Tiananmen Square, 30 years later

Sunday Journal: Tiananmen Square, 30 years later

The enduring image of a lone man confronting Chinese tanks has come to stand for the bloody showdown between thousands of protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, and hardliners in the Communist Party who ordered in the army.

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A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square, June 1989. The Chinese government crushed a student-led demonstration for democratic reform and against government corruption, killing hundreds, or perhaps thousands of demonstrators. AP Photo/Jeff Widener

On June 4, 1989, soldiers surrounding the square started shooting.

Wuerkaixi, one of the student leaders, managed to escape. Thirty years later, banned from China and living in exile, he's still haunted.

"I am a survivor of a massacre," he said. "We just thought they were going to send in a group of police with their, you know, batons."

In fact, they sent in troops and tanks. Hundreds – maybe thousands – died.

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Chinese army tanks break up the protests. CBS News

Posing as tourists, correspondent Elizabeth Palmer and her crew visited Tiananmen Square, still such a sensitive location that visitors have to show ID just to get in.

There is nothing in this vast square to remind anybody of the events of 30 years ago – not a statue, not a monument, not even a tiny plaque. The events of June 4, 1989 have been erased from Chinese history.

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Correspondent Liz Palmer in Tiananmen Square today. CBS News

When Palmer showed some of the Tiananmen photos to random young Chinese passers-by, they did not recognize what country they were taken in.

"Do you recognize this picture," Palmer asked one man, shown a photo of the single man's standoff against a cordon of tanks. 

"No," he replied.

Minutes later, the police showed up, then detained and held the CBS News crew for six hours.

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Correspondent Liz Palmer shows a Chinese woman a photo of the 1989 Tiananmen Square, attracting the attention of police.  CBS News

Even 30 years on, Tiananmen set a dangerous precedent, that "People stood up and challenged the government [for the first time] in the history of the People's Republic of China," said Wuerkaixi.

But they lost.

In the end, the Communist Party didn't give an inch on democratic reforms.

To Wuerkaixi, the young hunger-striker who risked his life on Tiananmen Square, it hurts.

Palmer asked, "Are you a heartbroken man?"

"Yes, yes," he replied. "I have to live with the guilt."

"I suppose there are two ways to see it: You were part of a great and noble cause; you were also part of a great and noble failure," said Palmer.

"The noble part, I take a great pride," he said. "And the failure, that's something the whole country paid a great price for."

       
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Story produced by Chris Laible and Agnes Reau.