By Graham Earnshaw
It was so frustrating. It was early May, 1989 and I was in Tokyo reporting the financial markets for Reuters, fiddling around journalistically with the peak of the Japanese bubble economy. Meanwhile in China, cataclysmic events were unfolding and I wasn’t there. I really wanted to get back to see it and live it.
I had watched China meander through the 1980s, with tentative experiments in market economics played out in carefully controlled quarantine in Guangdong province while the rest of the country stayed much as it had been. Hyperbolizing dreadfully, you can say that pretty much nothing happened in China in the 1980s. Deng Xiaoping staged his comeback in late 1978, and the Gang of Four trial in 1981 officially put the careful stamp of official disapproval on the whole Cultural Revolution era. It had all been a dreadful mistake perpetrated by a handful of evil manipulators with Chairman Mao gaining a 70-30 official score on his final report card. It was a fudge, of course, and China emerged from that era of gray madness only slowly and cautiously. Partly it was because the conservative party officials wanted to leave things as they were to preserve their power. But the slow pace was also a reflection of the depth of the impact the Maoist mass hysteria had had on the country. It took a long time to wake up, and everyone was always fearful of a sudden reversal, back towards ideological purity over economic and social sense.
But Communist Party officials told each other that the country was now open, and everything being relative, it sort of was. Compared to the Cultural Revolution anything would have been open. It was a case of the bird in the cage, in the common analogy of the times — we will let the bird fly, but only within the cage. And if those party people had had their way, that’s the way it would have stayed.
But there were new currents flowing under the surface of Chinese society — rising discontent with inflation, corruption and lack of any prospects for a better life. The inflation resulted from gross financial mismanagement by the Communist Party leaders who had no experience directing any kind of economy beyond the strict centrally planned socialist model. The incumbent aristocracy was naturally taking advantage of the money beginning to move through the economy, grabbing their share, feathering their nests, jobs for their children etc. A new ideology — perk-ism — was growing strongly.
Meanwhile, life for most of China’s one billion people was largely unchanged. It was a gray, monotonous and pretty hopeless world. Which was no problem as long as people were ignorant of how things were elsewhere. But by 1989, there were already many cracks in China’s Leninist information / media dyke, and people were pretty much aware of how far behind China had fallen during those decades of Maoist madness. For urban young people particularly, there was little or nothing to lose. On graduation from their primitive campuses with their stultifying curricula, they faced the prospect of non-negotiable job assignments into the state bureaucracy or state enterprises at ridiculously low salaries. Their world was a bare concrete room lit with a single unshielded low-wattage light bulb swinging from the ceiling. And it totally sucked.
In the mid-1980s, the bouncy Hu Yaobang had been chairman of the Communist Party and Deng Xiaoping’s heir apparent. (On Hu’s visit to Australia, just before being pushed aside, some wag in the Foreign Ministry in Canberra coined the phrase “It’s not who ya know, it’s Hu Yaobang”. Great line.) In 1988, Deng had suddenly fired Hu and replaced him with Zhao Ziyang. But Hu was still respected — he had been a breath of fresh air after Mao and Mao’s own prot??g? the mediocre Hua Guofeng. He brought energy and a more outgoing, accessible feel to the position of Communist Party leader. People believed Hu was pushed aside because he had wanted to open China up further and faster than Deng wished. Then he died in April 1989, after experiencing a heart attack during a meeting of the ruling Politburo. His death triggered public displays of mourning by students, just as Zhou Enlai’s death in 1976 had led to the first Tiananmen demonstrations put down, also bloodily, by Madame Mao. As in 1976, wreaths were now built and paraded in from Peking University and placed on the Memorial to the Fallen Heroes in the center of Tiananmen Square.
This was tricky for the Chinese authorities. They feared and hated spontaneous public demonstrations, but they couldn’t stop people mourning Hu, given his continued membership of the Politburo at the time of his death. And so students and others were able to use Hu as an excuse to make public statements on wider issues.
The crowds gathered in Tiananmen Square, the spiritual heart of Communist China, in early May. “Glasnost” Gorbachev visited from a Moscow moving quickly towards a more open society. The Chinese Communist Party leadership dithered, deeply divided between Cultural Revolution era hard-liners on one side and reformers on the other. Before we knew it, there were thousands upon thousands of students from all over the country camped in Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing, parading up and down Changan Avenue with slogans and banners more or less overtly attacking the Party, re-running in a more practical and direct form many of the idealistic concepts first floated a decade before at Democracy Wall, a kilometer or two to the west along Changan Avenue. Premier Li Peng was roundly and publicly condemned by the students as being the conservative obstacle to change. But to some extent he was a surrogate target, because people could not, or would not, criticize Deng Xiaoping directly. But make no mistake — it was Deng and not Li who was giving the orders.
All in all, momentous things were happening in Beijing. And I wasn’t there.
But finally the call came. Martial Law was declared by Premier Li Peng on May 20. The Reuters bureau in Beijing, which I headed for two years 1985-87, was running out of Chinese speakers. The 24-hour watches on Tiananmen and the all-night monitoring of the Xinhua news printer, waiting for the sudden announcement of some announcement or political development or who-knew-what, was taking its toll. Come to Beijing, they said. Thank you, I thought you’d never ask.
