How the Guardian covered the brutal crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989

Reports from the Guardian's staff correspondent in Beijing on 5 June 1989, when Chinese forces attacked protesters

A two-pronged attack from east and west shattered all illusions in Beijing on the night of June 3-4. Dozens of citizens and students who only hours before had repeated their pledge to risk death for democracy, had it brutally confirmed.

The main thrust of President Yang Shangkun's loyal and murderous troops came from the west, just after midnight, when hundreds of trucks moved up the main avenue. The tactics were brutally simple. Armoured personnel carriers formed the spearhead, while soldiers on foot shot to kill from both sides.

Meanwhile, the first of the night's armoured cars and tanks smashed its way through the citizens' barricades to the east. It showed all the ruthlessness which must be contained in the army's orders to smash the 'turmoil' allegedly created by the mass movement. Several cyclists who could not get out of the way in time were crushed or tossed aside.

How the Guardian reported the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989
Click for full version Photograph: Photograph: Guardian

At top speed the armoured car scattered a crowd of several thousands at Dongdan. Enraged citizens, still not aware of the full scale of the attack, headed for Tiananmen Square, cursing the government as 'fascist' and 'heartless dogs'. I was grabbed by people urging me to 'report it all'. 'None of the people will give in', they said, insisting that I write it down.

But by 1.30 a.m., close to Tiananmen Square, the grey shapes of the personnel carriers could be seen approaching from the west. The first armoured car was burning less than forty yards from Mao's portrait. With curses and laughter, the crowd milled around the square. There were distant explosions and tracer bullets in the sky.

At 1.50 a.m. a crackle of gunfire sounded on the far side. 'Don't be afraid, don't run!' many cried out, believing that it must be the sound of exploding teargas canisters. The official loudspeaker soothingly repeated its message: 'The Beijing government is the People's government.' Police from the Beijing public security headquarters peered curiously out of their gate, evidently unaware of what was happening. At intervals, fresh bouts of gunfire echoed closer. Then came a lull, and many in the crowd walked over closer to the army.

Tiananmen Square. 1989.
A hunger striker in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Photograph: Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos Photograph: Stuart Franklin/ Stuart Franklin / Magnum Photos

Meanwhile the army sharpshooters appear to have worked their way close to the wall of the Forbidden City. Others emerged from inside, and at 2.10 a.m. the shooting restarted alarmingly close. The first casualty in the square was rushed away - a girl with her face smashed and bloody, carried spread-eagled towards the trees. Another followed - a youth with a bloody mess around his chest.

Ambulances began to press with urgent sirens through the crowd. Other casualties were carried off on pedicarts with a dozen cyclists in escort. Within twenty minutes the same number of casualties were evacuated. A commandeered jeep had one wounded man on the roof, and two or three sprawled inside.

At 2.40 a.m., another lull. People streamed back towards the square as ambulances pleaded for a clear path. Had the army stopped on the eastern side, its mission completed?

From under the acacia trees on the dark pavement nearby the Beijing Hotel, or perhaps over a wall from the Workers' Palace, the sound of semi-automatic fire spat out. The crowd fled stumbling in panic around the corner, tripping over parked bikes. 'Who's afraid? It's nothing,' scoffed one who reached shelter. 'I've just seen a man with his skull blown away,' reported another.

Within the next hour, squads of military police who had been lurking in the shadows around the square now appeared to have started to take control. By 4.30 a.m. new columns of tanks were smashing their way in from east and west, eventually to form two north-south lines across the square. Witnesses later reported that the army had been a bit less savage in the square: it had mostly shot at the students' legs or above their heads. But when they retreated after 6 a.m., there were reports that at least a dozen students were crushed by tanks. There were many bodies outside the Xinhuamen Gate.

New lines were formed in the morning. Two buses were set on fire outside the Beijing Hotel, and fresh crowds piled up behind them. Their numbers diminished closer to the square. A witness went forward with some forty workers to plead with the soldiers. After taking sixty steps forward, they were shot down. Eight died immediately and the others crept back.

Machinegun fire also seemed to come from the roofs of the museums in the square. Near the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, the body of an old man was lying in the road. Wherever they were not faced with gunfire, the Beijing people continued to show spirit. Troops believed especially loyal to President Yang were stranded near the diplomatic quarter. Bicycles thrown in their way lay smashed, and truck tyres had been let down. It looked like a repeat of last two weeks, but this time everyone knew that at any moment the soldiers could get ready to fire.

'I feel as though we are being hanged by the government,' said the man standing on the traffic island outside my hotel today, one hand briefly clutching his throat. 'There is no way out.' The street-corner mood was angry, but mixed with the dull despondency which comes from seeing tanks come crashing through. 'We have no machine-guns, nothing,' said the informal group leader in a small evening discussion around the deserted area outside the hotel.

Over on the pavement there was a more forceful speaker of the kind who has dominated the evening citizens' chat sessions since martial law was declared. Several of the more articulate neighbours have disappeared in the last 24 hours. No one quite knows why.

But this survivor, too, started with the tanks. 'The students were sitting down in the square,' he told a silent audience. 'The tanks went criss-cross among them, and scattered the bodies everywhere.'

Life and death continues to extend itself along the east-west meridian of the now grotesquely misnamed Avenue of Everlasting Peace. The central zone around Tiananmen Square is a no-go area, except for the army and the bravest citizens.

From a distance it has an uncanny neatness about it. Just at the entrance to the square from the east, there is a thin line of the ordinary people.

Then, some forty yards ahead, two thicker lines of sitting soldiers with their officers standing behind them. Another gap, and then a line of stubby tanks. The crews are standing on and around each turret as if ready to leap into action - which they probably are.

Behind them, a phalanx of armoured personnel carriers, also swarming with soldiers, apparently at the ready. Far away at the western entrance to the square, another double line of soldiers, and another rank of brave citizens.

Anyone who has pedalled up to the square and returns safely to tell his tale deserves a good audience at the street-corner. 'This worker was waving the flag of the Workers' Autonomous Union,' one returnee explained. The union is now labelled an illegal organization. 'The soldiers just sprayed him with machine-gun fire.'

No one, including most foreign journalists, could be blamed for caution yesterday. A visiting Swedish teacher was dragged cheerfully up to the frontline by two of his Chinese students. As he raised his camera to record the soldiers, they opened fire. Everyone ran and no one could say how many bodies were left.

A few postal vans still hesitantly cross the avenue well away from the square. There are burnt buses outside the Beijing Hotel, an unburnt barrier east at Dongdan.

The bold speaker on my local corner can still laugh with that special brand of Beijing contempt when asked whether people may follow the students' call for a workers' strike. 'Why should we work for this sort of government? Those cadres could buy up a whole street in the United States if they wished to. How couldn't we strike!' When a government uses tanks to declare war on its people, anything is possible and the people now know it.


John Gittings

The GuardianTramp

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