John Gittings

China through the Sliding Door: Chapter VIII

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May-June 1989

(a) The students take to the streets

(b) Resisting martial law

(c) Massacre by night and day

(d) The army versus the people

(e) Bitter lessons of bloodshed


Beijing in May 1989 was a city transformed. The death of the reformist ex-leader Hu Yaobang brought the students back into the streets. It coincided with the 70th anniversary of the great May 4th movement of 1919, when China was governed by warlords and manipulated by foreign powers. Then as now students from Beijing University had marched in support of the person they called `Mr Democracy'. The rapid growth now of high-level corruption, and the rich concessions given to foreign interests in the new Special Economic Zones, seemed to demonstrate how little China had advanced since then. The writer Lu Xun had described China before the May 4th Movement as a nation suffocating in an iron room without windows. Today's students were determined to smash a hole in the wall.

Tiananmen Square became an encampment with banners flying over the students' tent city. A sit-down blocked the gate to the exclusive Zhongnanhai park next to the Imperial City where the leadership lived. In the streets there was a sense of comradeship mixed with excitement that so many people - workers and ordinary citizens as well as students - had found their voices. Even when confronting the armed units which hung around uncertainly in the suburbs, people were good humoured, offering the soldiers food and drink. Everyone noticed that the usual Beijing rudeness had faded away.

After martial law was declared on 19 May, there was a night of nervousness, but the troops stayed out of the city centre. On the impromptu barricades there were lively discussions in the evening. Dissidents from the early '80s emerged on college campuses to debate the future of the Chinese state and the mass movement. Hundreds of mimeographed leaflets were produced and handed out in the Square, written in a traditional mixture of invective, satire and serious argument.

The road in from Beijing's Capital Airport was barred by citizens' checkposts, staffed night and day by the local residents. 'Only the old people and children are in bed', they said cheerfully. Foreign journalists were welcomed everywhere, and exhorted to `tell the world' about the students' demands and the refusal of the Party leadership to engage in dialogue. In the business centres of the new international hotels, the staff copied faxes of articles from the Hong Kong newspapers reporting what was happening in the capital. These were then pasted up on lampposts along the Avenue of Everlasting Peace. News of the democratic movement was published in regular editions of the China Youth Daily, while staff at the Party's flagship newspaper, the People's Daily, produced an unofficial `extra edition.'

The leadership seemed to be paralysed and the streets belonged to the masses. Very few believed that a military assault would be ordered: at most they feared that the regime might stage some small incident in which one or two people were killed. Zhao Ziyang, successor to Hu Yaobang, argued that the students were not a threat to the regime. On the day that his rival Li Peng declared martial law, he paid an emotional visit to the student hunger strikers in the Square, apologizing for not visiting them before. It was a futile gesture: he was outnumbered in the leadership and stepped down.

The demonstrations continued and thousands of students arrived from the provinces, marching up from the railway station in columns. They rejoiced at the apparent leadership vacuum in the Zhongnanhai. To keep the momentum going, they raised the statue of the Goddess of Democracy in front of Mao's portrait. This may have been the final provocation. Deng and the Party elders decided `not to give ground': they believed that otherwise `everything would collapse.' By everything, they meant the Party's domination. After a false lull while preparations were being made, the army moved in on the night of June 3rd with orders to occupy Tiananmen Square no matter who was in the way. Hundreds were in the way, and hundreds died.


4 May 1989, Beijing University

The Internationale was a wise choice for a marching song today in Beijing. Apart from being a good tune, it cannot offend the authorities and everyone has known it by heart since primary school. The band was a ghetto blaster, strapped to the front of a bicycle.

Each of the forty colleges started from its own campus. Beijing University (Beida) is one of the farthest away, but it was the right place on a day which celebrated the great May 4 demonstration by Beida students in 1919. Do we have to wait another seventy years, asked several of the slogans marshalled at 8 a.m. under the acacia trees inside the gates. There were other echoes of 1919: `Hello, Mr Democracy,' and `Save our country'. There was also a simple but very effective marching chant, agreed on by all the colleges: `Dialogue! Dialogue! We must have dialogue! But if they are not sincere, it is a rubbish dialogue!'

The stylized confrontation with the police, on the pattern established last week, took place near the zoo. They had formed up looking very grim in a legionary square. `You've got more police here than students', screamed one of the girls at a very young policeman. It was so evidently not true that both burst out laughing, and the square collapsed soon afterwards.

