All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 1991

The Fight for Beijing

Steven W. Mosher is director of Asian studies at The Claremont Institute in Montclair, California. His latest book is China Misperceived: American Illusions and Chinese Reality (Basic Books, 1990).

Two years ago this month the Beijing regime sent troops and tanks to crush China’s pro-democracy movement. Here is an eyewitness account of those days of terror in the Chinese capital.

The Communist terror continues to this day, as pro-democracy demonstrators are brought to trial and punished severely.

Rescuing a Friend

“The People’s Liberation Army is firing upon the people!” Chen Jian screamed in Tao Ye’s ear. Tao nodded. He could see the Communist troops advancing down Changanjie, Beijing’s main thoroughfare, firing their automatic weapons at anyone who ventured too close.

When Tao had first heard the distant pop-pop-pop of automatic weapons, he had thought the troops must be firing in the aft. He and a group of fellow workers had left Tiananmen Square in the direction of the firing, hoping to form a human barricade against the advancing troops. This had worked before. The troops had been unable to force their way through tens of thousands of people standing shoulder to shoulder, and had turned back.

This time was different. The crowd tried to stand its ground, shouting at the troops not to fire their weapons at unarmed people. The troops answered with their guns. The people would then take flight like a flock of startled sparrows, before coming to rest again the length of a football field away. Left behind in this wild retreat would be the bodies of the dead and wounded. The troops moved forward steadily. Tao knew what the fate of the wounded would be if they were captured by the army.

“We must save the wounded,” Tao told those around him. “Who will join a Dare-to-Die Brigade?” A dozen voices answered him, a dozen shocked and frightened onlookers who were ready to put their lives on the line. They were all workers. A student who wanted to join was turned away. “Go home,” Tao told him. “You know too much to waste as cannon fodder. The country needs you. We workers will not be missed.”

Fifty yards in front of them a man was trying to crawl back to safety, dragging an injured leg. Tao and three others ran out, in a low crouch, onto the no-man’s land. They picked up the injured man, and began to run clumsily back to the safety of the crowd. Bullets whistled around them.

Six times they ventured out onto this no-man’s land, pulling, dragging, or carrying the wounded to safety. Six times they went to the nearest hospital, the Beijing Children’s Hospital, with those they had saved. Each time the hospital was more crowded with the wounded, while the dead lay stretched in long rows in the hospital courtyard.

It was the seventh rescue attempt that went awry. Tao, his friend Dong, and two others were carrying a man who had been gut shot. Tao staggered as his load suddenly got heavier. Dong, a member of the Brigade, had fallen. Tao pulled the wounded man to safety and then, without stopping to catch his breath, ran back to where Dong had fallen. A bullet had struck him in the thigh, gouging away a big chunk of flesh. Blood had already spread out in a dark pool on the pavement beneath him.

He wrestled Dong to his feet, supporting him under the shoulders. “Run, Dong, run!” he cried. But Dong, weak from the loss of blood, could scarcely stand, even on his good leg, much less run. Tao had to drag his friend along. After what seemed an eternity they reached the relative safety of the crowd, and willing hands carried Dong to a bicycle cart. Tao tied a tourniquet around his bleeding leg, and then ran alongside the cart to the Children’s Hospital, shouting encouragement to his friend. But by the time they arrived at 3:30 A.M., Dong was unconscious.

Tao, unwilling to leave his friend, stayed at the hospital, numbly helping with the dead and wounded as they were brought in. Soon there were no more beds, and the wounded had to be placed on temporary cots in the corridors, and finally on the floor. Many, like Dong, had lost a great deal of blood. The hospital’s small supply of blood plasma was soon exhausted; an ambulance was sent for more. Red lights flashing and siren sounding, it roared out of the main gate of the hospital, only to be attacked by troops at the first intersection. It exploded in flames.

The dead kept increasing in number, spilling out of the small morgue and onto the courtyard in front of the hospital. Bodies continued to be carried in from the streets, and now bodies began to be carried out of the hospital to make room for the living. By morning the courtyard was full of corpses, lying in uneven rows upon the cold ground. At 6:30 A.M., Tao laid Dong on the cold ground beside the others. He had died for lack of a blood transfusion.

Fighting Back

The dawn did not bring respite from the nightmare of the night. The reality of what had happened was worse than any nightmare. Not only Dong but hundreds, perhaps thousands were dead. Other thousands had been wounded.

Tao was alive, and he was a survivor. His mother, had died when he was a child, and his father, a high-ranking Party member, had been arrested during the Cultural Revolution. He was an “orphan of Mao.” He had survived those years of terror by joining a Red Guard group. They had been his family for three years, and then they, too, had been arrested on Mao’s orders and sent to the labor camps. His older brother had also been arrested and sent to the camps, where he had died of liver cancer. Communism had taken from Tao everything he had ever held dear. He had known it was a cheat, a trick, a deceit, from that time forward. All the wonderful talk about the dictatorship of the workers was a fiction. It was just dictatorship, pure and simple.

