Throughout the night of June 3 to June 4, 1989, Beijing time, the entire world got a terrified and limited glimpse of what was transpiring in the streets of the Chinese capital thanks to (almost) live television. Tanks, Armored Personal Carriers, fully-armed soldiers with automatic assault weapons and clubs marched through dimly lit scenes like ghost figures, illuminated by battlefield flames in the distant background. Gunshots were heard too frequently and clearly, along with the chaotic screaming and shouting of victims. There was no question that a massacre was happening.
Historically, the event became named after its most recognizable geographic symbol: Tiananmen Massacre.
It was very unfortunate, as it drew attention to a place where massacre, in its literal meaning, did not actually occur. Instead, most of the killing (and wounding) happened in several main roads in the city leading to the square, but not inside the square itself.
reported today that "secret cables from the United States embassy in Beijing have shown there was no bloodshed inside Tiananmen Square
," with the cables obtained from the famous Wikileaks. (The contents of the cable appears to be only based on a single Chilean diplomat's eyewitness account on the scene.) For the uninitiated, this may sound like a shocking piece of news. But it is actually a well-documented fact, sensational claims of "blood flowing like a river in the square" not withstanding.
The last chapter of my book, Standoff at Tiananmen
, describes the mayhem of that night
, based on many divert recollections and eyewitness accounts. The martial law troops killed hundreds, if not thousands, civilians as they advanced in the city, with the most killings happening on the West Chang'an Avenue in the west and Qianmen Avenue in the south. After they successfully surrounded the square itself, the troop actually halted their operation and allowed time for negotiations and a semi-peaceful and semi-organized withdraw of the remaining students.
The encirclement of the square, which was achieved around 1:30am that morning, appeared to mark a turning point in the military tactics. Before that, the army was ruthless and determined to achieve its strategic goal at any cost. They fired into crowd along Chang'an avenue at the outskirt of the square. One of the student leaders, Zhang Jian, was wounded there when he confronted an officer at point-blank range. He also witnessed death, according to his testimony.
But the troops did display patience, albeit limited, after they surrounded the square and established firm control. They did not advance into the square, where thousands of students still remain in the vicinity of the Monument of People's Heroes, until around 5:30. During those 4 hours, they used various tactics to scare most people into leaving the scene voluntarily. But most importantly, they negotiated and agreed to allow the remaining students withdraw peacefully.
It was not all peaceful, of course. There were indeed gunfires in the square itself. They were shot into the sky, either to destroy students' makeshift broadcasting speakers or to scare the students themselves. Many students later recalled the frightening and angry feeling when they saw sparks on the Monument of People's Heroes when it was hit by bullets. Some students who refused to withdraw were brutally beaten with boots and clubs. But nobody was killed in the process.
When the Chinese government spokesman Yuan Mu made the claim that "nobody had died during the final clearing of Tiananmen Square" in a press conference on June 6, the statement was widely interpreted as a categorical denial of the massacre as a whole and caused a world-wide uproar. Thus started the phony controversy of whether there was ever a massacre inside Tiananmen Square. It was as if the hundreds of deaths in the streets outside of the square were not enough.
To this day, there were no direct evidence of deaths inside the square, although indirect evidences indicate a few individuals might have fallen there. One of them was a student named Cheng Renxing (程仁兴), with second or third hand information indicating he was shot and killed under the National Flag Pole in the square.
Many have claimed that, when the army finally drove their tanks into the square and smashed everything on their way, there were still students sleeping in the tents. The account could not be verified. Before the tanks' advance, both student marshals and soldiers had separately swept the tent formation to make sure there were nobody in them. Indeed, a few students were found and led away from the tents.
Others claimed that they saw a large group of students refused to follow the withdraw formation and remained in front of the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao and were later gunned down en mass. No evidence had ever surfaced to corroborate this account.
It is perhaps the time to clarify, once and for all, that the term "Tiananmen Massacre" means a historical event, that happened in the city of Beijing during the night of June 3, 1989, as well as several days after, but not restricted to Tiananmen Square itself.