Without the police, the traffic chaos was terrible. Bicycles crashed to the ground. Lorries and buses were stranded, and then requisitioned as platforms for photography and handing out leaflets. Very unusually their drivers did not mind and didnt curse anyone's mother. Many of the watchers lining the route clapped the slogans and raised two fingers in a victory salute. Workers ran out of their factories or waved out of the windows.

`Long live the students!' they shouted somewhere near the Yuetan Park. And `Long live the people!' shouted back the students. It was one of those moments which makes everything clear - and brings a lump to the throat. Long live the people! What an obvious slogan, yet I doubt if it has been heard in China since the revolution. `Long live the people's communes', of course, plus many other things including Chairman Mao which have come and gone. Even today there is `Long live the Communist Party of China'. But `Long live the people' is as subversive as it is splendid.

By now there was the usual discussion about `Is this demo as big as the last one?' The answer seems to be no, but there are many more delegations this time from the provincial universities. This leads on to stories about what has been happening elsewhere. Someone has heard that at least one person was killed in Xian the Saturday before last. She was aged twenty-four, a waitress at a foreigners' hotel. At Wuhan last week, they used teargas. And there were supposed to be 30,000 soldiers at Shenyang.

Under a very hot sun we reach Tiananmen Square. The colleges read one another's slogans and sit down, still in very good order, drinking bottles of lemonade and eating buns and sunflower seeds. A teacher asks if we knew that last evening there was a reception for a Japanese firm at the Beijing Hotel? It cost 1,000 yuan (160 pounds) a head, a million in all. An 18-year-old student tries to explain what he means by democracy. This is a people's country, he says, and yet we don't even know who the president is going to be until it is announced.

But I then rejoin another section as it marches home. A worker emerges from the crowd with a large bag of iced lollies to distribute to the leading column of linked-hand marchers. Everyone laughs and claps, including the passengers stuck on the number one bus.




22 May, in the streets

If the army has been held at bay in the Chinese capital, most of the credit can be claimed by the sturdy and plain-speaking citizens of Beijing who have gathered on street corners to stop them. `We'll never let them in,' they were saying during the tense hours on Sunday night. `Only the old people and children are asleep. The rest of us are in the streets.'

The shimin, city people, expressed their determination to `defend the students' in terms which echoed the simpler politics of the past. `How can the government be so lacking in proper virtue?' a worker in Tiananmen Square exclaimed, thrusting his jaw foward angrily. `The people's army belongs to the people!' The citizens standing nearby, he pointed out, were individuals who had decided to come along because they no longer believed the government was `sincere'.

None of the citizens I spoke to had the slightest thought of offering a political alternative to the present system. They just wanted two people to go. Premier Li Peng was loudly condemned as a bastard; Mr Deng Xiaoping's name often had to be inferred from a grimace. Whatever came after that would be tested when it happened. No complicated namelists here: `Whoever represents the people, we will support them.'

Several citizens were concerned that the foreigner might get into trouble for breaking one of the martial law regulations which forbids journalists getting involved in `law-breaking actitivies' or `instigating propaganda'. But they enjoyed my answer: `This is not a formal interview, we are just having a chat among friends.'

And they would go on chatting, about serious matters. `Do people abroad really support the students?' `Has your government protested?' It was galling to have to explain that the American President had spoken out before the British Prime Minister. `Why has the International Red Cross not intervened?' The answer - that it could only do so at the invitation of the Chinese Red Cross - provoked a lively pavement debate.In the end, they patriotically agreed. Yes, it was entirely proper that the Chinese people should themselves decide whether or not an international organization became involved.

The citizens' actions - bringing water and towels, offering ice-creams, `comforting' demonstrators with praise and applause - echoed the civic values of an earlier generation. `Everyone's a soldier now!' joked a middle-aged technician, who had been in the Square for two nights, standing guard. He must have remembered from his youth the famous militia campaign of the Great Leap Forward. But then participation was compulsory.

`They can't get in,' repeated the citizens reassuringly. `They can't get in as long as we're here.'

23 May, march to the Square

Everyone was shouting the same thing today in Beijing: `Down with Li Peng' -meaning down with Deng Xiaoping as well. `It's better tactics not to say it out loud,' the demonstrators explain. But on the notice-boards around the square, and in leaflets thrust hastily into our hands, both leaders are being attacked in open polemics.

