In the 30 years that have passed since the bloody June Fourth crackdown, many events have faded from my memory. But the two killing scenes I witnessed on June 4, 1989 have been etched in my mind, impossible to erase. I am writing to share my experience to mark June Fourth, the day of national tragedy—a horrific day in modern Chinese history.
On June 3, my wife and I went to Tiananmen Square after dinner. The situation had already gotten very tense, with emergency announcements from the Beijing municipal government blasting on the radio and TV over and over. It was clear that the authorities were about to take action, and that something major was going to happen that night—you could almost smell blood in the air. As a history researcher, I wanted to stay and bear witness, but my wife said, “absolutely not!” and talked me into going home.
At that time, we lived on Kuanjie Street, a little more than two miles northeast of Tiananmen Square. Once home, still thinking about the scene in the square, I tuned in to Voice of America and BBC and kept listening. When night fell, I stood on the balcony and looked toward Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace. I barely slept that night. In the early morning hours, I saw red flares blazing in the night sky above the square. The sounds of heart-wrenching gunshots and screams from the crowds, though faint, were audible.
At about five in the morning, Voice of America reported that martial law troops had occupied Tiananmen Square. At dawn, I made my way there on my bicycle, passing through what looked like a war zone. Everything was chaotic, with cement blocks and trolleys clogging the intersections. I heard the sounds of vehicles moving at high speed behind me as I approached Shatan Road, so I stopped my bike and stood with one leg on the curb. A pair of military vehicles raced past me, but had to slow down in front of the roadblocks at the Shatan Road intersection. It was full daylight now. Many residents were out by the roadside talking. The soldiers in the vehicles started tossing tear gas grenades into the crowds, which let out a thud and then yellow smoke that made us choke. Then they fired several rounds of bullets, and people fell in pools of blood. The crowd screamed and scattered.
After the military vehicles drove off into the distance, I pedaled to the scene. People were coming back out, scrambling to rush the wounded to the nearby Longfusi Hospital on flatbed carts. One person was shot in the shoulder, blood seeping through his T-shirt; another got hit in the leg and collapsed onto the ground, moaning. A bullet left an egg-sized hole on the wall of an Indonesian-Chinese restaurant at the intersection. The senseless killing by the martial law troops horrified and enraged the crowd. “What a monstrous, evil act!” a silver-haired old woman said in a trembling voice, stomping her foot. “Slaughtering people like this in broad daylight. I will never, ever let my grandsons to join the military no matter what you say!”
I continued to head toward Tiananmen. On the way, I saw people surrounding a college student wearing a red headband who appeared to have retreated from the square. Grief, rage, and devastation filled his face. He shook his head and said, “China is doomed. China is doomed!” Then he rode north on his bike without looking back. After that, I saw another crowd surrounding a doctor or a nurse in a white coat. She had probably just left work at the hospital, the blood stains on her coat and trouser legs already dried up and turned blackish purple. She recounted with tears in her eyes what she saw on her shift and repeatedly said, “It’s just too tragic!”
At about eight o’clock, I arrived at Nanhe Side Road. By then, the martial law forces had occupied the square and blockaded the east side with three rows of tanks. In front of the tanks were three rows of armed soldiers: soldiers in the front row were all carrying three-sided iron rods, and those in the back two rows were armed with submachine guns. Here, at the gate of the Ministry of Public Security, several hundred citizens were in a standoff with soldiers in formation. Many of the civilians looked like they had been struggling with the martial law forces with their bare hands through the preceding night. They looked exhausted, their voices hoarse, as they excoriated the troops as “fascists” and “executioners,” and chanted “Hang Li Peng!” and “Blood for blood!”
I was standing right behind the crowd during the confrontation. Soldiers in the front row, with the iron rods, would rush forward from time to time to intimidate the civilians. Before long, two minivans came onto the scene one after the other and tried to enter the square. The civilians blocked their way and questioned the drivers: what are you doing? They hemmed and hawed, but finally admitted that they were delivering bread and soda to the troops. The crowd erupted with fury. They dragged the driver out of the first van and gave him a good beating. The van behind rushed into the square, taking advantage of the chaos. At that very moment, I heard gunfire. Some civilians in the front got hit and collapsed, and the crowd ran in all directions. As I ran, I looked back and saw soldiers rushing toward us with their submachine guns. I, along with a dozen others, ran to the Western Returned Scholars Association on Nanhe Side Road. The elderly gatekeeper refused to let us in, saying, “They’re going to come in here to get you.” A middle-aged man with skin darkened by the sun warned the gatekeeper: “If we die at your gate, you won’t be able to live with yourself for the rest of your life!” The old man let out a sigh and let us in.
After we got into the yard, we crouched by the wall next to the road. The intermittent bursts of submachine gun fire grew closer and closer. Clearly, the bloodthirsty soldiers had turned onto the Nanhe Side Road to chase down and kill fleeing citizens. There were two demobilized soldiers hiding with us: one had been with the 39th Army, and the other with the 40th Army. They related their experiences trying to block the martial law troops from entering the city the night before. One of the men rolled up his sleeves to reveal his arms—they were red and swollen from hurling cement bricks he had found on the pavement. He said, “It’s a f-----g shame that I don’t have a gun. If I had a gun, I could bump ten of them!” Later, I saw this man in a program about “putting down the riot” on China Central Television, showing him against the backdrop of the square that looked like an inferno. The sight made me nervous for his safety, and I wondered if he made it out okay.
As the sounds of gunfire gradually died down, we walked out of the gate. The sun was high, and the air was hot and dry. Some folks were running to the rescue a person who had just gotten shot. A young man borrowed a trishaw—a common means of transportation at the time—to take the wounded man to the nearby Xiehe Hospital. He was pedaling at full speed and kept yelling, “Make way! Make way!” The injured person was a middle-aged man, his head on the back of the seat. Due to excessive blood loss, his face had already turned greenish-yellow in the sun. Things did not look good for him. Decades later, I still have not forgotten his face.
Later, I went to my father-in-law’s place on Nanhe Side Road. The sounds of gunfire started again after a brief lull. My father-in-law, worried sick that my wife, who had gone grocery shopping, had not come back, asked me to go out and look for her. The second I got onto the streets, I saw gun-toting martial law soldiers, in groups of three, walking in synchronized steps on the sidewalk on both sides of Nanhe Side Road. They were firing at civilians at random from time to time, sending them fleeing in all directions. I followed the crowd into a hutong and crouched down against the wall as I listened to the nerve-racking bursts of gunfire out on the streets. Next to me was an old man, probably in his 60s or 70s, who worked as a flatbed cart driver. “This is sin!” he said, quivering with rage. “Even the Japanese didn’t murder folks like this when they invaded Beijing. The Communist Party has completely annihilated whatever virtues its eight generations of ancestors had passed on to it!”
That afternoon, I pedaled halfway around the city and visited my mother. The aftermath of the massacre was on stark display everywhere I passed, as if the entire capital had been ravaged in a war. When I returned to my own home a few days later, my desktop calendar still displayed this page: June 4. I tore the page off and wrote on it the words that encapsulate what I went through and felt: “A day of national tragedy—the darkest day in the history of the Republic.” I sewed the page into my quilt and prepared myself for the purge in my work unit that was about to begin.
This was to become a turning point in my life.