Did Bob Hawke get it right about Tian’anmen Square?

In preparing his speech following the brutal crackdown of the democracy movement in China in 1989, Hawke relied on information from sources who were not in full possession of the facts. When the troops of the People’s Liberation Army moved into the square in the early hours of 4th June, 1989, the number of students left in the Square had dwindled to about 3,000 and none been attacked by tanks. An armoured personnel carrier which did enter the Square was attacked and burned by the protesters with the occupants still in the vehicle.

The term “Tian’anmen Square massacre” is a phrase which the media will not easily give up. The truth is that the majority of casualties were suffered along Chang’an Avenue, the main east-west thoroughfare in Beijing. Having halted the movement of troops into the centre of Beijing two weeks earlier, the citizens of Beijing again rallied in support of the students, attacking PLA tanks with bricks, stones, clubs and Molotov cocktails. In response, the soldiers fired indiscriminately into the crowds. The heaviest fighting occurred at the Muxidi road junction about 6 kilometres west of the Square. By the early hours of the morning of 4th June the troops were in position around the Square.

At that point, Liu Xiao Bo (a future Noble Peace Prize recipient) and Hou dejian (a Taiwanese folk singer) formed a small delegation to negotiate safe passage for the students out of the Square. In this they were successful and the students were offered an opportunity to vote on whether they should stay or leave. The leave vote won narrowly and the students marched out unhindered and singing as dawn broke. The documentary film “The Gate of Heavenly Peace” (google it) shows all the events of the seven-week protest, including the orderly retreat.

Subsequently, two or three students were run over by a tank in a street south of the Square, but whether it was an intentional act or a traffic accident has not been determined. The student leader, Chai Ling seemed determined to spread rumours about tanks killing large numbers of students in the Square. The students actually became the object of hostility from many Beijingers because it was considered that the students had suffered very little compared with the citizens who had tried to protect them. The bulldozers mentioned by Hawke were used not to kill students, but to push bodies into a heap, where they were burned. This, shameful as it was, happened in a side-street and did not involve the student protestors. Rightly or wrongly, Hawke granted permanent residency to 25,000 Chinese students studying in Australia at the time. There were 21 student protestors on the government’s most wanted list. There were also reports of summary and probably unauthorized executions of students in the suburbs of Beijing. With such limited telephone access in China in 1989, accurate information was difficult to obtain. More media reports are now acknowledging that the majority of deaths that night, possibly as many as 3,000 occurred west of Tian’anmen. The Australian Embassy was able to secure eye-witness reports in the days before 4th June, but evacuated the Embassy during that final night and then had to rely on second-hand information. Later,76 bullet holes were found in an apartment in the Australian section of a diplomatic compound. Some twelve soldiers are thought to have been killed during the fighting.

The stunning protest of the “Tank Man of Tian’anmen” took place on 5th June after the Square had been returned to its normal state. The Tank Man is sometimes portrayed as trying to prevent the tanks from expelling the students from Tian’anmen. The tank columns were in fact part of a victory parade and were about a kilometre east of the Square when halted and were beginning a left turn off Chang’an Avenue.

Mass arrests followed the crackdown but dozens of students on the government’s wanted list were spirited out of the mainland to Hong Kong in an operation called Yellowbird, which was jointly organized by the French Embassy in China and businessmen, triads and government authorities in Hong Kong – but that is another story. So is the refusal of the Commander of the 38th PLA Army Group to attack the students from the east.

Submitted by Neil Bonnell, tutor to the China Today group.