Until the evening of 3 June, 1989, the vast majority of Chinese people refused to believe the 'People's Liberation Army' would actually open fire upon them.
This belief went so far that when the soldiers began firing on that night, many thought they were using rubber bullets rather than live ammunition. The Central Military Commission, the top 'communist' party organ that controls the army, led by Deng Xiaoping issued the decree to "use all necessary methods" including live ammunition, because the massive political power mobilised by the people of Beijing had reached the extent of undermining the machinery of the state. Under a situation where the government had effectively lost control, ordinary people had begun to take over the running of the city.
How large a military force did Deng Xiaoping deploy for the crackdown? There is no single estimate for this, but it is believed that around fourteen or so divisions – 200,000 troops – were involved. How many of Beijing's citizens went onto the streets to block the army's advance cannot be reliably calculated either. But to hold back 200,000 or so fully armed, young, strong, and well-trained soldiers, on the roads of the capital for more than ten days is clearly not a feat that can be accomplished by "a few gangsters with ulterior motives". Several studies have calculated that at the end of May and beginning of June, the number of people engaged in struggles on the streets could not have been fewer than 500,000 to 700,000 – or around ten percent of Beijing's population. At the same time among the 200,000 soldiers charged with putting down the mass movement, many lacked the resolve or the spirit to carry out this task.
On 2 June, when the Central Military Commission issued orders to the 38th Army to open fire, its commanding officer Xu Qinxian feigned illness and went to hospital, refusing to sign the order to move his troops. For this, Xu was immediately arrested and later court-martialled. Following a five year spell in prison, this former head of the 38th Army seems to have 'disappeared' without trace.
Based on testimony from several people, including Dr. Jiang Yanyong of the PLA's 301 Hospital, who later became the 'Hero of SARS' for his work in tackling the 'Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome' outbreak of 2003,virtually all the regiments temporarily stationed at various positions along both sides of the capital's Chang'an Avenue declared they would not use force against the mass movement. This forced the top military authorities to withdraw most of the forces moved into the Beijing municipal region, but who had by this time lost the will to fight, and replace them with fresh forces. In the end, only the 38th Army and the 15th Paratroopers arrived at the designated site on time, and indeed it was these two units that carried out the bloody suppression of the movement. Although the total number of people killed is not known, data from various sources indicates it is between several hundred to several thousand. According to the 'Tiananmen Mothers' pressure group, the number of dead for whom names are known is 188, while eyewitnesses counted 1,000 or so corpses. It is said that even the former Vice Premier Yang Shangkun admitted in a private conversation before his death that the numbers killed by the army were more than 600.
Once the Central Military Commission had locked up the commander of the 38th Army, and threatened others with severe reprisals, this army, under the supervision of the vice commander-in-chief of the Beijing military district, the political commissar, and its new acting head, embarked upon a 'killing spree' in order to save their own lives and positions. Even so, the majority of the soldiers of the 38th did not open fire. This was the work of a minority: the elite forces. Evidence from various sources clearly suggests that during the 38th Army's advance through Beijing, the masses defending the students in the Square fought intensely and over a wide area extending from Gongzhufen on the West Chang'an Avenue to Muxidi subway station, and from the Xidan shopping centre to Nanchizi Avenue, and it is in this area that most of the civilian casualties occurred. From the Muxidi subway station all the way to the front of Tiananmen Gate, several tens of thousands of workers and citizens erected a dozen or so barricades, and succeeded in slowing the progress of the troops with their own human wall. The 'riot squads' that did the shooting and then cleared the Square were clearly not ordinary troops – there were no younger soldiers among them. These troops were probably the elite 'scouting teams' of the 38th Army, veterans of the Vietnamese border war of 1979 that was quite famous among the masses.
Yet the people were not scared away by the massacres. As the former researcher at the China University of Political Science and Law, Mr. Wu Renhua, described in his The Inside Story of the Bloody Cleanup of Tiananmen Square in 1989: "I sincerely respect the working class brothers of Beijing, who despite their lack of a high education and rhetorical skills, managed to display an astonishing level of courage and spirit of selflessness when it really mattered. In fact, during the 1989 Democracy Movement, the people who sacrificed themselves the most and possessed the greatest moral courage were not intellectuals or even students, but the working class brothers and ordinary citizens of Beijing. In order to protect Tiananmen Square, and protect the students who were peacefully demonstrating there, they used their own flesh and blood to obstruct the PLA martial law forces that were armed to the teeth, and fought against them with all of their might, without consideration for their own lives. The majority did not have so much as an iron bar in their hands, and the 'weapons' possessed by a minority consisted only of a few bricks, rocks and sticks. And how insignificant these seem compared to the armoured vehicles, tanks and machine guns of the martial law forces!"