This demonstration is the most overtly political of those held so far: perhaps Beijing senses that the inner-Party struggle just needs one sharp shove. Even when a thunderstorm drives spectators to huddle against the walls of the Forbidden City, the marchers carry on. Li Peng xia tai, they chant, and the spectators give an answering cry of xia tai - resign!

Mr Deng is the subject of a poem, five characters to the line. It sums up the people's loss of faith in the man who seemed to offer such hope ten years ago:

When cult is added to power, even the chairman makes mistakes.

Xiaoping suffered criticism (in the Cultural Revolution), and the people raised him up.

Now he represents bureaucracy and official corruption.

The country does not want him, the people do not want him.

The poem then expresses the simple levelling philosophy much heard these days:

The officials eat the food, the common people labour all year;

A small handful get fat, a billion are poor.

It ends with a statement of political aims which is as principled but lacking in detail as the opinions of the vast majority of the marchers:

To overthrow the old system, the people must become the real masters;

They should elect the good, and dismiss the bad!

On a less elevated level, a handbill asks `What sort of person is Li Peng? It answers: he is head of China's biggest corrupt family. He is also accused of using army funds to build a private rest-room for himself behind a swimming pool which he uses. This makes him, it the handbill says, with pamphleteering license, `more corrupt than the Empress Dowager'.

Yesterday afternoon, he was also being blamed for having sent the provocateurs who defaced Chairman Mao's portrait. The most convincing charge is that it is Mr Li, not the students, who has caused `disorder' by bringing in the troops. The slogan which gets the loudest applause is simple: `Beijing does not wish to live in front of the muzzle of a gun.'



3-4 June, Tiananmen Square and surrounding streets

A two-pronged attack from east and west shattered all illusions in Beijing on Saturday. Dozens of citizens and students who only hours before had repeated their pledge to risk death for democracy, had it brutally confirmed.

The main thrust of President Yang Shangkun's loyal and murderous troops came from the west, just after midnight, when hundreds of trucks moved up the main avenue. The tactics were brutally simple. Armoured personnel carriers formed the spearhead, while soldiers on foot shot to kill from both sides.

Meanwhile, the first of the night's armoured cars and tanks smashed its way

through the citizens' barricades to the east. It showed all the ruthlessness which must be contained in the army's orders to smash the `turmoil' allegedly created by the mass movement. Several cyclists who could not get out of the way in time were crushed or tossed aside.

At top speed the armoured car scattered a crowd of several thousands at Dongdan. Enraged citizens, still not aware of the full scale of the attack, headed for Tiananmen Square, cursing the government as `fascist' and `heartless dogs'. I was grabbed by people urging me to `report it all'. `None of the people will give in', they said, insisting that I write it down.

But by 1.30 a.m., close to Tiananmen Square, the grey shapes of the personnel carriers could be seen approaching from the west. The first armoured car was burning less than forty yards from Mao's portrait. With curses and laughter, the crowd milled around the square. There were distant explosions and tracer bullets in the sky.

At 1.50 a.m. a crackle of gunfire sounded on the far side. `Don't be afraid, don't run!' many cried out, believing that it must be the sound of exploding teargas canisters. The official loudspeaker soothingly repeated its message: `The Beijing government is the People's government.' Police from the Beijing public security headquarters peered curiously out of their gate, evidently unaware of what was happening. At intervals, fresh bouts of gunfire echoed closer. Then came a lull, and many in the crowd walked over closer to the army.

Meanwhile the army sharpshooters appear to have worked their way close to the wall of the Forbidden City. Others emerged from inside, and at 2.10 a.m. the shooting restarted alarmingly close. The first casualty in the square was rushed away - a girl with her face smashed and bloody, carried spread-eagled towards the trees. Another followed - a youth with a bloody mess around his chest.

Ambulances began to press with urgent sirens through the crowd. Other casualties were carried off on pedicarts with a dozen cyclists in escort. Within twenty minutes the same number of casualties were evacuated. A commandeered jeep had one wounded man on the roof, and two or three sprawled inside.

At 2.40 a.m., another lull. People streamed back towards the square as ambulances pleaded for a clear path. Had the army stopped on the eastern side, its mission completed?

