The newspaper clipping has long since tattered and yellowed. It is now thirty years old, with the heading, ‘The Day Tanks Laid Down the Law in Beijing,’ and the article I wrote not long after the event, bears witness to the events of those tragic days.
I was in my mid-twenties when, with my backpacker-boyfriend, we fled the carnage and atrocities of what many simply refer to as ‘Tiananmen Square’. Thirty years have passed, yet I think often of the innocent lives lost in the struggle to open the doors to democracy – something that should never be taken for granted.
The events of early June, 1989, are deeply etched in my memory. Most especially our fortunate escape. I don’t quite know how, but in the height of that emergency we survived and managed to secure train tickets to Shanghai. It was the last train that made it out… the one afterwards would be derailed.
Once aboard in the corridors, rising over the stillness of shock and disbelief, we listened to the fearful, whispering voices of the students and protestors who were still alive and managing to escape. They were being wrenched from their lives – from their families, studies, careers and from their country that would soon paint them as insurrectionists and traitors. All they had hoped for was dialogue and a peaceful solution; a voice in a new China.
“Please, please tell the West what has happened. Do they know, do they know?” we were asked in hushed tones as the train carried us sombrely through the night to Shanghai.
I recall the guilt I felt, knowing that for the most part life, for us life would resume. To those who fled, to those who lost their lives, and to the families who still mourn… I remember you often.
As fairly savvy backpackers who had already been on the trail for five months – Thailand, India and Nepal was the common route in the late ‘80’s – we were naïve in purposely traveling to Beijing. We had been in Hong Kong when the news of the fledgling democracy protests reached us and were surprised to be granted tourists’ visas. Entering China around mid-May, we made a long sweeping arc, first to the western provinces and then to the north. As news of escalating protests reached us, we foolishly threw away any caution and journeyed to what we imagined would be history in the making for democracy.
We entered the city on June 2ndand immediately witnessed long convoys of army vehicles stalled on the main arteries, apparently at an impasse with the locals who were nevertheless provisioning them with water, food and smokes. For all that it was alarming, the scene looked hopeful and there appeared still to be friendly banter between the troops and the people.
On the afternoon of June 3rd, we joined the crowds in Tiananmen Square. The obvious perseverance, sacrifice and courage of the hunger-striking students was profound. Colourful protest banners flew proudly over their tents, their only protection from the blazing sun and blustery nights. Many sat, quiet and pensive, smoking to stave off hunger.
The square around them was showing signs of deterioration and garbage littered the area. Mounds of clothing lay out for disinfection by medical aides. Above the flags, a new symbol of hope now surveyed the scene… the recently erected ‘Lady Victory’ Statue. She beamed radiantly across the Avenue of Eternal Peace at the pug-faced portrait of Chairman Mao. The half-villain, half-hero looked out of place in the students’ vision for a new China.
Earlier that morning, in an area behind the People’s Assembly, we had encountered a sea of green army helmets. They were young, mostly frightened teenagers and at that time still unarmed. We would learn that these early waves of troops mostly spoke local dialects and had been brought in from the countryside with little appetite for becoming embroiled in this political impasse.
We watched as crowds quickly surrounded them and a driver pulled his bus across the road to block their onward passage to the square. The bus became a vantage point for newsmen and for those few Chinese who possessed a camera. Thirty years ago, there were few luxuries in evidence. The streets were still teeming with millions of bicycles, only a few thousand cars travelled the city streets.
Eager to secure a good photo, Bruce hoisted me up on his shoulders. Many flashed the victory sign which, caught up in the moment, I returned to the cheers of the crowds. Besides my own, I gladly took photos for those who handed up their camera to me. Not until an irate senior soldier motioned towards me, did I grasp the enormity of the situation and hastily clambered down to the questionable anonymity that my auburn hair might enjoy amidst a crowd of Chinese. Of course, we were never truly able to disappear into the crowd. Time and again over the next few days, we were told to leave, ‘Foreigners bad now, go, go!’
We circled on our bikes toward the southern approach to the square, blending into the fringe of a crowd that was interacting with another contingent of troops. Peeling away from that crowd left us feeling exposed, but we had pulled back only a few metres when there was a roar from behind. We turned as the masses bolted away from the troops towards us. Dropping our bikes, we ran with them. It was a false alarm and untangling our bikes, we pedalled away, hearts pounding and very conscious of the growing intensity – much like the electric charge in the air before a thunderstorm.
