Star reporter Scott Simmie recalls his time in China, covering the 1989 pro-democracy movement known as Tiananmen Square.
Twenty five years ago, the world witnessed the remarkable student-led pro-democracy movement in China. Reporter Scott Simmie got a closer view than most of the events in and around Tiananmen Square, and reflects on that astonishing Beijing Spring.
By: Scott Simmie World Affairs, Published on Mon Jun 02 2014
The boxes have barely been touched in a quarter of a century.
Inside them is a personal record of the student protests that rocked China — and captivated the world: The 1989 pro-democracy movement known as Tiananmen Square.
There are cassettes, scores of them, filled with the voices and sounds of that Beijing spring — including the blunt violence of its conclusion. There are photographs, notes, T-shirts — even a 10-metre banner that once proudly adorned the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the square.
This is my stuff; gathered during six weeks of reporting in Tiananmen and on the streets — and also during the more than two years prior to that when I lived and worked alongside Chinese at Beijing’s China Central Television.
My stuff; but not my story. On this 25th anniversary, it’s time to share this hidden archive.
By the late 1980s, much had changed since the days when people were expected to memorize quotations in Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book. Economic reforms and an open-door policy had left China a little less xenophobic, a little more willing to relax the rules. And young people, like young people anywhere, were willing to test them.
Scott Simmie/Toronto Star
Rock star Cui Jian - who pushed the boundaries with his lyrics.
Now, instead of memorizing Mao, some of China’s youth were slyly mocking him. The most popular rock star at the time was Cui Jian — and the chorus of one of his most popular songs was: “One-two-three-four-five-six-seven.” To many, it was a deliberate jab at mindless repetition, at learning meaningless phrases by rote. Yet it was not so explicit, so incendiary, that it could be banned. It was open to interpretation.
So, too, were the early days of the student protests.
The catalyst had been the death of Hu Yaobang, the former general secretary of the Communist Party of China. On the surface, the students were simply mourning a great comrade, paying homage to a former leader.
But it was more than that. Hu had been disgraced, and ousted from his role, after student demonstrations took place briefly in late 1986 and early 1987. Hu and “bourgeois liberalization” — a catchphrase for western thought and ideals — were blamed. He was, to the students, a martyr. They would honour him, but for their own reasons.
They began to march the 15-kilometre route from the university district to Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heart of the country, the place where Revolutionary Heroes are honoured. Solemnly carrying Hu’s portrait and wearing white chrysanthemums, they would sing.
The Internationale — that stirring socialist tune and the de facto hymn of the Communist party — was an anthem on that long and oft-repeated march that brief Beijing spring. But, like the lyrics of Cui Jian, one could not help but wonder if there was a double entendre:
The blood which fills my chest has boiled over,
We must struggle for truth!
The old world shall be destroyed
Arise, slaves, arise!
Strategically, it was brilliant. How could the authorities argue the students were unpatriotic — anti-government, even — if they were singing a piece so revered? How could they be condemned for mourning a comrade?
With every successful demonstration, the students gained a little strength. Support from the sidelines — spectators applauding and shouting their approval — grew. In a country where it sometimes felt like you couldn’t get even the simplest thing done without a bribe or the right connection, this talk of greater transparency and an end to corruption struck a chord.
The movement also, in an age when social media consisted of conversation, quickly spread beyond Beijing. Demonstrations had turned to riots in two cities far from the capital. There had been violence, arson, looting and arrests.
The government wanted it to end, especially since then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was due to arrive in mid-May for a summit — thrusting Beijing into the global spotlight. But that was easier said than done, complicated vastly by the fact hardliners and moderates at senior levels disagreed over how to respond.
One early, disastrous attempt was an editorial in the People’s Daily that appeared April 26. It suggested the movement was being manipulated by a small group of extremists whose aim was to overthrow the government.
“Their purpose is to poison people’s minds, create national turmoil and sabotage the nation’s political stability. This is planned conspiracy, which in essence aims at negating the leadership of the socialist system.”
It was meant as a warning shot of an impending campaign. But because the statement was so blatantly untrue, it achieved the opposite of its intended effect. It incensed the students, who had not been calling for radical change, and galvanized their supporters. In the blink of an eye, students mobilized demonstrations outside the People’s Daily and other state-run media outlets, accusing them of speaking “false talk.”
Inside, journalists knew the students were right. And, by May 4, they too began to test the limits of their largely self-imposed censorship. Open coverage — a key student demand — was even encouraged by Communist party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, a moderate whom the students regarded as an ally.
This new-found press freedom created a positive feedback loop. Citizens watching unbiased coverage knew not only that change was in the wind — but that the students were representing grievances they shared. Soon even those who had been reluctant to join were in the streets. A little more than a week after its stinging editorial, The People’s Daily was now reporting that “hundreds of thousands” demonstrated May 4 (including many of its own reporters).
