Eyewitness account of Tiananmen Square

Beijing Coma by Ma Jian

Beijing Coma by Ma Jian

Twenty years ago, 4 June 1989, a date written into history in blood, the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square and crushed the pro-democracy protesters. Although there has been some economic reform, nothing has really changed, political dissent is crushed.

Tibet is an open air prison, the country is raped and pillaged for its mineral wealth.


What then is the reaction of the West? A deafening silence. So long as China keeps the West supplied with cheap consumer goods the response will continue to be silence. Occasional a murmur is raised about China’s massive CO2 emissions, conveniently forgetting that China is one huge offshore manufacturing plant for the West.

Guildford Book Festival is a major event on the book and literary scene. Amnesty International always host an event as part of the book festival. This year they invited Ma Jian to talk about what he saw 20 years ago. The venue was St Nicolas Church Parish Room on the banks of the River Wey in Guildford.


Ma Jian was an eyewitness to the massacre and the blood that flowed in Tiananmen Square. He has woven his eyewitness account into a novel, Beijing Coma. Ten years in the writing, he was inspired to write this novel by what happened to his brother, injured in Tiananmen Square, turned into a vegetable.

In Beijing Coma we see what happened in Tiananmen Square through the eyes of a student. Shot in the back of the head, he lies in a coma. Through the thoughts that run through his head, we learn what happened on that fateful day, 4 June 1989.

Through his interpreter, Ma Jian emphasised again and again the importance of collective memory, that what happened in Tiananmen Square should not be lost or forgotten. Beijing Coma is his attempt to record those events less we forget.

Ma Jian had been at the Frankfurt Bookfair. Apart from his own book, not a single book on the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Chinese writers he spoke to were in a state of denial.

The dissent in China had been building up a couple of years before the Tiananmen Square massacre. He himself had been arrested. He had been released and told to quietly disappear.

Ma Jian has a friend in China from his student days, now a wealthy lawyer. Not once has his friend mentioned to his family what happened in Tiananmen Square.

Several days before, 5,000 students had been in the square. they knew nothing of democracy. They had gone to university libraries to read the US Constitution. Ma Jian corrected one misconception. It was not a student revolt. It was a people’s revolt. There were writers, there was even policemen joining in. When students marched into the square they were stopped by policemen. The policemen were unarmed, they were laughing, they let the students pass. It was a party atmosphere.

Soldiers he has spoken to said they all had their orders, where to be and when. Beijing was ringed by over a thousand tanks. The People’s Liberation Army rolled into the square, they opened fire with guns and tanks. People were crushed, had arms ripped off by passing tanks, those escaping down side alleys were running past dead bodies lying in the street. There were rumours of dead bodies piled up.

What then took place was mass brain washing. To keep their jobs, people were required to write an essay denouncing the demonstrators, praising the reaction of the government. No one dared discuss or raise what had taken place. Tiananmen Square has been wiped from the collective consciousness. The young are not even aware of what took place, and if it is raised with them the reaction is one of disbelief.

Ma Jian has been back to China. He is followed wherever he goes. He is not allowed to talk to dissidents.

Repression and persecution of dissidents is widespread. Tiananmen Square may not be mentioned, nor the date 4 June, which is tough luck on anyone on which that date is their birthday!

An editor in a provincial newspaper permitted a brief paragraph on Tiananmen Square, but only because she had not heard of it before and so did not know the significance. She was immediately fired as was the editor-in-chief. A TV channel streamed a channel from Hong Kong. They overlooked a 20 second mention of Tiananmen Square, for this oversight, senior management lost their jobs.

There was minor window dressing during the Olympic Games. Access to the BBC website was permitted. Once the Games were over and the western media went home, the shutters came back down and the websites were blocked. There are more policemen patrolling the Internet than patrolling the streets!

Ma Jian compared China with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. China has recently celebrated 50 years of Communist rule. The focus was on recent years, 30 years of rule under Chairman Mao is being wiped from the collective memory.

The situation is very similar to Iran, another totalitarian state. The young have no knowledge of what happened during the overthrow of the Shah. Attempts are being made to wipe from the collective memory the brutal killing of Neda, an innocent girl who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.


That is why it is so important to keep alive the memory of events like Tiananmen Square, if not we are less as human beings.

China is called upon to: recognise and acknowledge that the Tiananmen Square massacre took place, to release all political prisoners, allow public debate of this terrible event in Chinese history.

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5 Responses to “Eyewitness account of Tiananmen Square”

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  5. keithpp Says:

    Tiananmen Square 25th Anniversary

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