, almost six kilometres west of Tiananmen Square, probably saw the heaviest casualties of the night. As the army moved down Chang’an, this was the site of the first serious resistance by local citizens. Unlike the earlier soldiers sent into the capital, these troops were armed with battlefield-grade weapons and backed by armoured columns. When they began cutting people down with gunfire, residents in the apartment blocks lining the road rained crockery on the soldiers’ heads. In return the buildings were raked with fire.

When the massacre began at Muxidi, Liu was at the demonstrators’ makeshift HQ on top of the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the centre of Tiananmen Square. "The first news about shooting came around 10:00pm," he says. "We were really shocked. We couldn’t believe they were really shooting — there were rumours they were just rubber bullets — until we saw people bleeding. The first wounded appeared on the square around 11.30pm. Around the same time there was battle around Jinshui Qiao [a small footbridge immediately in front of Tiananmen gate at the top of the Square]. They set fire to a military truck. But that vehicle had come from the east, not the west."

It was the early hours of 4 June when troops started appearing on the actual square. "The first batch of soldiers I saw was from the east," recalls Liu. "From the time of the first burning military truck before midnight, all the way to the final clearout, there was a confrontation to the east between students and citizens, and the army… I didn’t hear any gunfire there, it seemed to be more knives or whatever. Definitely people were wounded. That lasted two or three hours. Then the biggest batch of troops actually came out of the Great Hall of the People [overlooking the western side of the square], because they came through underground tunnels. That was after 4:00am — it seemed to be their particular task to occupy the Monument."

Although Liu and many other eyewitnesses confirm there was much firing as the army converged on the square in the early hours of 4 June, he concurs with claims that no-one died on Tiananmen itself. "There was a lot of gunfire, but into the air — they were trying to destroy the speakers of the protesters, through which we were condemning what was happening. The gunfire was to shoot the speakers down."

Shortly before dawn the students remaining on the Monument were completely surrounded. They were given a choice of leaving or being mown down. "The army had received an order that they had to clear the square before dawn, which was around 5:00am," says Liu. "Between maybe 3:00 and 5:00am there was a lot of discussion and debate, then there was a vote a little before dawn. The majority voted to leave."

After leaving the square through a corridor of troops, Liu helped carry corpses back to his campus. "I helped carry seven bodies from around Xidan [west of Tiananmen Square]. Our information was they had not been killed in the night, but in the early morning, after dawn. Some had clearly been crushed by tanks [he makes a gesture indicating tank tracks down his chest]. Killing was still occasionally going on the next morning."

An immense fury spread across the city as ordinary people realised there had been a massacre. "They were indignant," says Liu, "and at first they really prepared to start street resistance. On our campus they started collecting stones. But a little bit afterwards this enormous fear started to overwhelm everyone. I didn’t feel that fear on the square, in the crowd. People were prepared to sacrifice themselves — fear was not the feeling. But the next day there was such a sense of uncertainty. No-one knew what would happen — death, arrest, or whatever other possibilities. That created enormous fear."

For Zheng, the trepidation started even before dawn on 4 June. "When we retreated back to the campus it was still dark. There was a lot of discussion, then somehow I fell asleep. I still remember being in the student dormitory, half awake, dreaming armed soldiers were breaking down the doors — it was like a nightmare."

When Zheng woke the next morning, it was to see the corpse of a child being displayed by the university gate. "I still remember he had a blue t-shirt and white shorts. They put him on a wooden board on the back of a tricycle. You could definitely see a wound in his back. A child, seven or eight. Everyone saw it and couldn’t help crying."

As the nationwide protests petered out in the wake of the slaughter, Zheng returned to Shanghai and hurriedly took up the offer of a PhD scholarship with an American University. "When I went back to Shanghai I really wanted to leave. I thought the sooner I get out, the safer I’ll be." In 1995 he moved to Hong Kong, where he has lived ever since.

Liu’s path after the crackdown was rockier. After fleeing to Nanjing in China’s south on 5 June, he and a friend decided to return to the capital a week or so later when arrest lists were issued. "I wanted to disclose the truth in court. To defend our actions," he explains. "Actually," he adds ruefully, "it never went to court. The process stopped at the Public Prosecutor’s Office. The decision was exempt from the public court system. I stayed in jail for 20 months." Upon release he was blacklisted from all government and academic jobs, a situation that led him to open a bookshop he has now run for 17 years.

Asked if he regrets handing himself in when many others escaped overseas, Liu replies emphatically, "Never. I am more convinced than ever it was the right decision. If I had escaped most likely I could never have come back to China, even now. At least I can still play some role and do something in Beijing. After jail, we didn’t have to hide."

Despite the failure of the movement and an intervening 20 years that have seen the massacre largely wiped from China’s memory, both Liu and Zheng remain devoted to the ideals of that time. While acknowledging mistakes were made and opportunities missed by the students, neither believe this changes the essential rightness of what they were fighting for, nor reduces the Government’s culpability for the bloodshed. "Can you criticise the students?" Zheng asks rhetorically. "Should they have given up just because martial law was declared? At that time people thought, ‘We are making a mild claim. We are patriotic. We just want reform, we just want to reduce corruption.’ How can any government not recognise that?"

When asked whether the protests ultimately achieved anything, however, both Zheng and Liu seem more ambivalent. Liu comments, "The failure of the movement and the crackdown really turned the clock back 20 years. Even now we are not at a better stage in terms of political reform than we were in 1988. But from a global perspective I believe the significance is obvious — the Tiananmen movement led to the relatively peaceful collapse of the Eastern European regimes the following year. Everyone witnessed how brutal a regime could be and how unacceptable it was, and didn’t want to follow suit. So at the cost of our own democratic pace, it achieved something."

Zheng is more reticent, especially when he sees some of those still in exile facing old age and even death in foreign lands. "This is not an easy thing to say, but it seems history does not give people comfort. Morally speaking, it should not have been this way. I don’t have a naïve view of justice, but something here is not right. If you are a decent government, even if you sincerely believe these people are wrong, this is not the way — to exile them forever. And now it seems the Communist Party believe, especially with the economic crisis, everyone should kowtow to them. Their economic success has been elevated into a moral self-righteousness. But no one can break that link — between what happened in June 1989 and their political morals."

After a pause, Zheng hints at the emotional scars carried by everyone who lived through those events. "Every time I recall certain moments from June 4, it’s like yesterday. Compared to what happened five years ago or 10 years ago, it feels closer. Part of me was frozen at that moment."

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.