I raced over to the Chinese embassy in Tokyo, and applied for a tourist visa. There were no questions asked. The entire Chinese bureaucracy worldwide was in a state of paralysis: Emperor Deng versus Chairman Zhao and stalemate ruled. No one knew who would win. I got the visa and went to Narita airport for the next flight to Beijing. I sat in the circular terminal area waiting for the flight with my eyes closed, and gradually became aware of someone hovering over me. Jim Sterba, 10 years before of the New York Times and now of the Wall Street Journal, who ranked in my book as one of the great international journalists thanks to his ability to turn out, when he bothered, gems of quirky reportage, off-center masterpieces of the reporting art. This trip to Beijing was clearly going to be a gathering of the old clans.
When we flew into Beijing airport, it was already night. It was like entering a city under siege. There were only a few old taxis running. Just about everything was shut down.
So Jim and I sat back in the taxi and we glided through the darkness of the old airport road, the cicadas going mad all around, the trees arching over the road, occasional groups of people sitting beside the side of the road in the pools of pale light under the street lamps playing cards, and talking. As they always had. We got to the Sheraton Great Wall Hotel on the northeast edge of the city, checked in, and immediately went to the Square. This time by trishaw – the taxis had simply disappeared.
We negotiated a deal with a long-haired, muscley guy to peddle us through the darkness into the central of the city. It was a balmy Beijing night, (although at the time, it was still very much the city of Peking for me. It is gross cultural imperialism for the Chinese to try and force English speakers to change the name we use for the city, I used to say, adding: I will call Peking Beijing when the French call London London and the English call Munich Munchen. The whole Tiananmen incident, however, turned the tide. For several months, the world was deluged with reports from and about the city of Beijing, and with them was swept away the old word Peking. When I became Reuters Asian news editor a few months later, it was left to me to propose that Reuters shift to the Chinese pinyin spelling, giving in to cultural imperialism. I now refer to Beijing as Beijing without hardly ever thinking about it. But it’s still a shame.)
As we moved through the dark streets, to our trishaw driver shouted animatedly to groups along the road, exchanging information, or rather mis-information about the state of the siege. “The 128 army group is preparing to march on Beijing,” he announced. Or: “The 101 army group has refused to take part in the attack on the city.” He reveled in the shocked awe that greeted his pronouncements. People were starved of information, and the official media was of course no use at all. The trishaw drivers feed rumors back and forth around the city, filling the news vacuum.
On the square, it was a total carnival. It was around 11pm, a beautiful, warm Beijing evening. Student groups surged up and down in front of the Tiananmen Gate with banners and chants. Jim took copious notes as I translated for him. A squad of students passed us by with a banner that declared themselves to be the “Dare to Die Brigade”. Everyone was animated and alive. In the midst of the madness, there was a sense of safety.
For many days up to the night of June 3, central Beijing was in effect a liberated zone. There were no police in sight, no soldiers, no symbols of authority. Troops had advanced to the capital’s outskirts after martial law was declared but had been withdrawn back to their bases after being immobilized by crowds of residents and street barricades.
And it seemed to work fine. Dads in shorts and vests carried their kids and watched the carnival as it passed. People laughed and shouted, and no one had any idea of how it would all end. Central Beijing at this point was basically a non-communist free zone. The police, if they were around, did not show themselves. The army was out of sight. No one was in charge, authority was suspended. And the city continued to work in an atmosphere of freedom never before experienced. People gathered on street corners and discussed the situation, read the faxed press reports from Hong Kong newspapers stuck up on telegraph poles and generally basked in the relaxed atmosphere. Communism had disappeared, albeit temporarily, and you could see people breathing a huge sigh of relief.
It was this sense of relief that fuelled the elation on the square. It was as if a huge weight had been lifted off people’s shoulders.
Jim and I walked around the tent city which occupied the entire square. It was filthy, but it was so totally preposterous. We loved it. We talked to the people, we went to the Monument the the People’s Heroes in the centre of the square, one which was the headquarters of the student leaders.
I joined the Reuters team and did my bit, staffing the office, writing the newsleads and the skedders (scheduled stories). Making the phone calls to diplomatic sources. Gradually, as the days went by, the situation was crystallizing. There was a growing sense of foreboding, although on the streets, there was still no sign of police. People continued to gather on street corners to read the faxed news reports. They talked openly about multi-party democracy, about the prospects for real change. But there was a much bigger question: who would emerge dominant from the current bitter communist leadership battle — Zhao and his more sympathetic reformist line, or Deng and the army and the conservatives? Impossible to be sure because the battle was proceeding in secrecy. But the signs in the official media increasingly suggested that it was the conservatives who were winning the debate. Wishful thinking ran riot nevertheless. Such huge issues were at stake, it was understandable. One prominent western journalist, went right out on a limb and announced in both personal conversations and published reports that Zhao was winning and couldn’t lose and there was no way China could go back, and …. he was wrong. I remember one conversation with him in the Reuters office. I sat there, embarrassed, as he adamantly stated that the forces of light would win, could not lose. Objectivity out the window. I said: not sure, not clear yet, you may be right, judgement suspended. He was really angry that I wouldn’t seize on the same signs and tea leaves he was reading so positively. But the indications spewing out of the Xinhua printer ticking away in the cubicle next door, while not totally definitive, were increasingly pointing towards a conservative upper hand.
Peking Radio on May 25 accused the students on the Square of being counter-revolutionaries and it looked disturbingly like a sign that Zhao Ziyang was losing the power struggle against Deng and the hardliners.
By May 26, rumors of Zhao’s downfall were swimming through the diplomatic community and on May 27, posters appeared on lampposts saying that Zhao had been denounced as leader of an “anti-party clique” and would be dismissed with many of his supporters, including prominent intellectuals who has campaigned for political reforms. That’s basically what happened.
