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We wrote to the peripatetic Pico Iyer, a Friend of the Blog, to see how June 4th was marked wherever he happened to be this year on the anniversary date. He sent us the following ruminations, in which he alludes to the mid-1980s when he first went to Beijing and first saw Lhasa, at a time when each, in ways he’s described elsewhere, was a very different place than it is now:

On the Fourth of June–the great annual feast-day at my old English school, the very opposite of its associations for modern Chinese–I was, as I so often am, at my regular Benedictine monastery on the coast of California. The bells tolled for vigils before the light had come up and wisps of fog ran up the eucalyptus-shaded hillside. Then there was silence and more silence until the next tolling of the bells.

Steller’s jays landed on my wooden fence. Rabbits scurried off into the undergrowth. The sun rose over a hill to the south, making the ocean below sparkle and recasting us all in a golden light. Thoughts of Beijing in 1985 and Lhasa in the same year came back. Everything changes and turns and goes round and nothing much seems to move at all.

The monastery and the daybreak singing of the white-hooded monks seemed, in certain regards, the perfect way to think and ask questions about modern China’s irresistible rise.

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A 6/4 Reader

1. Su Yang has never written anything for China Beat, but a few of us get to have lunch with him occasionally as he is a professor (of sociology) at UCI. The Orange County Register profiled Su, discussing his experiences in 1989 and after.

2. Jeff Wasserstrom’s most recent piece at the Huffington Post points out some of the good coverage on China in recent weeks (and sketches some of what was missing or wrong).

3. Friend of the blog and former student leader Wang Chaohua has completed her Ph.D. at UCLA and is graduating this weekend. UCLA Today has a nice profile of Wang that tells her personal story from 1989 to the present.

4. Initially, this page at China Digital Times was blank. Now it has been updated…a little bit…

5. Evan Osnos’s fittingly brief and somber reflection on the day.

6. We’ve been running regular installments from Phil Cunningham’s forthcoming book, Tiananmen Moon. Here is the first (that we’ve seen) review of it (at the Wall Street Journal).

7. Many of you have already seen this collection of writings at the New York Times, but in case you haven’t it’s worth reading. It includes pieces by Xiao Qiang, Woeser, Persian Xiaozhao, Jeff Wasserstrom, and others.

8. At The Guardian’s “comment is free,” Timothy Garton Ash discusses the divergent paths captured in 1989’s big historical moments.

9. And, on a related note, lest we think that 6/4 is the only news of the moment, The Times, has a list of June’s “six world-altering anniversaries.”

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6/4 Around the World

Last August, we called on contributors and friends of the blog around the world to send in short reports on how the Olympics were being covered and received in their neck of the woods. Recently, we sent out a similar call regarding today’s anniversary. Here are a few of the responses we’ve received so far, pulled together into a piece that we think would make for interesting reading beside the very different “around the world” survey that David Flumenbaum has done and will keep updated over at the Huffington Post. Included here are some comments by people who contributed to our “Olympics Around the World” feature or have written for China Beat on other things before. We’ll link to those earlier pieces when listing their names below, and are also pleased to welcome a couple of newcomers to the mix, people whose writings have been mentioned on the site, but who have not written for us before.

James Farrer, Tokyo
My daily paper in Tokyo, the Asahi Shimbun (Japanese language version), has been running a series of very prominent articles all week on June 4th. One article that caught my eye on June 1 was an attempt to systematically track down and account for the most prominent leaders of the 1989 student movement. The article featured an informative chart with names and summary accounts of 21 former student leaders, seven of whom stayed in China and 14 of whom left the country. With the exception of Wuerkaixi, who lives in Taiwan, it seems all the others are in the US. None seem to have any connection to Japan or significant stays in Japan.

