Remembering the Tiananmen Square Massacre

A statue meant to symbolize democracy faces a portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
A statue meant to symbolize democracy faces a portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square in 1989. (Associated Press)
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By Dan Southerland
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Two years ago I met a Chinese student who was entering graduate school in the United States. I told her I had been in Beijing during "6-4," the Chinese shorthand for the massacre of June 4, 1989.

"What are you talking about?" she asked.

At first I thought she might not have understood my Chinese, but it soon became clear that "June 4" meant nothing to her. I probably shouldn't have been surprised.

In the 20 years since that day in 1989 when Chinese troops opened fire on unarmed civilians near Tiananmen Square, Chinese censors have managed to erase all mention of that tragedy from the country's textbooks and state-run media.

But for me, Tiananmen is impossible to forget. As Beijing bureau chief for The Post, I covered the student demonstrations that began in mid-April, tried to track a murky power struggle among top Chinese leaders and managed a small team of young, Chinese-speaking American reporters.

What I remember best was the sudden openness of many Beijing citizens of all professions. They were inspired by throngs of students calling for political reform, media freedom and an end to "official profiteering."

People I believed to be Communist Party supporters were suddenly telling me what they really thought. Some who had been silent in the past even debated politics on street corners.

In early May, Chinese journalists petitioned for the right to report openly on the Tiananmen protests, which on May 17 swelled to more than a million people marching in the capital. Journalists from all the leading Chinese newspapers, including the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, joined in. Their slogan was "Don't force us to lie."

For a brief period, Chinese journalists were allowed to report objectively on the student protests. But this press freedom was short-lived and ended May 20 with the imposition of martial law and the entry of the People's Liberation Army into Beijing.

At first, Beijing residents manning makeshift barriers blocked the troops. But late on the evening of June 3, tanks, armored personnel carriers and soldiers firing automatic weapons broke through to the square.

The death toll quickly became a taboo subject for Chinese media.

Chinese doctors and nurses who had openly sided with students on the square, and who had allowed reporters into operating rooms to view the wounded, came under pressure to conceal casualty figures.

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