The students, meanwhile, were wondering whether they should just declare victory and disperse. It would have been wonderful if they had. But the student leaders voted 162 to 288 to stay on the square, and only eight voted to withdraw unconditionally.
Meanwhile, in the new liberated Beijing — Martial Law be damned — girly bars had suddenly appeared. They were primitive and pokey. But a revelation for anyone who had known China only a couple of years before, let alone a decade previously. They were strung along a street to the side of Sanlitun in the northeast of the city, west of what would later become the famous bar streets of Sanlitun in yet another era. I had a beer with Beijing bargirls sitting around me, then walked back to the hotel after midnight along one of the wide streets just to the west of Sanlitun which had concrete block dividers in the center of the road, string together with metal rods. It was deserted and dark. Suddenly, a black Russian-built Volga sedan roared up the street from behind me, crossed the intersection I had just passed, and slammed at full sped into the first of the concrete blocks. I had turned to watch the car, and saw the whole thing. The car tipped over and sailed for a long way through the air, slowly performing a corkscrew past me. Then it landed on its roof with a screech of metal and slid along for a further stretch before rocking to a halt. The sudden silence was filled with the sound of gasoline pouring onto the roadway. And I ran in horror towards the car to see what had happened to the people in it. As I approached, two guys struggled crawling out of the window, dazed and bloody, but alive. They stood beside the car looking bewildered, but all in one piece. In the context of Beijing in late May 1989, it hardly seemed extraordinary.
I rang an old acquaintance of mine, an intellectual named Yang Hsien-yi who had graduated from Oxford University in the late 1930s and brought an English wife, Gladys, back to China with him. He was one of China’s most respected translators, and because of his perfect English and foreign connections, he and his wife had spent four years in jail in the late sixties. Now 74 years old, he had no illusions about what was happening in Beijing, and had no hesitation about talking it. He’d already been in jail, he was not afraid of going back there.
I saw him on May 28, in his gloomy ground-floor apartment at the Foreign Languages Press compound. “The diehards have got the upper hand, but it won’t last for long, just as with other dictators,” he said. “This seems to be a counter-revolutionary coup led by Deng Xiaoping. If this state of fascism takes hold, a few intellectuals will get into trouble, myself included it looks like.”
He took a longer view of events. “I notice,” he said, “that western journalists are calling this a power struggle, but it’s not as simple as that. It’s not just Li Peng against Zhao Ziyang, it’s the whole people against a bunch of diehards.”
Yang said that no matter how the demonstrations ended, the students had already won a terrific victory. “They have taught the Chinese people how backward they are. They have won more respect for Chinese people around the world and shown that we are able to organize ourselves with discipline. “I think this is as great in world history as something like the French Revolution, maybe even greater. China occupies a very large area of the world and the political consciousness of the people of China matters a lot for the cause of democracy throughout the world.”
Gladys was in the background as we talked, telling Yang to shut up. She had no need for this outspokenness, but he was not to be stopped. He said rumors of an imminent crackdown worried many intellectuals and others, but he said it would be a small thing compared to the breakthrough achieved by the students.
“As for the repression by fascism in China, we have already done them enough damage. The idea of democracy, of genuine political reform, of rooting out corruption of government, this trend is now irreversible,” he said. “If Li Peng and Deng had retreated earlier, it could have ended more satisfactorily. As it is, the struggle will have to go on for some time. But you can’t frighten the one billion Chinese people. At the moment, some people outside Peking are not aware of the real situation. But there are enough people who are aware of which is the right side and the wrong side. You can see that from the demonstrations.”
I asked him if he thought there might be a violent confrontation between students and soldiers.
“It could be. But the more violent the confrontation, the more thorough the reforms will be. In that sense, I’m not against having a few martyrs.”
From the perspective of 1999, Yang was at least premature. Political reform has gone pretty much nowhere in China in the decade since. But it’s still possible Yang will be right in the end. We won’t know just how deeply the Tiananmen demonstrations have resonated within the Chinese intellectual soul until another opportunity for change presents itself.
The next day, May 30, I went down to the Square the next day with the wonderful Reuters Japanese photographer Akatsuka-san to see the students’ Statue of Democracy, which had been unveiled that morning, and he took a couple of shots of me looking quite desolate with the statue and Tiananmen Gate in the background. The sky was overcast, there was a sense of stalemate on the square. Conditions in Tiananmen Square were continuing to deteriorate. Tonnes of rubbish had accumulated and a stench of human excreta filled one side where extra makeshift toilets had been set up. A public bus stuck in the middle of the northern part of the Square that was used by the students as a lavatory, stank as badly as anything I remember. Memory thankfully does not allow for an accurate rendering of the scent to remain with me. Despite the filth, smell, and heat, the students remained defiant. “We must go on until we get concessions from the government,” said one student from Suzhou.
