‘I’ll always be haunted by tanks flattening brave heroes at Tiananmen Square’

The tiny figure stood motionless, clutching his shopping bags and refusing to flinch in the face of the juddering tanks bearing down on him.

This iconic photo of Tank Man, the mysterious protester whose identity has never been discovered, has come to symbolise the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing that shocked the world 30 years ago this week.

But for Dr Shao Jiang, who was there and survived, that extraordinary hero was far from a lone figure.

Shao, 52, witnessed scores more brave campaigners, many of them young students, face down the tanks sent in by the communist government to quash the crowds of thousands who had spent 50 days making peaceful calls for democracy.

Some even sat frozen on their bicycles in the slim hope the flimsy metal might help deter the mighty machines.

But while the tanks did momentarily stop for Tank Man, for countless others they did not. Shao’s dreams are still haunted by his vivid recollections of bodies rolled utterly flat by the tanks. “All the people on the street were Tank Men that night,” he says.

“The shooting was going on and people were still running to try and block the tanks, which were travelling at high speed, some positioning buses in the road. But the tanks crushed the buses and people, they didn’t care. People’s bodies were merged, moulded to their bicycles. They were flat.”

The Chinese regime has never released an official death figure but estimates run as high as 10,000.

So cloaked in secrecy is Tiananmen that even today, there has been no accountability and even public commemoration is banned. It is disturbing confirmation that any hint of dissent in the world’s second largest economy will not be tolerated.

This is a land where activists are reportedly “disappeared” and state surveillance is suffocating – stoking fears that allowing Chinese tech giant Huawei to build our 5G infrastructure would leave us vulnerable to spying, although the company denies this.

His voice dropping, Shao adds: “I had nightmares afterwards and I still have them sometimes. I wake up and relive what happened. I see the people crushed by tanks, crushed into their bicycles, people who just became flat.”

Shao, an academic, lives in London after escaping China via Hong Kong and Sweden because of his part in the protests. The former politics student drafted seven key demands for the rebels to present to the government, including freedom of speech.

After the massacre, he was jailed for 18 months and tortured, then later re-arrested and jailed again.

It would be unsafe for him to return to his homeland, where President Xi Jinping’s communist regime has an appalling record on human rights abuse.

Anyone who calls for democracy there risks their freedom and their life.

And anyone who was involved in the Tiananmen protests is even more closely monitored and fiercely targeted.

The National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders believes there are currently 17 Tiananmen participants in jail for activism, another in pre-trial detention and two on suspended sentences. Five have recently been released from prison.

“Punishments for former 1989 participants are often harsher than for other prisoners,” said a spokesman.

Shao’s parents remain in China and all of his calls to them are monitored.

“My parents’ phone is tapped. Sometimes my call is cut,” he says. “I worry about them. No one is safe in China. But if you worry too much, the government’s strategy is very effective.”

During President Xi’s controversial state visit here in 2015, Shao protested by holding banners in front of his motorcade. He was held but charges were dropped. He was already being watched and recalls: “I was followed, even two days before the visit.”

Shao’s parents will have had to mark the anniversary of Tiananmen behind closed doors. The regime has worked very hard to eradicate the national memory of the atrocity.

“Most young people don’t know. The government think the young people will make trouble,” explains Shao.

“The older generation don’t want to talk about it. They are frightened.”

It was the death of former Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989, which sparked the pro-democracy protests. He had worked for reform and his loss prompted thousands to march. On May 13, more than 100 students began a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square. A later rally drew 1.2 million, prompting martial law.

By June 3, the military were on the streets, killing demonstrators. At 1am on June 4, they reached Tiananmen –which translates as “gate of heavenly peace”. The irony is acute.

Two years ago, a formerly classified British diplomatic cable was released, alleging at least 10,000 died. It also gave horrific detail, stating wounded female students were bayoneted and human remains were “hosed down drains”.

Shao was not initially in the square but on West Chang’an Street, leading to it. When he saw the bloodshed, he went to warn protesters.

“People were dying around me,” he says. “When they shot, I lay on the pavement to avoid the bullets. There was blood down the street, running like water. Streams of blood. People were piling the bodies on tricycles to take them to hospital. These were innocent people with no weapons.”

He made it to the square in the early hours and remained there until 7am.

The army struck a deal that people could leave peacefully before 6am – but they broke it. Shao recalls: “The soldiers came and beat the people, the tanks came around 4.30am. There was around 100 tanks in the square.”

In prison, Shao was tortured with bright lights in his eyes, leaving him partially sighted. “Others were tortured to death,” he says. He was released after 18 months but later re-arrested for challenging the government.

“This time they put 140 people in one cell, 80 metres square. It was very bad, only a little water and 40 degrees. Some people lost consciousness. I was in there for 47 days. I lost 15kg.”

When Shao sees the Chinese government’s ever-strengthening grip on the people, all of the suffering he and other protesters went through seems painfully in vain. He stresses that the international community must be vigilant.

Shao also simply laughs when I ask him if allegations that Huawei could use the opportunity of a contract here to covertly collect data for the communist regime could prove true.

He sighs, also helplessly: “Definitely.”

  • Find out more at amnesty.org.uk

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