Twenty-five Years On, Memories of June 4 Loom Large

2014-05-29
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PLA tanks stand guard in Tiananmen Square on June 9, 1989.
PLA tanks stand guard in Tiananmen Square on June 9, 1989.
AFP

Twenty-five years after the China's army quashed several weeks of student-led protests in Tiananmen Square with machine guns and tanks, those who were involved say they have been living with recurring memories of the violence ever since.

Li Xiaoming, a former lieutenant in the 1164 artillery regiment of the People's Liberation Army's 39th division, said he left China as soon as he was able after being ordered into the heart of the Chinese capital to clear the square of students and their supporters in the June 4, 1989 crackdown.

"On the evening of June 3, our commanding officers heard that some PLA soldiers had been beaten to death by rebels, and we were all worked up and angry about that," Li told Hong Kong media.

"Everyone was issued a bag full of bullets, several hundred rounds maybe," he said, adding that his group arrived after the students had left, and was ordered to secure the area instead, remaining in Beijing until July.

Weeping during the interview with Hong Kong's NOW TV, Li said: "This was the biggest shame of my entire life, and the PLA's biggest shame too."

A Beijing resident who worked at the PLA's 301 military hospital as a young woman told RFA she had lived near Muxidi, the site of a pitched battle between advancing troops and furious local residents armed with petrol bombs, rocks, and other makeshift weapons.

"At Muxidi, there were people lying on the ground after being hit by bullets, and there was blood," she said.

"There were bicycles on the ground too; I saw a lot of them, squashed to the ground, flattened."

Asked if they had been run over by tanks, she replied: "Yes, that's right."

First gunfire

A second Beijing resident surnamed Zhang said he took a camera to Tiananmen Square during the crackdown. "I took my camera and a got a lot of black-and-white photographs," he said.

"That was the first time that we'd heard gunfire in Beijing since the founding of the People's Republic [in 1949]," Zhang said. "The first time they fired live ammunition within Beijing city limits."

But Zhang said his abiding memory is of a bus driver called Ya Sen who drove the early morning 305 route in the western part of the capital.

"On the morning of June 3, Ya Sen was at Ma Dian, in his 305 bus," Zhang said. "He had a bunch of college students aboard the bus at the time, and they told him to park the bus across the avenue, so he pulled over into the middle of the road and blocked the troops from advancing."

"[Local] people then set fire to the bus, and he was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison," Zhang said. "I reckon Ya Sen must be nearly 60 years old now."

And a third Beijing resident surnamed Li said he also had vivid memories of the crackdown.

"I was there, at the scene," he said. "[But] I wasn't hit. I am a soldier born and bred, so they wouldn't hit me."

But he declined to comment further. "I won't talk about this on the phone," Li said. Asked if he was concerned that the call was being monitored, he said: "That's right."

A waking dream

Meanwhile, 49-year-old social worker Chen Qinghua told Swiss television he had never spoken about his experiences during the crackdown until the opening of a June 4th Museum to mark the 25th anniversary of the bloodshed next week.

"Everyone tries to avoid the pain of those memories," Chen said. "I still have nightmares about that year and I wake up screaming in the middle of the night."

He said he had recurring visions of streets devoid of people in the center of Beijing in the two years following the violence.

"It was like a waking dream," Chen said. "There were no people on Chang'an Avenue."

"I attend the June 4 gatherings year after year, but I can't join in with the singing or the chanting of slogans," he said. "I just sit there in silence, and sometimes I weep."

"My wife doesn't understand it at all," he said.

China's leadership has ignored growing calls for a reappraisal of the 1989 student protests, which the party has styled a "counterrevolutionary rebellion."

The number of people killed when PLA tanks and troops entered Beijing on the night of June 3-4, 1989 remains a mystery.

Beijing authorities once put the death toll at "nearly 300," but has never issued an official toll or list of names, and has always maintained that the violence was necessary to end the unrest.

The crackdown sparked a wave of international condemnation, and for several years China was treated as a near-pariah as Western governments offered asylum to student leaders fleeing into exile.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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