From under the acacia trees on the dark pavement nearby the Beijing Hotel, or perhaps over a wall from the Workers' Palace, the sound of semi-automatic fire spat out. The crowd fled stumbling in panic around the corner, tripping over parked bikes. `Who's afraid? It's nothing,' scoffed one who reached shelter. `I've just seen a man with his skull blown away,' reported another.

Within the next hour, squads of military police who had been lurking in the shadows around the square now appear to have started to take control. By 4.30 a.m. new columns of tanks were smashing their way in from east and west, eventually to form two north-south lines across the square. Witnesses later reported that the army had been a bit less savage in the square: it had mostly shot at the students' legs or above their heads.

But when they retreated after 6 a.m., there were reports that at least a dozen students were crushed by tanks. There were many bodies outside the Xinhuamen Gate.

New lines were formed in the morning. Two buses were set on fire outside the Beijing Hotel, and fresh crowds piled up behind them. Their numbers diminished closer to the square. A witness went forward with some forty workers to plead with the soldiers. After taking sixty steps forward, they were shot down. Eight died immediately and the others crept back.

Machinegun fire also seemed to come from the roofs of the museums in the square. Near the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, the body of an old man was lying in the road.

Wherever they were not faced with gunfire, the Beijing people continued to show spirit. Troops believed especially loyal to President Yang were stranded near the diplomatic quarter. Bicycles thrown in their way lay smashed, and truck tyres had been let down. It looked like a repeat of last two weeks, but this time everyone knew that at any moment the soldiers could get ready to fire.

4 June, Avenue of Everlasting Peace

`I feel as though we are being hanged by the government,' said the man standing on the traffic island outside my hotel today, one hand briefly clutching his throat. `There is no way out.' The street-corner mood was angry, but mixed with the dull despondency which comes from seeing tanks come crashing through. `We have no machine-guns, nothing,' said the informal group leader in a small evening discussion around the deserted area outside the hotel.

Over on the pavement there was a more forceful speaker of the kind who has dominated the evening citizens' chat sessions since martial law was declared. Several of the more articulate neighbours have disappeared in the last 24 hours. No one quite knows why.

But this survivor, too, started with the tanks. `The students were sitting down in the square,' he told a silent audience. `The tanks went criss-cross among them, and scattered the bodies everywhere.'

Life and death continues to extend itself along the east-west meridian of the now grotesquely misnamed Avenue of Everlasting Peace. The central zone around Tiananmen Square is a no-go area, except for the army and the bravest citizens.

From a distance it has an uncanny neatness about it. Just at the entrance to the square from the east, there is a thin line of the ordinary people. Then, some forty yards ahead, two thicker lines of sitting soldiers with their officers standing behind them. Another gap, and then a line of stubby tanks. The crews are standing on and around each turret as if ready to leap into action - which they probably are.

Behind them, a phalanx of armoured personnel carriers, also swarming with soldiers, apparently at the ready. Far away at the western entrance to the square, another double line of soldiers, and another rank of brave citizens.

Anyone who has pedalled up to the square and returns safely to tell his tale deserves a good audience at the street-corner. `This worker was waving the flag of the Workers' Autonomous Union,' one returnee explained. The union is now labelled an illegal organization. `The soldiers just sprayed him with machine-gun fire.'

No one, including most foreign journalists, could be blamed for caution yesterday. A visiting Swedish teacher was dragged cheerfully up to the frontline by two of his Chinese students. As he raised his camera to record the soldiers, they opened fire. Everyone ran and no one could say how many bodies were left.

A few postal vans still hesitantly cross the avenue well away from the square. There are burnt buses outside the Beijing Hotel, an unburnt barrier east at Dongdan.

The bold speaker on my local corner can still laugh with that special brand of Beijing contempt when asked whether people may follow the students' call for a workers' strike. `Why should we work for this sort of government? Those cadres could buy up a whole street in the United States if they wished to. How couldn't we strike!'

When a government uses tanks to declare war on its people, anything is possible and the people now know it.



5 June, central Beijing

After two days of military occupation, most Beijingers are getting used to the sight of squadrons of tanks and troop carriers performing inexplicable manoeuvres on their streets. Yesterday's entry of over fifty trucks of soldiers with weapons at the ready added a new mystery. Why were the last dozen crudely camouflaged with tree branches?

The code which determines if pedestrians get shot or not is also clarified. The soldiers' code apparently includes a pledge: `We shall not oppose those who do not oppose us.' So anyone who shouts something abusive like `animals' can expect to be shot for opposing the provisions of martial law. But well-behaved citizens are probably safe to stand on the corner and watch the soldiers go by - at least during daytime.

