TENS OF THOUSANDS took to the streets. They scattered to the city's every corner, blocking military vehicles, keeping them from breaching the city center. Beijing was at war but, under that tragic dome, there still were small incidents that kept you from fully abandoning worldly calculation.
One crisp morning, a student approached me asking for a donation. I happily gave all I had on me. Feeling I had done my part, I continued on, and found two more doing the same, but I had nothing left to give as they held out the makeshift boxes. I could only shake my head in embarrassment as I walked by.
This was just one example of the students' lack of coordination. Another was the increasingly sorry state of the Square. It looked more like a refugee camp than a gathering of the nation's intellectual elite. It was a garbage dump on good days, and a stinky garbage dump on rainy ones.
Nevertheless, there was an unavoidable question: Who was leading the charge in the Square? Starting in late April, I would get bombarded with flier after flier every time I walked past, each with a name of a different organization emblazoned across it, claiming to be calling the shots.
Years later, I read Thao Dingxin's The Power of Tiananmen: State-Society Relations and the 1989 Beijing Student Movement, which chronicled in painstaking detail the rise and fall of the innumerable organizations trying to lead the fight Dingxin's narrative reminded me of the days I simply was an observer who walked past the Square twice a day. Without the eye of a sociologist or historian, I wondered if what I saw was simply anarchy. Still, every time I saw their young, hopeful eyes, my heart would melt. Who was I to judge them?
The criminals of the city might have had the same mindset. With police virtually absent from the streets, thieves and robbers counterintuitively decided to take a break from their duties as well. From the time martial law was declared, life continued normally until that fateful June 4 morning of the massacre. It was time to put everything else aside. We were all from Beijing and all in this together.
Ironically, anarchy became its own brand of order. Military forces in the city's suburbs appeared to be in no rush to make it to the city. One after another, battalions sent to crack down on the populace were forced to retreat, heading back to base to await orders. Before long, the people of Beijing had grown used to a bizarre life under half-martial law. It seemed...