News World ‘They won’t shoot. It’s the people’s army’
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‘They won’t shoot. It’s the people’s army’

People's Liberation Army soldiers in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
It is 31 years since troops were unleashed on pro-democracy protesters - and Beijing's rulers say it was the right thing to do. Photo: Getty
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“They’re shooting!”

The cry spreads through the Beijing crowd at 11.30pm, as the first clicks from the army’s AK-47s ring out into the darkness.

On the Avenue of Eternal Peace, the wide street running north of Tiananmen Square, one protester refuses to believe it.

“No, no, they wouldn’t shoot,” he insists, stripped to the waist on this humid June night.

“They’re the people’s army.”

But a moment later there is no doubt. A tricycle cuts through the throngs of protesters. It’s an ambulance now. Slumped on a plank of wood behind is the bloodied body of a student, his stomach ripped by several bullets.

For 50 days, the symbolic heart of the Chinese state had become a huge and peaceful experiment – hundreds of thousands of people, dreaming of democracy and freedom, as the Cold War wound down.

Day and night, Chinese citizens from all walks of life imagined a different future – one that was not dictated by the Communist Party. But the discussions they sought with authorities turned into a dialogue of the deaf.

In front of the world’s cameramen – who had gathered here to cover a reconciliation summit between Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev on May 15 – the horror unfolded.

Massed ranks of soldiers drafted in from outside Beijing – whose city forces were deemed too sympathetic to the protesters – launched an operation to take back control of Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3-4.

Martial law had been declared two weeks earlier, but did not have the government’s desired effect – merely swelling the numbers of protesters.

Last hopes for a peaceful solution are extinguished in the early hours of Saturday, June 3 when between 20,000 and 30,000 ill-prepared soldiers are sent marching towards Tiananmen.

The crowd soon disperses the soldiers, beating some of them. Humiliated, the military are forced to retreat. But it proves to be only the authorities’ opening salvo.

On the Saturday evening, at the Muxidi crossroads, tanks break through the line of buses that had blocked their entry.

With heavy helmets on their heads, the soldiers open fire at close range on the tightly packed crowd. Terrified protesters respond with a volley of projectiles.

The gunfire rains down under skies lit up by thousands of tracer bullets and burning vehicles. Swarming in from all sides, the troops finally reach Tiananmen around 2.00am on Sunday, June 4.

Armoured vehicles charge full-throttle into the crowd. They flatten everything in their path, people included. Several tanks are burned, their crews beaten to death. Other soldiers are saved by the students.

In the capital’s 20 or so hospitals, distraught medics struggle with the influx of dead and wounded crammed into blood-stained corridors.

Now totally encircled, Tiananmen Square plunges into darkness at 4.00am, all the street lights switched off.

By now, there are no more than a few thousand protesters left gathered around charismatic student leader Chai Ling. The Goddess of Democracy, a towering replica of the Statue of Liberty fashioned by art students, is felled by a tank.

Under the eyes of paratroopers with fixed bayonets, the remaining students leave the square at 5.00am. Many of them are in tears, singing the Internationale anthem and raising their hands in a defiant “V” for victory.

A dozen of them will die later when a tank rolls over their procession back to their campus.

From a balcony of the Beijing Hotel – where a clutch of journalists, including this correspondent, have taken refuge – the scene before us in the early hours of Sunday is hellish.

Shots can still be heard across the capital, and smoke rises from burning vehicles. More protesting civilians are mown down on Sunday morning by tank machine guns, some as they try to collect the dead and injured littering the streets.

By now, Tiananmen Square itself is the heart of a military camp, with hundreds of tanks and army vehicles on standby.

But towards midday on Monday, under the windows of the Beijing Hotel, a young man in a white shirt walks calmly into the Avenue of Eternal Peace and stops in front of a column of tanks, halting them in their tracks.

His identity remains unknown, but he will forever be known as “Tank Man”, a world-famous symbol of the courage and defiance of the Tiananmen protesters 25 years ago.

Fast-forward to the China of today and I see a country transformed at a pace never before seen in history.

But the Communist Party remains in control, its power reinforced by an emphatic declaration of might that sweltering June night – an event that has been virtually erased from the country’s official history.