30 Years After Tiananmen: For the Record---History Must be Told
In 2015 after many years hiatus from China, I went to do some work in Beijing and visited Tiananmen Square, while I was in the country. I had lived in Beijing from 1988 to 1991, but, the ultra modern city was a totally different place then the one I knew. What surprised me most, however, was the normalcy of Tiananmen Square, for when I had left there the square was surrounded by PLA soldiers with Ak47s. In the midst of the present day tourist traffic, amongst people walking all over the square, I had the horrible sensation that if history is not recorded, and the truth never told, the present can completely erase the past. That is why, on this the 30th anniversary of the events in Tiananmen Square,I feel compelled to share my view of what happened in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago this June. For although China is a very different place today, and although the government has tried to sweep it all under the rug. The people in Tiananmen Square now know very little of what happened there in 1989, but for history’s sake, we must not forget what happened that Spring. We must remember and honor all who died in the name of democracy. In the spring of 1989, my husband, Jim, who was a U.S. foreign service officer, and I were posted to Beijing. It was our first posting in the U.S. foreign service, and only 6 months after we arrived, we got caught up by the events of “Beijing Spring,” the student democracy movement in China. On April 15th,1989, Hu Yaobang, the popular, but disgraced, former Communist Party General Secretary, who had been banished because of his liberal views, suddenly died. In the days that followed, hundreds, then thousands, of students at Peking University (Beida 北大) and other universities and colleges began calling for recognition of Hu Yaobang, which gradually turned into a call for greater democracy in China.
Three days after Hu's death, Jim and I went to see a film on the Peking University (Beida 北大) campus about the Korean War. When we came out of the campus movie theater there was a buzz, we found students milling about “The Triangle” reading slogans tacked to the walls, and holding impromptu open discussions. Curious at what was going on, we mingled among the students and listened to some of their ideas. Seeing us, they thanked us for coming, saying “Meiguo hen hao,” (America is very good -- 美国很好) and some asked us about our student days during the Vietnam War era. A large crowd of students listened as we tried to explain our experiences demonstrating against the Vietnam War in the U.S.
Over the next week we watched the movement swell day by day to other campuses, each day expecting the government to crack down on this activity. On May 4th, the sacred anniversary of the 1919 May 4th Student movement, the students poured off the University campuses into the streets. The numbers grew each day, first hundreds, then thousands of students marching around the second ring road, where we lived, encircling Beijing, calling for freedom and the right to be heard and to dialogue with the Party leaders. Amazingly, the government leaders did not respond, but stayed secluded in their privileged refuge of Zhongnanhai, adjacent to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. A Beijing Normal University student named Chai Ling made an emotional plea for the government to begin a dialogue with the students, or otherwise they were going to stage a hunger strike to demand direct negotiations with Party leaders. When no response was forthcoming from Zhongnanhai, the students descended by the thousands on Tiananmen Square, set up camp at the foot of Mao Zedong’s mausoleum, and launched the hunger strike on May 13th. Jim and I thought Mao must have been rolling over in his grave; for although he knew all too well the power of mobilized students driven by nationalistic fervor, such as the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, he would have been horrified to think that students would have actually called for democracy and freedom from the Communist party!
Over the next week, the square filled with colorful banners, loudspeakers blaring, and hundreds of tents with thousands of people. We wandered among the students, amazed at what we were living through! In mid May, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in Beijing on an official visit. The first Russian Head of State to visit China in 30 years, Gorbachev was to arrive at the Great Hall of the People for this historic meeting with Premier Deng Xiaoping. The entire international press corps came to Beijing to cover this momentous meeting between the Chinese and the Soviets. Much to the embarrassment of the Chinese government, however, what they ended up covering was the student movement and occupation of Tiananmen Square, which turned out to be a far more colorful and interesting story. ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, BBC, and international press from all over the world set up cameras in Tiananmen Square awaiting Gorbachev's arrival, and, in the meantime, focused on the fasting students. The night before the Gorbachev visit, students confronted police on the steps of the Great Hall of the People, which runs along the Western side of Tiananmen Square. Because the media was at the ready and captured the drama, the entire world was drawn into the student movement. The video images of Chinese students broadcast worldwide aroused tremendous international sympathy for their struggle and the excitement was palpable.
Emboldened by the worldwide attention and support, students continued streaming into the Square. People arrived from the countryside by the train carload and poured into Beijing turning the Square into a people’s camp. The air was electric with the excitement of debate, criticism and new ideas. Students were speaking publicly and testing their skills with new political slogans. Each day, Jim and I wandered through throngs of students on street corners and in parks deep in heretofore prohibited political debate. We watched them grow bolder by the day and become increasingly vocal and sure of their ideas. We saw average Beijingers wake up from years of intellectual slumber and oppression and begin to smile and express a sense of hope.
