The ever-present betrayal of Tiananmen

We live in an era that lionizes a love of beginnings. It is what media – and through it – imagination-strives for. But discovery, no matter how novel, is never original. It draws on the past. The challenge for the writer is to acknowledge that his story is rebuilt from the perspective of the present.

This is what Freud called “afterwardness”, memory as reprinted in accordance with later experience. It’s what I have wrestled with in trying to convey the events that took place in the heart of China 30 years ago. I was there on the sweltering night of June 3, 1989 when scores of Type 59 tanks rolled through Beijing crushing residents. People standing on street corners were torn apart by tracer bullets, run over or clubbed to death. It was a slow, deadly procession that began about 10pm and finished at dawn.

The bodies fell in laneways and houses, beside shops and offices, and finally, in a huge ceremonial space six times the size of the MCG. This was Tiananmen Square and it soaked up most of the blood. Standing on the apron of the square, beside the vermillion walls of the Forbidden City, and later next to the Great Hall of the People, I watched it unfold. It was life and death in three-quarter time. The military precision of troops as they encircled student protesters seemed choreographed in the humid air. I was mesmerized and bewildered: would the PLA, the People’s Liberation Army, protect the people, or would it slaughter them in front of Western media and mortified onlookers?

It is a long time ago, but in another way, it is ever present. Such was the scale and brutality of the crime – we keep coming back to it. At least, those of us with a memory do. For most of China, the massacre never happened. The government denies it occurred, and those with knowledge of the event remain silent on threat of jail or torture. Or they did. Recently, as reported in The New York Times, a former soldier has broken ranks and spoken of that night.

Jiang Lin, 66, was a lieutenant in the PLA with a first hand view of the massacre. She says the brutality she saw was like watching her mother being raped. Speaking up last week to call for a public reckoning, she wondered how fate could suddenly turn so that tanks and machine guns were turned against ordinary people? “To me it was madness. If you can deny that people were killed, any lie is possible.”

Jiang’s account tallies with what I wrote on the night when around 10 pm I heard faint rumblings and dull retorts, like a car backfiring. Along the Avenue of Eternal Peace, old men, women, students and children shored up barricades of bins as flashes of tracer fire shadowed them. Even with the dim street lighting, I could see soldiers in battle gear firing. The noise was deafening. I heard the thud of people being hit before I saw them fall. One youth was squashed into the bitumen; his organs fanned out around him. The grotesque remains of his body was dwarfed by the bulk of the tanks, each with guns swivelling beneath a red star.

People rubbed their eyes and held cotton masks to their faces. They recoiled and then regrouped. And then, the crashing sound of an armoured personnel carrier separated from the main force as it careered over road dividers, its tractor wheels tangled in concrete and metal.

A young man lobbed a burning petrol bottle, which forced open the carrier’s metal canopy. A young soldier leapt out, only to be set upon by the crowd. When a student wearing a democracy headband tried to shield the soldier he was shoved aside. Two more soldiers emerged and were beaten to death.

I turned and ran back to the top of Tiananmen Square, where troops and tanks were beginning to encircle remaining protesters. Students had been here seven weeks, and erected tents, stalls and loudspeakers. There was a young girl with a long plait waving her arms and talking loudly. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, but I saw her shudder and then her limbs fly out from her body. Her classmates, their hair lifted by a light breeze, grabbed her and stumbled towards a Red Cross tent. She was laid in a line of bodies. Through it all, loudspeakers repeating the martial law declaration competed with the sobs and screams of those trapped in the square.

By 2am, hundreds were dead. The troops and tanks had massed on the northern apron and prepared to roll over the tent city of 3000 unarmed student protesters and half a dozen hunger strikers. The soldiers kept firing, hitting those standing even far away from the square. I heard student leaders urging their followers to flee. Many walked out singing the national anthem; others were murdered.

The students had been waiting for this: So had the foreign media. But while it was a grand finale bestowing a kind of appalling recognition for the students, it was something else for us. We were not participants but to cover the story we had become players. At dawn, as I sat staring at the telex machine that would transmit my story, I wondered how I was going to write about what had happened.

In fact, I was not as certain as some of the sentences I wrote. I am not talking about facts in the sense of what can be known. The death toll, for instance, is a number. No one could be sure about it, but only because the army refused to reveal how many bodies it scooped up with the blood it scrubbed from the Square. I put the figure at three thousand – the estimate of the Red Cross – rather than the three hundred claimed by the government. What troubled me was what can’t be known but can be explored. Because journalists tend to see themselves as in the know, rather than just plain curious, this can be hard to find. Is because journalism encourages accounts that simulate reality rather than interrogate it? If so, this disguises the disjointed nature of what we witness. Rough seams are smoothed out.
My account of the massacre aspired to be eyewitness history without understanding enough about the subject who does the witnessing. I did not rely exclusively on journalism’s formula – but I leant heavily upon it and that let it down: But not completely. While a better starting point would have been to acknowledge that language always begins from speechlessness, and that all stories are in part subjective, it is instructive, all these years later, to have the tragic intent of that night confirmed by a real participant. Former soldier, Jiang Lin, has proved braver than anyone at the helm of China today. By confirming, as suspected, that PLA generals opposed the massacre, but were compelled to it by China’s geriatric despots, she has shone a light on who pulled the trigger. Sadly, despite all the progress in the Middle Kingdom, not much has altered.