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A Tiananmen massacre survivor recounts her ordeal 30 years later

Image: AP Photo

On the evening of June 3, 1989, 20-year-old Rose Tang put on a black jacket and black jeans for camouflage, stuck a dagger in her pocket, snuck out a side gate of the Beijing Second Foreign Languages Institute where she was a student, and hopped on her bicycle.

She made her way through the streets of the Chinese capital to Tiananmen Square, where she joined thousands of fellow students protesting for democracy.

Like many of them, Tang had not been a political activist before the student-led democracy movement began in the spring of 1989. But on Saturday, April 22, as she was shopping with friends,  she heard that students had been marching to Tiananmen Square following the death of Hu Yaobang, the reformist former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.

Over the next few days, she watched as more students took to the streets and many universities started suspending classes.

The square was soon a sea of flags, banners, and makeshift tents, nearly all of them featuring the word “democracy.”

“What is democracy?” Tang recalls asking. Then, she began to learn more. 

Eventually, the demonstrations escalated to hunger strikes, and on May 20, Premier Li Peng declared martial law.

“A dozen students from my university were carried back to campus after being brutally beaten by the police,” Tang says. “I was outraged and went to the gates of Zhongnanhai, near the square, where top party leaders worked.”  

There, hundreds of people were protesting. Tang eventually used a bullhorn to lead the crowd in shouting slogans and delivering speeches about greater freedom and less corruption. After that, she was a fixture in the demonstrations.

On June 4, just past midnight, Tang remembers seeing a burning tank, chased by rock-throwing crowds, rattle into the square and bulldoze roadblocks in front of the Great Hall of the People. She heard the sound of firecrackers exploding in the distance and felt bullets whizzing overhead. “Still, we thought they must be rubber bullets, they wouldn’t dare kill us,” Tang recalls.

“A few minutes later, sparks bounced off the monument and we realized they were real bullets. Wounded students were carried into the square. A young woman held up a blood-stained white shirt and told us about killings outside the square."

Then, all of the lights in Tiananmen Square were switched off. Suddenly, droves of soldiers scampered out from under the Great Hall.

 “All the lights were turned on at the same time, followed by the deafening noise of tanks thundering towards us from three directions like green monsters,” Tang recalls. “A group of soldiers dashed onto the stairs of the monument, shot the loudspeakers and aimed at us. Soldiers carrying enormous sticks surrounded us and began beating students.”

The students started panicking and trying to get away. "I was pushed and pulled, carried by the stampede. I heard screams and thuds. My chest was squeezed and my glasses were smashed. I could only see blurry street lights above the silhouettes of people around me,” Tang says.

She recalls trampling over bodies, not knowing if they were dead or alive, saying “I was dragged along by the mob that was moving like a huge ball of ants.” Tang was finally pushed up against a tank and had to climb over it, past the open turret where a soldier was aiming his gun at the crowd. She jumped off the other side to escape.

She found herself face to face with a CNN television crew looking for students to interview. “I told them many students had died and I was very angry,” Tang says.

It was dawn by then. She and other students from her university, some with bleeding heads or feet, made their way back, stumbling past burning trucks and tanks along the way. Troops were everywhere, she said, “It was a full-on military campaign.”

When she returned to her dorm room, Tang burned her arm bands and lists of protesters’ names. Universities had been ordered to hand student leaders over to the police. One afternoon university security guards banged on her door, but when she didn’t answer they left and grabbed someone else instead. Tang learned of her narrow escape only when her political supervisor told her what had happened.

“Many nights I was awakened by gunshots and tanks rumbling in the distance,” Tang recalls. “I cried in the dark.”

When classes resumed in September, all students had to write a 3,000 word essay criticizing their behavior and vowing to stand by the party.

Martial law was not lifted until January, 1990. “I took a bus on a freezing night to the square,” Tang says. “It was empty, with a few armed soldiers patrolling. There were no blood stains or bullet holes. There wasn’t a single trace of what happened during the late spring or early summer.”

Tang later went to Australia and Hong Kong, where she worked for CNN and other news organizations, before immigrating to the United States in 2005. Today, she is a New York-based activist and artist. Tang says she still suffers from PTSD and survivors’ guilt.

She says she will not stop talking about Tiananmen and the events of 1989. “The government encourages amnesia, it wants to erase history,” Tang explains.” They don’t want people to get angry; they don’t want people to take to the streets again.  If there is another Tiananmen movement, there’s going to be another Tiananmen massacre.”

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