Remembering Tiananmen Square- A Carnival That Became Deadly

“It was like a carnival”. When I was teaching in Hong Kong a woman who was an English teacher at a Beijing university in 1989 came to talk to my students about her experience during the time of the Tiananmen Square political demonstrations. She told us when she and her husband first visited the site of the protest for democracy it had a carnival-like atmosphere. The students had pitched tents in the square. They were singing and laughing and sharing food and water with one another. They were so sure the time was right for change in China. The English teacher who was still too fearful to share the name of the university where she taught, said the young people’s optimism spread throughout the city. Vendors were giving away free food. Everyone was laughing and smiling. Hope was in the air.   

 Many of her students returned to the university each day for classes and then went back to the square at night to talk with the young people from rural China, who hearing of the protest were making their way to Beijing to join the youth of the city. Even after nervous government officials declared martial law in Beijing and there were soldiers with rifles posted on every corner, the woman watched thousands more students march past her door to the square. During the night helicopters flew over the campus of her school and dropped hundreds of leaflets telling the students living in the dormitories not to go back to Tiananmen Square. Television and radio stations were not providing coverage of the student protest but the university professors received information from friends via short wave radio.                

Some of the woman’s students phoned her to apologize for not coming to class but they had decided to join those who had begun fasting in the square. A medical student called to say she was providing first aid to the hunger strikers. The professors at the university only learned that tanks had been sent into the square when relatives in other countries phoned to tell them about the coverage they were seeing on CNN. The woman realized the gravity of the situation when a close friend who was a doctor in a Beijing called to say that wounded soldiers and students were being brought into his hospital. The soldiers had obviously been drugged because sedatives were ineffective on them. The doctors believed that military personnel had been given amphetamines before being sent into the square.

 As wounded students began arriving back onto the university campus they confirmed the bizarre behavior of the soldiers who they reported had been laughing hysterically as they shot at students. They said tanks had driven back and forth over tents and then the tents were set on fire. One of the woman’s students, who had climbed a tree to escape, saw body bags down below, but he said the bodies inside had still been moving.

The foreign staff members were told they must leave the university as soon as possible, since soldiers would be arriving imminently to arrest the students who had fled the scene at the square. The teachers were removed to an apartment near the airport till a flight to Japan could be arranged. As they drove there they saw that the streets around Tiananmen Square were littered with bricks, which the unarmed students had thrown at the military. The buildings around the square were riddled with bullet holes. They saw soldiers everywhere all armed with machine guns.  A few days later they were taken from the apartment where they were hiding to the airport. The taxi driver who was their chauffer said he had been pressed into duty on June 4 driving the wounded to the hospital. The interior of his cab had literally been awash with blood. He and his fellow drivers were convinced that thousands of students had been killed.

The woman said when their plane landed in Tokyo they were surrounded by reporters but they were too scared to talk to them, fearing reprisal for their students if they said the wrong thing. That kind of fear still lingered with the woman even when she talked  to my class some two decades later. 

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