By Agence France-Presse
After seven weeks of protests by students and workers demanding democratic changes and the end of corruption, soldiers and tanks chased and killed demonstrators and onlookers in the streets leading to the square.
But 30 years after the killings of June 4, 1989, the government still keeps a lid on what really happened and how many died on that fateful day.
“Nobody thought the army would ever open fire. It was unimaginable. It was a time of peace,” says 66-year-old You Weijie.
Despite being under police surveillance today, You is on a mission to uncover the truth. Along with other relatives of victims, she has joined the Tiananmen Mothers group.
Her husband Yang Minghu, an office worker, was not even a demonstrator, but he ended up among the hundreds who died.
“People supported the students’ demands against corruption, bureaucracy, inflation ... There was a huge wave of sympathy for them. People brought them food and drink,” You says.
The couple were woken at midnight by the sound of gunfire in the distance as soldiers and tanks moved in from the suburbs towards Tiananmen Square in the city centre, firing at civilians along the avenues.
“We worried about the students. We wanted to go there to make sure nothing happened to them.
“But our son was only five years old, so my husband went out alone,” explains You, a former employee of a dyeing factory.
After an anxious night, she found him the next day with a ruptured bladder and a fractured pelvis in a hospital “full of people bleeding, wounded from head to toe, many of whom were crying”.
The morgue was “filled with corpses”, she adds.
‘Why did you shoot?’
Before he died two days later at the age of 42, he told her that he had been mowed down by a burst of gunfire near Tiananmen Square after coming across soldiers shooting blindly.
“When I came out of the hospital, I saw a scene that I will never forget: at each crossroads, soldiers had their weapons pointed horizontally in each direction, and the people were standing there looking at them in silence,” You says.
“I would have liked to ask them: ‘Why did you shoot your countrymen?’
“But I had a toddler, so I shut up.”
The goal of the Tiananmen Mothers, which has dozens of members, is to get compensation from the Chinese state, have the leaders responsible for the violent repression held accountable, and find out how their loved ones died.
The precise number of deaths remains unknown. Two days after the bloody crackdown, the government reported “nearly 300 dead”, including troops, in the crushing of what it called “counter-revolutionary riots”.
However, the former British ambassador has spoken of 10,000 deaths and the Chinese Red Cross of 2,700. The generally accepted range – based on various surveys of hospitals – is between 400 and more than 1,000.
“The Tiananmen Mothers have registered 202 deaths so far. But that is only a tiny fraction of the victims,” says You.
With the authorities making it difficult for them to publicly mourn their loved ones, 16 members of the group held a private ceremony in March to pay tribute to their relatives, according to Human Rights in China.
“My beloved children, how can your mothers endure this? How can our good children not get an explanation? Your mothers are suffering. It’s already been 30 years,” a sobbing Di Mengqi, mother of victim Wang Hongqi, says in one video.
The government remains silent. The crackdown is very seldom mentioned in the press, online, in books, textbooks or films, and in the rare exceptions it is described with a euphemism such as “the political turmoil of the year 1989”.
To talk about it privately with family and friends is possible, but any commemoration in public risks almost certain arrest.
“For us as for them.”