Tiananmen Square 30 years on: ‘At 3am, I feared I might be killed’

The Observer’s China correspondent remembers the brutal events that people in the country are still afraid to talk openly about

Thirty years ago, in the early morning of Sunday 4 June 1989, I saw the People’s Liberation Army in Beijing’s vast Tiananmen Square mow down doctors and nurses from the Peking Union Hospital medical school. In their white smocks and caps they had climbed out of an ambulance to aid the mothers and fathers of students shot in the square a few hours before. The parents wanted to find either surviving children or their dead bodies. A column of smoke rose from the square where the parents feared – as I did – that the bodies of the dead were being burned.

Late the night before I had seen PLA soldiers shooting – murdering – some of the thousands of students and workers I had watched peacefully demonstrating in Tiananmen since the middle of April. Many were crushed by tanks. Many were arrested.

I was the Observer’s China correspondent but neither I nor anyone else watching that day knew that violence was being unleashed in more than 200 cities and towns all over China.

At three in the morning I feared I might be killed, but I knew I must file the story for the paper. As the silver streaks of bullets lighted the darkness, a student next to me said: “Don’t worry. The soldiers are using blanks.” A few seconds later he slumped over, dead, with a wet red circle on his chest.

As I began to leave the square I came to a knot of armed police whose trouser bottoms had been ignited by Molotov cocktails thrown by workers. When they saw me passing they shouted at me to stop. I said: “Don’t hit me. I’m a journalist.” Their officer shouted back, in Chinese: “Fuck you, we’re going to kill you.”

As they began beating me with their rubber truncheons, the officer shot fallen demonstrators. My left arm was fractured, half a dozen teeth were knocked out and I thought I was finished. But a British journalist running out of the square swerved, took my arm, and led me away. I managed to dictate my story by phone to an Observer copytaker who asked me: “Hey mate, is everything OK?”

What no one knew was that Deng Xiaoping and other “elders” had selected PLA units they knew would kill students.

Nowadays the horror of 3 and 4 June 1989 can barely be mentioned in China. People know, but speak only in whispers. Such is the country today.

Jonathan Mirsky

The GuardianTramp

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