Witnessing China’s 1989 Protests, 1,000 Miles From Tiananmen Square
The Chinese student protests in the spring of 1989 are remembered mostly for how they ended — the bloody military assault around Tiananmen Square in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed. But the pro-democracy movement spread far beyond Beijing before it was crushed. More than 1,000 miles away in Chengdu, a sprawling metropolis in southwest China, as in scores of other cities across the country, young workers and students concerned with corruption and unemployment gathered to demand accountability and democracy.
News cameras from around the world recorded the Tiananmen crackdown, but there were far fewer journalists in these other cities. In Chengdu, however, was a 28-year-old Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan who was in the region conducting research and sent dispatches to a newspaper in Detroit.
That student, Andy Levin, was elected to Congress in November and now represents Michigan’s Ninth District. On the 30th anniversary of the protests, we asked Mr. Levin to shake out his old notebooks and share his memories. His account has been edited and condensed.
Demonstrators carrying a banner that reads: “Tyrant, the people will not let you get away with this.” Credit: Andy Levin
Then June 4 happened, and the world turned upside down.
I flew to Hong Kong in late May and arrived in time to witness the largest demonstration I have ever seen, an endless sea of people. The feeling was overwhelmingly hopeful. Change, people felt, was in the air.
After spending some time in Hong Kong and in the nearby city of Guangzhou, I flew to Chengdu. Students had been camping out at the base of the Mao statue in the center of town since April, and tens of thousands were reported to have taken to the streets in May.
I was mixing tourism and learning about the political situation in this way quite happily, with no real sense of apprehension or tension. Then June 4 happened, and the world turned upside down.
Protesters squaring off with members of the People’s Armed Police. Credit: Andy Levin
I saw many people beaten and captured.
On June 4, a government crackdown began in Chengdu, as it did in Beijing and elsewhere. Troops moved into the center of Chengdu early that morning. About 50 students were removed at 7:30 a.m. Two died in the scuffle. The rest of the students were taken away. At least three died in the process and 100 were hurt — probably more, from what I was told.
For the next day or so, the central city was not under the control of the authorities. I watched battles between the People’s Armed Police and demonstrators rage for many hours.
Demonstrators would advance by throwing stones and pieces of brick or concrete at the police. The crowd would surge forward, then the police would throw tear gas and counterattack, and the crowds would retreat in a panic. I saw many people beaten and captured.
Throughout the unrest, I spoke with people who felt democracy would still come, or that it was important to fight for it. Though I had not studied Chinese, I managed to find people who could communicate well in English.
Zou Yi, 17, a student at No. 7 Middle School, told me, “Students want to make our army stronger and more beautiful. We also want to make our country not ruled by one man but by the people.”
The protesters threw bricks and rocks, and the police threw tear gas. Credit: Andy Levin
The crowd set fire to the police station.
Word spread quickly about what had happened. Rumor had it that protesters were being held in a particular police station, and a huge crowd massed outside it. The students weren’t there after all, but the crowd set fire to the police station.
Three fire trucks arrived, sirens blaring. The first instinct of the crowd was to move aside. But then, I could see the crowd change its mind. As in, “Wait a minute, we set this fire on purpose, so we don’t want this fire truck putting it out.” The crowd converged on a truck, chased off the firemen, flipped the truck on its side and set the truck itself on fire.
On June 5 at midnight I wrote:
“The streets are still full of people, and they’re a real mess. One block from the Mao statue, youths were building skimpy barricades. Eventually, I got up the guts to walk right through the square. It was paved with broken glass and trash.
“Police were nowhere to be seen, but every few minutes announcements came over a loudspeaker. One said, ‘We’re coming after you in five minutes.’ It caused everyone to flee in one of the hundreds of panic waves of the day.”
A couple days later, Chen Jing, 19, a student at Chengdu University, told me 20 students had died just from his university and Huazi Medical University on June 4 and 5, and that about 130 were in jail. These figures proved impossible to confirm.
The exact death toll from the protests is unknown. Credit: Andy Levin
We watched aghast as soldiers beat and abused the prisoners.
On the second night of the confrontation, I went into the Jinjiang Hotel. Naïvely, I thought I might be able to get a People’s Daily to find out what the heck was happening in Beijing, Chengdu and elsewhere.
While I was in the hotel, there was a tremendous commotion. Security guards pushed all of us into the hotel and locked the doors. We didn’t know what was going on, so we went out on the balconies of rooms facing the front of the hotel to see.
A large group of men broke open the gate and flooded the grounds. They battled with the security guards and started throwing rocks through the huge hotel lobby windows.
Soon, six truckloads of what looked like soldiers pulled into the compound. They were not armed with guns, but seemed to have bayonetlike weapons. And one man stood out. He was wearing a different uniform, and he had an actual pistol in a holster.
The soldiers jumped out and grabbed as many people as they could. It was mayhem. Most ran out, but about three dozen were caught.
For the next three hours, we watched aghast as soldiers beat and abused the prisoners. They had each one step forward with their hands bound behind their backs. They photographed them, asked them some questions, and then threw them down face-first, their skulls hitting the pavement with a sickening thud.
I couldn’t stand it. I ran down to the lobby, which was all broken glass and completely trashed. I went up to the leader of the soldiers and started yelling at him in English. “You can’t do this! You’re killing people without any due process.” I’m not sure what I said. Soon, some of the guards shooed me away, and I went back up to the balcony, shaking with rage and helplessness.
The next day, armed troops drove around the city center, and that was the end of the protests.
I wrote up my experiences and went to the business center at the Jinjiang Hotel. I spent a fortune (maybe $10) faxing the pages to the Detroit News. I don’t think I had any way of knowing whether the fax went through. The News published my story on June 8 under the headline, “Another city suffers death, chaos.” The article was how my family found out I was alive and well.
Protesters set fire to a police station, a fire truck and other vehicles. Credit: Andy Levin