Thursday, March 26, 2009

Standoff at Tiananmen: Prologue

(The following is the prologue from the book Standoff at Tiananmen)

Sunday, June 5, 1989, was a clear day in Beijing. The early summer sun was casting a layer of warmth over the streets of this ancient capital of China. Yet the city looked amazingly empty. There were none of the buses, bicycles, or pedestrians that made up the usual weekend traffic. The emptiness was particularly profound along Chang'an Avenue, the main thoroughfare of the city. This magnificent boulevard was designed to carry eight lanes of vehicular traffic plus two wide lanes dedicated for bicycles. There were little signs of life. It was a gigantic slab of gray concrete flooded by uninterrupted sunlight.

There were traces of black smoke in the distant sky. Along Chang'an Avenue, burnt buses and other debris dotted the roadside. Bloodstain could be spotted in some areas, a contrast to its recently cleaned surface. Occasional sights of tanks and armored personnel carriers indicated that this was not a normal morning for this city.

A column of tanks slowly emerged from Tiananmen Square. On the wide and empty Chang'an Avenue, the tanks cruised right in the middle of the road. One block east of Tiananmen Square, however, the column came to an abrupt halt. A lone and slim figure appeared from nowhere and stepped right into the path of the lead tank. Upstairs in the nearby Beijing Hotel, foreign reporters crowded into several balconies overlooking the street. They could not believe what they were seeing but kept their video cameras rolling and took still photographs with their long lenses.

The reporters saw the man from his back. He was wearing a white shirt and dark pants. He was holding a jacket in his left hand and a small plastic bag in his right. He was probably about twenty years old and appeared to be a typical college student or a young office worker. But there he was in the middle of Chang'an Avenue, standing alone and still, facing a column of advancing tanks.

As the lead tank stopped right in front of his body, the young man whipped his right arm in a forceful gesture as if to tell the tank to get out of the way. A tense pause ensued as the man and the tank stared down each other. Smoke emerged behind the lead tank as it started its engine again. The tank moved gently to the man's left. Without hesitation, the man stepped over to block the path. The tank then turned to the man's right. Behind it, the entire column of tanks were also veering left and right like a long snake. The man moved along. He was not yielding an inch.

As the tanks stopped again, the man made his boldest move yet. He climbed on top of the lead tank. He looked up and down the turret trying to find a way to see the soldiers inside. He was not successful. So he climbed back down. Just then, several civilians rushed in and dragged him away to the sidewalk. The column of tanks continued on their path without further incident.

Nobody knew who that man was. His age indicated that he was a member of the generation that had staged one of the most dramatic historic events of the nation which eventually ended with the tanks being in the streets of the capital. Less than two days earlier, in the evening of June 3, hundreds of thousands of troops armed with automatic assault rifles and machine guns and accompanied by heavy tanks and armored personnel carriers had shot through crowds of civilians to take over the city. Hundreds, if not thousands, of students and residents lost their lives to their own army.

Most likely, this man had received his elementary and middle school education in the 1970s. Undoubtedly he had been drilled on a particular impending threat to his country during his school years. The American John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State under President Dwight Eisenhower, had predicted the demise of communism by its own "peaceful volution." He said, as all pupils in China were repeatedly told, that by the third or fourth generation, the children of communism would lose their ideological zeal and turn against the system. That meant the generation of this man who stood in front of a column of tanks.

By the year 1989, the doctrine of preventing "peaceful evolution" had already faded into history. Yet a "peaceful evolution" almost happened, perhaps unexpectedly and inadvertently. In that spring, tens of thousands college students marched on streets to demand freedom and democracy or simply an equal dialogue with their own government. On May 13, hundreds of these students staged a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square, the holy center of the nation, that lasted an agonizing week. Martial law was declared on May 20. Yet its enforcing troops were blocked at the outskirts of the city by residents. The students continued to occupy Tiananmen Square until that bloody evening when soldiers finally fought into the city with tanks and machine guns.

Nobody knew if the man who stood in front of a column of tanks had been a hunger striker himself, or one of those who placed their bodies in front of military trucks during the night of martial law, or had witnessed the senseless killing of unarmed civilians during the night of June 3 and the day of June 4. It was clear that he had seen enough, heard enough, and felt enough to make a stand of his own.

The foreign reporters in Beijing Hotel scrambled to hide the valuable footage they had just captured. It would take a couple of days before they were smuggled out of the country and headlined through the mass media all over the world. This scene of one man against tanks would become the most recognized symbol of the 1989 student movement in Beijing and what became known as the Tiananmen Massacre. It was a fitting symbol of an unyielding standoff, a story that had not yet been fully told and understood.

In the meantime, some of the reporters could not help to wonder what had transpired during the few months in this magnificent capital. Or a few years before it---for just a short decade ago, the city and the country was a place of hope and new beginnings.

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