‘I Still Have Flashbacks to That Night’
Zhang Shijun is a former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldier who was sent into Beijing in 1989 at the start of martial law after several weeks of student-led protests on Tiananmen Square. Diplomatic archives recently declassified by the U.K. government said the troops of the PLA’s 27th army were ordered to “spare no-one” as they used dum-dum bullets, automatic weapons, and armored vehicles to carry out mass killings in Beijing. Zhang, a former propaganda secretary for the PLA’s 54th army, personally witnessed horrific scenes on the city’s streets. He left the army soon after, and has been detained for speaking out about the incident. He spoke to RFA’s Mandarin Service on the 29th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 massacre:
How did the Chinese government come to deploy 300,000 active service troops to enforce martial law in Beijing in the summer of 1989?
Back in 1989, when the students started pouring out of university campuses and onto the streets, heading for Tiananmen Square, there was plenty of information about what was happening in army newspapers, on television, and so on. More of the troops across the country were sympathetic to the students, and even hoped that they would work even harder to bring about a faster pace of change in China. But that situation was to change very quickly indeed.
What happened to change things in the army?
The highest-ranking officers within the army groups were suddenly replaced. The signal that was sent out was very clear. These group-level commanders are the way in which real control is exerted over the rank and file. So something changed in the atmosphere at that time. The military started to engage in political study sessions and mobilizations. Back then, the change of atmosphere in 486 Regiment of the 162nd division of the 54th army, where I served, was obvious by the time it entered Beijing to uphold martial law.
From May 20, 1989 onwards, the troops entering Beijing were obstructed by the civilian population. Can you explain what happened?
We received orders before 8.00 a.m. on May 20, 1989 that we were to proceed into the capital to implement martial law. But when we left the gates of the barracks that afternoon, we were stopped by residents of Anyang city [in neighboring Hebei province], probably a few thousand of them. There were men and women, there, young and old. They were blocking the gate of the army compound, and preventing us from leaving. They didn’t want the army to go into Beijing and suppress the students, nor to carry out its mission to implement martial law.
But eventually, they managed to break the blockade and proceed to Beijing?
We entered Beijing city limits by the early hours of the next morning, before dawn. We made a temporary halt to the south of Beijing Nanyuan Airport, in Fengtai district, at the border between Daxing county and Beijing municipality. At about 2.00 p.m. on June 3, we received our orders. We had already been issued with steel helmets. We were to proceed towards Tiananmen Square, where we were to arrive in the middle of the night, that’s to say, in the early hours of June 4.
But the blockades remained on all major routes into the city, didn’t they?
The army planned to approach Tiananmen Square from the south, proceeding up Nanyuan Road. But when we got to Majiabao [in Fengtai district], our route was blocked by the local population. The troops were forced to abandon their vehicles and retreat. We tried several times to storm the blockades, but we failed to do so.
So why did they then decide to use military force?
That evening, we were on a strip of wasteland by the riverside, when a military helicopter flew past and airdropped a large supply of ammunition. The troops loaded up with the ammunition, and we started our advance into Beijing. It’s hard to say what our exact route was … but we basically followed any route we could. We dodged down alleyways and through people’s courtyards, along major streets, and down smaller backstreets, any way we could to keep advancing.
What time did you arrive at Tiananmen Square?
At about 10.00 p.m. on June 3. I could hear gunfire coming from an area to the northwest of us. During our advance, we had also been under fire from the tops of tall buildings; somebody suddenly fired on the army. It was very strange that the bullets all struck the ground close to where I was standing, but they didn’t injure any of us. But there were consequences to that attack: our unit instinctively fired back at the top of that tall building.
How do you feel, looking back on the bloodshed?
Twenty-nine years ago, I was a soldier of the 162nd division of the 54th army ordered to enter Beijing to impose martial law. I still have flashbacks of that night that play out before my eyes. I would like to think that the blood of those young people wasn’t shed in vain. All these years, we have hoped that our country would develop in a more liberal, democratic direction, towards constitutional government, but we have been disappointed.
(Reported by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie. This interview appeared in a RFA.)
(Former PLA soldier Zhang Shijun is shown at Tiananmen Square in an undated photo. Photo sent by an RFA listener)
Published Date: Tuesday, June 5th, 2018 | 08:32 PM