Even thinking about, let alone going to, Tiananmen Square in central Beijing fills the nostrils of Chinese-Australian artist Guo Jian with the smell of blood and dead bodies. It’s the smell, he says, of meat.
At one stage of that terrible night 30 years ago, Guo Jian, a final year art student at the Minorities Institute (now the Minorities University), took refuge with his classmates in a hospital just off the square. “There were bodies everywhere, piled up,” he tells Crikey. “Doctors and nurses were crying, no one had any understanding of what was happening. The blood was so thick on the floor I was slipping over.”
The events of 1989 have had a lasting impact on Guo’s artistic work. In a controversial 2014 installation, he made a replica of the square out of pork mince; a representation of the sights and smells of Tiananmen. Of course, this was always a risky work in a country where the events of 1989 do not officially exist. Guo was detained in 2014, from May 31 until June 16 when he was deported to Australia.
It’s hard to overplay the significance that Tiananmen Square holds in modern China. It was here that Mao Zedong stood in 1949 to announce the founding of the People’s Republic of China following triumph in the civil war with Chiang Kai-shek’s rival Nationalists.
The square is bordered to its north by the ancient Forbidden City, home to China’s emperors until the Qing dynasty came crashing down in 1911. To its west is the party’s austere Stalinist meeting place, the Great Hall of the People. The south of the square houses one of the remaining four magnificent ancient city gates; a rare remnant of Beijing’s once mighty city wall. Today, in the middle of the square is perched the squat and unremarkable tomb of Mao himself — still lying in state.
But outside China, Tiananmen Square is best known for the terrible, bloody events that began in the final hours of June 3, 1989.
There had been protests two years earlier, Guo Jian says; students from Beida (Peking University) and Renda (People’s University) in the west of the city. “The students were marching past so they locked the a gate of our institute and wouldn’t let us out. To be honest, I didn’t really know what it was all about at that stage,” Guo says.
“On April 17, students started marching again after the death of [reformist secretary general] Hu Yaobang [who had been sacked by Deng Xiaoping and other elders in 1987] two days earlier. The gates were locked again so we jumped on the wall. I decided to jump down into the crowd. I was really, really scared. [There were] so many police in uniforms and no uniforms watching the students who were fearless; you got that courage. They were chanting the slogans, I started joining them every time they organised.”
Caught up in the moment, Guo was in one of the first groups to sign up for the hunger strikes that would take place during the protests. It began on May 13, to draw attention to the protest from the outside world, and lasted for seven and a half days.
Martial law was declared on May 20, but the protests continued. And at about 11pm on June 3, with no warning, “we started hearing the gunshots”.
“Everyone thought they were fireworks,” Guo says. “Some people said they had started shooting, so a friend and I decided to ride our bicycles toward the west, to Chang’an Avenue.” Unbeknownst to Guo, tanks and troops were advancing down Beijing’s main boulevard and were almost upon the square.
“People were running towards us, most of them crying and shouting, then we saw some with trishaws carrying bodies. We figured there may have been accidents or soldiers were using rubber bullets. Then one guy who was bleeding put a bullet in my hand. I knew it was real, but still it didn’t seem real.
“It was dark but you saw the bullets flying over your head, some hitting the ground and sending off sparks … My friend grabbed me and we ran into a back alley. We did not know where to go. Soldiers we literally chasing us and shooting at us.
“People in the buildings in the alley were throwing bottles, a soldier threw in some tear gas. I thought I was going to die, but a gust of wind came and blew it back onto the the soldier.”
“Close to the end of the alleyway, we saw the hospital. The doctors and nurses were all crying, and the doctors led us to the emergency room. There were bodies piled up; the smell of blood almost made us throw up.”
A group of five decided to go and collect more injured people, Guo says. “One guy got a white handkerchief and tied it to the end of a stick, he waved it and they stopped shooting. We found a guy who had been shot and brought him back to the hospital. After that success, we went back again and found someone shot in the stomach. As we were bringing him back, they shot the guy with the flag in the back of the head.
“That was the end of it for me. I was really terrified. I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t talk. We watched for a few hours as soldiers passed by… I eventually found my bike and got back to the institute about four or five in the morning. There was still shooting around the city.”
The official death toll from June 4 1989 remains at 241, including 36 students, with many thousands injured. But various other credible estimates from Western embassies, local hospitals at the time, the Chinese Red Cross and Amnesty International believe up to 1000 people were killed and as many as 6000 injured.
In the following days soldiers would come daily to Guo’s institute and other universities, arresting students and taking them away. They all had to write “self-criticisms” explaining what they had been been doing and where they had been.
Guo was one of the lucky ones. Thousands of students were thrown in jail. Many fled south, hoping to get to Hong Kong, but Guo left his run too late and soon decamped to an Australian friend’s apartment where about 30 people were holed up for several weeks.
The Australian embassy did its best to get some students out, but Guo wasn’t one of the fortunate ones; he would have to wait three years before he would get to Australia to study further in 1992.
Six days after the massacre, a tearful Australian prime minister Bob Hawke made the unilateral decision to allow all Chinese students in Australia at the time to stay. A further wave came in the weeks and months afterwards and all were allowed to stay (an estimated 42,000 in total). In 1993 Paul Keating, by then PM, converted all the Chinese visas — including Guo’s to permanent residency.
Guo returned to China in 1995 for a year to live in Beijing’s first artists’ village, returning to Australia when it was demolished. He made another short trip in 2000, and in 2005 returned for nine years and became a leader in the city’s burgeoning art scene.
But by 2010 artists were once again being harassed by authorities. China’s most famous artist, Ai Weiwei, was arrested on trumped-up tax charges. He was later released, but his studio was demolished by the government.
From 2012, when Xi Jinping assumed power, authorities began cracking down even harder on dissidents and critics. Lawyers were jailed and religious persecution increased; a program of cultural genocide was commenced in the western province of Xinjiang against Muslim Uighurs.
Australians will get a chance to see Guo’s Tiananmen artwork soon; he is recreating it for an exhibition this coming September. In the meantime, we’re seeing a new boldness from Beijing. Last weekend, Chinese military attended the Asia-Pacific’s main annual defence summit in Singapore for the first time in eight years, and Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe actually answered a question on the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
“Everybody is concerned about Tiananmen after 30 years,” Wei said. “Throughout the 30 years, China under the Communist Party has undergone many changes — do you think the government was wrong with the handling of June 4? There was a conclusion to that incident. The government was decisive in stopping the turbulence.”
The Tiananmen protests, he added, were “political turmoil that the central government needed to quell, which was the correct policy”.
Michael Sainsbury is the former China correspondent for The Australian (2009-2012) and a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.