The staffing situation for Reuters was getting expensive, and the situation on the square appeared to be no closer to a denouement. It could drag on forever, who knew? Paul Eedle, the Reuters news editor, decided to pull back some staff. I was told to go back to Tokyo, and I flew out of Beijing on June 1, down to Shanghai. I had not been there for several years and in fact I hated the city. All I could see there were ghosts of what might have been. Shanghai had been such a vibrant city before 1949, so plugged in to the world. Extremes of poverty and extravagance, to be sure, but containing the potential for improvement for all, along good old bourgeois capitalist lines (it worked in Taipei and Seoul, after all.) The middle-class, westernized Shanghai which could have been in some way China’s future was strangled in mid-breath, left to decay. It was in a sorry state by 1989. I stayed at the newly opened Hilton, a towering modern structure which, as it turned out, foretold the future. It was a strange experience checking into a hotel in China that was so modern and efficient with a phone that worked and hot showers, and fluffy towels. Completely unnatural. Opposite the hotel, a number of bars had opened up, and I went and had a look at them too. Larger and less dingy than the Beijing ones, they were still very tentative. The Manhattan was one of them, and it was the only one that managed to survive through the next few years until my return to the city in 1995. The beginnings of a more capitalist / humanist / pragmatic approach to life were visible in Shanghai in 1989, but only just. I stayed two nights, long enough to catch up with Fred Burke, who ran the Baker and McKenzie law office there. Fred had been bass player in the Peking All-Stars in the early 1980s, and had come back to China after a mid-1980s return to the States to get a law degree. He was having a ball in isolated, funky Shanghai. We walked the teeming streets of the old Shanghai, now (ten years later) largely demolished, and he talked of his efforts to get foreigners companies inserted into the Chinese economy and to put together a rock band of foreigners. I was enthralled.
I was booked on a flight out to Tokyo on the afternoon of June 3. But that morning, news editor Paul Eedle rang and told me to return to Beijing immediately. There were signs of the approach of some sort of finale. Among them: a militia jeep had careered through a crowd near the Square, injuring several people. I raced to the CAAC office, bought a ticket for Beijing, then dashed as fast as I could to Shanghai airport to catch the plane, puttering along in an old Shanghai taxi. I arrived late, the gate in the passenger terminal was open and people were boarding. I raced up and joined the queue, and we filed onto the bus and cruised off across the tarmac to one of the old Soviet planes that China used to use almost exclusively on domestic flights (except for a few British Tridents, one of which was lost when Mao’s heir-apparent Lin Biao tried to escape in it to the Soviet Union, only to crash into the Mongolian steppe). I settled down in my seat with a sigh of relief. It had been a close thing timing-wise, and I desperately wanted to be back in Beijing for the denouement.
Another passenger walked down the aisle and stopped beside me. He had the same seat number as I did. Puzzled, I called over the air hostess, and she looked at my boarding card and said: you’re on the wrong plane. This plane is going to Shenyang. Shit!
I bounded out of my seat, scrambled down the stairways, back onto the baking summer tarmac. The airport bus had already returned empty to the terminal. I was miles away from the Beijing plane, wherever the hell it was. I started to run towards the terminal (so much for security, right?). A passing airport bus stopped and picked me up. I was frantic, totally frantic. In retrospect, I was right to be so. I almost missed June 4, because I got on the wrong plane at Shanghai airport, for crissake.
Back at the terminal, I looked around and found the Beijing flight was still boarding. I queued up, breathing heavily. I made it.
In Beijing, the mood had changed. The sense of stalemate had suddenly given way one of impending doom.
The Square was being staffed by Reuters (and other news organizations, of course) 24 hours a day, three shifts. Just in case. Who knew what would happen and when. (The whole thing dragged on so long and was just so horrendously expensive, especially for the U.S. networks news operations, that it led to a complete shift in the nature of international news gathering. CBS, NBC, ABC — they all looked at the amounts of money they poured into Tiananmen coverage that summer and said: enough. The result was that all the news and camera crews spread across the world, the fattest expense accounts in the international journalistic world, started to shrink. Which provided a golden opportunity for Reuters and its close TV ally, Visnews. The networks started to buy in material rather than shoot it themselves. That helped fuel my next mini-career-but-one, four years away.)
I was put on the evening square shift that day, given a mobile phone — a huge, clunking war club of a thing. Also with me was a younger Reuters staffer, Elizabeth Pisani. We went to the square. It was wired with anxiety. Doom and dread and a sense of who knows what will happen next. I wandered around, looking at the dour faces of the students. The open joy of early days had disappeared. As had the Beijing residents standing around enjoying the relaxed atmosphere. Things were turning serious.
Night fell. The lights across the square went on. But the speakers that hung on them were still silent. No word from the authorities. The tent city was being evacuated, but in one of those still occupied, lit by a candle, someone (Hou Dejian?) was playing guitar as I walked past. The mood at the headquarters at the monument was particularly somber.
Then, suddenly the firing began, from somewhere in the west, beyond the Great Hall of the People. The sky was lit up with tracer bullets, like a massive firework display. It took me some time to realize it was not fireworks. The city was alive with the sound of gunfire. It was unreal, impossible for me to take seriously. Put it down to the naivete of youth, the sense of immortality that arises from the sense of “This is not my war, I’m just an observer.”
The end was nigh, everyone knew it.
The next few hours are a blur. I couldn’t see more than a small segment of what was happening, mostly in the vicinity of the Monument at the center of the Square. What happened on the edges, I have no idea. At the top of the Square, there was fighting and a fire burning, and the roar of the crowd. The sky was full of tracers. The endless cacophony of shooting. A young boy wearing a Dare to Die Brigade bandana ran up the steps of the monument and emotionally sucked on a cigarette as he prepared to return to The Front, the top of the square. “This is my last cigarette before I die,” he declared, sobbing. It probably wasn’t, but who knows? It was a great quote anyway.
By somewhere around 2am, things on were Square were getting pretty desperate. Beijing residents and most of the students had filtered away. The tent city was largely empty. Those remaining on the square had gravitated towards one of two points — the north of the square where the confrontation with the military was in progress, and the Monument, the heart of the insurrection.
