By Larry Romanoff
Dateline Beijing: June 04, 1989
There are few places in China that seem more burned into the consciousness of typical Westerners than Tiananmen Square, and few events more commonly mentioned than the student protests of 1989. But the stories are wrong on several levels. It was never reported in the Western media that there were two separate events that occurred in Beijing on June 4, 1989. One was a student protest that culminated in a sit-in in Tiananmen Square by several thousand university students, which had lasted for several weeks and finally terminated on June 4. The other was a one-day worker strike that occurred (perhaps not by chance) also on June 4, when a group of workers unhappy with their lot in life, organised their own protest independently of the students, and in a different place. For reasons that will become apparent, the workers’ protest is the necessary focus for understanding the events of that date, so I will begin there.
The Workers’ Revolt
A group of workers gathered, and barricaded several streets in Muxidi, an area in Beijing five or six kilometers from Tiananmen Square, the barricades attended by several hundred mostly adult workers, with an undetermined few young people. However, there was a third quite large group present that to my knowledge has never been clearly identified, though it is obvious from the photos they were not workers and certainly not young students. (1) Thugs or anarchists might be an appropriate adjective, but the facts seem to support the conclusion (and my own personal judgment) that they were mercenaries. (2)
The government sent in busloads of soldiers, accompanied by a few APCs to clear the barricades and re-open the streets to traffic. (3) The violence began when the third group attacked the young men attempting to clear the barricades. They were well-prepared, armed with at least hundreds and perhaps thousands of gasoline bombs, and immediately torched dozens of buses and the few APCs – with the soldiers still inside. Many soldiers in both types of vehicles escaped, but many others did not, and many burned to death. There are countless photos of dead soldiers burned to a crisp, some hung by the thugs from lampposts, others lying in the street or on stairs or sidewalks where they died, others hanging out of bus windows or the APCs, having only partially escaped before being overcome by the flames. There are documented reports and photos showing that the group of thugs managed to get control of one APC, and drove it through the streets while firing the machine guns on the turret. (4) It was only then that the government sent in armed soldiers and military equipment.
Government reports and independent media personnel generally claim a total of 250 to 300 civilian deaths before the violence subsided, but a similar number of soldiers had already been killed. When police or military are attacked in this way, they will surely use force to defend themselves and cannot be faulted for that. If you or I were the military commander on the scene, watching our men being attacked and burned to death, we would have done the same. From everything I know, I can find no fault here.
Here is an eyewitness report from someone who was there, an excerpt from the book ‘Tiananmen Moon’: (5)
“There was a new element I hadn’t noticed much of before, young punks decidedly less than student-like in appearance. In the place of headbands and signed shirts with university pins they wore cheap, ill-fitting polyester clothes and loose windbreakers. Under our lights, their eyes gleaming with mischief, they brazenly revealed hidden Molotov cocktails. Who were these punks in shorts and sandals, carrying petrol bombs? Gasoline is tightly rationed, so they could not have come up with these things spontaneously. Who taught them to make bottle bombs and for whom were the incendiary devices intended?
Someone shouted that another APC was heading our way. My pace quickened as I approached the stalled vehicle, infected by the toxic glee of the mob, but then I caught myself. Why was I rushing towards trouble? Because everyone else was? I slowed down to a trot in the wake of a thundering herd of one mass mind. Breaking with the pack, I stopped running. Someone tossed a Molotov cocktail, setting the APC on fire. Flames spread quickly over the top of the vehicle and spilled onto the pavement. I thought, there’s somebody still inside of that, it’s not just a machine! There must be people inside.
Someone protectively pulled me away to join a handful of head-banded students who sought to exert some control. Expending what little moral capital his hunger strike signature saturated shirt still exerted, he spoke up for the soldier. “Let the man out,” he cried. “Help the soldier, help him get out!” The agitated congregation was in no mood for mercy. Angry, blood-curdling voices ricocheted around us. “Kill the mother fucker!” one said. Then another voice, even more chilling than the first screamed, “He is not human, he is a thing.” “Kill it, kill it!” shouted bystanders, bloody enthusiasm now whipped up to a high pitch. “Stop! Don’t hurt him!” Meng pleaded, leaving me behind as he tried to reason with the vigilantes. “Stop, he is just a soldier!” “He is not human, kill him, kill him!” said a voice. “Get back, get back!” someone screamed at the top of his lungs. “Leave him alone, the soldiers are not our enemy!” After the limp bodies of the soldiers were put into an ambulance, the thugs attacked the ambulance, almost ripping off the rear doors in an attempt to remove the burned soldier and finish him off. After that, charred bodies of soldiers were hung from a lamp post, and a large amount of ammunition was taken from the APC.” (6)
From a Government Report on the Worker’s Riot:
“Rioters blocked military and other vehicles before they smashed and burned them. They also seized guns, ammunition and transceivers. Several rioters seized an armored car and fired its guns as they drove it along the street. Rioters also assaulted civilian installations and public buildings. Several rioters even drove a public bus loaded with gasoline drums towards the Tiananmen gatetower in an attempt to set fire to it. When a military vehicle suddenly broke down on Chang’An Avenue, rioters surrounded it and crushed the driver with bricks. The rioters savagely beat and killed many soldiers and officers. At Chongwenmen, a soldier was thrown down from the flyover and burned alive. At Fuchengmen, a soldier’s body was hung upside down on the overpass balustrade after he had been killed. Near a cinema, an officer was beaten to death, and his body strung up on a burning bus.
Over 1,280 vehicles were burned or damaged in the rebellion, including over 1,000 military trucks, more than 60 armored cars, over 30 police cars, over 120 public buses and trolley buses and over 70 motor vehicles of other kinds. The martial law troops, having suffered heavy casualties before being forced to fire into the air to clear the way forward. During the counter-attack, some rioters were killed, some onlookers were hit by stray bullets and some wounded or killed by armed ruffians. According to reliable statistics, more than 3,000 civilians were wounded and over 200, including 36 college students, were killed. As well, more than 6,000 law officers and soldiers were injured and scores of them killed.” (Cables from the US Embassy in Beijing confirmed the basics of this report as well as the casualty estimates). (4)
Though conclusive direct evidence is still thin, it appears a certainty the revolt had considerable outside help. In addition to the curious timing, there is too much evidence of advance preparation for violence and supply of the weaponry used. Gasoline was tightly rationed at the time, and unavailable in the volume required for this event. Black hands arranged the supply lines and provided instructions for the manufacture and use of the gasoline bombs which were almost unheard of in China before that time.
There are also too many signs of external incitement in the still-unidentified third group, whose violent actions in no way represented the sentiment of the attending public. The enormity of violence unleashed at Muxidi requires considerable prior emotional programming and could not possibly have originated spontaneously from a simple workers’ strike, almost a guarantee of external interference. Disaffected citizens in any country may parade and protest from real or imagined grievances, but burning young soldiers to death and stringing their charred bodies from lampposts, are not the acts of naive students wanting “democracy” or of workers protesting an inadequate social contract. (7) They are almost always the result of substantial programmed incitement from behind the scenes, usually directed to regime change […]