Along the main thoroughfare of Chang ‘an Avenue, now around 6 pm, steadily more people filled the streets. All traffic had stopped. A group of protestors marched past, the crowds singing loudly to drown out the bark of party propaganda blaring from the tinny loud speakers mounted along the street. The atmosphere was raw and pulsating.
Ahead, an army truck had been set upon by the angry crowd, now a study of twisted metal and shattered glass. A block further was more frightening and perhaps foreshadowed what the night held for Beijing. A machine gun was propped on a desk atop a bus that had clearly been commandeered from the army. As students conferred on the roof and others within the bus, it was possible to imagine that perhaps the students might just have the upper hand. It was not to last.
Knowing, as foreigners that we had exposed ourselves enough, we pedalled back to our hotel just in time for the 8 pm martial law curfew. Yet thousands were defying it. People still gathered in groups and in conspiratorial voices, were either strategising or sharing anecdotes… all appeared greatly on edge.
Returning to the rudimentary comfort and relative safety of our backpackers’ hotel, we tried to sleep; fully clothed, backpacks ready at the door, bed pushed away from the window. As the long night unfolded, we could hear tanks moving through city streets, the unmistakeable squeal of metal on pavement, gunfire piercing the air – both single shots and long sustained bursts. I was terrified, and convinced… surely, they would come looking for the foreigner who had dared to take so many ‘illegal photographs.’ Indeed, a news broadcast had warned of this traitorous act.
At daybreak, a gaggle of backpackers gathered in the lobby. Upon arrival, some of us had signed up for a bus trip to the Great Wall. Now, the visibly frightened desk clerk hinted at the grave reality on the ground. “No buses. No buses anywhere. Everywhere stopped. All danger.” With a trip to the Great Wall now the last things on our mind, we struggled to comprehend the horror that had unfolded overnight. A crackling voice from the BBC World Service was coaxed out of a transistor radio in the hotel’s austere lobby. The news that many had lost their lives both in the square and at the university confirmed our worst fears.
We learned later that as darkness had fallen, battalions of heavily armed soldiers made their way into the city through underground passages to walled-off confines of the Forbidden City. No longer the teen soldiers of the local militias, this new wave pitted battle hardened troops from the provinces against unarmed democracy protesters. Independent sources estimate that some ten thousand innocent people were murdered that night.
Panic gripped us and sensibly most travellers elected to remain inside and plot their next move. Five of us however, decided to venture out. In reality, Bruce and I had no choice. Our prime concern was to retrieve his passport. On the first afternoon of arrival, we had foolishly left it for security for our bike rentals.
Overnight, the city had turned into a war zone and we knew we must escape. Making our way cautiously around the south-east flank of Tiananmen, we pressed slowly forward, one block at a time. It was unknown territory accompanied by an unfamiliar heart-pulsing fear. We pushed on, past charred remnants of trucks and buses. Past disarray and destruction – crushed garbage cans, mangled barriers, torn-up pavement – visible signs of the merciless trail of army tanks. At strategic junctions, armed convoys blocked access to the square, ground zero of the atrocity.
A lone soldier strode towards us as throngs of people cheered his obvious desertion. His eyes fixed ahead, he clung to his crumpled shirt then disappeared into the crowd. Small clusters of soldiers, separated from their squads straggled cagily past, dishevelled and edgy. Crowds of bystanders angrily harassed forlorn groups of army wounded.
We moved on, skirting smouldering wreckage, until Tiananmen Gate came into sight. Suddenly shots pierced the air. Dropping our bikes, we all bolted ahead with the crowd. Then all stopped a little further on. Out of breath, Bruce and I found each other in the chaos then I waited anxiously as he and a friend retrieved the bikes.
A crowd surrounded me. A man who spoke little English became agitated, repeatedly telling me to not go further. Forming a gun with his hand, he warned that the Army would shoot indiscriminately. More shots rang out. I was desperate for Bruce’s safety… finally he reappeared and we quickly turned down a back street, edging our way towards the bike shop.
I don’t quite know what caused us to hope that it would be open – except, escape of course – and when we saw the shutters rolled up and the shop open for business, I finally broke down and sobbed. All these years later, the thought of not having retrieved the passport still fills me with panic. Chastening ourselves at our stupidity, we continued on foot towards Chang ‘an Avenue, the main boulevard.