The article on June 1, as well as the article today (June 4), features interviews with Wuerkaixi, who lives in Taiwan with his Taiwanese wife, and works for a US company. Today, it is reported that he was refused entry to Macau, and was held up at the Macau airport before returning to Taiwan. He was travelling on a Taiwanese travel document. He reported that he had not seen his family in twenty years. Otherwise, there was a first-hand report about a group of former student leaders and some current activists who meet regularly in Beijing to discuss reforms, a story about the Tiananmen Mothers, and a story about Zhao Ziyang’s book. I have not noticed any large public events or ceremonies involving June 4th here in Japan, but it may be that I am not following the right news. (I don’t regularly watch TV….)

In general the coverage in the Asahi Shimbun is similar in tone to a liberal US paper, with articles primarily focusing on the voices of former activists. There is a wistful tone, a sense not only of lost possibilities but of a lost era of political hopefulness and, on a more personal level, of lost youth. The event is slipping into history much faster than we imagined it would.

Paola Voci, New Zealand
I will be watching for anything more in the news tonight, but so far very little in the mainstream media here in New Zealand. The largest newspapers obviously have some coverage of the 20th anniversary, but they are AP Reuters pieces ; TVNZ broadcast a BBC video on this topic. Even when included, it is never the first item in the world news (the AirFrance plane gets much more coverage). I am not sure whether something might be going on now in Auckland and Wellington. We will know tomorrow if any public event has taken place in these larger cities.

Here in Dunedin, 4 June is a day like all others.

Because today was my last lecture, I decided that at least I had to check how many of my students knew about what happened 20 years ago (of course many students were not even born then!). To my relief, only a couple had no idea about what 4 June and the Tiananmen Square protest meant. Most had some sort of knowledge that “a protest took place and people died”. We took some time in class to just go over some of the basic facts, some of the issues and the relevance that they still have in today’s China. That was my very small contribution to keep the memory of this tragic event alive and stimulate some discussion on its significance…

Chinese students associations on campus (either from mainland or Taiwan) do not seem to have organized anything to commemorate the event. At least nothing visible. But, the day is not over yet…

Since I came to live here, I felt that for NZ, China has a rather strange proximity and remoteness. Yet, I was expecting a little more discussion about China in the media today…to match at least some of the interest that the Olympics were able to inspire. But, at least so far, it seems as though, even without any CCP intervention, June 4 has been forgotten in NZ.

Steve Smith, Italy
In today’s La Repubblica, Italy’s second largest national newspaper and one with a left-of-centre bent, there is an interesting article by the award-winning journalist, Federico Rampini, who heads the Beijing bureau of the newspaper. It’s entitled ‘The Mystery of the Youth who Challenged the Tanks at Tiananmen’ and begins with a vivid description of the iconic footage, taken by photographers in the Beijing Hotel, in which a young man, jacket dangling from his left hand and clutching two plastic bags of shopping in his right, holds up the tanks rolling down Chang’an Avenue.

“The scene”, Rampini writes, “seems unreal. The tanks are stopped one after the other in Indian file by this slender figure who seems to dominate them. The driver of the first armoured tank makes a manoeuvre, trying to drive around the young man from the right. But he appears in front of them once more, extending his arms as if he is taming a wild beast. The young man then takes a leap and climbs on to the tank to talk to the soldier who is visible through the tank grille. ‘Turn back! Stop killing our people!’ is the cry that witnesses remember him exclaiming. Then it is over in a flash: the young man gets down from the tank and friends surround him in order to allow him to escape.”

Rampini begins his reflections by asking what happened to this youth. He talks to Xu Youyu徐友漁, liberal dissident and a signatory of Charter 08 (零八宪章) who explains that many feared he had been arrested or killed, but that in the twenty years since the event legends of all kinds have grown up around him, notably one that he had plastic surgery to avoid discovery. If Xu knows more than this, and Rampini implies that he does, he is not telling.

This, however, is just a spur for Rampini to go on to reflect on how the incident shed light on the strategy of repression pursued by the authorities both during and after the Tiananmen events, in respect of whom they targeted and how they targeted them. The young man was lucky to escape because he was close to Tiananmen, the sacred centre of Communist power. According to Xu, heaps of bodies crushed by tanks could be seen in districts further from the centre such as Fuxingmen and Muxidi, giving a certain ironic half-truth to the claim of the authorities that “no one was killed in Tiananmen.”

