Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Wednesday, 3 June 2009 13:00 UK

John Simpson: Remembering Tiananmen

By John Simpson
BBC World Affairs Editor

John Simpson reporting from Tiananmen Square
John Simpson reported from Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989

Twenty years ago, on the morning of 4 June 1989, the bullets were flying along Chang'an Avenue, just outside the Beijing Hotel, a short way from Tiananmen Square.

I lay with my arms over my head in the gutter, trying to protect myself.

I was gripping a video cassette from my cameraman which contained all the famous pictures of the Tiananmen massacre.

On it there were images of soldiers driving slowly down the avenue and firing randomly at anything they chose, the crowd's angry attack on an armoured personnel carrier, the fallen remains of the Goddess of Democracy statue and the continued killing as dawn came up.

It was clear proof of one of the most shocking events in recent history.

Sometimes, even today, the Chinese authorities try to give the impression that there was no massacre in Tiananmen Square.

Literally speaking, that is true; the massacre took place in the roads leading to it, rather than in the square itself. But there is no doubt that large numbers of people died.


Archive report: Students run for cover as troops open fire


Twenty years later, what happened that night is still an unresolved problem for the Chinese government.

China is a very different country today. People now have many of the personal freedoms the Tiananmen demonstrators were asking for.

Even leading dissidents under house arrest will tell you that life is getting better in China. Senior people within the party make it clear that they are trying to work out ways of bringing greater democracy.

Many people who are now in the top levels of the system in China felt real sympathy with the students in the run-up to the massacre.

A man tries to stop Chinese tanks in 1989
Suppression of the 1989 Tianamen protests sparked worldwide anger

Shortly before it happened, the current prime minister, Wen Jiabao, a thoughtful and sensitive man, went to the square with his then boss, Zhao Zhiyang, who pleaded with the demonstrators to give up their protest.

Mr Zhao, who died four years ago, secretly wrote a book about what happened. It was smuggled to Hong Kong, and has just been published. In it, he praised the system of parliamentary democracy and said it was the answer to China's problems.

Taboo topic

Copies of the book are said to be circulating in the upper levels of the Chinese Communist Party.

So why the continued silence about the massacre 20 years ago? Why has the Chinese government refused visas to people like me, who saw it happen, so that we can go to China for the anniversary? Why are ordinary people not allowed to log onto sites like the Chinese version of the BBC website?

Tiananmen left many people in China with a great fear of political chaos.

The country was brought to a standstill for an entire month while the demonstrations continued. The government will do anything to avoid a repeat of that.

Senior Chinese officials reject the suggestion that these things should be debated openly, on the grounds that it is simply too dangerous.


There is a noticeable lack of confidence, a nervousness, at the heart of a system which has otherwise been spectacularly successful, industrially, economically and socially.

Chinese police patrol on Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, Mar 09
Chinese police patrol regularly Tiananmen Square today

When I left Beijing in June 1989, I was driven through the back-streets and the suburbs, in order to avoid the army roadblocks on the main road to the airport.

Again and again I saw local Communist Party headquarters, police stations and secret police offices reduced to ruins and ashes.

Once I saw the burned corpse of a policeman propped up against a wrecked police car; someone had put a cigarette in his mouth and his policeman's cap was set at a jaunty angle on his head.

Scenes like that have haunted the Chinese Communist Party ever since. Perhaps the top politicians need to be reminded that China is a very different, much wealthier and more stable society now than it was 20 years ago.

It is embarrassing to hear intelligent, highly educated officials who would have sympathised with the students at the time, calling the massacre "the incident", or even pretending it did not happen.

After all this time, being open and honest about what happened that night in Chang'an Avenue and Tiananmen Square will not put Chinese society in danger.

On the contrary, it would help China develop into a country which is at ease with itself and its past.

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