20 years later, a witness remembers

Twenty years ago, I woke up—safe—on the Trans-Siberian train churning across Manchuria. Behind me, dawn cracked open on the blood-spattered sidewalks of Beijing. The college kids I had met over popsicles and political philosophy, workers I had joked around with over beer, the taxi drivers—lay dead or bleeding in the hospitals, slipping into hiding or incarceration.

I, and my two traveling companions, were speeding away from the wreckage of the student protests at Tiananmen Square—6-4, as it is remembered (quietly) in China.

Ten days before, we’d made our first visit, on creaky one-speed bikes, to the square: “A huge expanse with no relief from the burning sun. Hundreds of tents, cobbled together with bamboo, bedsheets, canvas and plastic, sheltered people from the heat of the day.”

From the monument at the south end of the square, movement leaders broadcast speeches, interspersed with music—disco version of Beethoven’s fifth, baroque classics, the “Internationale.” The students wanted to know what Americans thought of them, what the U.S. government would do if the same thing happened, how much did cars cost, what were our favorite rock bands. The Western media portrayed this as a “pro-democracy” demonstration, but we found no evidence of that.

“What do you want?” We asked. “A new form of government? Due process of law?” No, no. “A BMW” “To go to America, to travel.” “A big house for me and my wife.” “My own business.”

It was different at night—noisy, more frenzied. Masses of people flowed into the square after work to catch “the news.” The noise was deafening, student speeches competing with the government broadcasts over the loudspeakers. Spotlights glared on huge red silk flags rippling in the breeze. One night we were joined by Chinese companions, who became increasingly nervous as we walked around. “Being with foreigners makes me stand out,” one said. “We should keep moving.”

“Why?” I asked. “Are you in danger?”

He answered, “Somebody may see me with you, and it could be bad.”

Our tickets were for the 8 p.m. train, Saturday, June 3. At 6:30, we took a taxi from our hotel. As we approached the main avenue, we could see the line of canvas-covered jeeps, packed with soldiers, extending into the intersection and south as far as we could see. At the intersection, a group of abandoned public buses, gear boxes stripped out, blocked the personnel carrier’s path. With the long convoy behind them, the jeeps could move neither forward nor back—trapped. Crowds gathered.

Somebody shouted. I pulled back and hid my camera. “No, no! Take pictures!” They said in English. “American?” We nodded. “Take pictures! Show them this!” As our driver nosed through traffic, people grinned and flashed the “V” sign, waving as we drove down another street and through back alleys. We came upon a second, and then a third blocked column of soldiers. Men were climbing on these trucks, peeling back the canvas, exposing the soldiers inside. Our driver pulled over and tried to kick us out, but we wouldn’t pay him. Finally, he got us to the train station. As we approached, I rolled up the film in my camera and stashed it in my bra, boarded without incident and rolled away.

Two days later, June 5, a British guy rigged up a short-wave radio, and we finally caught word of the massacre. “The army rolled into the square killing thousands and injuring more.”

I remember them now, two young girls in the medical students’ tent, telling me, “I am so proud of us.”