Tiananmen anniversary: A revolution which almost succeeded

A man tries to block tanks near Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photo: 5 June 2014 Image copyright AP
Image caption This photo of a man trying to block tanks has become one of the most famous images of the massacre

Tiananmen was a revolution which almost succeeded. It shook the Chinese system to the core.

Yet in some ways, it was rather different from the picture most people in the West have of it today.

Of course, the central aspect of it was the shooting down in cold blood of young, non-violent students by the Chinese army on the night of 3-4 June 1989.

But other important aspects have been forgotten.

One was how much support existed for the students within the Chinese political system.

Another was the violent outpouring of anger against the Communist system from ordinary people right across China.

I spent an entire month wandering round the square, listening to the students who were occupying it.

They were certain that the Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, the instinctive authoritarian who was nevertheless a committed reformer, was finished.

'Real killing ground'

But he wasn't. After a month during which China's government was paralysed, Deng finally found a general and a force of soldiers who were prepared to open fire on the students and clear the square.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption China deployed armoured personnel carriers and tanks to crush tents set up by pro-democracy protesters
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Chinese political system has come to identify the events of 3-4 June 1989 with violent counter-revolution

That night I crouched behind a low wall and watched as the shooting began. My camera crew and I finally left the square when we ran out of videotape. We took refuge in the Beijing Hotel.

From the balcony of a room on the seventh floor we watched as the soldiers fired volley after volley into the crowds in Chang'an Avenue. I counted 46 people dead and at least 80 injured.

From our balcony the BBC's cameramen filmed some of the most famous images of the massacre: bodies being lifted onto the back of bicycle-driven flatbed trucks and taken to hospital, a woman screaming in the street as she was hit, the man with the shopping bag standing in front of the line of tanks.

To this day, the Chinese government maintains that no-one died in Tiananmen Square. Maybe this is literally true, because the real killing ground wasn't the square itself but Chang'an Avenue, which runs along the front of the square.

Keeping the lid

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Media captionJohn Simpson reflects on events in Tiananmen Square

Without the massacre, Deng Xiaoping would not have survived in power.

Early on in the demonstrations, in May, even many of the party's top officials had turned against him.

I watched as a million cheering spectators crammed into the square, while dozens of carnival floats trundled through it representing many of the main structures of the Chinese state.

There was floats carrying senior army officers, high court judges and representatives from across the party structure. There was even one from the secret police.

The officials on the floats were all waving and cheering and shouting demands that Deng Xiaoping should go.

Whenever I meet senior Chinese officials nowadays I wonder if they were in Tiananmen Square that day, supporting the students.

Over the years, as these officials worked their way up through the system, they have introduced many of the changes the students were demanding.

But people still can't choose their own form of government, or even advocate their right to do so too publicly.

That is because the Chinese political system has come to identify the events of 3-4 June 1989 with violent counter-revolution.

On that night peaceful students were not the only people on the streets. There were also large crowds of ordinary working class people who came out and attacked the soldiers, the police, the secret police and every manifestation of Communist rule they could find.

Driving through Beijing the following day, I saw building after building burned out, and the burned bodies of policemen and officials still lying on the ground.

Many Chinese officials still honestly believe that China can only be held together by firm government.

If everyone were allowed to speak out and demand total freedom, the argument goes, the system would collapse and China could easily fall apart.

Whatever individual people at the top thought 25 years ago, they now believe that the only way to protect China's future is to keep the lid jammed down tightly.

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