The crucial point made, however, is that repression came about not only in the form of 700 to 3000 killings that occurred during the suppression of the insurgency, but also in the form of arrests, condemnations and deportations during the months that followed. Lists of those most wanted and those who must be blacklisted from employment circulated in all work units. Zhang Boshu 张博树, another signatory of Charter 08, recalls that he was lucky because he was not a member of the CCP, since party branches were under particular pressure to turn over members who had been involved in the protests to the security organs. Zhang believes that party members sympathetic to Zhao Ziyang were a particular object of detestation for Deng Xiaoping, who accused him of having split the party in two.

Rampini stresses the very different fates that awaited worker and student protestors. As early as 8 June, the Shanghai Public Security Bureau arrested 13 workers, three of whom were immediately shot by a firing squad. Of the 48 public executions that took place in Beijing in succeeding days not a single one was a student. According to Rampini, “the grand operation to bring about the recovery of the elite had got underway, the long march to coopt intellectuals and students had begun.” The lesson that Communist leaders learned, he suggests, was that they must never again find themselves opposed to the most educated and modern section of society. He ends by quoting Zhang to the effect that twenty years on, there is no alternative force to the CCP on the horizon: “There does not exist a movement that could lead a peaceful transition to democracy. It is from within the Communist party that this push for change must come.”

Prasenjit Duara, Singapore
Straits Times, June 4, 2009 has an op-ed by Goh Sui Noi –“Legacy of June 4 leaves grounds for optimism”–which argues that June 4 has left a good legacy for development of democracy in China–both from supply side of ex-activists and demand from the ignorant young students. [Editor’s note: You must be a subscriber to the Straits Times to access this piece, but here is the synopsis from the website: “Professor Huang Jing’s class of 17 students at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy swelled to more than 30 earlier this year on the day he taught about the June 4th incident.”]

Mark Magnier, India
There was relatively little coverage or evident interest in the Tiananmen anniversary in India. Television largely ignored it, preferring to focus instead on Obama’s speech to the Islamic world and a local medical school scandal. A few newspapers ran op-eds by China specialists and a couple of publications with China correspondents had articles buried well back in the paper on how China was battening down its hatches for the 20th . But that was about all I saw.

One of the more interesting pieces I saw was an editorial in Mint, a progressive business paper. In an item entitled “Tiananmen: 20 years later,” the paper discussed the link between political and economic freedom, concluding that, while China may be hoping to create a new model of the latter without the former, in the end they must go hand in hand. “The Communist Party, it would seem, is now trying to delay the day when these contradictory elements are forced into a synthesis,” it wrote. “But without the vent democracy offers citizen grouses, this synthesis can only be a violently unstable one.”

James Farrer is Director of the Institute of Comparative Culture at Sophia University.

Paola Voci is a senior lecturer in the Chinese programme at the University of Otago.

Steve Smith is a professor of history at the University of Essex and is currently teaching at the European University Institute in Florence.

Prasenjit Duara is Director of Research for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore.

Mark Magnier is the former Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times and is now bureau chief for the Times in New Delhi.

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Notes from a Non-anniversary

By Jeremiah Jenne
I woke up this morning and took a short walk to a big square. As expected, it was pretty calm in the kind of jittery, strained, composed way one usually associates with a dinner party where one of the hosts is having an extramarital affair with one of the guests. The square looked relatively normal but with a beefed-up security detail that included a ring of young slack-jawed crew cut types in tracksuits and matching gray badges worn on unmatching t-shirts. Reports of visitors being asked to produce passports, to weed out foreign journalists, appear to be overstated. I walked into the square from two different directions today and wasn’t once asked for my passport. To read some of the other dispatches from this morning (Reuters/AP) you’d think the square was under martial law, and that’s not really the case. That said, don’t pull out a camera or try to film a dispatch unless you want an umbrella stuck in your face. (Yes, the latest in Chinese counter-surveillance equipment can be purchased at any subway kiosk for 5 RMB, or maybe 10 if it’s raining.)

