A Massacre 20 Years On

I have a favourite photograph of Tiananmen Square. It is a horizontal shot. A man rides a bicycle in the foreground – behind him there are serried rows of upright figures – thousands and thousands of figures. The photograph was taken in May 1989. The figures are students celebrating their occupancy of the famous square. But in the photograph they seem like odd dots against the vastness of the blue sky. It is two weeks before the tanks rolled in and still possible to imagine the tall light poles lining the square as palm trees. Apart from the ominous bulk of Mao’s tomb, the scene has a balmy feel; it could be a giant street market.

I look at this picture, rather than the others I have – all burnt-out buses and charred bodies – to remind me of the hugeness of China and the impossibility of my accounting for it. Tiananmen Square became an urban killing field, one that I witnessed without knowing what I was seeing, or how to see it. Fifteen years of reporting certainly did not prepare me for that night 20 years ago when China’s ageing governing despots unleashed a modern army on the capital.

I watched as soldiers fired randomly into houses and at darkened street corners where people stood dazed with shock and disbelief. I peered into blackness, first glimpsing flashes of gunfire, before hearing a delayed crack, like a whip, and the deep-grinding rumble of armoured personal carriers. People slumped onto the footpaths outside their homes; others were ground into the bitumen beneath the exhaust stream of the tanks. I told myself not to look away, but what I saw was not enough – or too much. It overwhelmed and invaded me.

It was only after the army had surrounded the square and murdered many of those remaining, that I began to suspect I had no way of making sense of what I had seen. I had clues – I knew that seeing a young woman shot is not as disturbing as hearing a bullet puncture her body – but I had no idea how to weave such details into an orderly story. What was orderly about a massacre? Journalists like to think of what they do as eye-witness history. But the eye-witness is notoriously unreliable. What we see depends on where we are – on the landscape, and inside ourselves. On 4 June1989 I was in the centre of Beijing and imagined being there was somehow being across it. Two decades on, I am not so sure. I now believe that brute facts are dumb.

I was terrified by some of the things I saw in Beijing. I wish that I had stayed with that disarray, rather than aspiring to eye witness history – which meant imposing order on the chaos. At least that disarray would have injected a strangeness into the story and avoided the terrifying sense I had later that journalism had ‘explained it’. The narrative coherence that journalists strive for, and which events such as the Beijing massacre seem to demand, can be a trap. As it turned out, all the facts of that night were in dispute. The government claimed 300 people died – most of them soldiers. The Red Cross said 3,000 people died – nearly all unarmed civilians. The government blamed the upheaval on foreign insurgents. Those of us there saw it as a popular expression of discontent with official corruption.

Facts then, did not help. I am no longer sure that they even exist – at least not in the re-assuring form I once imagined. Instead of trying to take charge of that night in my mind, I would have done better to tolerate the anxiety it produced – to let its overwhelming impact scatter rather than shore up my certainties.

Staying with the anxiety would have bought me closer to the gaping hole – the subjective crisis – that such an event evokes. It would, by the discontinuity such a crisis produces, have allowed something new to emerge. I knew I was not sure as the sentences I wrote, that my nouns and verbs cracked under the weight of what I saw. But I did not know that it is through these cracks – the gap which arises – that the light gets in.

Photographs become strange the closer you get to them. Looking into the face of a lover up close produces distortion. We distance ourselves to get perspective. The same thing happens with memory and with the trauma of horrific events. But this distancing – searching for sense and plausibility – misses something.

This is why I still look at the photo of Tiananmen before the massacre. It is the surprising details I want to recall – the elements that jar with what I think I know. Twenty years on it has left me thinking that a good story makes bad eye-witness history.