I stayed around the Monument with a handful of foreign journalists, including a tall guy working for the Washington Post. At a certain point, they all decided it was time to retreat to the Peking Hotel. They urged me to follow. I refused. I’m staying, I said. Elizabeth Pisani elected to stay with me. The Washington Post guy walked down the steps of the Monument and turned back to look at me, and said: “You’re crazy.” Maybe. But I couldn’t leave. It had nothing to do with Reuters or a sense of professionalism. History was taking place right there, and there was no fucking way I was going to walk away from it. (The American historian (Harrison Salisbury??) in his account of the night, reports that he was sleeping in the Peking Hotel, and heard some sort of noise, which caused him to wake up briefly. He turned over and went back to sleep, he said. A brave and honest account).
I stayed. I moved at some point over to the kerb on the side of the Square, under the trees. The students remaining had grouped themselves around the Monument. Elizabeth left and went back to the Peking Hotel to get word of what was happening on the Square through to Reuters office and the world — the battery on our pioneering mobile phone had basically given.
So I sat alone on the side of the Square, watching the sky slowly betray the first hints of light over the Great Hall of the People on the opposite side of the square. The sound of gunfire through the city, on all sides, continued. The remaining students — several hundred of them — had retreated to the Monument, straight in front of me, a little to the left. They mournfully sang to each other to fill in the large pre-dawn silence at the center of the square, unaffected by how noisy it was beyond. What did they sing? The Internationale and the Communist Chinese national anthem are the two songs I remember (there were others). What did it mean? Not that they were undyingly committed to furthering the Communist revolution in China, that’s for sure. For one thing, these were the only songs that they collectively knew. But beyond that was a sense that these kids were searching for something, something Chinese, which they could believe in and be proud of. My dominant memory of this sensory-overload night remains the scene of these students singing to each other, and my thought that if they ever have a government of which they can be proud, which they can fully support, then god help the rest of the world.
I kept trying to make calls on the mobile phone. The battery was very low, and most of the time the network was busy — but once in a while I got through and passed on some color to Basler back at the Reuters office. Somewhere around dawn on one of these calls, Basler, under orders from the Asian editor, Alex Frere started telling me my stuff wasn’t all that great, and that they were getting much better color and detail from our other guys elsewhere in the Square, a transparent ruse to try to get me to leave, which I ignored.
It gradually became light, a mid-summer dawn, cloudless but gray nonetheless. The tattered tent city stretched out over the expanse of square over on my right. The mobile phone battery had died. And then everything happened at once. I don’t remember seeing the students leave the monument, although they did — filing off to the south as a result of an agreement with the PLA commanders while the tanks and troops entered the square from the north. But I remember clearly watching the tanks and armored cars move in orderly columns down the square, riding over the tents and the debris. It was later said by some that they bulldozed through sleeping students, but I don’t believe it. No one could still have been asleep in those tents after that night.
I looked into the eye of the tank commander leading a column down the road on the eastern flank of the square and said to myself: Right, time to leave. I went into an alleyway behind and just to the south of where I had been sitting for the past few hours, one of the tiny streets leading into the hutong maze of one of old Beijing’s oldest areas. A crowd had gathered and I stopped and pulled out my notebook and started to interview them. A line of soldiers, armed, helmeted and determined formed, across the entrance to the alley leading onto the square. People were really angry, and they vented their fury loudly and with no regard to the potential danger. I pulled a notebook and pen out of my shoulder bag and asked my journalist questions: what do you think of Deng Xiaoping in light of what has just occurred etc etc. The people crowded round and vigorously denounced Deng and the Communist Party. Another crowd had formed in front of the soldiers and they shouted at them furiously. Waved their arms. Outrage. The soldiers were calm. An officer on the side used a megaphone to order people to disperse. Nobody moved away, they continued to mill about, berating the soldiers, discussing the cataclysmic events they had all witnessed, the sight of the army moving in and occupying the center of Beijing, the knowledge of the military might that had been thrown into the battle against idealistic students. The fantastic logic of using tanks to invade the heart of the country’s heart against unarmed ordinary people, the very people that the tanks were supposed to protect from outside aggressors. It made no sense at all. Of all the scenarios for an end to this fantastic, unbelievable piece of Peking Opera, a once-off never to be repeated performance, this was one of the most outlandish.
It makes some sense in retrospect, of course. Everything tends to. It is clear that Deng decided that he had to send a very clear message to the people of China, particularly the students, that the Communist Party would not tolerate a challenge to its monopoly on political power, and that it was prepared to kill ruthlessly to ensure it stayed supreme.
Tiananmen led to a New Deal between the party and the people. Deng and the Communist Party elite knew they had almost lost it completely in the midst of their pathetic outdated power struggle. The mass of Chinese people were not entirely sure what the students were on about, and were not averse to a firm end to the embarrassing demonstrations. But the Communist Party and nevertheless forfeited a huge amount of credibility with its dithering.
The deal that resulted was this: You, the people of China, agree not to challenge our authority. In return, we, the Communist Party, pledge to butt out of your lives and provide you with steadily rising living standards. Two restrictions only — stay out of politics and don’t have more than one child. The people of China took the deal. They were shocked by the ruthlessness the Communist Party leadership was willing to use to slap the students down. But they wanted stability and they wanted better lives. People looked at what had happened, and said: Okay, got it, understood. We’ll concentrate on making money, building our lives. No more street demonstrations. The clear understanding right across China was that street and public expressions of political views were forbidden. No demonstrations, no protests. It held for just under 10 years, only to be overturned by the demonstrationss held to protest the NATO bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war. But even those demos were orchestrated by the authorities. And the students were out there as much to celebrate the fact that they could once again go out on the streets again as to make a political statement. Great ambivalence.
