Tiananmen Ten Years On: `I wept for the people, betrayed by their leaders'

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The Independent Online
Exactly 10 years ago Michael Fathers was in Peking reporting on the student democracy protests for `The Independent'. This is an abridged version of his report on the 4 June massacre

IT WILL go down in the annals of China's Communist Party as The Glorious Fourth of June, when the army founded for the people turned on the unarmed citizens of Peking to destroy a peaceful student-led democracy movement.

The killing around Tiananmen Square started soon after midnight. I was at the southern end of the square when two armoured personnel carriers roared down the boulevard, smashing barriers. They were followed by about 3,000 soldiers. An APC stalled and was set on fire by the mob.

Flares and tracer bullets shone from behind me and gunfire could be heard. The troops were advancing on the square. My colleague, Andrew Higgins, was behind, at Qianmen Gate, the front entrance to the square. He said troops were met with a hail of bricks and stones. Everyone fled, then regrouped.

To the north, more gunfire could be heard. I moved up a side street, heading for the Avenue of Eternal Peace, where tanks had broken through a barrier of burning buses. It was 1.30am and the start of a huge troop advance. I hid at the entrance to a lane. The armour was followed by troop trucks interspersed with petrol tankers and lorries with mesh trailers for prisoners.

I decided to leave the lane and follow this other army to Tiananmen, half a mile away. The Avenue of Eternal Peace was deserted. Gunfire mingled with explosions from buses behind me, a lorry and two Jeeps ahead. Farther towards the square was New China Gate, the entrance to Zhongnanhai, the compound of China's Communist Party leaders beside the Forbidden City.

I looked behind as I walked on the opposite side: a squad of army goons, waving pistols, cattle prods and batons, was running towards me. They jumped me, screamed, pointed a pistol at my head, beat me about the legs and dragged me to New China Gate.

They pulled off my spectacles and crushed them, then took me behind a stone lion guarding the gate. Their first thought was that I was American. A man who spoke some English realised I wasn't. They put two guards beside me.

If this is the People's Army, God spare China. They behaved like the Red Guards, with a systematic and frenzied brutality. They were the very institution once called out to protect China from Red Guard excesses. Now they are killing civilians.

The smooth face of the Communist establishment appeared two hours later, in cream flannels and a pastel T-shirt, the image of "moderation" the Foreign Office has come to believe is the new China and which it can trust over Hong Kong. "You have committed an unfriendly act," he said. I thought that was a bit much. "You fell over, didn't you? That's why you have that bruise on your arm." I also had boot marks and bloodstains on my shirt. My right knee was swollen, my hips ached, my trousers were ripped. He confiscated my notebook and gave me a receipt and a written pass to get beyond the army lines into a side street.

All the while lorries rumbled forward, stopping from time to time until the citizens of Peking were pushed back from the northern end of the square by the entrance to the Forbidden City.

Higgins was by now crawling in the mud in front of thegrandstands beside Mao's portrait at the Gate of Heavenly Peace, as bullets whizzed over his head. At first, he said, there was some panic among the soldiers when they saw the crowd. But they were ordered to fire. An APC was set alight when it stopped. The crew were beaten but students intervened and rescued them.

The army had nabbed me at 2am. By 4am, when they let me go, gunfire could still be heard. At one stage students came from side streets, shouting "Go home, go home" to stalled lorries outside the leadership compound. They were scattered by militiamen with clubs, probably the one occasion during the night when they did not use guns.

Along streets beside the Forbidden City people were talking softly, scared but curious. They treated me as a bit of a hero when they saw my bruises and carried me on the backs of their bicycles to the rear entrance of the Peking Hotel, on the other end of the square. Soon after, 10 tanks and 20 APCs rumbled past the hotel. Half an hour later some of the armour returned and, in a continuing moving circle, opened fire all around. Two buses smouldered outside the hotel. It was a battlefield, a lesson in brute power.

I blubbed when I got back to my hotel. I couldn't stop. Perhaps it was shock, or maybe it was because of the carnage. I was weeping for the people of Peking. I cannot see how they are ever likely to trust their leaders again.