On the 15th anniversary of one of the most cataclysmic events in modern China, a wealth of eyewitness testimony and interviews suggest that one stubbornly popular picture of what happened in Tiananmen Square needs revision: There was no massacre of students on the Square.
Standard histories such as that by Yale's Jonathan Spence, as well as the recent groundbreaking "Tiananmen Papers," suggest that Chinese soldiers did not fire on students before they left the square in the early hours of June 4, 1989. But in popular references, most recently in the first paragraph of a major retrospective wire story this week stating that "thousands were killed in Tiananmen Square," the myth persists. A massacre did take place in Beijing 15 years ago, eyewitnesses say - just not in Tiananmen.
What is famously known as the June 4 massacre actually began on the evening of June 3. The night was cool and windless, eyewitnesses remember. The student uprising that shocked China's leadership with calls for democratic reform, and that captured the attention of the world, was nine weeks old by then.
One exhausted protest leader remembers retiring at 10:15 p.m. on June 3 in one of hundreds of makeshift tents in the square - unaware, in a pre-cellphone era, that Army columns were already rolling in on a westerly road.
Many journalists and observers had earlier strolled three blocks to the Beijing Hotel for a relaxed dinner. By June 3, in fact, the Tiananmen story seemed in a lull, and many reporters were pulled back to Tokyo or Hong Kong. Just weeks earlier, 2 million people were arriving each day to China's most sacred public site. They were reacting to the imposition of martial law and the dismissal of reform leader Zhao Ziyang, who was sympathetic to the students, and who among other things appeared to favor the policy of glasnost that was changing the Soviet Union.
Yet by June 3 the numbers were down; the students were tired and squabbling.
Rumors came of an Army crackdown. But such rumors had swirled for weeks. Most students on the square at this point were not the original cast from the elite colleges of Beijing. These protesters had come from the provinces. Some arriving June 3 said they wanted to contribute to a "new China, less corrupt."
Few observers were prepared for what happened next.
In two hours, between midnight and 2 p.m., the slightly riotous, unorganized festival of meetings and exhilarated free speech on the square became a grim confrontation with an Army that surrounded the students, and was using live rounds against citizens in neighborhoods all over the city.
That night still lives in infamy to many who remember it. Chinese leaders remain silent about the event 15 years later. No mistakes have been admitted nor has any government accounting been done. In today's bustling commercial China, moreover, few speak of the brutal putdown. New generations here profess lack of interest in the question of who was and wasn't a patriot, or what transpired, not that there are any rewards for such curiosity.
What actually did happen June 3 - 4 is still often confused with myth and misreporting.
Early wire reports, including a second-day account by a Tsinghua student, now widely regarded as disinformation, and several assertions to the media by student leaders who were not present, planted some of the misconceptions that persist today. A British reporter (who left the square at 1:30 p.m.) for example, wrote a widely read account based entirely on secondhand sources who claimed a massacre took place in the square.
In fact, the panic was so intense that most impartial observers left the square by midnight. In those days, says one European journalist who was there, "no one ever believed that the Army would actually shoot people."
As few as 10 foreigners actually witnessed events on the square during the crucial early morning hours of June 4 , according to eyewitnesses interviewed by the Monitor, and an unpublished 52-page document compiled entirely in the weeks after by Robin Munro (then of Human Rights Watch) and Richard Nations (a Le Monde reporter) of 14 testimonials of journalists, diplomats, and students present on the square after midnight.
Despite orders that the People's Liberation Army was to clear Tiananmen Square using whatever means necessary, there is no credible eyewitness testimony of a massacre of students there. No eyewitnesses at the Monument to the People's Heroes, where students were centered, ever saw one. No "rivers of blood" flowed on the square. No rows of students were mowed down by a sudden rush of troops, as reported in European, Hong Kong, and US publications in the days, months, and years that followed.
The actual number of students and citizens killed on the square may be as low as a dozen, according to the documents and the eyewitnesses. The medical tent on the square, originally used to comfort student hunger strikers, reported at least 10 deaths. Rather, between the morning hours of 4:45 and 6:15, some 2,000 to 3,000 students filed off the square through a cordon of troops, protected by a line of their own ranks who linked arms.
There was, however, a massacre in Beijing - during the four days starting June 3. It took place at street intersections, in Hutong neighborhoods, in the alleyways around the square, and in the western part of the city, where resistance to the deployment of the Army was strongest. Moreover, the victims were not only students, but ordinary people who were outraged that the soldiers of a people's army had been given warrant to shoot the people.
One emerging interpretation of the June 4 event is that the students avoided a massacre - partly, and symbolically, by using their power to vote.
By 4 a.m. on the square, one of the most dangerous moments had arrived. In testimony compiled by Mr. Munro, and including Mr. Nations, and Juan Restrepro of Spanish TV, among others - all of whom stayed with the students until they left the square - matters had by then reached a "lethal" tension point. Soldiers surrounded the students from three sides - at the Forbidden City, Great Hall of the People, and the History Museum. The square was lighted. Some 2,000 students huddled at the towering monument at center square. They sang the "Internationale," with its verse, "the final battle is upon us, unite until the morrow." Orange flames from burning tents leapt up.
Students wore headbands that said "ready to die." Military loudspeakers competed with student loudspeakers. Students urged each other to, "Keep order, stay calm. We must not give them a pretext [to shoot.]" At one point about 4:15 the lights on the square went out and some 10,000 People's Liberation Army troops ran out of the entrance of the Great Hall in what seemed an attempt to frighten students into scattering. But they remained poised.
