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Former PLA lieutenant recalls Tiananmen Square Incident

ROC Central News Agency

2019/05/30 22:18:28

Taipei, May 30 (CNA) Thirty years ago during the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, Li Xiaoming (李曉明) was a 25-year-old lieutenant in the People's Liberation Army's 116th Infantry Division.

Today he is a democracy activist living in Australia who feels compelled to make sure that people do not forget what happened during that time.

"As a soldier, I was chosen by history and have to tell the truth," said Li, whose division refused to follow orders to crack down on Tiananmen Square protesters, on the eve of the incident's 30th anniversary.

Posted in the northeastern province of Liaoning, Li's division was deployed to the outskirts of Beijing in late May 1989. After standing by for a few days, it was then ordered to "arrive at Tiananmen Square on time at all costs" on June 3.

When Li's division started its approach on Beijing, however, its way was blocked by a protesting crowd.

"The crowd urged us not to open fire on protesters because we are the soldiers of the people," recalled Li, who was in charge of a radar station in the division's antiaircraft artillery regiment.

The commander and other high-ranking officers in Li's division stopped the division's advance and decided to enter the city in plain clothes to find out what was really happening. They then ordered the division to remain on the city's outskirts June 3-4.

That was when the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters and others in the area took place.

"I think the commander struggled with his guilty conscience and sympathized with the students," Li said. "That's why he ordered us to stand by and claim he did not receive any orders from his superiors."

Thanks to the commander's disobedience, Li did not fire a single shot that would have made him a perpetrator in the incident, allowing him to keep his conscience clear.

When a superior official from another army group arrived and forced Li's division to enter Beijing on June 5, the young lieutenant realized what the PLA had done to its people.

Though there were no bodies to be found in Tiananmen Square, Li said he discovered a pair of pants with bullet holes and clothes with blood stains in the garbage-filled square.

He also noticed marks from tank tracks on the Monument to the People's Heroes in the center of the square.

In the following days, Li said his unit was ordered to arrest rebels in the city, and while it did not find any, it still lost a soldier due to accidental gunfire.

The unit falsely reported that the deceased soldier fell victim to mob violence, giving the army another excuse to justify the crackdown by granting that soldier the honorary title of "martyr," Li said.

Even one month after the incident, the crackdown order remained in effect, Li said.

"The command worried that protesting crowds would gather again and said all necessary measures could be taken if soldiers felt they were under threat," Li said. "Everyone knew this so-called self-defense excuse meant permission to openly fire and kill people."

Similar in age to many of the Tiananmen Square protesters, Li was nicknamed a "student-officer" in the PLA because he enlisted after graduating from college.

"I have mixed feelings about the incident," Li said. "I was also a student and sympathized with the protesters."

"If I had been in Beijing at that time, I would have gone to Tiananmen Square and joined the protest, and probably gotten killed," the former student-officer said.

"But at the same time, I felt guilty as a soldier even though I didn't fire a shot or kill anyone," the lieutenant said. "How is it possible that the PLA, the army of the people, opened fire on its own people?

"I have my duty as a soldier to tell the truth and let more people know about this," Li said. "History chose me to do this."

Following his discharge from the PLA, Li went to study in Australia and he and his family settled there in 2002.

That year, Li went to the U.S. and for the first time spoke about his experience at a press conference in New York.

Now serving as secretary-general of the Australia-based Chinese Overseas Union for Democracy Movement, Li promotes China's democracy movement and shares his story around the world.

On the eve of the incident's 30th anniversary, Li came to Taiwan to attend several conferences on the Tiananmen Square Incident and visited a giant public artwork commemorating the era on May 21.

The inflatable included two pieces, a green tank and a man, symbolizing the iconic tank man who stood in front of a convoy of tanks during the 1989 crackdown.

Li said he hoped his testimony warning Taiwan and the world would be heard.

"Let's hope the fake balloon tank will never become a real one," Li said.

(By Lawrence Chiu and Chi Jo-yao)

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