June 4, 2009 | Wall Street Journal

What I Saw at Tiananmen

It's now 20 years since I ran through a cross-fire of tracer bullets, heading into Beijing's Tiananmen Square in the early hours of June 4 to witness the end of the uprising in which millions of Chinese, in the spring of 1989, peacefully seized control of their own capital and demanded democracy.

In a long career as a reporter, which has included both tanks and gunfire elsewhere, there is no story I have covered that has been more haunting, inspiring and important than that Tiananmen uprising. And there is no story that, in its plotline, has been more heartbreaking.

Tiananmen was — and is — important because that spring of 1989 was the only time in the despotic, 60-year history of the People's Republic of China that the people themselves enjoyed the chance to speak, debate and assemble freely. What they did with that freedom, by the millions, was call peacefully for China's government to institutionalize those rights. They called for democracy and marched under banners bearing exactly that word. They asked for the right to choose their leaders and hold them to account.

When China's Premier Li Peng declared martial law on May 19, just over two weeks before the actual crackdown, the people of Beijing set up bus and truck barricades and camped out in the streets to block any army advance. More whimsically, they created obstacle courses of noodle carts and potted plants. They were looking not for violence but for liberty. In the words of one white-collar worker, typical of many who helped man the barricades, “I think the most important thing for China is democracy and freedom.”

And when China's rulers finally ordered the army to open fire and move in, these protesters tried desperately to hold their ground. Behind me as I ran into Tiananmen Square in those early hours of June 4 was a huge crowd — ordinary citizens, not students — who had poured into the streets, trying to stop the soldiers from reaching Tiananmen.

On one of the broad avenues leading into the square I had watched that crowd mount a last-ditch defense — torching barricades, clutching bricks and bottles, facing into the gunfire. How many died on that road alone we still don't know.

In Tiananmen Square itself, during the final hours of that showdown, I watched more than 10,000 armed Chinese troops, some backed by armored personnel carriers, take up positions along three sides of the vast square. Lining up, row upon row, they sealed off all but the south end, sniping at intervals into the square.

Leaders of the demonstrations had weeks earlier adopted as their command post in Tiananmen an open edifice near the south end of the square — the Monument to the People's Heroes. It was on and around this monument, with its big platform and long shallow steps, that thousands of diehard protesters gathered, banners held high in the night breeze, to face the encircling army. When I pulled out a camera some smiled and held up their fingers to flash one of the tokens of the Tiananmen protests: V for victory.

At the north end of the square, still standing as the troops formed up, was the tall, white Chinese statue of liberty built by the demonstrators five nights earlier. She was holding her torch in both hands and facing the huge portrait of Mao Zedong that hangs over the entrance to China's old imperial Forbidden City.

Near that statue, which China's rulers had labeled “an abomination,” I watched a handful of young doctors working out of a makeshift medical tent — themselves in the line of fire — trying desperately, in blood-stained smocks, to treat demonstrators hit by bullets. During a half hour there, I saw seven wounded rushed in. Then I moved away, fearing it was too dangerous. Before I left, I asked one of the doctors if he had expected the army would open fire. He answered, “Of course.”

From loudspeakers which the protesters had mounted on the monument, I listened to the Internationale, the stirring communist anthem that the demonstrators had appropriated as their own. From huge government loudspeakers mounted in the square came the official reply, “If you do not leave, we cannot guarantee your safety,” followed by the warning the army had been ordered to clear the square by daybreak.

At 4:00 a.m. the streetlamps went out. In the dark, armored personnel carriers rolled forward into the square. The protesters on the monument held their ground. Just before 5:00 a.m. the lights came back on, revealing the soldiers, guns at the ready, preparing to rush the monument. With that, the protesters began filing off the monument and out the south end of the square. By dawn, the army had sealed off Tiananmen and the streets around it.

Tank reinforcements were rolling into the center of Beijing. The Communist Party's mopping up of the protest movement began in earnest, marked by checkpoints, arrests and gunfire echoing here and there for days around the capital. There was also a crackdown across all of China.

At the time, I was working for the editorial pages of this newspaper. In the story I filed later that day to New York, I closed with the observation that by dawn on June 4 the Chinese army had already destroyed the white statue of liberty built by the protesters and that no doubt the square, tidied and thoroughly policed, would soon be available again for official functions. I noted that it would be important to remember the heroes of 1989, the people who carried banners to Tiananmen demanding democracy, the people who that spring cried out so many times: “Tell the world what we want. Tell the truth about China.”

Since the Tiananmen uprising of 1989, China's rulers have loosened the economic strictures enough to allow remarkable growth — testament to the vibrancy of the Chinese people given even half a chance. Out of this, China's rulers have devoted enormous resources to projects meant to suggest they run a modern nation — sending astronauts into space, convening conferences on the climate, and hosting the 2008 Olympics.

Count me unimpressed. The real sign of modernity will come when China opens up its political system enough so that the country's leaders no longer fear June 4 but treat the Tiananmen uprising with the honor it deserves.

During the protests, on one of those warm spring evenings just before the crackdown, I was wandering around Tiananmen, notebook in hand, and came across a young man sitting in a beach chair on the monument where the demonstrators were soon to make their last stand. He had a question about what happens when you get your dream of democracy: What then? As he put it: “I know what China is dreaming. What is America dreaming?”

The answer of free societies, the old American dream, is that you may choose for yourself. Freedom, in the framework of a true democracy, allows individuals to weigh their own talents, skills and ambitions, choose their own trade-offs, and chart their own dreams. That gives rise to innovation, exuberance and prosperity of a kind that no government can plan or centrally command into existence.

China today supplies the world with a wealth of such stuff as gym shoes, extremely young gymnasts, loans to the U.S. Treasury, aid to North Korea, and investments in Iran and Sudan. But riches of the spirit are in short supply. On that front, the scene is pretty well summed up by last summer's kitsch slogan of the Beijing Olympics, “One World, One Dream” — featured, among other places, on a giant billboard in Tiananmen, surrounded by security agents, surveillance cameras, fencing and checkpoints.

Ms. Rosett heads the Investigative Reporting Project at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.com.