Tiananmen Square: 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago - on the weekend of June 3 and 4 - thousands of Chinese students were crowded into Tiananmen Square in Beijing. They'd been holding pro-democracy protests for weeks. But the Chinese government was determined to end all that. CBS News correspondent Richard Roth, who was in the square with cameraman Derek Williams, remembers the scene that day in this reporter's notebook.


Some people said it was riveting television that weekend. I've always thought it was more like dramatic telephone.

Bob Schieffer was asking me to tell him what I saw.

"Bob, there are fires burning - blockades burning at two corners of the square," I told him.

We could get still pictures out, but not live video because Chinese authorities had pulled the plug on satellite transmissions.

"Soldiers moving into the square again from the south, a large column just becoming visible; this time they are moving exactly toward us. I'm going to move out of the way a bit," I reported.

Cell phone technology was in its infancy, or perhaps its adolescence. The things were so bulky and unreliable, I recall my bureau chief telling me when I went out to the square, "don't bother taking a cell phone; it won't work." I ignored him.

And so the phone was in my hand, and the CBS News control room in New York was recording the call when a squad of Chinese soldiers turned on us.

"They're going after Derek now, they're ripping away his camera," I relayed. "They're ripping away his camera and they're coming for us. We're trying to move back and move away. I'll go. I'll go."

In fact I wasn't being apocalyptic; I was being cooperative.

But listeners couldn't know that I'd dropped the phone when a soldier punched me. Or that the gunfire wasn't aimed at us. The troops were firing into the air to hold back a crowd of Chinese civilians rushing to help us.

We were captured and confined while the army took back Tiananmen - not by a massacre of the student protestors still inside the square, it turned out, but by a massive show of force that convinced the demonstrators to move out.

Twenty hours later, the army let us go. The protest had been brutally suppressed; its spirit had not.

(AP Photo/Jeff Widener)
Two days later the point was made when on a street called the Avenue of Eternal Peace, there was that famous scene of a man walking in front of a column of Chinese army tanks.

It was a scene as profoundly indelible today as it was then: a sad, very brave gesture.

And I remembered the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald: "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy."

  • Richard Roth

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