We had no choice but to try to book a train out; I would learn much later that some 250 Canadians had been flown to safety by the government. Hoping to gather some insight on the situation from other travellers, we stopped at what was at the time an iconic bastion of the West, The Beijing Hotel. For the moment, it was relatively unscathed, though bullet holes pierced the front door reminding guests they were in range of random gunfire.
As we tried to force down some food, sporadic gunfire jolted any sense of safety. My stomach reeled as Bruce tried to remain calm for my sake, yet each of us silently wondered if we would make it back to our hotel alive. Word emerged that troops had been indiscriminately firing at people in a twisted logic of revenge.
The constant chatter of helicopter rotors washed ominously over us. And then a new sound emerged – a rumble that vibrated through the hotel foundations. Following the lead of a few others, and against the better judgement of staff, we climbed the stairs to a roof-top vantage point. A column of tanks, as far as we could see, was crawling down Chang ‘an Avenue. The sound was deafening.
Peering out to the square some five hundred metres distant, we watched as the dark silhouette of a rising chopper, the black payload swinging beneath the machine told us all we needed to know. Helicopters were ferrying body after body from the cordoned-off square just beyond our view.
Suddenly, the convoy of tanks grounded to a halt. Below us and to our right, strode a single man who blocked their path. He would not yield and even as the lead tank made to detour around him, he stepped deliberately back into its line. This indelible scene, captured from the hotel on a sixth floor balcony and smuggled out by a French student concealed in a box of tea, was soon shared with the world. Even in that simpler era before the endless news cycle, the scene would play out infinitely as a symbol of peaceful resistance. It was an act so defiant, so brave… simply unfathomable for anyone who had witnessed the display of might emanating from the long column of tanks.
Already then, we knew. During the night, these same tanks had been less sparing of life. Randomly and deliberately, they had mowed down the innocent, their own people. Writing this today, my whole being recoils in disbelief… and still, in deep sadness.
Realizing that our parents would be panicked, we sought to telephone from the main post office four blocks away. The telephone wires at the Beijing Hotel had been cut and it was no surprise that the post office was shuttered. The overpass directly beyond the building was awash with crowds gathered to observe the tanks and the troops stationed below. Edging closer to the scene we stumbled upon flattened bikes and then the sight of the bloodied, crushed body of a young man. His image became another rallying cry, an iconic image on magazine covers that rekindled the rage against the government.
Finally, we reached the railway station, thankful, then almost perplexed at our good fortune of obtaining tickets outbound for Shanghai the next evening. Once back outside, the darkening sky now broke into torrential loud claps of thunder and pounding rain. Like blows on an anvil, I saw symbolism in the storm’s anger. The aggressor had won – driving a final emphatic nail in the coffin of democracy.
Hailing a cycle rickshaw, feeling relatively invisible behind the plastic sheet that protected from the downpour, I occasionally poked my head out to the wreckage of the streets. I saw army trucks smouldering in the cool, misty air. I cried when I glimpsed sight of the charred, distorted image of a young soldier hanging from an overpass. My composure broke when the Chong Wen Men Hotel finally came into sight.
There, we would wait it out until our train left the next evening. We all gathered often around the transistor. We ate little and sleep eluded us. In fact it was pointless to even try. For as night fell, the clatter of gunfire erupted anew – rapid, staccato, unceasing for a second night of retribution against democracy protesters and anyone thought to be associated.
The next evening with the sound of gunfire still in the distance we boarded the train, we escaped the city. A city that only days before had been bathed in the hopeful glow of awakening democracy.
In Shanghai, we slept on the airport floor for two nights and like so many others, were desperate to fly to the safety of Hong Kong. Bribes were plentiful and we travellers fought continuously to secure seats on an outbound flight.
Once in Hong Kong, we took a flight to Japan. Within days we had found jobs teaching English in Osaka. While there, one year later, we ventured home to Canada for a reunion with family, and to marry.
Rather unexpectedly, we have largely lived a global life since and raised our three sons. And especially, as a mother, I lament for those who yearn for their deceased children… without any official recognition of wrongdoing, apology, or justice.
For all of the fallen of Tiananmen Square, and their families… I offer this remembrance.