Tiananmen: How wrong we were

On the night of the army’s entry into the center of Beijing I stood on one of the marble bridges under Mao’s portrait over the gate into the Forbidden City that faced onto the square. Shots sounded ever louder and as the army advanced under the dark red walls of the City a young man next to me shouted that the streaks in the darkness, even the sparks flashing off the stones, were “blanks.” Seconds later he slumped over the railing with a widening red circle on his t-shirt. No longer the China-expert, I turned to leave. My way was blocked by some Armed Police, who said, “You motherfucking foreign journalist,” knocked out five of my teeth, and fractured my left arm. Their officer was shooting people they had beaten to the ground and would have shot me if the Financial Times’s Robert Thompson had not bravely walked over and led me away.

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. While I lay in the grass at the side of the avenue, doctors and nurses from the Peking Union Hospital (where my father had briefly worked in the early Thirties) arrived in an ambulance and in their bloodstained gowns went among the fallen; the soldiers shot them down, too. I managed to fly back to London later that day.

Hundreds were shot in the square that night and the following morning, or crushed by tanks, and the shooting up and down the streets and avenues of the capital continued for several days. Long red and gold signs hanging outside buildings that had said, “Support the Students,” were quickly replaced with others proclaiming, “Support the Party.” A decree went out: “No Laughing in Tiananmen Square.” Tank tread-marks scarred the main roads for a year and bullet holes pockmarked the buildings along those roads. Those scars remained until 1990 when the center of capital was scoured clean for the Asian Games.

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