But these basic ground rules do not help in the slightest to understand the strategy which has filled the centre of Beijing with enough firepower to fight a small war. Over a long period of time forces from two military regions, Beijing and Shenyang (the north-east) had been moved in what the experts regard as the sort of massive logistical operation which the People's Liberation Army does very well. But since the declaration of martial law, nothing has really made sense.

On the first night after martial law was declared, the troops appeared in the suburbs often as if they had been woken up from bed. Some had no arms, others no uniforms, and many lacked food and water. Then came the strange attempt on Friday the 2nd - the day before the massacre - to infiltrate Beijing, mostly with young soldiers who jogged fifteen miles and seemed to be without any officers. For a few hours on Saturday the general opinion was that the army had tried - perhaps deliberately not very hard - and had failed. No-one believed that the tanks, just two to three hours' drive from Beijing, were being readied for action.

Was this really a sharp reaction to the army's second humiliation, or had stage three been planned all along? And if so, what sort of military rationale brings tanks and armoured personnel carriers in massive strength into Beijing, instead of forces trained in crowd control and bulldozers to clear the barricades? These types of armoured vehicles are quite unsuitable for operation on city streets, slithering on the tarmac, unable to stop or start smoothly.

The simplest theory is that a contingency plan for the defence of Beijing against an enemy attack from outside has been clumsily adapted to the needs of internal repression. But there was surely enough time to work out a different plan in the six weeks of military buildup. A more plausible theory takes the official broadcasts at their word: This army is in hostile territory. Whoever controls the Communist Party believes it is facing a `revolt' - the word used in yesterday's statement. Before too long the armoured personnel carriers will fan out into alleys and `pacify' what it must now regard as a lumpen-proletariat.

Numerous stories are now circulating about alleged intra-army hostilities. It is likely the move to martial law was not popular with some senior generals, but there is no reliable evidence to support stories that tanks and carriers have been immobilized or set on fire by dissident troops. Nor does the disposition of troops and tanks so far suggest deployment with hostile intent against other units.

The most likely explanation to all these ambiguities is to be found in the more fundamental political ambiguity which means that no national leader - even the president who presumably ordered the troops in - has spoken since Tiananmen Square was occupied. There is still a large, ugly piece of the puzzle missing and everyone has the grim feeling that in the next few days we may be even more unpleasantly surprised.

7 June, outside International Hotel

The massive army convoy came out from Tiananmen Square yesterday morning like a triumphal procession, though it was not clear what it had to celebrate. First came the tanks. Then two companies of foot soldiers with patrols marching in front and behind, carrying their weapons proudly. And then a stream of troop trucks and armoured personnel carriers, snaking through the remnants of the barricades they smashed down four days ago.

Only three hours beforehand, a unit of this same army had sprayed machinegun fire on innocent spectators, striking down five or six. Now, as the parade passed the same spot, many of the same spectators were applauding it. The contrast was as stunning as it was hard to fathom.

It had been 6.45 a.m. when the machinegun fire began to echo against the curved wall of the International Hotel. Rolling out of bed, I reached the window to look down at the crossroads below in time to see the last truck of the convoy heading toward the Square - and the citizens of Beijing scattering like sparrows.

They quickly regrouped into little knots of agitation. The victims' inert bodies were scooped up on to pedicarts and rushed into the maze of little lanes behind the hotel within a minute.

The 10 a.m. convoy, heading out of the square, managed to communicate to the public that it was going to be completely different. Instead of aiming AK-47s at them, some units of soldiers were shouting sympathetic slogans. `Down with official corruption.' they cried - one of the demands of the democracy movement. `Protect the people of Beijing,' they shouted, as if that was what they had been doing since Saturday.

Some soldiers bent over the side and waved. The crowd at the crossroads swept forward - a reaction which denied all logic - and it soon seemed as if they would be cruelly deceived again. Two-thirds down the triumphal column of nearly a hundred vehicles, the firing began. Volleys of semi-automatic fire rattled off the hotel walls, shattering windows and echoing through the open fire escape doors. The noise undermined the commonsense view that huddling against an inner wall should be sufficient protection. Chinese staff laughed and cried at the same time.