Similarly, another eyewitness, Stephen Jolly of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) stated: "... there came thousands of workers, unarmed, including women workers, some of them on bicycles. And this mass of thousands of workers following the troops could not fight them, but they sang the Internationale. The troops at the back just didn't know what to do. Occasionally they would shoot, and everybody would drop, and you didn't know how many were killed because the people each time got up again, and the dead would stay lying among them on the ground. It was almost like waves on the beach just coming in, time and time again, just singing the Internationale." [Jolly, Eyewitness in China, 1989 Even after the 38th Army had passed through, the masses did not abandon the struggle and continued to create road-blocks to obstruct the armies that followed behind them. According to Wu Renhua, citizens took blood-soaked clothes from the hospitals to prove to the soldiers that the 38th Army that had just passed that way really had opened fire on the people, and as a result the troops of the 28th Army were stunned and refused to obey orders, to such an extent that when the Central Military Commission insisted this army "proceed at all costs" using helicopters, a soldier from one of the armoured vehicles of the 28th Army (some say a retired soldier) actually opened fire on the helicopter with his machine gun. By Chen Mo, Chinaworker.info
After midnight, the 38th Army entered Tiananmen Square and engaged in a bloody sweep of the site. Ordinarily, whether or not the killings occurred inside the Square or outside its peramiters is of little importance, but both the accounts by Wu Renhua and Stephen Jolly mention that the army really did open fire on people within the Square, and used tanks and armoured vehicles to flatten the students' tents and makeshift shelters. Also on the morning of 4 June near Liubukou, tanks from the 38th Army actually drove into retreating students. Wu Renhua described what he saw with his own eyes, that when three tanks came from the direction of Tiananmen Square, he and several hundred other students climed over iron fences with sharp spikes on top, in order to escape, but the armed police at the gates locked them securely and refused to let the students through. When the tanks drove past, some of the students behind Wu Renhua had been unable to escape and eleven were crushed to death.
Stephen Jolly describes this same incident: "In one instance, the troops were tear-gassing students in the streets. The students fled, many trying to climb over a fence. Eleven of the students who got the brunt weren't able to get over it. So a tank came up, and scraped along the side of the fence, and scraped them to death. They came out as flat as a matchbox, dead." [Jolly, Eyewitness in China, 1989].
Another army that was actively involved in the crackdown was the only rapid-response paratrooper unit China had at that time, the 15th Paratroopers. From mid-May the soldiers of this unit had been 'quarantined', and for a dozen or so days did not receive any newspapers or news broadcasts. The only information they were given was that a counter-revolutionary riot had developed in Beijing that would have to be put down by military measures. In May 2008 the 15th Paratroopers were sent to Sichuan province as part of the relief operation following the massive Wenchuan earthquake. But despite repeated appeals from Premier Wen Jiabao, who was also in the quake zone, senior officers refused to order parachute drops because of poor weather conditions. This apparent insistence on clear skies and no rain or wind, made these paratroopers the butt of jokes on the internet. Finally, the Premier had no choice but to publicly challenge their commanders: "The people are feeding you – the ball is in your court now!"
In the twenty years since the 1989 crackdown, the once respected 'People's Liberation Army' has seen its authority decline among the people. This has been reinforced by repeated corruption scandals among army officers in tandem with the process of capitalist restoration. The saying "500 RMB for a party card, and 500,000 RMB for a regimental command" is a common one in wider society. This one time 'people's army', that was created by a group of dynamic and idealistic intellectuals and downtrodden peasants, has long ceased to play that role.
Following the crackdown, many Chinese people as well as overseas media believed the 27th Army was responsible for the massacre – people could not believe the 38th Army,whose commander had resisted orders from above, had actually opened fire on the people. After all, this was the 'Ten Thousand Years Army' that gained glory on the battlefield during the Korean War. So firmly held was this misconception that during the period of 5-9 June, the 27th Army's headquarters in the city of Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, was beseiged by several thousand protesting students, while shops and businesses in the region refused to deliver supplies to it. For this reason, once the 27th Army had returned to Shijiazhuang, its officers from the commanding officer downwards made it abundantly clear to the local government and population that no-one in its ranks had opened fire on the people of Beijing. Consequently, the 38th Army which did have blood on its hands was placed in a very poor light and this led to considerable friction between the two armies.
At the time of the massacre there were fourteen armies stationed in the capital, but the majority of these were involved in no more than a tense standoff and did not actively enforce the martial law decree. Especially after the 38th Army and the 28th Army had collectively refused to obey orders, Deng Xiaoping went as far as ordering the 12th Army, with which he had a close relationship, be moved to Beijing soon after 4 June to guard against a military coup. It was not until 9 June, when Deng was shown on television with the leaders of the army units involved in crushing the mass movement, that the regime was able to breathe more easily.
Even after the 38th Army had passed through, the masses did not abandon the struggle and continued to create road-blocks to obstruct the armies that followed behind them. According to Wu Renhua, citizens took blood-soaked clothes from the hospitals to prove to the soldiers that the 38th Army that had just passed that way really had opened fire on the people, and as a result the troops of the 28th Army were stunned and refused to obey orders, to such an extent that when the Central Military Commission insisted this army "proceed at all costs" using helicopters, a soldier from one of the armoured vehicles of the 28th Army (some say a retired soldier) actually opened fire on the helicopter with his machine gun.
By Chen Mo, Chinaworker.info