Tiananmen Square. June 4th, 1989.

© 1989 Stuart Franklin/MAGNUM

Twenty-five years ago today, China's Tiananmen Square protests ended in a massacre. The first demonstrators – students and hunger-strikers – were joined by workers and people from all walks of life until they filled the vast square, and the protests spread across hundreds of Chinese cities. In late May, 1989, after the government declared martial law and ordered the military to use deadly force, some protesters in Beijing attacked army convoys and burned vehicles as the military moved through the city. On June 3 and June 4, the Chinese military horrified the world by opening fire on the unarmed civilians. After the massacre, the government arrested thousands of people on “counter-revolution” and other charges.

Human Rights Watch deputy executive director for external relations, Carroll Bogert, who covered the Tiananmen protests as a reporter for Newsweek, talks with Amy Braunschweiger about how China has been shaped by the horrific events of those days more than two decades ago.

At the time, you were a correspondent in Moscow. Why were you covering the events in Tiananmen Square?

I followed [Mikhail] Gorbachev to Beijing in May to cover his first-ever visit to China, then stayed to cover the protests as I had worked as a reporter in China and spoke Mandarin. Tiananmen’s protests were triggered by the death of party leader Hu Yaobang, a political reformer. But Gorbachev’s visit helped keep the protests alive. Political reform was happening in the Soviet Union way ahead of China, and the Tiananmen students wanted their own perestroika. They were communicating both to Gorbachev and their own leaders. It was a real human rights revolution.

Gorbachev came at an unbelievable moment in Chinese history. There were so many people in Tiananmen Square that Gorbachev couldn’t get to his meeting at the Great Hall of the People, which was also on the Square. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a larger crowd in all my life, and I covered the fall of the Soviet Union.

It must have been alarming to the Chinese government that workers were there. In Poland, the Solidarity workers movement was already a force, and later that year, they would come to power in an election. The Chinese leadership feared a Solidarity-like revolution.
 

What did you see covering Tiananmen?

Armies traditionally attack at dawn, so every night, in the middle of the night, Jonathan Mirsky and I would get in the Newsweek car and drive east to see where the tanks were. I remember visiting this village where an armored personnel carrier had stopped. People were climbing on it. I’m not sure what the soldiers were doing, but they weren’t moving. And they didn’t move because they didn’t want to shoot the people.

At one point, the government did call for a crackdown, and the army balked. They were local forces from around Beijing, and they wouldn’t attack. So the leaders had to call on units thousands of miles from Beijing, lying to them, saying that the protesters wanted to overthrow the government.

The whole city was holding its breath, waiting. Was the government going to clear the square? If so, when? Would they negotiate a settlement? There was a struggle in the leadership for how to respond. Everyone was waiting for the response.

Did you witness the killings?

I was not in the square at the moment of violence, but I did witness the subsequent crackdown.

Newsweek, along with many other news organizations, had rented a room in the Beijing Hotel, a high-rise building that looked over Tiananmen Square, to watch the protests. After the crackdown, we couldn’t get back to that hotel – authorities had cordoned off the street to mop up the blood and make sure no protesters could regroup. When the street finally opened several days later, my colleague Melinda Liu and I went back to the hotel to check out, and the hotel tried to charge us for the days we couldn’t reach it. We argued about the bill, and my colleague asked for a discount as access to the hotel was dicey “due to what happened in Tiananmen Square.” In retort, the man behind the counter said, “Nothing happened in Tiananmen Square.” There was a brazen quality to the lie. It was remarkable. It was an unbelievably tragic time.

After the massacre, many journalists stayed at the Jianguo Hotel. We were barely sleeping. I was working on a story, and a man came to deliver room service. He opened up the leather folder that contained the bill, and in the inside cover, written in English, it said, “Thank you people.” Our eyes locked and neither of us said anything, we both knew the hotel room was bugged. It was one of those moments you don’t forget in your life.

Did the government crackdown succeed? What happened to the spirit of Tiananmen?

The Chinese government made a Faustian deal with its people, saying we’ll keep the economy going, your incomes will rise, your personal freedoms will rise, but not your political freedom. Today, we’re seeing a real crackdown on any kinds of political organization – either on the Internet or on the ground, like that against the New Citizens Movement.

But at the same time, we see a real human rights movement in China today, including labor rights protests that the Chinese government puts down each year. We’re seeing growing pressure for greater political freedom.

Chinese people want corruption to go away, they want journalists to be able to dig out information about corruption. They don’t want to be beaten up by police. They want a fair day in court. They don’t want to be victims of the abuse of power. We know, from global experience, that the way to prevent abusive governments is through a robust civil society movement that presses for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion – basic human rights.

What’s the legacy of Tiananmen?

Tiananmen isn’t the first untruth the Chinese Communist Party has staked itself on. Tiananmen isn’t the only one. China hasn’t taken responsibility for the Great Leap forward, and many of the wild and tyrannical actions of Mao Zedong. But none of the lies are bigger than Tiananmen, the lie that claims the students and other protesters were counter-revolutionaries who didn’t love their country.

They were revolutionaries, and they loved their country. Theirs was a desire to do the best thing for China.

I was giving the speech at an American college a few years ago, and after everyone had gone and the entire room was empty – even the projectionist had left – I was approached by a young Chinese woman, who asked me, “Please tell me what really happened in Tiananmen Square.” She was afraid to have her question overheard by the other Chinese students at that college. There’s still a lot of fear surrounding Tiananmen Square.

Can you bury a lie like that forever? I genuinely don’t think so. They can delay the accounting for that but, one day, China will arrive at a greater appreciation for the real truth of what happened. And one day, the Chinese government will have to acknowledge that people want self-government. The democracy movement of 1989 has been postponed, but not vanquished.