The volleys lasted well over five minutes. The last truck having passed, the terrified citizens emerged to count their new losses. Not a single body lay on the ground; it had just been high spirits - otherwise known as hooliganism - by troops who were, perhaps, going home.

Three hours before it had been very different. The ruthless arc of the tailtruck machinegunner had began with a student on his bike. His satchel of books was still hanging on the saddle. Within ten minutes a rough message had been scribbled on cardboard and propped against the handlebars: `This student was shot by the heartless soldiers .'

Traversing, the machinegunner's arc scythed a line of pedestrians crossing the road. `I was halfway over when they fired,' said one. `He dropped at my side. He came from Qiqihaer ...' As I moved from one group to another, this witness followed me, repeating as if it was the most significant detail of the whole affair: `He came from Qiqihaer ... He came from Qiqihaer ...'

Two more victims fell on the pavement and one more on the hotel's grass verge. Little circles of stones were erected around the blood. One patch was so abundant that death must have been very quick. My grim tour ended in front of a small shop at the end of the arc. I saw the bullet holes in the door. My gaze was then drawn to the fragments of flesh sticking to the wall.

State television presents the army as a disciplined force that respects the people; yesterday it claimed that a bad element fired first upon the troops. I had asked whether anyone even cursed the soldiers - enough to merit one shot.

`No, we were just crossing the road.' A foreign tourist, one of those who step out of the railway station these days and find themselves caught up in tragedy, gave confirmation. They were just innocent passersby.

8 June, Avenue of Everlasting Peace

Propaganda was delivered at the barrel of a gun yesterday along the Avenue of Everlasting Peace, as the Chinese army started sweeping up the mess it had created.To be exact, the loudspeakers were at the front of the army lorry labelled `propaganda van,' while the soldier with the AK-47 was peering over the tailgate.

In much the same way, the troops, who had been issued with brooms to clear up the debris, had their weapons slung over their backs. Just in case any counter-revolutionary elements should make a criminal assault on these Selfless Soldiers protecting the people of Beijing, armed guards were at the ready.

To be able to cycle freely - although warily - across the foot of Tiananmen Square was an indication of the slight, but significant, relaxation which has brought more people out into the streets. They just have to get used to the sight of armed soldiers at street corners with red bands indicating that they are on martial law duty. Everyone cycles at a careful speed and is especially wary at road junctions, where loudspeakers urge them to hurry - or to stop when a military convoy approaches.

The square looks deceptively peaceful from the southern side. There are only half a dozen tanks, guarding well over a hundred troop trucks lined alongside Chairman Mao's mausoleum. All the other tanks are at the other end near the Imperial City. Chinese television has been showing film of soldiers in the square receiving a delivery of biscuits by helicopter. This may be designed to counteract the runour that the choppers are used to carry away bodies.

The soldiers do not look particularly threatening. They are young, chat and wave to each other, and people have been told that they are from the 38th army. This is supposed to be an improvement of the hated 27th army, which learned its killing skills on the Vietnam front. But there are an awful lot of them. The stream of cyclists veers out into the middle of the road every so often to circumnavigate a large group with their transport. One encampment flanks the entire length of what used to be Democracy Wall ten years ago in the Xidan district.

The propaganda vehicle was delivering a familiar message as it cruised down the avenue near the Nationalities Hotel: `We have achieved initial success in dealing with the counter-revolutionary revolt. But we must be on our guard against the gangsters who still try to disturb the peace.'

The debris ranges from trolley buses, erected by the Beijing people (now called gangsters) to stop the army coming in last week, to piles of tarmac scraped off the surface of the avenue by tanks. More than twenty burnt-out buses have been shifted off the road near the hotel.

A convoy of trucks bringing supplies for the troops heads in to the square. It, too, is more relaxed. There are only four armed soldiers in the guard truck - instead of fifteen - with their weapons aimed. Each food truck just has one soldier, usually lying on the roof with his gun balanced on the canopy. It still seems prudent to pull into the pavement and watch the convoy pass from behind a parked lorry. `Don't bother to look at them,' says an old man sitting comfortably on a low wall. `They do what they do, and you do what you do.'

It is the authentic voice of the independent-minded Beijinger. But everyone has to take heed of new regulations issued yesterday requiring co-operation with the army clear-up. Anyone who disturbs the operation may be `handled' by any means.



