BEIJING — "We will stay here and resist with all our strength." --Student in Tian An Men Square
It began with a farce, a military expedition that seemed so hapless it made both the pro-democracy protesters and onlookers giddy with disbelief.
The night of Friday, June 2, was cool and pleasant, the sort of gentle June evening that draws residents of Beijing out of their cramped apartments. In other years, under other circumstances, lovers would have flocked to the parks and hidden in bushes to try to stay the night after the gates closed.
But on this evening, tens of thousands of Beijing residents were already in the streets.
Tensions had been rising in Beijing for three days. On the city's outskirts, the regime had begun to sponsor its own counterdemonstrations, although the participants appeared bored and listless even on government-controlled television. Some of the demonstrators freely admitted to foreign correspondents that they had been paid to attend.
Still, as a clue to the thinking of the leadership, the demonstrations had a distinctly ominous tone. At one, about 10,000 peasants watched in a sports stadium as three men dressed up as Uncle Sam, with oversized noses and top hats with stars and stripes, sent pieces of white paper labeled "American dollars" to a black heart labeled "Fang Lizhi."
It was a blatant form of scapegoating. Fang had purposely kept his distance from the pro-democracy demonstrators. He had not been near Tian An Men Square throughout the weeks of turbulence.
During the same days, huge red pro-government banners were unfurled over the downtown hotels where foreigners stay. "Oppose bourgeois liberalization with a clear-cut stand!" said a banner over the Beijing Hotel. "Maintain unity and stability!" said another hanging over the front of Kentucky Fried Chicken and extending down the nose of a picture of Colonel Sanders.
The protesters were active as well. The crowds at Tian An Men Square swelled again Friday night after having dwindled to well below 10,000 in the middle of the week. A popular singer named Hou Dejian, who had moved from Taiwan to China a few years earlier, announced that he would start a new hunger strike.
A traffic accident early in the night brought more people onto the streets. On the western side of the city, a police jeep struck four bicyclists, killing three of them and injuring the other. Word of the incident spread through the streets; the students' version was that a police officer heading for Tian An Men Square had run over and killed four students.
Shortly after midnight, the troops began to advance.
Columns of People's Liberation Army soldiers began marching toward the center of Beijing from the east, the west and the north. It was the military move everyone had been fearing for more than two weeks, an advance by troops toward Tian An Men Square.
From the east, the main contingent of about 5,000 soldiers marched down Changan Avenue. The troops came from the PLA's 24th Army, based in the old imperial summer retreat of Chengde, about 120 miles northeast of Beijing, foreign military attaches later said. The troops were young, inexperienced and unarmed. They wore plain white shirts over khaki pants.
From the west, another, smaller contingent moved toward Tian An Men Square in an army truck and several buses. While most of these troops, too, were unarmed, Beijing residents found AK-47 automatic rifles and clubs inside some of the vehicles. On this evening, however, the troops apparently were under orders not to use their weapons.
And from the north, a still smaller contingent, apparently unarmed, advanced toward the square.
Beijing residents were suddenly aroused from their homes as if by a citywide alarm clock. Motorcyclists, modern-day Chinese versions of Paul Revere, carried the word from neighborhood to neighborhood: "Troops! Troops!"
Along Changan Avenue, young bicyclists pedaled quickly toward Tian An Men Square. Older men and women stood along the avenue, all of them gazing toward the square, seeing little, wondering what was going to happen.
Before long, each of the columns of troops was pinned down, blocked by residents and by the new barricades of trucks they hastily threw across the streets. On the west side of the city, citizens surrounded the army truck and buses and slashed the tires. At one location, Liubukou, a crowd seized some guns and ammunition out of a military vehicle.
"People, rise up!" shouted a young man to the crowd as he stood on top of one of the troop buses.
At Tian An Men Square, a voice over the student loudspeaker blared: "We will stay here and resist with all our strength! We will struggle for democracy and freedom!"
At about 3 a.m., the column from the east stalled in front of the Beijing Hotel, a few hundred yards from the square. The street itself was barricaded by trucks, and a crowd of about 8,000 Beijing residents confronted the troops. Some of the protesters began shoving the front lines of the soldiers.