The movement spread from street corner to street corner, to offices, shops and worker cooperatives. We would stand discreetly on the margins and listen to the conversations. We could almost feel the opening up of people’s hearts and minds, like watching a dead flower come back to life. It was an astounding experience. Students, workers, old and young people, shop keepers, even Communist Party members, began smiling, greeting each other, speaking out in public, and defending their rights in the street. By the beginning of June, there were tens of thousands of permanent demonstrators occupying Tiananmen Square. After a while the student hunger strike started to lose force.Medical supplies flowed into the square from Hong Kong.Students on cots in hospital tents lay with I.V.’s in their arms. Medics rushed in and out of the Square offering first aid. Order began to deteriorate, as garbage stank in mountains all over the square. The students established volunteer brigades to direct traffic, transport food and medical supplies, and patrol the streets and hutongs. It was amazing and unprecedented in Maoist China -- the students and their supporters were effectively in control of large swaths of Beijing, as police and soldiers stayed out of sight and Beijing's leaders hovered deep inside Zhongnanhai. The students proclaimed they were setting up “a real people’s government.”
Meanwhile, the Communist Party leaders seemed hesitant and confused. They did not respond to calls for dialogue. There seemed to be no leadership. Finally Premier Zhao Ziyang, the more liberal minded person in the ruling Politburo, went out to meet with the students in the Square and, with tears in his eyes, he pleaded with them to leave. He, we later learned, knew what was about to happen. Late on May 30, Vice Premier Li Peng, went on television surrounded by members of the Politburo, stiffly dressed in Mao suits. He soberly announced that the government was sending troops in to restore order. By this time, Premier Zhao Ziyang had disappeared from sight, ousted for disagreeing with the hard liners' decision to move in on the students. Zhao was placed under house arrest and was never seen in public again.
On the night of June 1, Jim went to Tiananmen Square at around 7 p.m. as he had done each evening. He watched as young unarmed PLA troops tried to reach the square, but were turned back by the students and workers. Before midnight, celebrations rippled through the Square as the students realized they had actually stopped the army from entering the city!
The next morning, the government announced martial law and clamped down on all media. With the entire world watching, broadcasters were shut down, some right in mid-sentence. Foreign broadcasters were pushed off their sets and the screens went black as millions of people all over the world watched. International reporters were physically and visibly forced to leave the square.
The next day thousands of people ignored martial law and bravely rode their bicycles to Tiananmen Square in support of the students. Jim and I, also, solemnly biked with them through the streets and around the Square. We could sense a strange mixture of exhilaration and foreboding as no one was certain what would happen next. No police were even visible. The students seemed to be running the city—directing traffic and maintaining order. After foreign media broadcasts were cut off, it became difficult for us to find out what was happening. The communist government began broadcasting over loud speakers in the square and on street corners, with heavy surrealistic propaganda proclaiming, “The PLA army loves the people and the people love the PLA army.” The airwaves were filled with PLA martial choruses singing patriotic marching songs and pledging to restore peace. On television, PLA soldiers, caked in make-up, danced in flowing white chiffon capes to military music. The only way to know what was really happening was to make the long trek down to Tiananmen Square and watch. Jim and I went each evening that week.
Although the students occupied Tiananmen and were camped out at the entrance to Zhongnanhai, where the party leaders lived, the leadership maintained an eerie quiet. The students then rolled a huge white “Goddess of Democracy” statue, modeled after the Statue of Liberty into the square. She embodied the electricity in the air.
On the evening of June 2, a brigade of PLA troops nearly succeeded in reaching the Square. Several thousand young men, appearing no older than 15 years, marched west along Jianguomen Boulevard toward the square. The people surrounded them, however, and convinced them not to attack. The young boy soldiers were dazed and scared, holding hands like children on the playground. Sent in fresh from the countryside, they had no idea what they were getting into. Their trucks were surrounded by mobs of people and they were trapped in the swarms of demonstrators, who smothered them in kindness and tried to educate them about the events in Beijing and urge them to join in the protest. We walked among the dialoguing groups, as a sense of victory once again reverberated across the Square.
The evening of June 3rd seemed to be a repeat ofthe preceding nights. Jim and I spent the early evening walking around the square talking to the students. Then, I said goodnight to Jim around 9:30 pm and took a cab back to our apartment, leaving Jim behind in the Square to cover things for the Embassy. On my way home, I stopped at the Great Wall Hotel, where there was a lot of anxiety among the press gathered there. Many thought some kind of confrontation had to happen; otherwise the government would just cease to exist. Just before I went to bed, at about one in the morning, Jim called and told me to come back to the square since the students were celebrating again. He said “It is unbelievable that the students could turn back the army night after night. What a phenomenal thing!” Although very late, I decided to go back to the square to join the celebrating in Tiananmen Square. I jumped into a cab and tried to get back into the square, but this time, people surrounded my car and told me to turn back and leave. People sensed there was imminent danger. They anxiously shouted, “Lao Wai (dear foreigner,) Go home, quickly, you can’t go through.” I rushed home and waited on pins and needles.