So back to the alley. It’s about 6.30 in the morning. The sun is coming up. The commander shouts again at the crowd to disperse, and warns that his troops will fire if people didn’t go. Still people hold their ground. The troops lift their rifles and fire above the heads of the crowd. I turn and run, and see bullets sparking and ricocheting off the walls of the buildings ahead and to the right of me. Round the corner and I find myself in a cul-de-sac, standing in front of an iron gate. A young Chinese guy is beside me with a bicycle. There are a couple of people on the other side of the gate, and we ask them to let us in. They discuss the issue for a moment, then open the gate. We go inside through a small sunlit compound and then into their brick hut / office. It turns out to be a repair shop belonging to the Beijing underground rail system. Everyone is in a state of shock, overwhelmed by the enormity of what is happening. We sit around a table and tea is poured. One of them turns on a short wave radio and we listen to the 7am Voice of America Chinese language newscast. It’s all about the military assault on the Square. The guy who came in with me, a student young and spectacled, says: “Let’s see, what’s the date today? June 4, right? That’s what this will be called, the June 4 incident.” Good call.
Outside, the sun is shining brightly and there is a huge column of dirty smoke rising from the direction of the Square. Somewhere around 8am, the boss of the work unit arrives, and he is frantic with fear to find his people have given sanctuary to a foreigner and to a student. He tells us we have to leave, he’s really sorry, but we can’t stay. We look outside, and things sounds and feel reasonably ordered. No crowds. No one visible down to the entrance of the cul-de-sac. I take the monster dead mobile phone, that cost something like US$4,000, out of my shoulder bag, and ask the people in the unit to look after it for me. They put it in a locker. Eventually, I heard via a friend of a friend that they threw it away. Quite right, too.
My student friend and I walk out of the iron gate, him pushing his bike. We get back to the alley, and there are sentries standing at different points, dressed in camouflage uniforms, armed with AK-47s. They are just young peasant boys. My friend climbs on the bike and I move to sit on the back. The soldiers are not quite sure what to do. I smile and say “Ni hao” to the one closest. He hesitates, and says: Where are you going?
“Peking Hotel, just over there.” We sort of waited for him to reply, which was mistake. If we’d just gone then, we may have got round the back and over Changan Avenue via Zhengyi Lu and into the safety of the Peking Hotel. But we didn’t, and he reluctantly decides he’d better do something about this. He leads us over to the alley entrance right on the square. There is a concrete platform raised off the road, right on the corner of the alley looking out over the Square, shaded by a tree. A PLA junior commander has requisitioned it as his base of operations. He was the first soldier I had seen that morning not wearing a steel helmet. He looks at me with shrewd eyes.
“Where are you from?” he asks me in Chinese. I look puzzled. He repeats the question in basic English.
“I’m British,” I reply.
I pull out my passport, the old thick, blue British kind, and hand it to him. He flips through the pages.
“What are you doing here in Beijing?” he asks.
“I am here on a tourist visa,” I answer carefully. One more question and I would have told him I was a journalist. But he never asked the question. He pockets the passport and starts talking to my student friend, standing next to me on the concrete patio. He gives his name and says he is a student, but had not been involved in the demonstrations — he was just there out of curiosity.
The officer takes the student’s bag and rummages through it. He pulls out a clunky portable cassette recorder and examines it with interest. He presses the play button, then the rewind, and the player squawks. He releases his finger and we hear angry people talking about politics. He looks up at the student thoughtfully, and presses the rewind button again, taking the tape back further. Then stop and play. And I freeze. Out of the tape player comes my voice, distinctively foreign Chinese: “How do you feel about Deng and the Communist Party in light of what we have just witnessed?” The guy must have been standing right behind me as I interviewed the people, taping the whole exchange.
The officer looks at the student, and questions him about the tape, as we listen to me asking all the sensitive questions, and the people of China replying with angry comments about dictatorship, butchers, and revenge. He looks at me, but he either doesn’t make the connection between the voice on the tape and me, or he decides to let it pass. He takes the tape recorder away and disappears. The student and I are left on the concrete slab with a couple of soldiers guarding us. We sit down on the ground and looked out at the scene.
Tiananmen Square is laid out before us. But a version of it that no one had ever seen before. I was probably the only foreigner who saw the clearing of the square that day from the square itself.
In the two hours we had been with the subway repair shop people, the army had made a lot of progress. They had pushed the tents and the shit into piles and created huge bonfires, several of them in different parts of the immense Square, which poured thick smoke into the blue skies above Beijing. There wasn’t much wind, so the columns were almost vertical.
It was fascinating to watch. Huge helicopters landed and took off, no doubt carrying PLA commanders and senior officials who wanted to inspect the square and reclaim it for themselves. The troops worked hard clearing and cleaning. The tanks were lined up on the side. The atmosphere was workmanlike, rather than filled with danger.
It had been a long, traumatic night, and I hadn’t slept for a long time. The day was warm, the sunlight was soporific. And there’s nothing like watching other people work to make you tired. I nodded off to sleep.
When I awoke it was after midday, and the student had disappeared. The square was getting pretty clean, vast expanses of concrete were back in view, and had been hosed down. They glistened wet in the noonday sun. The officer finally returned, and I asked him when I could go. He said he had asked for orders and had not yet received a reply, I would just have to wait. After a while, I complained a bit more, said what’s the point of me standing around here? At about 2.30pm, he seemed to get bored with the whole thing as well and relented.