China is, as many observers will tell you, a nation of voyeurs. Everything from a traffic accident to a spilled carton of eggs will draw a small crowd. Often, however, participation is limited to ascribing innocence or guilt, praise or condemnation (the latter, a skill finely honed during the Cultural Revolution). This was different. People were joining the cause, not merely watching it.
Scott Simmie Photo
During the major May 4 demonstration, 14 rows of officers attempted to stop the marchers from proceeding. Citizens pushed through the lines, clearing a path for the students.
On May 4, on the broad Chang’an Boulevard, journalists counted a formidable barrier of 14 rows of officers, arms linked. As the students approached, it was the bystanders who first surged into the lines. The police began to yield, like human taffy, until the arms inevitably unlinked. A victorious cheer rose up — truly, rose up — as the students continued.
At Tiananmen, the students climbed the stairs at the base of the Monument to the People’s Heroes unopposed. They made speeches with megaphones — within shouting distance of the Great Hall of the People, the country’s political hub. No one stopped them.
A little more than a week later, students upped the ante with a hunger strike — and an encampment in Tiananmen. The fact the strike was starting two days before Gorbachev’s arrival was no coincidence; the students knew there were plans for an official welcome in or near the square. If the government wanted this place, it would have to negotiate. Several hundred students took the initial pledge to fast, with even more joining later.
Bamboo poles and tarps formed makeshift tents; volunteer doctors, nurses and medical students created a mini-hospital. Loudspeakers blared speeches from student leaders, and small hand-cranked printing machines churned out pamphlets. Ambulances ferried those who collapsed to hospital for treatment; many would return and continue their strike as soon as they were released.
Despite a government request, the students did not clear the square for Gorbachev’s arrival — and the official ceremony took place at the airport instead. Many journalists in Beijing for the visit gravitated to the much more cacophonous and electric story in the streets.
Listen: Worker at Tiananmen Square
It was a challenge for many (myself included) not to oversimplify the movement, to show bias in favour of the students. To do so, however, would have been to ignore some harsh realities. The students were not terribly well organized and their demands seemed to meander. They were young — perhaps even a little drunk with power — and somewhat naive.
The reality for those in power was that the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 — a decade of chaos bordering on national madness — was still fresh. To them, stability was unquestionably in the best interests of the country. Even if it took force to achieve it.
On May 17-18, things reached a zenith of sorts, with the largest demonstrations of the movement. Observers guessed at least a million took part (including many police who marched) — and that was just in Beijing. Later reports would suggest simultaneous protests had taken place in 400 cities outside the capital. The government, losing control, prepared to act.
On Friday, May 19, a defeated-looking Zhao Ziyang came and spoke to students early in the morning. (The conservative Premier Li Peng accompanied him, but left quickly.)
Speaking through a megaphone, Zhao pleaded with them to leave. “You are still young, there are many days yet to come,” he said. “You must live healthy . . . We are already old. It doesn’t matter to us anymore.” He appeared on the verge of tears — and probably was. He knew what was coming. That emotional speech would be his last public appearance.
The following day, martial law was declared. Helicopters swooped low, repeatedly, over the square. Leaflets were dropped, informing those in Tiananmen they were breaking the law and needed to leave. The response was defiance. People were now openly leading chants calling for the overthrow of the leadership. “Down with Li Peng! Down with Deng Xiaoping!” It was outright sedition.
Some students, frightened at the turn of events or at the urging of their parents, started to abandon the square. For Chinese media, a steel door had just closed on open reporting. Crowds began thinning and the square started falling into disarray. It was garbage-strewn, fetid. One day, I noticed a crumpled red cloth ball at my feet. It was a 10-metre banner, offering support to the students from bus drivers. It was filthy and reeked of urine — but would also someday be a piece of history.
Scott Simmie / Toronto Star
A 10-metre banner, along with a sampling of the artifacts Scott Simmiei brought back from Beijing in 1989.
The army tried, repeatedly, to enter the city. And repeatedly, citizens managed to peacefully stop the advance. “You are the People’s Army — the People’s Army,” Beijingers told them. The military continued to mass on Beijing’s outskirts.
The students would play one more card.
At the Central Academy of Fine Arts, students worked feverishly on a sculpture. She was built in four sections and wheeled to Tiananmen on May 29 for assembly. By the following morning, she was ready.
The Goddess of Democracy stood 10 metres tall. Blinding white, pure, she held aloft a torch. Though it prompted instant comparisons to the Statue of Liberty, the sculpture was not intended to represent the famous work.
Inspiring, yes. But also an affront. She was positioned directly across from the omnipresent portrait of Mao Zedong. She seemed to be challenging him, taunting him, daring him.
Even some supporters felt the students had gone too far. “That’s a very stupid thing to do,” said one Chinese journalist. “It seems to me that a lot of students are pushing for a confrontation.”
