CHENGDU, China — While the world watched in horror as army troops and tanks brutally suppressed protesters around Beijing's Tian An Men Square on June 4, a similarly violent confrontation took place in this provincial capital, off camera and out of sight to all but a few Western observers.
The details may never be fully known, but what is certain is that thousands of Chengdu residents defied authorities by rushing to defend a student-led demonstration from an attack by police, and that some paid with their lives.
Eyewitnesses estimate that as many as 30 people were killed and 100 to 300 were injured when the police assaulted them with truncheons, bayonets and guns in an effort to secure the base of a huge statue of Chairman Mao Tse-tung in the city's center. Pro-democracy demonstrators had been camping out peacefully around the statue for several weeks in a scaled-down version of the Tian An Men protest.
In the ensuing battle, an unruly crowd, propelled by hoodlums and unemployed youths, set fire to a sprawling market and a movie theater, ransacked vendors' stalls and trashed two tourist hotels in nearly 48 hours of unrest.
Sign of Wide Opposition
Although the extent of the violence was overshadowed by the slaughter in Beijing, where hundreds and possibly thousands of protesters died, the incident in Chengdu was one confirmation that opposition to the hard-line regime of senior leader Deng Xiaoping was widespread and deeply rooted earlier this month.
Trouble also flared in other cities throughout China as the news of the Tian An Men massacre spread via long-distance telephone calls and the short-wave radio broadcasts of the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corp. Various incidents were reported in such urban centers as Shanghai, Xian, Lanzhou, Harbin and Nanjing. But Chengdu apparently saw the most intense conflict outside Beijing.
Ironically, Deng's birthplace is near here in the heart of Sichuan province, China's most populous, known in the West for its hot and spicy cuisine. Landing by airplane at Chengdu airport, about 1,000 miles southwest of Beijing, a visitor sees an expanse of lush green fields that attest to Sichuan's status as the country's prosperous grain belt.
Zhao Was Governor in 1970s
It was also here that disgraced Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang served as governor in the 1970s and introduced pioneering market-oriented reforms that allowed farmers to till their own land--and averted looming famine. The reforms here became a model for China's economic reform program. Zhao, however, is believed to have been purged in a power struggle with Deng and other hard-liners in the days before the bloody crackdown.
Now, Chengdu has more or less returned to normal, but signs of the devastation of nearly two weeks ago remain. Burned-out buildings and brick rubble are spread across the city block where the People's Market, a collection of more than a hundred stalls and shops, once stood. Across the street, the People's Movie Theater is a scorched shell. Chengdu's underground market, a converted bomb shelter housing private enterprise coffee shops and restaurants, is closed off. The silhouettes of big-character posters scraped and burned off the base of the towering Mao statue are still visible.
Truckloads of helmeted police toting rifles still patrol the city, sustaining an atmosphere of tension.
Yet all seems peaceful at Sichuan University, a key center of student activism. As has happened at universities in major cities, most students have gone home. The autonomous student union here has disbanded under pressure from authorities, and only graduating seniors remain on campus, along with a few stragglers from the junior classes. Student leaders are assumed to be in hiding.
"The unrest is basically in the past," said a sophomore majoring in chemistry who went home during the troubles, but returned to school the other day to complete some laboratory experiments.
The oversized bulletin board by the administration building has been scraped clean of pro-democracy posters and in their place is a stern warning from school officials telling students to avoid the area around the Mao statue and to keep outsiders off campus. As if to underscore that caution, authorities arrested two British television journalists as they were filming an interview on campus earlier this week, confiscating their passports, film and camera equipment.
The two, reporters Vernon Mann and cameramen John Elphinstone of Independent Television News, were ordered Friday to leave the country within 24 hours. Authorities accused them of violating martial-law regulations
The chemistry major said many students are perplexed over what happened downtown on June 4-5. They have been told by the official media that only two students were killed, but they are skeptical. Officials have said that about 300 police officers were injured in the earlier violence.