Tiananmen Square was 25 Years Ago Today

This is the 25th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

I published my thoughts on those events from June 4, 1989 in my first novel, Red Cell, telling the story of that day through the eyes of a Chinese student who would go on to be known as Pioneer —

"A political revolution is a living animal, conceived in outrage, fed with anger, and born in blood more often than not. In its early life, there comes a moment when its parents must decide what kind of animal their child will be. Some are allowed to run free and become wild predators that can only be killed by rising tyrants. Others are restrained to become loyal guardians who protect their children’s lives and liberties until those children can protect themselves. Washington, Lenin, Mao, Gandhi, Castro, and Khomenei each raised their own, and those revolutions, like all things in nature, looked and behaved like their parents.

The Second Chinese Revolution was killed during delivery by its grandparents on June 4, 1989 in the streets around an open ground called 'Heaven’s Gate'—Tiananmen Square.


Pioneer had been a student then. In the spring of 1989, the Iron Curtain in Europe was crumbling, rusted out from the inside by corruption and a half-century of oppression. The Soviet Union had built the Warsaw Pact through violence and was forced to watch its handiwork come apart at the political welds and economic rivets. In Gorbachev, the students saw the reformer that Deng Xiaopeng only pretended to be. When the Russian president agreed to come to China that May to discuss his programs of perestroika and glasnost, the student leaders anxious for democracy saw a singular opportunity to push their cause on the party elders. As if divine favor were behind them, Hu Yaobang, the venerated old former Secretary General and true reformer died in mid-April giving many a reason to mourn his passing by joining the crowd and calling for real change.

For his part, Deng wanted the world to see a summit where the two great communist powers were going to close ranks. He opened Beijing to the US media and they came in droves with their portable satellite dishes and microwave links by the hundreds. It was a mistake. On May 12, the student leaders called for a hunger strike before Gorbachev’s arrival. The following morning, four hundred students dressed themselves in white with headbands inscribed in Chinese characters with the printed protest “No Choice but to Fast.” They made their way to Tiananmen Square and before the day was over the number of strikers had grown to three thousand. By May 15, over one hundred fifty thousand people filled the Square, some protesting, some there only to see the protests, but even that was an act of courage. 

Pioneer was one of the latter at first. He was not one of the true believers in democracy, at least in the beginning. At first he came and went, not staying in the Square overnight but going home to his soft bed each evening. But he did come back. He watched as the student leaders gave their speeches unmolested by the uncertain police at the crowds’ edge. The more he saw and heard, the more he believed in the cause until he found his own faith in the vision of a democratic China. By the end, Pioneer was sleeping on the ground with the rest, chanting slogans during the speeches, and wondering whether he could become a leader in the movement. With no resistance from the government, it was easy to cultivate the seed of faith he had planted as a new convert to the cause.

Deng’s humiliation was mounting fast. The official reception for Gorbachev had to be staged at the airport instead of the Square. An official state visit to the Forbidden City, which was in full view of the unruly Square, was cancelled. Gorbachev was ushered into the Great Hall of the People through the back door.

It went on for weeks and the Politburo began to grow nervous. They knew a revolution when they saw one. Many of them remembered Mao’s revolution. Many of them had helped stage it. If Communism had only drilled one precept into their old, corrupt heads, it was that revolutions were inevitable in states where the masses were oppressed by the bourgeoisie, which the Party leaders had become. Now they were riding close to the edge of a historical trend they didn’t like. They were losing control of everything in full view of their own country and the world. Their private meetings devolved into vitriol and invective. They sent representatives to the students, pleading with them to leave Tiananmen Square, and were refused. Quite the opposite, protests emerged in other Chinese cities far from Beijing. Hunger strikers were collapsing and being taken to hospitals by their comrades, which generated television images and more sympathy for their cause. It seemed like the whole world was behind the students.

The crowd in Tiananmen Square surged to over one million. Common peasants and workers were joining the students, not as curious bystanders but as active protesters denouncing the Politburo and calling for democracy.

On May 20, the Politburo declared martial law in Beijing. The protests in the other cities were smaller and easily handled, but the Tiananmen Square mob refused to disperse. Journalists were banned from the Square and forced to stop their broadcasts. The students were ordered to evacuate. They refused. The PLA ordered divisions from the Beijing, Shenyang, and Jinan Military Regions into the city, totaling more than one hundred eighty thousand soldiers. When PLA commanders showed any reluctance to use the Army against the citizens, they were immediately removed from command and replaced. General Secretary Zhao Ziyang opposed the use of military force, for which he was removed from office and put under house arrest for the remainder of his life.

The soldiers began harassing those at the crowd’s edge, but the masses were too large and too determined to hold their ground. They fought back, building barricades to block vehicle traffic around the Square. Where they couldn’t build barricades, they laid down in the roads. The PLA fired tear gas into the crowd. Pioneer still remembered how his own eyes had burned when a canister had landed near him. Pioneer had picked it up and thrown it back at the soldiers but not before inhaling a full dose of the gas. He had gagged his breakfast onto the concrete. He had wanted to claw his own eyes out of his head as his lungs burned, a feeling that was refreshed every time he drew breath. His new friends held him on his feet as he recovered and he watched other protesters scuffling with the police in the streets. The People’s Armed Police were unprepared for the defiant response and retreated. Civilians had always treated them with deference and even fear, but there was no fear in these people.