There are many reasons for the non-events of today’s anniversary. While the square is open, the extra security is clearly ready to pounce on anybody who looks like trouble. Launching a spontaneous protest today would be like robbing a casino in Vegas; sure you might get your hands on the money but you’re going to get your teeth knocked in before you set a single foot outside to spend it. Whatever you do better be worth it. And frankly, people in Beijing don’t really seem to care very much, or maybe just aren’t that interested in big public displays of dissent. The majority of urbanites in China’s capital long ago traded away their political pottage for the right to buy knock-off handbags and a decent compact car, and they are reasonably happy with the deal they’ve made.

There are a few cracks in the facade. There will be a memorial service at Victoria Park in Hong Kong tonight. The new English-language edition of the Global Times has run two pieces this week, including a long article in today’s (June 4) edition looking at the Tiananmen crackdown in historical perspective. To be sure, the piece does so from the perspective of the CCP, but that the subject is broached at all, even in a relatively new English-language paper, is still noteworthy.

For the most part, however, the chances of something major happening in Beijing today are slim.

In late May, Wang Dan, a notable figure in the 1989 movement, called on Chinese to show their support by “wearing white,” a traditional color of mourning, on June 4. This was either the smartest or the dumbest idea in the history of protesting. It’s summer in Beijing. EVERYBODY wears white. A white, button down short sleeve shirt is almost a uniform among a certain class of Beijinger this time of year. I have one myself, made of such unnatural fabric that I’ve washed and worn it years after several overpriced dress shirts from Brooks Brothers have been reduced to “sleepwear for the Mrs.” I wore it today. I’d like to say it was out of solidarity with the movement, but I probably would have worn it anyway. It’s 90 degrees outside and it’s the only shirt I own that wouldn’t make me look like Chris Farley after a two-day bender in Mexico.

Half the town on any given day is wearing white. While Wang Dan may have been going for a ‘subtle gesture of protest,’ it’s possible the ‘wear white day’ idea was a little too subtle. Kind of like: “If you wish to honor the memory of the Tiananmen dead, don’t shave your left eyebrow completely off on Thursday morning.”

Finally, there has been a lot made about the Chinese government’s knee-jerk blocking of foreign social media sites like YouTube and Twitter as well as the ‘temporary closure for maintenance’ of their Chinese counterparts. Nothing makes the CCP look more like a bunch of ninnies than when they let the Net Nanny go nuts. When YouTube was blocked in March, presumably because of a video purporting to show Chinese police beating unarmed Tibetan monks, most people had never seen the offending clip. Within a day everybody (outside of China or those who had a proxy server) had checked it out. Why? Because with not much going on in Tibet this past March, and with nobody able to go there to file anyway, it was something to write about. On Tuesday it was Twitter. During a week with very little substantive news to cover in connection with the anniversary, the Chinese government’s ham-handed attempts to erase the memory of June 4 and stifle any attempts for dissenting groups to organize became the story.

Blocking Twitter, a site that almost every correspondent in town uses to some degree, fantastically inconveniences the one group desperate to write something bad about the government. Censoring sites is such an easy story – such a gift to the foreign correspondent community in Beijing – that I’m surprised it doesn’t come wrapped in pretty paper with a bow and a card saying “Love, Hu!”

In the end, whatever one’s views are on the demonstrations, the way they were suppressed, or the aftermath, as a historian I am always disturbed by official attempts to erase past events. As Orwell once wrote: “He who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past.” The CCP has changed in may ways – much of it for the good – over the past twenty years. It is times like these however, when the worst of the Party’s instincts for self-preservation take over, that remind us of how far there still is to go.

This piece was cross-posted at Jenne’s personal blog, Jottings from the Granite Studio.

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6/4/89: The Night of No Moon

This piece is excerpted from the manuscript of Philip J. Cunningham’s forthcoming book, Tiananmen Moon, part of an on-going China Beat feature of excerpts from Cunningham’s book. Interested readers can see more at Cunningham’s website.

