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The Saratoga Falcon

Face-to-face with the military at Tiananmen Square: One parent barely escaped

The dormitories at Tsinghua University during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Photos like these had to be smuggled out of China when Wang immigrated to the United States, as the Chinese government had and continues to silence any mention of the demonstrations.

Editor’s Note: Wang is a pseudonym for a Saratoga parent in this story. The parent didn’t feel comfortable sharing his name.

On June 3, 1989, one day before the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre that sparked years of outrage and uprisings worldwide, Saratoga High parent Wang remembers standing in front of Xinhua Gate (新华门) in Beijing. He and other student protestors formed a human blockade to separate an angry mob of demonstrators demanding dialogue with the government from a group of soldiers. The soldiers were guarding the Zhongnanhai (中南海) — a government compound that housed the highest elites of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — including previous party head Mao Zedong and the leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping

“Because of the demonstrations, there was no order at all,” Wang said. “We formed a line to prevent random people from attacking the soldiers or escalating the situation.”

A day prior, the People’s Armed Police (PAP) — the government’s official police force — fired tear gas on hundreds of demonstrators at the same gate, a first act of violence against the protesters. 

In the early hours of June 4, after Wang retreated back to the middle of Tiananmen Square, that same street was awash with the blood of innocents and soldiers alike after officials ordered a major — and violent — crackdown. 

At the center of the crowd, Wang narrowly escaped Tiananmen Square with his life intact, just a few hundred feet away from the tanks and guns firing at fellow student protestors. 

April 1989: How a college student joined the ranks of the Tiananmen Square protesters

As a first-year college student studying computer science at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Wang didn’t see the lengths to which the government would go. 

 Toward the end of his freshman year, Wang joined the largest pro-democracy demonstration in the history of China’s communist regime. However, this opposition didn’t entail nationally coordinated protests — it started, and stayed, a movement led by students.

“At that time, protests were mostly spontaneous,” Wang said. “The people felt the need to do something, and then the entire student body just spontaneously went out and had those gatherings.”

The Tiananmen Square protests sparked from the death of the liberal CCP Leader Hu Yaobang on April 15. His calls for reform, denouncement of Maoist ideals and fighting to replace corrupt CCP officials made him an enemy of the government but a popular figure among students and progressives. 

On the day of Hu’s death, Wang and other students at Tsinghua University gathered in Tiananmen Square, which housed various monuments symbolizing democracy and freedom, to grieve. Tens of thousands mobilized during Hu’s funeral on April 22 — the first week of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Hu had become a martyr in the tinderbox of communist China. 

Wang noted that at the time, many university students in China already agreed on many political issues, such as ending government corruption and allowing more economic freedom. All it took was a catalyzing event — Hu’s death — for them to act in unison.

“The protests started all of a sudden with a relatively small group of people gathering, and then it got bigger and bigger,” Wang said. “A week later it was a huge body of students and teachers across many universities in Beijing going to the streets and demanding change.”

Those leading the protests were almost all students from Beijing universities. They created and headed the Beijing Students’ Autonomous Federation (the Union), led by the now-famous Wu’erkaixi and Wang Dan

Wang, along with thousands of others, was quick to join the movement, and on April 30, just a week after the Union was formed, more than two-thirds of Beijing’s student body was out of their classrooms and protesting in the streets.

April and May of 1989: Building tensions

Near the end of April, the Chinese government became increasingly agitated: the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement — a series of student-led socio-political protests against the feudal and imperialistic regime — was approaching. 

Wang said officials feared another round of student demonstrations would develop into upheaval similar to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. 

On April 26, the People’s Daily — the party’s official newspaper — posted a now-famous editorial intended to calm protestors down, a move that would backfire spectacularly.

Visual:link photo // People’s Daily Magazine

Caption: The infamous People’s Daily editorial printed on April 26, 1989, told the populace “We must take a clear cut stand against turmoil (必须旗帜鲜明地反对动乱).”

The editorial condemned “an extremely small number of people,” accusing them of manipulating the students’ grief over Hu’s death to wreak havoc and unrest. 

A day later, the students in Beijing would prove them wrong.

Wang remembers April 27 as a “huge, peaceful demonstration.” Since an estimated 200,000 students showed up, police failed to control the marches.

Feeling threatened, the government warned of possible martial law and military crackdowns to come. On May 13, the leaders of the Union began massive hunger strikes in an attempt to ruin the CCP’s global reputation ahead of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit

By the time Gorbachev arrived, 1 million people had once again flooded the square. However, this round of hunger strikes was an unsustainable last resort, and many participants were soon hospitalized. 

While students in hundreds of cities were joining the protests, the Chinese government officials readied their response. On May 19, they announced that martial law would take effect in Beijing for the first time in over 40 years. Around 250,000 troops soon surrounded the city. 