Tao knew how the workers felt. He had been one himself for nine years. He had worked as a mechanic in a truck factory in the city of Hankow from 1970 to 1979. Later, he had gone back to college and studied law. China needed laws, he had felt strongly, laws before which everyone stood equal. One could not put one’s faith in individuals, even reformers like Deng Xiaoping, but only in laws.

When the demonstrations started, Tao had gone back to his roots. He had joined the Independent Alliance of Workers on June 1st. He didn’t want to be associated with intellectuals. All intellectuals ever did was talk. Workers were not afraid to act. And they could bring real pressure on the government. They could shut down the factories. They could turn off essential utilities. The thought of the Communist Party trying to run the country without water, electricity, telephones, or trains made Tao smile.

For several days he had taken part in the peaceful, nonviolent protest for democracy in Tiananmen Square. At that time he still thought that the system could be changed gradually. But now the army had opened fire on the people. The first few hours, seeing the slaughter, he was numb, thinking only to save the wounded. But now with the dead in front of him, he thought of what must be done. There could be only one response to such tyranny.

His work here was done. It was six kilometers from the Children’s Hospital to the An Dun Qiao district of Beijing where he lived. Tao set off at a trot. As he ran he thought of Beijing’s millions of workers. After this night of slaughter, many would be ready to fight. If they could just be organized, this government wouldn’t last a day.

There were thousands of people in the streets, talking in angry clusters. Others were ready to act. In Tao’s district, rebels had already looted the weapons lockers of factories, and had turned the local gas station into an armaments plant, producing Molotov cocktails by the thousands. Other groups had built makeshift barricades by overturning carts and cars, buses and trucks, blocking the main roads leading into the district.

Tao joined a group of guerrillas, armed with these homemade firebombs and an odd rifle or two, guarding one of the entry points. So poorly armed, and with the army shooting on sight, they would have been cut down out in the open. Instead they secreted themselves behind the barricades, off in alleyways, and on the tops of buildings, ready to greet any approaching military or police vehicle with a wall of flame.

Tao’s company didn’t have long to wait. A block away, an armored personnel carrier (APC) turned onto the street they were guarding. It moved quickly up the street, its machine gun firing off short bursts at anything that moved. Children were a frequent target. Their curiosity led them to stand in doorways, or to look out of windows, and often killed them.

From his hiding place, Tao watched the ALPC as it came nearer. Then he caught a sudden flash of movement. A small boy darted across the street directly in front of the oncoming APC. A burst of automatic weapons fire stitched across his chest. A few seconds later, never swerving, the APC ran over him. Tao Ye thanked God that the boy was already dead.

Tao’s head was pounding. When the APC was 40 yards from the barricade he lit the rag in the neck of a bottle. When it was 20 yards away and slowing, he stepped out into the street and let fly. The bottle flew in a flat arc and shattered on the driver’s side of the vehicle, bursting into flames. A second, a third, and then a whole flurry of bottles broke against the wheels and gun turret. The vehicle was engulfed in flames. Machine guns fired wildly from its gun ports for about 30 seconds at nothing in particular and then fell silent.

The doors of the APC burst open. The soldiers on board clambered out to safety, threw down their weapons, and ran. They were village youths, and had no stomach for a fight in close quarters against an enemy they couldn’t see.

Tao’s group gathered up the discarded AK-47s. Someone thought of saving the ammunition on board the burning APC, but the crack and pop as it exploded scattered them. They watched at a distance as the APC burned down into a black, smoldering hulk, regretting only the loss of the ammunition. They now had guns, but precious few firecrackers, Tao thought ruefully.

For three days Tao’s group fire-bombed every official vehicle, from army trucks to police cars, that came within range, filling the street for several blocks with a score of burned-out skeletons. For the first three days, the army kept clear of the area.

On June 7th it assaulted in force. The column of troops and armored personnel carriers was repulsed with barrages of automatic weapons fire and sheets of flame. No fewer than six APCs were destroyed by the end of the fighting. But Tao’s group and the others that had joined it suffered heavy losses. Worse yet, they used up all of their ammunition and most of their gasoline in the two-hour fire-fight. Had not the people come out in force, some to throw homemade firebombs, others to rain down bricks and rocks on the troops from the rooftops, they would have lost.

As long as Tao heard the sounds of fighting, like distant thunder rolling over the city, he was encouraged. He knew they were not alone, that resistance continued in other parts of Beijing. On the afternoon of the eighth day, however, the thunder began to diminish. By the morning of the ninth the scattered reports of machine guns could be heard from the neighboring quarter. It was the sound, Tao knew, of mopping up. The army would soon be paying them a visit in force.

Further resistance was futile. Tao told his ragtag forces that it was every man for himself. Tao himself returned to his apartment and, for the first time in four days, slept.

Troops Come for Tao

Tao awoke suddenly the next morning. He was on his feet before he realized what had startled him. It was the silence. After five days of near continuous gunfire, calm had descended over the empty streets. The resistance had ended.

He paced around his apartment, grappling with his own problem. The list of labor union members had undoubtedly fallen into the hands of the authorities. His name was on that list. And if they didn’t yet know of his participation in the resistance, they soon would. His name was probably high on the list of counterrevolutionaries to be arrested. As a worker, not an intellectual or a student, he could expect no leniency. His life would be forfeit.