(June 4, 1989 excerpt from Tiananmen Moon)
You didn’t have to be a fortune-teller to know Tiananmen was the target, but what were they going to hit it with and when? The long anticipated crackdown had been postponed so long, getting it over with might resolve the political impasse, but it wouldn’t bring justice, it wouldn’t buy back the mandate of heaven.
Being part of the teeming mass as the army approached, I had little choice but move in tandem. It was well nigh impossible to stand still, to move against the flow would beg injury. Only when I reached the concrete and steel divider in the middle of Chang’an Boulevard, guided by those in front, pushed by those behind me, could I pause and wring myself free of the seething throng long enough to climb on top of a cement road barrier to get a better view of what was going on.
A military vehicle that looked like a tank came careening recklessly through the sea of people like an icebreaker cracking through thin ice. Tanks on Tiananmen Square! It was crazy, what was the PLA doing, what did they think this could achieve? The armored vehicle roared down thickly people Chang’an Boulevard as fast as its heavy treads would permit, not as a peacekeeper, but provocateur. Then there appeared another metallic monster, begging for a clash, beckoning blood.
The reckless charging of two heavy vehicles in the middle of a crowd of thousands shocked me; the rules of engagement had changed. The military’s admirable discipline and restraint had been abandoned, giving way to reckless, violent acts. The armored vehicle was so unforgiving, so heavy, so hard, the bodies it bolted past so vulnerable and soft.
So far, no one had been hit or run over but it could happen any second now. It was a deadly game of “chicken” in which the winner was the last one to flinch, but the rules were supremely unfair, pitting tank against man. I shuddered in dread of seeing people mowed over, but amazingly the men and women around me seemed emboldened by the prospect of conflict.
It was as if the daredevils possessed a belief in mind-over-matter, like the martial arts warriors of the late Qing Boxer Rebellion who convinced themselves they were invulnerable to bullets. I’d seen plenty of people tempt fate crossing streets in busy traffic, but never did I dream it possible to slow a tank’s advance by jumping in front of it!
Numb and immobilized I watched the vanguard dart back and forth in front of the armored vehicle, taunting the unseen driver. The armored continued to penetrate the crowd, slowing to turn around, speeding up on the straightaway, heading directly at the flag and banner-waving provocateurs like a mad bull aiming for a matador. With each sweep, the crowd parted, some running for their lives, others, tempting fate, holding their ground.
The passionate insanity of the moment was contagious, after a second silent signal, which caused the people immediately around me to snap into action, I stumbled, and then without really thinking about it, joined the fray.
The heavy concrete and steel road divider that I had been standing jerked sharply and suddenly lurched into the air. I lost balance fell hard, the shock of my tumble softened by the unfortunate people I landed on. I tried to right myself, feeling like a surfer who had just wiped out only to get caught in the undertow. My first reaction was annoyance at having the ground pulled out from under my feet, and being at the mercy of agitated strangers.
I was floundering below a turbulent crowd that was attempting to yank a heavy road divider from its moorings. A lengthy section of the concrete and iron barrier, once broken free, was rotated 90 degrees, from its original east-west mooring to block traffic on the boulevard. The heavy railing, momentarily made featherlight by hundreds of hands, was dropped to the ground with a thud.
Once I regained my footing, with the unexpectedly attentive assistance of the two young men closest to me, I joined the crowd in its tug of war with the barrier. We rotated it in slow increments, like the jerking second hand on an old clock, lift, drop, lift, drop. Whose idea it had been was impossible to say, for nobody was really in charge. No one had told me what to do either, for that matter, rather it was instinctive, a collective move to slow the arrival of hostile invaders. I doubted it would seriously deter the movement of army vehicles such as the ones we saw buzzing the crowd, but taking fate into one’s hands and doing something felt better than doing nothing.
By the time we had the concrete barrier in place, the offending vehicle had moved on. The men around me breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Only after the intense and immediate sense of danger had subsided did anyone realize, or have the time to react to the unusual fact that there was a foreigner on the team. Several sweaty men in T-shirts, arms and wrists no doubt aching after the sudden bout of weightlifting, offered trembling hands. One man welcomed me, the other called me friend.