“That’s the day I remember, when I think people, including me, started figuring that this was now not going to end well,” Wang said.

Still, the protesters stood strong, Wang said. Students blocking entrances into Beijing and the CCP’s strict orders to not fire on protesters prevented any real advance. On May 24, the military withdrew, bringing a devastating blow to the CCP’s reputation and cementing a massive victory for the protesters. 

However, what seemed like a victory soon turned to a nightmare — troops regrouped and mobilized a stronger force, coming in from distant places in the country to guarantee they would not sympathize with the students’ cause. 

The CCP intended to completely crack down on the city.

In the meantime, however, students began to grow fatigued by the movement, which had already lasted over a month. 

“A lot of students just went home because it was almost summer break in the university,” Wang said. “They needed to go live their daily lives and work.”

As the sun set on June 3, 10,000 to 15,000 troops carrying weapons along with more than 100 tanks assembled outside the city. 

Tension built. By then, Wang had already moved to the heart of Tiananmen Square to stand with around thousands of other students next to a massive granite obelisk named the “Monument of the People’s Heroes.” 

Hours later, the military began its advance.

June 4: The day of the massacre

Wang said he remembers June 4 as if it was yesterday. The military, concentrated in the east and west of the city, opened fire and began its siege on Tiananmen Square. At least 10,000 civilians were crushed to death by oncoming tanks while others were shot in the back while trying to flee. At this point, Wang had no guarantee that he would still be alive when the sun rose.

Through the night of June 3, the deafening sounds of gunfire shook the city, but within the square was another voice — that of the students. A loudspeaker, which protestors had installed onto the Monument to the People’s Heroes, projected their rallying cries in all directions. Despite these hopeful calls, Wang grew uneasy about their situation.

At the base of the pillar, Wang was joined by student leaders who rallied their fellow demonstrators, and further up the stairs sat four de-facto leaders of the movement, dubbed the “Four Gentlemen,” who had started another hunger strike. 

But for most students, there was nothing to do but recite their last words and await their fate.

Before long, the soldiers had converged on the square, while Wang and his fellow students remained at the base of the monument. 

Suddenly, their loudspeaker was shot down. 

Then, the soldiers began their attack.

“That’s really an experience you’ll never forget — when you see a soldier just so close to you, holding an automatic rifle and aiming it at you,” Wang said. “You don’t know what will happen in the next moment.”

Wang was fortunate enough to be part of a group of several hundred students who, with the help of the Four Gentlemen, peacefully negotiated an exit out of the square. 

Most of the others were not so lucky and paid the price with their lives.

The aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre

For Wang, the most devastating part of the tragedy was China’s censorship of the massacre that persists to this day. In fact, that withholding of information is the main reason the BBC’s reported death toll of 10,000 is a widely disputed statistic. Estimates vary from the official count of 241 by the Chinese government to 2,600 as reported by the Chinese Red Cross.

“Unfortunately, there’s still a younger generation that doesn’t know the details and the truth of what happened 34 years ago,” he said. “And there’s no sign that the government will recognize any of it.”

To Wang, the impact it had domestically was undeniable. He believes that despite the political suppression that remained, the people of China channeled their fight into the economic side, winning a string of freedoms including a huge liberalization of their market that led to rapid economic growth.

Wang also thinks the massacre had a global impact, warning Eastern 

European governments of the unintended consequences of brutal crackdowns when their people later rose up against Communist rule. 

However, the personal effects of Tiananmen Square on Wang’s life trajectory remain unclear. 

Government censorship and press manipulation quickly followed, and the CCP prosecuted those who led the demonstrations. Once the summer was over and the blood had washed away from the square, Wang’s life as a student resumed normally. 

Eventually, he would move to the U.S. mainly for the increased educational opportunities and to follow in the footsteps of his wife.

“If the post-protest economic reform in the former Soviet Union had happened in China, maybe I would have stayed because there would have been more opportunities, but it’s really hard to say,” Wang said.

Now as a Saratoga parent, Wang has seen the stark contrasts between life in the U.S. and China. Although there are significant issues that threaten American institutions, Wang said that even today, China’s policies concerning not just the media but also daily life are still far more extreme.

Despite the vast human cost of the Tiananmen Square and Eastern European revolutions, Wang feels that they became symbolic of the lengths humans will go to in order to ensure their freedom. From the Monument of the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square, where Wang stood firm with his fellow students, to the streets of the Soviet Union where citizens rose up against oppressive regimes, Wang feels that each movement was fueled by the same sentiments.

“People around the world held onto hope that there could be even the slightest possibility of change,” Wang said. ”That maybe they could right at least some wrongs.”

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