The ring of his phone caught him in mid-stride. It was his father. “Son, could you come over? My illness has taken a turn for the worse.” Tao’s father was bedridden with liver cancer.

Tao instantly put aside the problem of his escape. Avoiding the main streets, he cycled to his father’s apartment. Bursts of gunfire punctured the morning stillness. The arrests are beginning, he thought to himself.

He had been visiting with his father for only a few minutes when he heard the front door slam. “Tao Ye is dead! Tao Ye is dead!” he heard someone shouting. His younger brother burst in through the bedroom door, tears streaming down his face. He stopped, dumbstruck, when he saw Tao.

The brother had been on his way to Tao Ye’s apartment when a convoy of armored personnel carriers and trucks had pulled up in front of the building. As soon as they were within range of the window of Tao’s apartment, they had opened up with machine guns. Squads of soldiers leaped from the trucks, some taking up positions on the street, others running into the building.

When they reached Tao’s apartment on the top floor, they fired their weapons wildly into every possible hiding place, destroying lamps and furniture and beds. “They would not have given you a chance to surrender,” his younger brother told Tao Ye. “They wanted you dead.”

The hunt for “counterrevolutionaries” was under way in earnest. Later that day Tao got word that Chen Jian, another member of the labor union, had been arrested. One by one, they were being hunted down. He had to leave China.

Escape to, Hong Kong

Tao sat in the airport lounge, trying to look relaxed—and foreign. He was traveling under the Thai name “Sambat.” His forged Thai passport stuck out prominently from his shirt pocket. Even so, he had twice been stopped by soldiers, who were swarming everywhere. They had thumbed through his passport and tried to interrogate him, but he had pretended not to understand. “Thai citizen, Thai citizen,” he had repeated in what he hoped was suitably broken Chinese. His passport was good enough to fool ignorant country soldiers, but he knew it wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny.

It had taken only two days to get the passport and the ticket. Even so they had come through just in time. This morning Tao had seen a picture of his friend Chen Jian on state television. It hadn’t looked like him at all. His face was beaten until it was twice as big as normal. Now he is undoubtedly dead, Tao thought. The same fate that will await me if I am caught. He silently thanked his friend. He gave me two days of time, and if I can get out today . . . Otherwise I meet the same fate, and probably betray others in the bargain.

“Are you Sambat?” a man wearing an airport security uniform asked him. He nodded. “Come with me,” the man said. He would board the aircraft through the crew entrance, avoiding the immigration check. It had been so arranged.

Tao found himself on a nearly empty plane. He counted only seven other passengers. Yet he knew that everyone would leave if they could. The plane was scheduled to take off at 11 A.M., but they were still sitting on the ground at noon. The control tower hadn’t given them clearance to leave. Tao was sure that a squad of soldiers would board at any minute and pull him off the flight.

At last the plane rolled down the runway and was airborne. Tao took one last look at Beijing, an occupied city. The Chinese Communists had thought that they could retake Beijing from the people in a day. Instead it had taken nearly a week. If only one division of the army had come over,: Tao thought to himself, or if we had had a few more days to organize the workers, the outcome would have been different. Next time it would be, he vowed.

No Asylum

In Hong Kong, Chinese democratic activists had organized themselves into the Committee to Aid the Mainland Democracy Movement. Tao went to see them as soon as he arrived.

“You know it is dangerous for you to remain in Hong Kong,” the old Hong Kong Chinese told him after listening to his story. “We can help you make arrangements to go to a third country. France, for instance.”

“I’d like to go to America,” Tao Ye told them firmly. America. The Very sound of it had the ting of freedom about it. He and his friends had been inspired by the ideals of America, the country that believed not in dividing people into classes (like Marxism), but that all men are created equal. “Give me liberty or give me death,” they had sworn to each other, a vow that many had paid for with their lives. He had applauded when the “goddess of democracy,” modeled on the Statue of Liberty, was erected in Tiananmen Square.

The older man’s answer brought him out of his reverie. “I am afraid that will be impossible,” he told Tao Ye flatly.

“But why?” Tao Ye asked. “I thought America supported China’s democracy movement. And after the Tiananmen Massacre, I heard on the Voice of America that . . .”

“We know, we know,” the older man said gently, interrupting him. “We, too, heard on the Voice of America that many countries were willing to accept those who escaped from China.

“We naturally went first to the U.S. Embassy in Hong Kong. We asked them straight, ‘If we save people, will you help?’ But the Americans played tai chi with us, putting us off, day after day. We put our request in many times, but there was no answer, which was answer enough.

“We then went to the French,” he continued. “Immediately, without hesitation, they said yes.”

Today, Tao Ye lives in Paris, where he is active in the democracy movement. His goal is to organize a Chinese Solidarity, modeled after the Polish labor federation that has now won power in that country. “Most of those who died were workers, not students,” Tao says. “If freedom is to come to China, it will be because the workers throw out this hated regime. And they will. This regime cannot last long.”