“Huanying ni!”
Their words moved me, almost to tears. The verbal embrace was at once formulaic and reassuringly real.
Meng, who had been separated from me by the erratic movement of bodies when the APC came streaming through, had closely observed the roadblock incident from the other side of the divider.
“I saw that. They are taunting us,” he muttered bitterly. “They are trying to break our will. They are trying to incite violence.”
“So, what’s next?” I ask, wanting to know, wanting him to have the answer.
“Nothing will happen, I think. The government is just trying to scare the people.”
We backed away from the crew, scanning the swarming multitude for some indication of what might happen next. Suddenly Meng’s face lit up in recognition of some familiar faces coming our way.
Two women were walking their bicycles, weaving through the jumpy crowd in front of Tiananmen Gate. After negotiating the uppity throng gracefully, they parked their bikes next to the BBC’s tripod as if it were a parking meter.
Soon they were deep in a whispery conversation with Meng, pouring out words too fast for me to keep up with. I stood back, content to watch the beautiful, expressive faces of three people who knew each other well, baring their souls in the subdued lamplight on the Square.
“Jin Peili,” Meng said, pulling me over, trying to include me. “These are my classmates. They study acting at the Central Drama Academy.”
We all shook hands, exchanging smiles. Despite the unsettled if frightening outlook of the evening so far, time was had become malleable and that fleeting but somehow poignant encounter was imbued with an enduring beauty. Ordinary life, as we had come to know it, was slipping away by the minute. Nothing would be the same, nothing could be taken for granted. Win or lose, the final showdown was at hand. I observed the drama school comrades as they huddled close, the pale outlines of the Goddess of Democracy glowing behind the trio in the darkness. The night sky was absolutely black –no moon, no stars.
Here on the northern periphery of the square, there were no workers manning barricades, or students urging restraint or marchers singing the Internationale, not even the usual idle onlookers.
The unsung, unseen heroes who had kept the peace for over a month could retroactively be appreciated by their absence. Student types were in scant evidence this night. Instead there were warriors with agendas unknown pressing in on us. No overt hostility was directed at the crew, but the seething anger and lust for violence was palpable.
The May Fourth spirit was gone, replaced by something murky and malevolent. There was a new element I hadn’t noticed much of before, young punks decidedly less than student-like in appearance. In the place of headbands and signed shirts with university pins they wore cheap, ill-fitting polyester clothes and loose windbreakers. Under our lights, their eyes gleaming with mischief, they brazenly revealed hidden Molotov cocktails.
The camera lights, in this dark and troubling hour, seemed to attract all species of insect.
“Turn off the lights!” I yelled at Wang Li. “This isn’t working, turn off the lights! We better get out of here!”
Who were these punks in shorts and sandals, carrying petrol bombs?
Gasoline is tightly rationed, they could not come up with these things spontaneously. Who taught them to make bottle bombs and for whom were the incendiary devices intended?
Lights still blazing, Ingo started shooting from the hip to capture some pictures of the provocateurs. The noose of spectators tightened.
Lights out, the shoving match subsided. But the troublemakers lingered, smiling inappropriately as they stared at us. Frustrated, I led the crew to the most obscure and least crowded spot I could find, aiming for the massive outer wall of the Forbidden City. Not surprisingly, we were jeered for making an apparent retreat.
“Look, foreigners! Ha ha!”
“What are they doing there?”
“The foreigners are scared!”
“Hel-lo? Where are you going?”
“They don’t care about China!”
“They are running away!”
Some of the comments sounded like veiled threats. I pretended not to understand in order not to have to react. We were not running away, but I didn’t owe them an explanation. The technical requirements for a well-lit interview were hard to meet under such agitated conditions.
Could the mass yet turn on us? Were we dealing with rational individuals or an irrational collective? How could one possibly distinguish good from bad in such a vast gathering of people?
We walked with our heads down in silence, a solemn file of five Caucasians and two Chinese. Finally we set up tripod and camera next to some trees along side the majestic vermilion wall lining Worker’s Park on the northeast corner of the Square. On the other side of the wall was a potential sanctuary, the entrance courtyard to the Forbidden City.