The stalemate held. The Politburo and the students each squabbled amongst themselves as to the next move. The threat of military force seemed to fade and over the long days the number of protesters dwindled. The students finally decided it was time to go home, but they couldn’t agree on when or how. They argued and finally settled on June 20 as the day to walk away.

The ultimate irony of the Tiananmen Square massacre was that Deng decided to use force to break up a protest that was in its waning days. 

Other members of the Politburo pleaded for restraint but old Deng still had too much influence. Mao once said that political power flowed from the barrel of the gun. Deng held that gun. On June 1, he declared that the students were terrorists engaged in a counterrevolutionary plot against the socialist state. He ordered the PLA and the People’s Armed Police to clear Tiananmen Square by any means necessary.

The PLA soldiers began moving through Beijing to the Square and the citizens of Beijing flooded into the streets to stop them. They set up barricades, screamed at the soldiers, and threw rocks and debris at the marching formations. Some of the soldiers returned fire with live ammunition and wounded citizens in their own apartments. The 27th and 38th Armies fought their way to the Square, demolishing barricades and arresting and killing citizens. Mobs erupted, pulling soldiers into them and tearing them to pieces. Students threw Molotov cocktails. PLA vehicles burned in the street, filling the air with the smoke and stench of burning rubber, but flaming vodka bottles are a poor match for machine guns. Finally, the PLA troops turned their weapons on the crowd and fired with abandon.

Pioneer heard later that PLA troops had even fired on other army units that got in their way. With tens of thousands running in all directions, neither the student leaders nor the army commanders had been able to maintain order. The battle raged for three days and it was a slaughter. At least hundreds died, maybe thousands. If the Party had ever tallied a count, it hadn’t made it public and Pioneer had never been able to find it even in the private records.

To his unending shame, Pioneer had fled the battle. He’d never found comfort in the thought that thousands of others did the same thing. 

He remembered the supersonic crack of one bullet that passed close to his head and the wet noise it made as it punched through the soft body of a young woman standing by him. It severed her aorta and spilled her blood in great gushes onto the cobblestones. A second round took a young man’s face and life in the same instant with a gory display that had cost Pioneer at least a year’s sleep over the two decades since he’d seen it. His nerve and faith broke in that instant and when his friends held their ground and threw firebombs, he abandoned them on their field of battle. The PLA lines broke and the protesters flooded the streets. Soldiers started firing in self-defense to protect themselves from a mob that was far beyond obeying orders. Pioneer had jumped over the fallen bodies of trampled soldiers and revolutionaries alike, even climbed over a tank to get out.

The students had stayed too long, overplayed their hand, and it was too late to walk away. They asked to negotiate a voluntary withdrawal like the ones they had rejected so many times when offered. It was their turn to be refused. Most were arrested. The protest was broken. The PLA controlled Tiananmen Square and the streets of Beijing.

Pioneer was never identified as being present in Tiananmen Square. The Party could never identify everyone that had been a part of the event but that wasn’t considered a problem. It didn’t need to punish everyone. True leadership is a rare skill and they only had to punish those who had shown that talent. Many of the student leaders had died in the battle and the Party hunted the rest for years after. The government handed out lengthy sentences to many after trials that lasted only hours. 

No protest of significant size had occurred in Beijing since June 4, 1989. The Politburo banned any anniversary memorials and refused to conduct any investigations into its own conduct. As far as it was concerned, the massacre never happened.

Unarrested, unmolested, Pioneer’s cowardice had bought his life and freedom when his friends’ bravery bought them prison and death.


Two years later, Pioneer earned his Qinghua University degree. Then the MSS summoned him to a meeting after his graduation. At first he had thought that the Party had finally connected him to the protests. It took him a moment to realize that had it been so, the People’s Armed Police would have dragged him from his apartment instead of issuing him a polite request, really an order, for a private meeting.

The Party didn’t know about his place in the protests, but it did know about his then-rare skill with computers. Qinghua University was China’s MIT. It offered guanxi more potent in China than Harvard could offer graduates in America and the faculty had connections to people who needed to solve certain military problems. The Americans had just finished a war in Iraq using precision weapons whose efficiency frightened the PLA. The Iraqis had assembled the fourth largest army in the world, supplied with Soviet equipment and trained in Soviet military doctrine, very much like the PLA’s own forces. The United States tore that army to shreds in weeks. Computers had changed warfare to a degree that the PLA and the MSS had not appreciated before. Guns weren’t enough and that needed rectifying. 

Listening to the MSS bureaucrat talking about the glorious career he would have in the service of the Party that had gunned down his friends, Pioneer wanted to choke the man. Then, to his shame, the emotion passed in a moment, his cowardice reasserted itself, and he agreed to the request he was not free to turn down anyway. The conversation ended and he left the office. 

Perhaps his dead friends had talked to him or maybe the unknown God had whispered to his soul. Whatever the source, a thought entered his mind. There would be a better time and way to exact revenge than assaulting a bureaucrat who could be replaced without a second thought. He just had to learn patience and recognize that revenge truly was a dish best served slow and cold.


[T]wenty-five years came and went and he still hadn’t found peace. His friends still haunted him. Pioneer hadn’t set foot in Tiananmen Square in all that time but he pressed on for the cause his friends started there. If he had earned nothing else, the cowardice had been burned out of his soul. So, if he could not have peace, he had decided that under the Party’s law his inevitable execution would be well deserved. If the PLA took him to some nameless gulag, stood him before a brick wall and shot him, then maybe then his friends accept him as worthy to stand with them again."