12 June, Liubukou junction

When the true history of the June 3rd-4th weekend in Beijing is written, the road junction at Liubukou, half a mile west of Tiananmen Square, will have a chapter to itself. This week the tanks and armoured personnel carriers are still there: some on the north-west corner with bivouac tents behind, others tucked sinisterly into an alley on the south-east which no one may enter. Cyclists flow by with sidelong glances, two pickets of soldiers with semi-automatic weapons guard the pavement. Nowhere else in Beijing still receives such heavy treatment.

What really happened at Liubukou must be known to the authorities, whose video monitors are being used so efficiently for the identification of `counter-revolutionaries' and for selecting clips to discredit the student and worker activists of Beijing. We have to piece it together, discounting as far as possible the rumour factor.

A column of students, retreating from Tiananmen Square by a circular route, crossed the main avenue there at the exact moment that a column of tanks headed west. They scattered, but the last line of students - at least ten of them - were caught against the railings and crushed. Unlike many other killings, it was probably a real accident - if one accepts the grotesque logic that armoured vehicles had the right of way. But there is a particular horror about this form of death, and one day these students will undoubtedly be martyrs of a special kind. They will join the martyres of the Cultural Revolution - such people as Zhang Zhixin (celebrated now by the Communist Party) whose throat was cut before execution to prevent her denouncing the Gang of Four with her last breath. The date will also be as fixed in the revolutionary calendar as 5 April (1976) when Beijing demonstrated against the Gang of Four, and 4 May (1919) when the Democracy Movement began.

The events of the past two months - and particularly the last week since the tanks stormed in - almost overwhelm analysis. It has shocked to the point of an alienating numbness almost every single `foreign friend' or sympathetic observer. It has stripped away the illusions of millions of Chinese. `Most of those who were killed,' explains one Chinese who manages to maintain a detached view, `didn't even know as they died that they were making history.'

There was certainly an enormous naivety on the night of June 3rd - 4th. At 12.30 a.m. at Dongdan, east of the square, I was being urged to inspect a bicycle damaged by an armoured personnel carrier as the ultimate example of the government's lack of conscience. At 1.30 a.m. in the square, I was reproached for retreating from what most people thought could be nothing worse than tear gas, or perhaps blank shots.

The next morning, Beijing citizens still approached the square, by now heavily garrisoned, to within thirty metres of the armed soldiers. Some rode on bikes, their girlfriends on the back. At least six times that day the soldiers fired when the crowd became too large or its appeal too irritating. And at least seven bodies fell in the first three-minute fusillade alone.

This amazing bravery was still largely based on the experience of the previous two weeks when troop movements had been deterred by non-violent means. On the morning of the 3rd, less than thirteen hours before the first killings, I and about six thousand Beijingers had watched helpless with laughter as several hundred unarmed soldiers shambled back to base after attempting to sneak in the night before.

'You must be tired; take it easy,' shouted the Beijing mums, straightening the collars of these almost boy soldiers, warning those whose shoelaces were undone, and clapping them like heroes. `Come and bugger off from Beijing another time,' the working men shouted more rudely but still cheerfully.

Almost everyone failed to understand that this now set in motion a military plan of graduated escalation. On the afternoon of Saturday the 3rd, tear gas and truncheons were used as large numbers of troops suddenly emerged around the Great Hall Of The People. By 7 p m., riot police were attempting to penetrate from the west. Soon bogged down by the same popular resistance, they did not fire at first.

But by 10.30 p.m. orders had evidently been received to force a way through. The ground floor windows of the apartment blocks near the Yanjing Hotel still show the marks of automatic fire which killed an average of two persons in each block. The local hospital would receive sixty-three bodies by the end of the next day.

The government videos show civilians burning troop trucks in this area early on the evening of the 3rd, but there is reason to believe that the time sequence has been distorted, and that the burnings took place the next day after so many people had been slaughtered. But stones were thrown and troops were roughed up. Most importantly, the army was failing to get through. And after two weeks of hesitation, we must assume that Deng Xiaoping and his lieutenants were now determined to accomplish the objective of clearing Tiananmen Square at any cost.

With the first lethal shootings, the situation clarified brutally for those in the square. The army would kill, at intervals, to clear the bystanders and sympathetic citizens, driving them east past the Beijing Hotel. It would then herd the students out to the south-east, peacefully if possible. While massive armour poured into the north of the square, the students debated around the Martyrs' Memorial. Finally a last-minute vote by shouting, around five o'clock, prevented more killings. The students marched out sadly but in good order, with their banners still flying.