“Okay,” he said. “You can go.”
Bastard. It had some great visa stamps in it, including ones for the Khunjerab Pass — I went over the border from China into Pakistan in 1986, a fantastic trip. Anyway, I wanted to get away. Apart from anything else, I was starving. I hadn’t eaten for nearly 24 hours. I walked back down the alley, through the cordon of troops and was greeted by a whole other China. There were mothers with their children out on the side of the street, the soldiers nearby, still heavily armed but looking relaxed and non-threatened. The anger and the rage was nowhere visible in the faces of these ordinary Beijing people. One mother had a young boy on her lap, and he was playing with a toy gun. Interesting image, pity I didn’t have a camera.
I walked through the high-walled hutongs and curved round to Zhengyi Lu. Coming out onto Changan Avenue was a revelation. The street was littered with garbage and rocks and the detritus of a street battle. There were a couple of burnt-out public buses standing in the middle of the road. Looking left, the PLA had established a blockade across Changan Avenue. Walking across the road towards the Peking Hotel under their gaze was uncomfortable to say the least.
The Peking Hotel was a haven. I got a room, or I slept for a while in the room of Reuters correspondent James Kynge, I forget which. I remember going up onto the roof of the old section of the Peking Hotel closest to the square with James and one of the white Mao-jacketed hotel attendants, a man in his early 20s, and looked down onto Changan Avenue. It was an extraordinary sight.
In the distance on the right, we could see the military hardware lined up on the northeast edge of the square. Then there was the military blockade across the avenue. In front of the barricade, on the street below us, dozens of ordinary people stood facing the soldiers, shouting at them angrily. They were totally incensed by what had happened, they didn’t care about personal safety. Every so often, some of them would move forward towards the barricade. The troops fired, a couple of people dropped to the ground, the rest ran back a distance, but did not disperse. The hotel attendant looked at the scene and said: “This is more fascist than fascism.” Good quote.
Eventually, I made my way back to the Reuters office in Sanlitun, and checked back into the Great Wall Hotel. It was a different city from the one I had left a few days before. Martial Law was now for real. It had been in effect theoretically for some time, but was ignored amidst the carnival sense of freedom that had infused the streets of central Beijing ahead of the storm. All gone now. The instruments of the dictatorship of the proletariat were back in action. In the lobby of the Great Wall, I bumped into Tiziano Terzani, the great Der Spiegel correspondent and engaging character, reminiscent in appearance of Omar Sharif, who had been thrown out of China some years previously for allegedly smuggling antiques. Another of the old clan called back. He had just arrived, too late to see the Main Event, but in time to write on its significance. I went back to the Reuters bureau and worked the night shift for a couple of days, keeping an eye on Xinhua, writing the leads that Reuters produces to keep stories moving around the clock.
Ordinary people were very affected by what had happened, at least in Beijing. Elsewhere, I guess they had basically no idea what had happened, beyond the official accounts. One of the elevator ladies in the Bangonglou building where Reuters had its office burst into tears at a mention of what had happened. The Reuters driver said grimly: “This is not the end of the story. This account needs to be settled.”
It is not clear even now (2001) whether he will be proved right. Asians have an incredible and perplexing capacity to absorb monstrous events and get on with life anyway — witness the pragmatic way Cambodians in the early 1990s allowed the Khmer Rouge to play a role in the political process in spite of the horrors of the Killing Fields.
Some of the other Reuters staffers had amazing stories too, and much more dangerous than mine. Guy Dinmore, the bureau chief, had toured hospitals and clinics in the early morning confusion and had taken photos of many bodies laid out in bare concrete rooms. Andy Roche had also been in the Square, somewhere in the darkness over near the entrance to the Great Hall of the People on the western side. He was jumped by security police who pushed him into a car, took him to an underground room somewhere in the vast Forbidden City compound and roughed him up. They let him go about dawn, pushing him out of a car onto the road. Elizabeth Pisani, my companion on the square for most of the night, made it back to the Peking Hotel safely and continued to report from there. Bob Basler, who later became Asian and then North American news editor, sat in the office all night and collected the words and impressions from us all, then packaged and fed them out to the world.
No one knew the totality of what was going on that night. I was in Tiananmen Square right the way through, and I only have certain knowledge of the small amount that I personally saw. It is a huge square, and at night — especially that night — things were much too confused to have any clear idea of what was happening beyond a very small radius.
As to body count: I saw several people, young men, lying on flatbed tricycles being carried away from the square. They were inert and covered in blood. Dead or wounded, I have no idea. On the afternoon of June 4, I saw people fall on Changan Avenue as troops opened fire on them. I have no idea if they were wounded, killed or simply fainting.
How many people died that night in Beijing? What was the price of the years of superficial political stability that followed?
Most of the killing did not take place on or near the Square, that is clear. The official line, first espoused by Communist Party propaganda guru Yuan Mu a couple of nights later on national television, was that 23 people had died on the night of June 3/4. It was ludicrous. Nobody who was in Beijing at that time believed it.
In the weeks that followed, Amnesty International did the most thorough survey of the Tiananmen casualty toll. They spoke to everyone who could help build the picture. They questioned me at length in Tokyo, whwre In was already staying in a hotel prior to a move to Hong Kong to become Asian News Editor (a career boost from Tiananmen, perhaps?). Their report estimated 3,000 dead, with most of the killing taking place in the Muxidi district of western Beijing, where outraged Beijing residents — not students — tried to stop the army from entering their city. That number seems a bit high to me, but who knows? If I had to make a wild stab, from what I know and felt, I’d say several hundred were killed, but I have no proof of any number. Until the archives are opened in China’s next era and we can see the truth, surely recorded there somewhere, Amnesty’s 3,000 is the best outside estimate we have.