The final assault came the night of June 3-4, with the army approaching from the north, south, east and west. Soldiers in the back of trucks carried guns and many brandished long flexible rods, a little longer than 1.5 metres, with heavy metal stars affixed to the end. I did not witness these being used, but their only purpose could have been to damage soft tissue and bone.
Crowds, including people in pyjamas, were urgently trying to persuade the soldiers to listen, to leave. It was futile. These soldiers, the ones I saw, were different. Expressionless. They did not appear to look at the people addressing them. Rather, they seemed to look through them.
The beginning of the assault near the square was brutal. Soldiers were lined up, shoulder-to-shoulder, across the width of Chang’an, firing in the direction of the crowd. Some large trees lining the street, where the army believed people might be hiding, had been set on fire. Students and citizens, in disbelief, shouted to each other not to be scared, that they were shooting blanks. Chanting, they would charge toward the soldiers — only to be driven back by volleys. Then they would regroup, and charge yet again. It was incredibly brave, and incredibly sad.
The gravely wounded, and dead, were whisked away. One limp young man, his neck crimson, was rushed through the crowd. He had been standing, uninjured, just moments earlier. When a bullet hit the ground by my feet, it was time to go.
Back at the Palace Hotel, I filed radio reports non-stop for the CBC and elsewhere that night, struggling to process and convey what I had just witnessed. I could hear the gunfire and chaos from my room, but did not risk returning to the square that night. It was clear what was going to happen.
I did not see the famous “tank man” — the civilian who stood up to a column of tanks near Tiananmen on June 5 — except on video later that day. But there is no more apt icon of that movement. Time magazine would later name him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
JEFF WIDENER/The Associated Press File Photo
A Chinese man blocks a line of tanks on June 5, 1989. He became known as "tank man," an apt icon of the movement.
Before long, the government would famously and contentiously state: “No one died in Tiananmen Square.”
While it was true that the majority of the students were allowed to leave Tiananmen peacefully, there can be no question many students and civilians died around the square, and on the streets leading to the square, and even on the balconies of their apartments. (Some may well have died, as some students contend, when tanks ran over tents in the square.)
More would die even after the night of the assault — as sporadic shootings took place in the streets. One of the most egregious cases was witnessed by reporter and sinologist Jonathan Mirsky, who had himself been severely beaten the previous night.
“The next morning, Sunday, June 4, I cycled back to the edge of the square just in time to see soldiers mow down parents of students who had come to look for those who had not returned home and who were feared to have been killed and their bodies burned,” he wrote.
“While I lay in the grass at the side of the avenue, doctors and nurses from the Peking Union Hospital . . . arrived in an ambulance and in their bloodstained gowns went among the fallen; the soldiers shot them down, too.”
How many in total, precisely? There is no definitive answer. The best estimates are likely that around 300 civilians were killed, with many thousands wounded and injured. An early Chinese Red Cross report of 2,600 dead — still in my notes — was quickly withdrawn.
Within days, the campaign was underway. Chinese news, once again doing the work of the state, flashed pictures of the Most Wanted. It wasn’t just the student leaders they were after; the net was wide. Every day, there were new faces, or video of another handcuffed person being dragged into custody. The country called on every good citizen with information to come forward.
On my return to Canada with fellow journalist Bob Nixon (who had also been in the streets through this remarkable period), we wrote a book. Everything was still fresh; raw, and a little bit unreal.
"Tiananmen Square" by Scott Simmie and fellow Canadian journalist Bob Nixon upon their return to Canada.
And then, after returning to Toronto, all that stuff went into all those boxes.
I’ve been back to China twice since 1989 — the last a trip for the 2008 Olympics. Beijing is a very different city now, where Gucci stores and Starbucks outlets (which would have been labelled trappings of “bourgeois liberalization” in the late ’80s) coexist with traditional tea shops, and where luxury autos are no longer uncommon.
Most of the traditional hutongs (small community alleyways) and courtyard homes have been destroyed to make way for the new. A great number of plainclothes police and security cameras ensure nothing untoward happens in Tiananmen Square.
And still, I love the place.
About two years earlier, in an Ontario park, I happened across a group of maybe eight students from China. They were here studying, and about the same age as those who had risked so much back in 1989. They had nice, fashionable clothes, the latest phones and seemed friendly. I spoke a few words to them in Mandarin and told them I used to work in their country. They were thrilled.
When I’d exhausted my limited vocabulary, we switched to English. I told them I had been in the square, witnessed the protests and had been there the night of June 3-4. I said I had seen people shot.
There were blank stares, uncomfortable expressions, an awkward silence. Then one of them spoke.
“We . . . don’t believe that happened,” he said.
His friends, all of them, nodded in agreement.
Follow Scott Simmie on Twitter: @scottsimmie