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A memory of Tiananmen

by Susan J. Bigelow

Special To The Japan Times

I am sharing these memories for my friend Hao Jian, who is sitting in a prison cell right now for doing the same. Twenty-five years after the military assault on public protests at Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government still forbids victims’ families to remember and properly mourn the loved ones they lost.

Hao Jian lost his closest friend and cousin, Hao Zhijing. We refer to Zhijing fondly as Hao 2. He was a kind and caring man, a policy researcher in the science bureaucracy in Beijing, an optimist, with a good sense of humor, an amateur photographer, a young husband hoping to eventually scrape enough money together to do graduate work overseas, the only child of a Communist Party member.

The night Hao 2 died I remember riding my bicycle downtown around 11 p.m. I had gotten a call from a media colleague saying this was the night the army was moving in. I got to Tiananmen Square with a photographer friend just before midnight and saw an armored personnel carrier burning on Chang’an Boulevard, in front of the Forbidden City at the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

Across the road at the center of Tiananmen Square a few hundred of the protesters remained, huddled together in blankets around the Monument to the People’s Heroes.

At a Red Cross tent nearby, a runner came in and said the army was marching along Fuxingmen Street, shooting its way past barriers toward the square. We walked to the west side to see what we could see. Moments later we were crouched and running in the opposite direction away from crackling gunfire.

The showdown at the square had begun, but much of the carnage had already taken place at the outer ring roads of the city where citizens had set up barriers to block the attack.

In front of the square on Chang’an Boulevard, people were running toward us from the west, some of them shot and bleeding. A tricycle rushed past us with a flatbed cart carrying a wounded young man. Blood was spouting up from his neck in a fountain and two others were running on either side of the cart trying to stem the flow. The soldiers were closing in and we were running away from them east along Chang’an.

I remember the piercing sound of bullets whizzing by me, and bodies falling, and almost tripping over them to get away. I ran north off the boulevard and up a side street to get out of the line of fire. When I came back out to the main street a crowd had lined up across it a safe distance from a line of soldiers opposite at the eastern perimeter of the square. Some of the solders stood, others were on one knee, ready to shoot.

The crowd shouted slogans at them and they opened fire. People ran again en masse for cover and then returned to drag away the wounded, repeating that scene over and over throughout the night and into dawn.

After the second onslaught, my friend Patrick and I had taken refuge in the Beijing Hotel. Public security police were scuffling with video journalists, trying to confiscate their cassettes. A row of public phones against the wall was occupied with callers trying to get the word out. I was on one of the phones when a plainclothes security cop came over with scissors and started cutting the telephone cords, one by one. We went back out and saw that the protesters were still facing off with the soldiers, again yelling their slogans and running for cover from the volley of gunfire.

Dawn broke and we started making our way out of the city center to our residence on the northeast side when we saw the military tanks rumbling in at the crossing ahead. When we got to the crossing, the tanks had passed and now truckloads of soldiers were passing by. They suddenly started shooting into the crowds, and throwing smoke bombs.

I ran with the crowd down a hutong and arrived at a courtyard. Everyone had gone inside and closed their doors, leaving me out there alone. Then one kind woman came out with a stool for me to sit on. I sat there shivering with fear that the soldiers would soon be coming down the lane.

When the noise settled I walked back out to the main road to find Patrick. He was waving his camera at the passing soldiers, and yelling at them angrily. I was worried he might get shot and tried to drag him away from the crossing.

We started back home again and came across some people standing on an overpass around a body covered in a blanket. When we got up close they lifted the blanket to show us an elderly woman shot in the side of the head. They said she had been pleading on her knees to the passing soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, asking them not to shoot at the people. The sight was sickening and I couldn’t look. Patrick took a picture of the brains spilling out the side of the poor woman’s head.

At the crossroads to our compound a tank was burning and spewing black smoke. Buses were overturned and crushed into the ground. The air was acrid and the killing mood was palpable. We dragged ourselves home to clean up and try to process what had happened. Hao Jian phoned later that morning to see if I was all right. A week later I left Beijing in a Canadian government-organized evacuation.

A few weeks after I found out from a colleague that Hao Zhijing’s name was in the science magazine Nature on a list of people working in the sciences who had been killed on June 4. Hao Jian later told me he had looked for Hao 2 for weeks, hoping the magazine had made a mistake. He went from hospital to hospital until finally he found Zhijing’s body, blackened and cold, with a gunshot through the shoulder. He believed Hao 2 could have been saved, but soldiers had entered the hospitals and threatened medical staff not to treat the wounded. He said he walked outside and felt the rain mixing with the tears streaming down his face.

Hao Jian visits his cousin’s grave each year on or near the anniversary of his death. And every year he is watched and followed for this ordinary act of remembrance and mourning. He may not be visiting that grave for a while, but there is no erasing the memory of how his cousin came to be there.

Hao 2 lived in one of the public residential compounds on Fuxingmen Street. He had been taking pictures of the demonstrations throughout. He knew, as we all did, that we were witnessing an unprecedented episode in Chinese history, a brief period of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. We guess that Hao 2 was taking pictures of the soldiers shooting their way down Fuxingmen Street, and then one of the shots was for him.

Susan J. Bigelow is a Tokyo-based writer and editor. She worked as a journalist in Beijing and Hong Kong from 1986 to 1989.