The relatively secluded location gave us about a minute to tape before things got out of control again. There were ogling onlookers as before, but the random mix of townspeople in our new location was less implicitly threatening than the Molotov cocktail gang. When things got tight, merely switching the lights off sufficed to relax the stranglehold of the instant gaggle that coalesced around us.
Looking at the indecision and fear on the strange faces watching us, I felt we were much alike in our unspoken desperation, looking to one another for cues on how to act, grasping at straws in the wind, trying to figure out what was going on. Given the communal uncertainty, it was easy to understand how an incandescent circle of light on a dark plaza might be mistaken for a meaningful vortex of activity.
While Simpson brushed his hair, Clayton made notations on her producer’s sheet, Ingo unwrapped his camera, Wang Li fumbled with the lights and Mark readied the sound gear, I would try to explain to the usual knot of people closing in on us what we were doing in order not to excite too much attention.
“We are the BBC, English television, we’re just doing a random interview, please step back, we appreciate your cooperation, thank you.”
In no time at all, interviewer became interviewee.
“What do you think will happen?”
“What information do you have?”
“How many killed at Muxudi?”
While I was trying to cope with such questions, Simpson shouted that another APC was heading our way. Everyone dropped what they were doing, immobilized by fright as the green monster bore down upon us.
As before, the horde parted only reluctantly from the path of the careening vehicle, and usually not a second too soon, leaping away left and right, defiantly till the last possible moment. The BBC crew swiftly backed onto the sidewalk, wisely regrouping behind some trees that offered a modicum of protection. The threatening vehicle then lurched to the left, veering away.
My pace quickened as I approached the stalled vehicle, infected by the toxic glee of the mob, but then I caught myself. Why was I rushing towards trouble? Because everyone else was? I slowed down to a trot in the wake of a thundering herd of one mass mind.
Breaking with the pack, I stopped running, exerting the effort necessary to free myself from the unspoken imperative to follow others forward.
Someone tossed a Molotov cocktail, setting the APC on fire. Flames spread quickly over the top of the vehicle and spilled onto the pavement. The throng roared victoriously and moved in closer, enraged faces illuminated in the orange glow.
But wait! I thought, there’s somebody still inside of that, it’s not just a machine! There must be people inside. This is not man against dinosaur, but man against man!
Meng protectively pulled me away to join a handful of head-banded students who sought to exert some control. Expending what little moral capital his hunger strike signature saturated shirt still exerted, he spoke up for the soldier.
“Let the man out,” he cried. “Help the soldier, help him get out!”
The agitated congregation was in no mood for mercy. Angry, blood-curdling voices ricocheted around us.
“Kill the mother fucker!” one said. Then another voice, even more chilling than the first screamed, “He is not human, he is a thing.”
“Kill it, kill it!” shouted bystanders, bloody enthusiasm now whipped up to a high pitch.
“Stop! Don’t hurt him!” Meng pleaded, leaving me behind as he tried to reason with the vigilantes. “Stop, he is just a soldier!”
“He is not human, kill him, kill him!” said a voice.
“Get back, get back!” Meng started screaming on the top of his lungs.
“Leave him alone, the soldiers are not our enemy, the government is the enemy!”
The former hunger striker howled until his lungs failed him, his voice weak, raspy and hoarse. Meng’s head-banded comrades descended on the stricken vehicle but were unable to placate vigilantes keyed up for action.
“Make room for the ambulance,” one of the students yelled. “Please cooperate, please step back!”
I watched from 20-30 feet away as the students tried to extract from the burning vehicle the driver who had nearly killed them. He had trouble walking, he appeared to be injured and in serious pain, but the quality of crowd mercy was uneven.
“He’s not a person, he’s a thing, kill him!” voices continued to shout out. Hotheads were deliberately instigating violence, putting them at odds with conscientious demonstrators who had no intention of hurting anyone.
