Tiananmen 25 years later: 'People loved the students because the students loved China'

The killing of 900 to 2,000 people mostly happened on side streets and was a shock to supporters who rallied behind the students.

Vincent Yu/AP/File
Bicycle commuters, sparse in numbers, pass through a tunnel as above on the overpass military tanks are positioned in Beijing, two days after the Tiananmen Square massacre, on June 6, 1989.

The fate of China’s political future was most dramatically decided 25 years ago on a cool and windless night, in what became a spasm of violence that didn’t end for days.

Yet on the evening of June 3, 1989, few suspected the People’s Army was about to descend upon China’s most sacred civic space a few hours later. After months of protest that included a brush past the Square that May by visiting Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, many Western reporters had been pulled back to Tokyo and Hong Kong. The ripping story of a democratic China seemed to be in a lull.

And when the Army did start shooting in the early hours of June 4, it mostly happened off camera. No massacre of thousands took place at Tiananmen Square itself, around the famous student-made Statue of Liberty/Goddess of Democracy, and there were no "rivers of blood" of students mowed down around a monument in the Square, contrary to a set of media myths that grew up around the event. All told, about 10-12 students died on the Square itself.

Instead, the Army opened fire on side streets and intersections, around the Forbidden City, in humble hutong neighborhoods, and in the western part of Beijing. Between 900 and 2,000 were killed, mostly students, according to a diverse set of eyewitnesses interviewed by the Monitor at the 15th anniversary of Tiananmen.

But also many ordinary Beijing people were killed, as they tried to support the students. Indeed, one of the interesting dynamics that played out all spring in the raucous and upstart festival of free speech and protest in 1989 is how much the ordinary Chinese had come to love the students that had gathered at Tiananmen and began creating a democratic movement.

This often unspoken love and respect by the people – despite the initial skepticism of many of them – was one reason the Chinese Communist Party for years felt so worried about the fallout from the event. In late May, after the students did not disperse for Mr. Gorbachev's visit, the Politburo brought in troops -- who were blocked by citizens groups from reaching and man-handling the students.

As one school teacher, a woman who lived in a neighborhood adjacent to Tiananmen and experienced June 4 first hand, put it:

The people loved the students because they could see the students loved China. 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 [what we felt.].

"By June, the ordinary people identified with the students 100 percent," remembers Robin Munro, then of Human Rights Watch, who was one of 11 foreigners that stayed on the Square through the evening of June 3 and into the morning of June 4. "Beijing people [were] outraged when the soldiers [finally left] their barracks. They said the soldiers planned to kill 'our' students, as they put it."

Part of the shock and disbelief on June 4 and in the weeks after was based on a strong feeling that the People's Army would never resort to firing on the people, let alone students. 

Many of the students at Tiananmen that night, moreover, were relatively fresh recruits from colleges outside Beijing. Many of the students who started the democracy movement months earlier were the sons and daughters of Beijing's top echelon. But after months of raucous speeches, meetings and foreign media coverage, many of the leading students were taking a break. 

Actually, between the hours of 2 a.m and 5 a.m on June 4, a massacre on the Square almost did take place. Soldiers had herded 2,000 students, some of whom were wearing head bands that read, “Prepared to die,” into a corner. An intense debate ensued over whether the youth should stay or leave. The tension was thick, witnesses remember. Then someone, not identified, on a megaphone suggested the students practice the democracy they preached, and vote on whether to stay. They voted to leave. 

 As a Spanish journalist Juan Restrepo, who was out with Mr. Munro on June 4 witnessed in the Monitor account: 

[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 [again.]"

Some 25 years later it is hard to recapture the feeling of the Tiananmen moment – that history was on a knife’s edge. At the time there were mostly one-story buildings in Beijing, few cars, and utter state control. 

Today, in an dynamic era in which China has gained wealth and power, in which its Pearl River Delta region around Guangdong is the so- called “workshop of the world,” and as the urban centers on China’s east coast are choc-a-bloc with millionaires (China also has 150 billionaires), many of the next generation wonder what all the fuss is about.

But the spring of 1989 was certainly the period during which China decided to conduct economic reform and leave political reform for another day. It diverged from the path being forged by Mr. Gorbachev with the Soviet Union. Gorbachev championed perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (political openness and free speech). But China chose only perestroika, and not glasnost. 

The order to shoot was given by leader Deng Xiaoping. Eminent China hand Orville Schell has said it is the one “terrible blot” on Mr. Deng, who arguably rescued China from the excesses of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and later sparked his own revolution of commerce.   

As Mr. Schell, now head of the China program at the Asia Society in New York puts it, “Tiananmen made any further political reform too frightening for the Party, and made political reform taboo. But he [Deng] was smart enough to keep economic reform moving and to say China needs to keep learning from the outside world and not be darkly turned inward as during the Mao period. We’ll see. History moves in mysterious ways.” 

This story draws from the Monitor's 2004 piece, which relied on discussions with Mr. Munro and on his unpublished 52-page document compiled in the weeks after June 4 with testimonials of journalists, diplomats, and students that were present on the square after midnight. 

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.