‘People’s Power’ army turn back a false dawn for Tiananmen hopes

They were images that would have frozen the blood of China’s hardliners.

A 10,000-strong contingent of the People’s Liberation Army humiliated – by the people.

The fate of the Tiananmen Square protest was sealed in a sea of ‘victory’ signs overnight of June 2-3 in 1989 – caught in my small camera snapshots (photos above) of the so-called People’s Power turnback and the footage of our ABC cameraman Sebastian Phua.

The soldiers were brought to Beijing from the distant Sichaun province in China’s southwest and forced to march for hours to the city’s outskirts. They were unarmed. Their goal was to take Tiananmen Square.

We’d raced out into the night and the commotion. Large chanting crowds had blocked the troops just short of the square. There was no violence. The dishevelled young soldiers – many with sweaty tunics, caps  and even boots discarded – looked busted, bewildered and beaten.

Some were carrying their comrades too foot sore to continue on their own.

Protestors were clapping the retreating troops and calling out : “Long live the People’s Liberation Army” . “The people are the same as you” . “You have been used; you are innocent”.

Sebastian had a small footstool and climbed up to get some of the most memorable scenes recorded that night. It was an intoxicating atmosphere and all of a sudden it got even more heady as the people started singing The Internationale. Some might find this odd given that it’s the socialist anthem and was the de facto China communist party song. Democracy was the demand. But the core message of enslaved masses making a stand was a good fit, they explained.

Sebastian panned across the line of young, glistening faces as they sang the chorus. I’ll never forget that scene. It gives me chills every time I play it back, even now. If anything sums up the idealism that would be shattered within 24 hours , that piece of vision does.

Another image from the night that resonates so sadly: A protestor triumphantly holding up his trophies for the night – a pair of soldier’s boots and an army cap. 

Terror, not trophies, lay ahead.

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