The assembly surrounding the armored vehicle shared a paroxysm of joy in stopping it, but was of more than one mind about what to do next. At least one surrendering soldier was safely evacuated to a waiting ambulance, but then the ambulance itself was attacked, the back door almost ripped off by protesters determined to punish the man in uniform.
Up until now, the volunteer ambulances were symbols of the movement’s caring side, carting collapsed hunger strikers away from Tiananmen to hospitals for physical restoration. Until this night, city ambulances, plying slowly through the pack with that familiar, almost reassuring up-and-down wail, had been sacrosanct and untouchable.
A man with a metal pipe smashed the rear of the ambulance, breaking the tail-light. Two or three other men pounded on the back door demanding that the limp body of the soldier be handed over. The driver desperately begged the vigilantes to leave the injured man alone, to let him be taken to the hospital.
The back door of the ambulance swung open and the injured soldier was about to be extracted for a bout of “people’s” justice when the vehicle lurched forward, and raced off in the direction of the Beijing Hotel. Student traffic directors trying to impose a semblance of order did their best to hold back those seeking blood long enough for the ambulance to escape.
So it had come to this. The dream was over, people were killing each other. The mutual restraint, one of the things I admired so much about all parties in this monumental conflict of wills, was breaking down.
The students lost control, the crowd started cracking, and the movement was breaking up into splintered mobs. There were calls for cooperation and shouts for vengeance, the blood thirst made me nauseous.
Meng was distraught. “Don’t use violence!” he yelled, straining his voice to persuade anyone who would listen. “Don’t fight!” he cried hoarsely, over and over. But whipped up into a state of true turmoil, few cared to listen.
The ambulance was gone, the APC was now a flaming hulk, billowing black smoke that masked the sky. The ghoulish glow of distant fires – one could only imagine what might be going on –reinforced the gloom of this moonless night.
The BBC crew reassembled, shaken but unhurt. Before we could gather our wits, however, the sky was suddenly pierced with red shooting stars.
“What in the world?” I had never seen anything like it before.
“Tracer bullets,” shouted Simpson. “We better get out of here!”
The red traces of speeding projectiles crisscrossed Chang’an Boulevard. The cracking sound of gunfire was steadily audible in the distance. The now seething mass was not easily intimidated, and became only further enraged. Empty-handed civilians cursed the government, venting violent epithets.
I looked at the anguish in Meng’s face, tears welling in his eyes.
“This is no longer a student movement, he said. “This is. . .” He paused, fists clenched with rage, face lined with resignation. “This is a people’s uprising.”
As the fighting worsened, with gunfire close by, I had to physically drag Meng; so reluctant was he to leave the street, towards the Beijing Hotel for shelter. There he joined the BBC crew, along with Wang Li and myself, in room 1413 to sit out the lethal madness. Patricia, the Hong Kong journalist, joined us shortly afterwards.
But the Beijing Hotel was no longer a safe haven. “What are you doing here?” one of the guards had barked at Meng as we crossed the threshold. In our haste we had failed to notice the gatekeepers were in place again, guard posts fully operational.
“He’s with me!” I answered firmly. Not wanting to get stuck at the guarded elevators, I took Meng by the arm and led him away from the heavily monitored entrance into the long central corridor ringed with dimly-lit lounges. The guards did not follow us, so we first lingered there, taking comfort in the incongruous fact that the deserted coffee lounge was still operational.
We gathered up an armful of yogurts and soft drinks for the crew and went up to 1413 by a less guarded passage. From my balcony high above Chang’an Boulevard, we surveyed the horizon. It looked like nothing less than war as I had imagined it as a child; fire and flares in every direction. Burning vehicles emitted an oily smoke that funneled upward, linking with its long black columns the murky sky and the ground.
Screams and gunfire could be heard almost directly below, more distant cries and rumbles intermittently carried by the breeze. Tracer bullets fired from somewhere across the street arched upwards along a parabolic path and fell behind the hotel. The frequency of gunfire intensified.
We watched in stunned silence as the tanks rolled in. As bodies were rolled out on carts. As the once defiant crowd was bent, then broken. Sporadic gunfire could be heard all night long.

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