Flashback to 1989 at Tiananmen Square

BEIJING (AP) -- EDITOR'S NOTE - On June 4, 1989, AP reporter John Pomfret was in central Beijing when Chinese soldiers attacked pro-democracy protesters on Tiananmen Square.

Demonstrators had occupied the square, China's symbolic political heart, for three weeks demanding greater social freedoms and an end to corruption. The crackdown ended a period of relative political openness, led to the downfall of Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang and plunged Beijing into diplomatic isolation that lasted until the late 1990s.

Little was known in the early hours of the crackdown about the extent of deaths but later estimates of the number of people killed in Beijing and attacks on similar protests elsewhere in China range from hundreds into the thousands.

Twenty-five years after its original publication, the AP is making this story available.


Chinese troops fired on protesters and smashed through barricades with tanks to reach Tiananmen Square early Sunday. At least 13 people were reported killed and scores injured.

A doctor at a small hospital near where the clashes occurred said about 100 people were treated for injuries and that 12 had died. A soldier was killed in another part of the city when he was run over by a tank racing to the square.

Thousands of troops armed with rifles marched up the east side of the vast square, which has been occupied by pro-democracy protesters for three weeks. Until Saturday, the tense standoff had been generally peaceful, even though the students were repeatedly ordered to leave the square and end the protest.

Students threw bottles and other objects at soldiers who advanced Saturday night, while troops beat those who obstructed their path with sticks.

Another group of more than 1,000 troops gained a foothold on the southwest corner of the vast square, while throngs of students and supporters tried to block their movement.

A tank pulled up next to the Great Hall of the People, on the western side of the square, but it was besieged by crowds pelting it with rocks.

Another tank roared down Changan Avenue, the main street, from the east, followed by thousands of shouting people on bicycles. Other tanks crashed through barricades in the west.

The street where the gunfire took place was speckled with blood. Crowds broke up the pavement to throw stones at the troops and set one military bus on fire.

Late Saturday, a convoy of at least 40 trucks with several thousand troops broke through the barricades set up by people and began moving slowly down Changan Avenue toward the square.

Shortly after 1 a.m. Sunday (noon EDT Saturday) troops broke through a flaming barricade at the Xidan intersection, about one mile west of the square.

A man at the intersection about a mile west of the square received a gunshot wound in the chest as truckloads of troops rammed through barricades set up by citizens. A medical student on the scene said the man's heart had stopped beating and there was little hope for his survival.

About 6,000 people trying to block the path of the troops were beaten by riot police and troops and attacked with tear gas. Citizens had set fire to public buses parked across the road, but the army trucks slammed through.

At least five people were taken away after being hit by the fire in the initial incident. More than a dozen others were bleeding from wounds suffered when troops beat people in the crowd.

One 28-year-old worker hit by a bullet in the leg said, "the government is fascist. How can they do this to me? How can they do this to the people?"

The attack on protesters first began about 8 p.m. Saturday when thousands of Beijing citizens trying to push the troops back began hurling stones. Police retaliated by attacking people with truncheons and electric cattle prods, firing tear gas and finally opening fire.

About 5,000 troops made a dash for the square from the east earlier in the evening, but they were turned back and headed up a side street.

One student speaking in a cracked voice over a loudspeaker on the square urged students not to leave and said, "We Chinese will persist to the end. If we die at Tiananmen Square, then so be it."

About 200,000 people were gathered on the square to protect the thousands of students who have staged a pro-democracy sit-in there since May 13.

The pro-democracy protests began on April 15 with a simple call by students for talks on increasing social freedoms and ending official corruption. They peaked during the week of May 15, when Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev visited the country and up to 1 million poured into the streets.

The government declared martial law on May 20 and troops attempted to advance on the square, but they were driven back by masses of average citizens sympathetic to the protesters.

The protest led to a power struggle in the government, with hardliners such as senior leader Deng Xiaoping and Premier Li Peng apparently winning control.

The shooting Saturday night came after an earlier attempt to quell the protests failed earlier in the day. Hundreds of police had fired tear gas on crowds for the first time in seven weeks of pro-democracy protests.

Witnesses said riot troops beat at least 30 people east of Tiananmen Square. But hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protect the students.

A detachment of 5,000 troops, surrounded by taunting crowds one block off the square, began hitting people with belts. During the short fracas, people burst into tears and the crowd shouted "You can't hit the people 3/8"

Security forces made pre-dawn and afternoon advances on the square but failed to dislodge the students, who have occupied the 100-acre plaza since May 13.

Riot police also beat students and others with nightsticks in afternoon attacks both to the east and west of the square, the symbolic center of power in China. Some protesters tossed rocks at the police.

At least 13 people were seen with bloodied heads and bodies. Witnesses said two truckloads of riot police with shields and sticks began beating people outside the Beijing Hotel east of the square, injuring 30 people.

Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, a reformer who advocated concessions to the students, has reportedly lost his post and is under house arrest. But Chinese and diplomatic sources said it was unclear whether hard-liners had enough support among the rest of the party leadership to purge Zhao from the government.