What happened instead, according to Munro's account, was a kind of surreal debate at a moment of decision. The head of the Peking students autonomous federation urged all students to stay and face the guns. "We will now pay the highest price possible, for the sake of securing democracy for China. Our blood will be the consecration," are his words in Munro's notes. Yet immediately leader Hou Dejian disagreed, saying on the loudspeaker: "We have already won a great victory. But now we have to go."
The minutes ticked by and no actions were taken. Munro says, "My gut feeling was that everyone present knew perfectly well why they where there; it was a private conviction but one that all shared."
It appeared that they might stay. But in what seemed an afterthought, someone, it is not clear who, came on the speaker to suggest taking a vote. "It was ... at the time a stroke of genius" that may have saved thousands of lives, Munro recalled.
Between 5 and 6 a.m. the students left the memorial and filed out to the southwest part of the square, walking behind the banners that marked which college they were from.
"There was absolutely no one killed at the Monument [of the People's Heroes]," said Spanish cameraman Rodriques, who was filming the entire evening, and whose testimony contrasts with 15 years of unattributed rumor. "Everyone left and no one was killed."
"Student leaders had pulled off the most difficult maneuver ... an orderly retreat," Richard Nations said in testimony given weeks later. "The real violence still lay ahead but at that moment the 1989 democratic movement was over, and the next phase began as the column walked off the theater of national politics at Tiananmen."
Mr. Restrepro was on hand as the students departed past a Kentucky Fried Chicken shop: At daybreak "It was one of those extraordinary moments.... The students were carrying their banners.... Some had no shoes. I shall remember this for the rest of my life, the faces of those boys and girls.... At 5 a.m. the first flags coming out... and it took one hour... and as they [left] the people began insulting the soldiers and cheering ... the students. Then some began to throw stones... and it was dangerous."
One dynamic that eyewitnesses say played a central role was the relationship between students and ordinary Beijing people. By late May the common people were very impressed, if not a bit smitten with what they called "our" students. By the end of May, as the students tested their resolve through hunger strikes, workers and citizens were sending them water, offering help with sanitation, and medical supplies, and giving general tender loving care.
"The people loved the students because they could see the students loved China," one school teacher who lived near the square remembers now. "That was the thing. We didn't think of them as anticommunist. We could see they were patriots who were for democracy. But after June 4, we could no longer say this."
On June 3 as the Army began approaching the square about midnight - calls went out all over Beijing. Sympathetic crowds numbering in the tens of thousands felt the Army was coming to shoot the students. There are hundreds of accounts of citizens, mothers and sons alike, chasing tanks in bicycles, setting fire to trucks, putting up road blocks. At the Jianguomenwai overpass a set of locals talked an entire truck-full of soldiers into climbing down. But the price paid by the citizens was high, as the troops - many of whom were brought into Beijing from all over China - began to retaliate.
"By June, the ordinary people identified with the students 100 percent," Munro remembers. "Beijing people are outraged when the soldiers leave their barracks. They said the soldiers planned to kill 'our' students, as they put it."
The bulk of departing students who left the square in a column took several turns and eventually crossed the Avenue of Eternal Peace just west of Tiananmen. At that point, one of the worst incidents involving students took place, as APCs fired on and ran over at least 11 students. AP reporter John Pomfret, traveling in the column, saw students remove seven bodies, and soldiers began to shoot tear gas into the student ranks, according to the Munro-collected testimony.
The Tiananmen Square protests were the apogee of a push toward openness in China and the adoption of more Western and international standards. The precipitating event was the death of beloved reformer Hu Yaobang on April 15. The genesis of the protest is thought to have begun in the party history department of Beijing University. According to the historian Spence, it was the children of high-ranking party members who saw a need for change - a perception corroborated here in Beijing by sources pointing out that no major operation like the Tiananmen protest could have been engineered by "someone on the street."
The protest became a kind of referendum on China's future, and its leadership. On May 15 Mikhail Gorbachev came to Beijing as a new type of Soviet leader preaching a new message of change. By that time, the square was so jammed that Mr. Gorbachev could not get through to the Great Hall of the People. But students immediately identified with him, as did Zhao Ziyang, then the party secretary. On May 19, days after Gorbachev left, Li Peng declared martial law and Zhao was out - itself angering the Beijing population. The Tiananmen Papers make clear that premier leader Deng Xiaoping felt that a glasnost style reform would cause damaging instability in China, and he advocated taking strong measures to put down the protest, despite the anticipated outrage in foreign lands. The die was cast: China outlined a path in which political reform would only come after economic reform.
A number of later discredited accounts of a "massacre" in the square came out in the days following June 4. Student leader Wuer Kaixi claimed "2,000 perished" and claimed to have seen two rows of students killed, though it is later shown he left the square about 4 a.m.
A Hong Kong student leader was quoted as saying "a thousand" were killed, but later admits under questioning that he has actually seen no killings.
Roderick MacFarquhar, a history professor at Harvard University, says the estimates of the final death toll range from 800 to 1,000. But, one eyewitness in Beijing who later wrote a book on Chinese nationalism points out that the actual numbers or locations are not crucial 15 years later. "Whether the figure is 900 or 2,052, is not the issue," he says.
"We don't want to start bargaining with the lives of victims. What now matters is a serious confession that it happened, and then an accounting of what happened. That's what we still don't have."