Lessons Of Tiananmen Square

tiananmen square Rather reporters notebook

As Dan Rather prepares to end his 24-year tenure as anchor of CBS Evening News, he looks back at some of the stories he reported through the years.

There is one story as old as man: the quest for freedom.

Over the past four decades, we have witnessed the Cold War victory
over soviet communism, and the crushing of China's pro-democracy movement by the hardline communist government.

In 1989, CBS News anchor Dan Rather was there when the Tiananmen Square story began.

It started with such euphoria: tens of thousands of Chinese students taking over Beijing's massive Tiananmen Square, protesting their government and their party.

"Join us, join us,'' they chanted.

Said one student interviewed by Dan Rather: "We protest our government and our party."

Rather: "And specifically, what is it about your govt and your party that you want to change?

Student: "Corruption and conspiracy, I think."

Rather: "Corruption?"

Student: "Yeah. And we, ah, ah, call for freedom and democracy."

Rather reported how that afternoon, the students began singing "The Internationale."

The crowd pushed right up to the very seat of communist power. They were fearless.

"We are students who do not have any arms or any weapons in our hands, and we don't think the government will do anything against us," a protester told Rather. "They cannot, by no means ... drive us out of the square."

They had unsustainable zeal. When their demands were ignored, the protesters launched a hunger strike.

One of those hunger strikers, protest leader Li Lu, is now the owner of a small financial firm in New York City.

His seven-day hunger strike, he recalls, "was emotionally charged and physically taxing. It was terrible."

But it was also effective. Truckloads of protesters streamed into Beijing. Working men and women joined the students in the square. Unrest spread to other Chinese cities. The student demonstration was now a mass movement.

Lu says he was prepared to die.

"You have to understand - for 40 years - that the people never had a chance … to voice their yearning for freedom," says Lu.

Just outside the city, hundreds of thousands of people stopped advancing troops. Remarkably, they offered them tea, flowers and handshakes, day after day. The soldiers caved in and refused to attack the square.

As world of potential civil war spread, the government cut CBS News' live feed from Tiananmen Square.

They came after our last live link to the outside world. We stonewalled but lost, and so did the students, Rather recalls.

The assault started at 9 p.m. on June 3, 1989.

Asked what was going through his mind, Lu says: "Disbelief, anger, but also a resolution in a sense that we have done everything we could possibly do to advance our causes."

China observers believe new troops from distant provinces did the shooting.

"I saw the bodies of people who were killed," says Lu.

People were mowed down for hours all across Beijing as they tried to stop the army from reaching the square. He says the number of those killed should be in the thousands, not in the hundreds.

The sacrifices made at Tiananmen Square helped dismantle communism, outside China.

Soon after, people began to demonstrate on the streets of eastern European countries. Only six months later the Berlin Wall fell down, and 12 months later, the Soviet Union was gone.

And what goes through Lu's mind when he sees the remarkable photograph of one man standing in front of a military tank?

"He represents to me and to countless millions of Chinese the fighting spirit of all men against tyranny," Lu says.