Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Massacre in Tiananmen Square

Honourable senators, this is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square. I’ll tell you a bit of a story of my being a witness to this tragedy.

With a clenched and raised fist, he seemed much older than the other faces in the crowd at a Beijing intersection but like the rest he was defiant.

On a hot, humid night darkness had come.

A short distance away gunfire could be heard from Tiananmen Square. With my camera crew, I watched as a small armoured personnel carrier made a quick turn and headed directly at the crowd. In my gut, I felt queasy; somehow I knew it wasn’t going to stop. People were chanting, “Long live democracy.”

Now, many were dead.

I looked down only to see the bloody remains of that older man. I had covered a number of foreign conflicts but I had never seen someone killed before. I wanted to be sick to my stomach.

In Tiananmen, the slaughter had begun.

A panicked couple approached me and in broken English pleaded, “Please tell the world what is happening.”

As we walked along Chang’an Avenue towards the square, there was chaos in front of the old Beijing hotel. The blood-soaked bodies of China’s youth were being rushed to hospital, some on makeshift trishaws. Others were being carried on people’s backs.

It was hard to believe that only a day earlier Beijing residents had actually confronted unarmed soldiers and urged them to go back to their barracks.

My mind was racing at the time: Was this the same city that felt, in the early days, like a liberated city? In May of 1989, a million strong had marched along Chang’an Avenue to the square. I think what’s been forgotten in this democracy movement is that at one point students were not alone.

Maybe they were never alone. Public servants, doctors, construction workers, religious groups, just ordinary people were on the street.

Inside the Great Hall of the People, as history has shown, another story was taking place. There were divisions in the Politburo. Despite the pleading from the Communist Party’s General Secretary Zhao Ziyang to be more flexible with the students’ demands, the party’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had made his decision.

The protests had gone on long enough. Martial law would be declared. A crackdown was imminent.

I am left with the images of not only one night in Tiananmen, but six weeks in a square where everything seemed possible. Sometimes I close my eyes and see the hopeful faces of tens of thousands of young people gathered in a Beijing spring.

When I think of those who died, it really hurts, and it hurts from a personal perspective. Imagine a Beijing mother who even today, 25 years later, is not allowed to go to the tomb of her son to publicly mourn the loss of her son.

History has been rewritten, or I think it might be better to say history has been wiped out.

A generation has grown up since 1989. For them Tiananmen never happened. In today’s official China, the students were just a small group of counter-revolutionaries. But today, I owe it to the families who lost their children to never forget.

We, as a society, owe it to the jailed dissidents in China who can never talk freely like this. Imagine today sitting in a prison cell for writing a manifesto that calls for freedom of expression, human rights and more democratic reforms. He is Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner. And on this anniversary he is not alone in prison.

Another Nobel winner, Elie Wiesel, put it this way in a speech he made in 1986, three years before Tiananmen:

I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.

If you are a witness to history you can never forget. You need to speak out loudly for those whose voices were crushed in Tiananmen Square.