Given the fact that this had been a peaceful demonstration, surely even one death was too many. But the crackdown did buy China long years of stability and a period of stunning economic growth, a line I particularly relished taking with bleeding heart liberal Scandinavians in the early and mid-1990s. The argument was: the high growth rates China experienced through most of the 1990s could not have been achieved without blood on the streets of Beijing. The message was: abandon political dissent, concentrate on economic growth. People would not have absorbed the message so completely, the argument went, if the students had been dispersed with, say, water cannon, and China would have been distracted by continuing demonstrations and political uncertainties.
Could the Chinese army be called upon to do something similar again? Unlikely. The whole thing must generate seriously ambivalent feelings for the Chinese army. Was there a clear order from the leadership to the troops to shoot and shoot to kill? The Tiananmen Papers published in 2001, and yet to be proved to be real or fake, suggests the shooting was random and unplanned. But they were definitely given specific orders to suppress a peaceful demonstration in the heart of Beijing. Such an order from Deng Xiaoping, a long March veteran and general from the anti-Japanese war, carries a lot of weight. But what if Jiang Zemin ordered the PLA to do the same thing today? Would the commanders comply, safe in the knowledge that they would never be brought to account for their actions? Unlikely.
June 5 was a day of slow recovery. The Reuters photographers had some extraordinary pictures, including stuff shot by a totally crazy American cowboy who gloried in the named of Rambo — a tall, lanky guy with bleached blond hair who took the most insane risks. He later repeated the trick in Russia. His most memorable photo for me was of a PLA soldier hanging from a bus at the Xidan intersection on Changan Avenue to the west of Tiananmen Square. The soldier’s body was burnt to a crisp. It was disgusting, and it was decided not to send it to subscribers.
On June 6, it rained, a fine gray curtain covering the numbed city. I took a taxi down to the Friendship Store on the eastern extremity of Changan Avenue to do some shopping. The view from the next intersection, looking up onto the fly-over leading into central Beijing, was menacing: lined up across the bridge were a number of tanks, their muzzles pointing at us, their crews grimly watching us through the rain. I went from there to the British Embassy and explained that my passport had been confiscated on the Square. It took only half an hour or so to get a replacement passport issued. Just about anyone with a half-plausible story could have gotten a passport that day at the British embassy in Beijing, and no doubt other foreign missions too.
The news was very gloomy, and full of heavy ironies. It was the revenge of the geriatrics. All the old conservative leaders – Peng Zhen, Bo Yibo, Chen Yun, Li Xiannnian – struggled out of their bath chairs to take one last swipe at the future, in spite of all they had suffered in the Cultural Revolution. From the perspective of 1999, it looks like China missed a wonderful opportunity in 1989 to escape its past and move in a direction of both economic and political reform. Zhao’s road could have been the one that would have done it.
I went to Beijing Railway Station, and saw gaggles of students looking to get onto trains back to their homes and campuses. I watched as a uniformed guard screamed at them in vicious vitriolic hatred – “You are scum, all of you!” They stared back at him dumbly. Neither side had any understanding of the other.
Somewhere around noon on June 7, I was in the Reuters office, and we received a telephone call saying a column of tanks and other military vehicles was proceeding down Jianguo Menwai Da Jie, the eastern extension of Changan Avenue, across the fly-over on which I had seen the tanks the previous day, and the troops were firing at the apartment blocks in which resided the foreign diplomats and journalists posted to the Chinese capital.
What their motive was, I don’t know. But it made sense at the time to assume the worst in terms of a return to the Boxer Rebellion mentality of 90 years previously – kill the foreigners, expel the foreign devils. Anything seemed possible at that moment, on that day.
In fact, the military jaunt was the final burst of insanity before China began the task of clawing itself back up the precipice towards relative normalcy and international acceptance. But we couldn’t have known it at the time. We had no idea who was in charge in Beijing or what they planned to do next. It took a split-second to make the decision – anyone not required should get out. Basler and I went back to the hotel, packed and taxied to the airport. It was pandemonium there. I saw Mike Chinoy of CNN heading out as well. We all got seats on a special Cathay Pacific charter flight. The young border control guards looked at my new passport and noticed there was no visa or entry stamp in it, but there were no tough questions. The sense from them was apologetic, shame at what had happened, reluctance to strengthen any feelings of ill-will we may have harbored.
“Please come back soon,” said one.
“When you have a new government,” I replied naively.
“It will not be long,” they replied, equally naively.
The plane took off full, and as it landed in Hong Kong, the passengers cheered with relief. It was so depressing. China and the world were parting company yet again.
I went back to Beijing in 1991, as Reuters editor for Asia. I visited the Public Security Bureau office which handled foreigners and visa issues, on the street called Nanchizi which runs parallel to the moat to the east of the Forbidden City.
Me: I lost my passport, and I would like to get it back.
PSB: Where and when did you lose it?
Me: On Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989.
PSB: Ah. How did you lose it?
Me: It was taken from me by a PLA officer.
PSB: Then we cannot help you. You should contact the Ministry of Defense.
Me: Fine. Can you tell me the address please?
PSB: No, it is a state secret, we cannot tell you.
I look forward to the day when I can once again get to see that passport, with its collection of great visa stamps, including the Khunjerab Pass stamps.