I saw side by side Chinese tank tracks down Changan Jie
The day after 6-4 in the morning I had a lunch meeting with a friend who lives down near TAM Square. I called her and she discouraged me from going to see her, saying it was too dangerous. She and her 12 year old brother were very upset about what happened the night before. The ride down to her place was fraught with obstructions. We walked to the soldier’s front line, as close as you could get to entering the Square.
It is funny that I have not recalled these thoughts in 20 years, but as I write I am able to recall many minor details that one would have thought gone after such a long time. The human brain is remarkable in its capacity. I wonder why I would unconsciously block out these thoughts for the last 20 years. The images I still have in my head are as clear as if it happened yesterday.
As I rode my bike down to the Square every intersection was blocked. Cars and many public buses were burned, some overturned. Often I had to carry my bike over the lane dividers in order to get through. There was no way a car could drive down to the Square. There was no police nor police vehicles to be seen. All intersection traffic lights were turned off. It seemed to me very surreal that this chaos could happen in such a large city as Beijing.
My friend lives down very close to the Square. I arrived at her house at around 10:30 am. There was no problem getting to her apartment building. I could see that she had been crying most of the night. Her brother was also visibly upset.
My friend was very concerned about her 12 year old brother. He was extremely angry at what happened the night before, had gone down to the soldiers protecting the Square’s perimeter, and had insulted and taunted the soldiers. They had run after him, but he had ran away. No amount of talking to him could convince him his actions were dangerous. Usually he was a pretty level headed artsy kid, so this change of behaviour was of great concern.
We walked down to the Square. As we passed the large apartment blocks I could see bullet marks on the walls. There were pools of blood on the ground in many places. My friend said that a mother was killed in her apartment by a stray bullet, and there was widespread outrage in the complex. More blood on the ground, bloody clothing on the ground.
After a very short walk we finally got to the front line that separated civilians from the Army. I recall a thin Chinese guy holding a camera being dragged away by soldiers. He had horn rimmed glasses on and looked to be an intellectual. To this day I can still see the terror on his face. Though he complained loudly as the 4 soldiers dragged him away, what he said fails me. You don’t normally see soldiers drag away unarmed civilians. My friend said that it was illegal to take any photos and to even have a camera in your hand was grounds to be taken in.
My friend’s brother started swearing at the soldiers, which made the soldiers visibly upset. They started yelling at him. He continued for a while and then as the soldier started to hop the fence, he ran away. My friend started to cry, wondering if her brother would be beaten up. The soldier stayed at his post but was visibly agitated.
While my friend stayed far back from the fence line, I could not help myself and slowly crept closer and closer to the front line. I realized the danger of the situation but wanted a closer look at the soldiers and the Square. I was close enough to touch the white metal fence and only about 3 feet from the soldier. No other Chinese people dared to stand close to the fence and the soldiers, which is rare for Chinese people.
As I got closer I saw that the soldiers were large and well muscled men, green uniforms, but had no other markings of their unit. They spoke Mandarin but not with a Beijing accent. They were from outside Beijing. All soldiers wore white gloves and green army hats. Each soldier clutched a brown AK-47. Though it was morning the soldiers were sweating profusely, as I could see the beads of sweat on their foreheads. Upon looking closely I could see that their eyes had this glazed over look: These soldiers had been clearly drugged.
Not long after a Chinese student beside me started swearing at the soldiers. We were right at the front of the fence, so I backed away. Though this student was quite a large guy, a couple of soldiers grabbed him and started pulling him in. I can still hear the anger in his voice, the terror in his eyes and his shaking with fear. In the struggle he dropped two cartridge casings, which I picked up. They started to beat him up then and there, and then he was led away.
Once witnessing this second student get grabbed by the soldiers and beaten up before my eyes, I knew it was time to leave. My friend had been repeatedly calling me and I eventually heeded her advice. Though I felt fear close to the soldiers, I was also in somewhat a state of shock.
Finally out of danger my friend scolded me for going so close to the soldiers. They were simple pheasants and had orders to protect the Square. No amount of discussion would change their actions.
We entered another apartment building and walked down the walkways on an upper floor, maybe the 5th floor. As we walked I could see Tiananmen get closer and closer. Finally we came to a common balcony where a couple of other people were watching. A local lady stopped us and asked my friend who I was and why we were here. After a short discussion my friend convinced the lady and we were allowed to stay. The lady told is no photography was allowed, but as I had not brought my camera, that was not an issue.
As I gazed over to the Square I could see a huge bonfire in the middle, with a huge plume of black smoke billowing in the sky. Whatever they were burning they were burning a lot. A grey helicopter landed and after a few minutes took off. Most curious was that at each corner of the Square was a very large anti-aircraft gun, pointing NE, NW, SE and SW. Why would the Army have these guns in the Square. Surely there were no more student protesters?
We never did have lunch that day. My friend, concerned for my safety, told me to return to my campus, to take back roads and be careful. Being mindful of her brother she did not accompany me on my way.
I rode north to Changan Jie. As I turned onto a side street much to my surprise was a tank parked beside a building with an armed soldier by its left front track. I was shocked at the enormous size of the tank. The soldier looked so small in comparison. I stopped riding, as did all others, no one wanting to go near the tank and the armed soldier. I turned around and found another street.
Finally on Changan Jie I could see clear tank tracks going all the way down the street. Crushed concrete blocks and fencing were everywhere. Rows of tank tracks were side by side. Though Changan Jie is extremely wide, it seemed like there were a row of 7 or 8 tanks that ran down the street side by side, similar to how snowplows clear the highways here in Toronto. Nothing would have been able to stop these tanks.
Despite all signs of danger and destruction in the area, in typical Chinese behaviour, while I was cycling away from the Square and returning to campus, so many more people were cycling towards the Square, including many san lunr (3 wheeled tricycles). A low toned boom sounded behind me, followed by people yelling. I stopped my bike and turned around. About a kilometer behind me I could see a huge plume of yellow smoke rise in the air. I could hear the mayhem of people in the area. It looked like teargas. That was it for me. There were more than enough warning signs in the area.
As I rode back to campus the whole situation seemed to not make sense. How could such a peaceful protest by students lead to such chaos, where I could see visible bullet marks in nearby buildings, blood on the ground, and a confirmed killing in my friend’s apartment complex? It was all too much.
Addendum June 01 2012: Cracks form in China’s wall of silence on Tiananmen
Addendum June 04 2012: Banned in China on Tiananmen anniversary: 6, 4, 89 and ‘today’: China’s attempts at censoring search criteria