Government propaganda has argued consistently that no one was killed in the square during the crucial hour and a half when the students were evacuating. That may well be true. Most people died that night either because they were in the way or by accident. Some deaths occurred in areas well to the south and north-east where no foreign journalists were observing.

The figure of ten thousand deaths seems far too high. The official claim of three hundred or so, including soldiers, is far too low. Bodies reported in central hospitals were in hundreds rather than thousands, but some victims were never brought in - including most of the crushed students at Liubukou who were, it is said, scraped off the street. Three and a half thousand deaths is a standard figure among Beijingers, but that includes subsequent shootings which continued until the 7th. The figure could even be as `low' as one thousand or so for the night of June 3rd - 4th without detracting one jot from its horror.

At this point it is necessary to listen to the voice of a Beijing intellectual who believes the government was right to end the student occupation but left it too late. `Beijing had become a city without a government,' he argues. `No one can want China to fall into anarchy. A government has to govern, and if I don't have any confidence in it, where else can I put my trust? The government should have acted earlier, when it was still possible to avoid using live bullets. No one wants people to get shot. But the students could have avoided it if they had accepted a compromise arlier.'

This sort of argument may not be unattractive to middle-aged Communist Party members and others who were disturbed by the students' assault upon conventional political culture. It in effect requires the students - most of whom were only born in the mid-1960s - to have made a sophisticated tactical judgment allowing the government the traditional Chinese `way out.'

A more profound analysis by some younger Chinese starts with the factors on the government side which prevented it from seeking accommodation with the students. This begins with the economic crisis and the political divisions within the upper Party ranks which are enmeshed with it. The lack of any real political reform, it is argued, means that the `relations of production' - the whole bundle of relationships which govern ownership, management, and reward for work - have lagged far behind the `productive forces' - the actual physical capacity for production of the society. Inflation, corruption, and irrational output of goods all stem or are worsened by this mismatch.

It adds up to a deeper crisis in the Communist Party itself which has failed to reform itself. The crisis was already evident earlier this year when Party conservatives were moving against the reforms of Secretary-general Zhao Ziyang, and a crucial Party meeting had to be postponed. The accident of death and chronology then played its part. Chinese intellectuals revived their call for political reform to mark the tenth anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's reforms. And the death of Hu Yaobang triggered the students' protests.

The result of these catastrophic three months, argues one Chinese civil servant in his thirties, is that the people as a whole have now abandoned all hope in the Party, at least in anything like its present shape. `The country changed,' he says, `with the first shot fired.' The Beijing people, according to this still fundamentally optimistic view, are biding their time. Like the Chinese king who waited patiently to take his revenge, comments a hotel worker, `We are sleeping on straw and tasting gall. The moment may come when Mr Deng dies, or when the economy collapses ...' The problem with this perspective is that the first thing likely to come in either event is the tanks rolling back on to the streets of Beijing. The insurrectional route is now less likely than a modification of the regime - perhaps a drastic one - brought about by the accumulation of its own internal contradictions.

Repression creates new problems, because it is likely either to go too far or (in terms of the regime's survival) not far enough. Li Peng may also have to pay a high political price for securing the verbal support of the Party veterans. Most important, the economy can at best limp along. While no one will take the initiative to promote further reforms (and few will have the enthusiasm to work very hard), Mr Li's regime does not appear to have an alternative package to offer.

Recent events should have taught us that nothing is too remote a possibility. Some believe that the most likely way forward is a benevolent coup when the Li Peng regime starts to unravel - say in the next two to four years. It is also possible that China will simply regionalize: the hardliners in Beijing will formally dictate policy, supported by conservatives in the less advanced interior provinces. The coastal provinces, where a third of the population lives and the door has been flung wide open, will quietly get on with making money.

The brand-new factor is the army itself which, although formally an instrument of the state, might better be regarded as the instrument of the Communist Party. Its high-ranking officers appear to relish their exposure on televison, expounding their version of events and smiling toughly with an assurance which the political leaders lack. Its troops are fanning out now in the hutongs (lanes) of Beijing.

There will be no repeat of June 3rd - 4th for a very long time. The Beijing citizens have, as always, a wry jingle to describe their situation: `Eat a bit, Drink a bit, Have a meal, Tomorrow you may not need one.' It helps people to deal with what may be a very long period of sleeping on straw and tasting gall.