Once I returned to my apartment, I heard a rising roar in the streets below and the apartments began to shake a bit. My heart sank. I looked out and saw a seemingly endless column of tanks rolling swiftly towards the city center. Knowing that Jim was in Tiananmen Square, I frantically called the U.S. Embassy. “Do you know where Jim Huskey is? Have you heard from him?” I asked the Marine guard on duty. “Sorry Madame, we have no contact," he responded, "things are a bit confusing right now." For the next few hours, no one at the embassy knew Jim's whereabouts.
Jim was one of the only U.S. embassy officers to witness first-hand the nightlong massacre at Tiananmen. When the shooting started as the tanks advanced on Tiananmen Square from the west along Changan Boulevard, a man next to him was shot in the middle of his forehead. Jim ran behind trees in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace of the Forbidden City, then retreated eastward along Jianguo Boulevard, the Avenue of “Eternal Peace,” watching, as people were machine gunned by their own government. He saw people run out in front of the tanks and stand there in protest. He and Mitch, a CNN cameraman, saw one Armored Personnel Carrier set on fire and a PLA soldier dragged from it and beaten to death by the angry crowds. He spent the night watching wave after wave of PLA machine guns mowing down protesters. From midnight to dawn, he ran in and out of the square, following each round of shooting to count the wounded and the dead.
After a night of counting bodies and helping Americans and others get out of the area, Jim ended up exhausted at the Beijing Hotel in the early morning in the embassy's 17th floor room overlooking Jianguomen Boulevard and Tiananmen Square. He returned to the embassy mid-morning and in a fury of emotion, he wrote a long descriptive cable to the State Department outlining minute by minute what he had seen on the night of June 3-4, the night the Chinese government killed its own people. His key eyewitness report is, to this day, one of the most detailed descriptions of the events of the night. When the Chinese government later tried to deny that anyone was killed in the square that night, Jim’s account was one of the pieces of evidence that reported the truth of what actually happened in and around Tiananmen Square.
He made his way home late the next day utterly shaken by what he had witnessed. My heart finally rested to see him safe. In the chaotic days that followed, I with other embassy members manned the phones at the Embassy, calling all Americans in the Beijing Consular District who had registered with the embassy, and answering questions from Americans calling in from across China. Many were panicked and didn’t know if they should stay where they were or leave China. Thousands of people thronged the Beijing airport trying to leave.
A few days later, as the security situation continued to deteriorate, Ambassador James Lilley called a meeting of all embassy families and told us that he was ordering a “voluntary evacuation.” While he was speaking, however, a barrage of gunfire broke out in front of the Embassy and the Ambassador changed his order on the spot: it was a mandatory evacuation of all non-essential personnel. He gave us an hour to prepare to leave China. Anxious and upset by the sudden turn of events, I wanted to say good-bye to Jim, who was out convoying American students and tourists from their university campuses and hotels in northwestern Beijing to the east side of the city and proximity to the airport. I waited at the Embassy for him to return. As I waited, Chinese troops opened fire again, this time on the nearby diplomatic high-rise apartments on Jianguomenwai Street. Someone shoved a phone in my hand and said, “Help them!” I started talking with embassy families over the telephone as the soldiers were shooting up their apartments. I urged them to run for the US Marine van waiting outside their compound, “Leave your things behind. Just go quickly!” I told them. One family was literally under their beds talking to me on the phone while bullets bounced off the walls in their apartment. They eventually made it to safety and luckily no American was hurt during the attack. There seemed to be complete anarchy in the streets of Beijing.
I was evacuated, along with all the other families and “non-essential” personnel. I was alone, since Jim was still out ferrying Americans to safety. I wasn’t sure I would even get to see him before I left China the next morning. I also didn’t know if I would ever get back to China. With foreboding in my heart that night, on June 8, 1989, I closed the door to our apartment, and left the chaos of the streets of Beijing and my husband behind. The next morning, I was evacuated from China relieved to be on a United Airlines jet bound for the U.S.A.!! My husband and I were separated for four months, during the worst time in U.S.-China relations.
The above article is an excerpt from Joanne Grady Huskey’s book, TheUnofficial Diplomat, published 2009 by New Academia Press, the twelfth book in the Association for Diplomatic Studies Series on Memoirs and Occasional papers.
Joanne Grady Huskey is an author, speaker and coach. She is Co-Founder and Vice President of iLive2Lead Young Women's Leadership Summit, Co-Founder of Global Adjustments (India); and of the American International School of Chennai (India).