The massacre of protesters on June 4, 1989 was not the end of Beijing’s summer of terror.
The massacre of unarmed civilians that happened in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989 in Beijing did not end the story of suffering, sorrow, and trauma for the city’s residents that year. Indeed, the murders in Beijing – some reliable sources say of up to 10,000 people, as quoted by the British ambassador to China at that time, Sir Alan Donald – were the dramatic catalyst for a lengthy period of quiet but highly effective terror under martial law that lasted for the rest of the year.
The story of those six months is largely untold, for three reasons. First, there were very few foreigners in Beijing following the massacre. At most embassies, and among the still tiny business community, all but essential staff were evacuated from the city. Many did not return for weeks or even months thereafter. Second, there were few Chinese who would have dared to talk with a foreigner at all, much less with a foreign news outlet. The consequences would have been arrest, detention, and possibly worse.
The third reason also relates to the Chinese population, who made up, it must be remembered, far more than 99.97 percent of the population of the city at that time. Beijing, and the rest of China, was still healing from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, which had only ended 13 years prior, in 1976. The 10-year period of that upheaval, which saw families across China torn apart by internal betrayals, society upended by zealous revolutionaries, and traditional markers of Chinese culture virtually erased from both physical and psychological domains, had also claimed a still unknown number of lives, certainly in the millions. Beijing residents were not completely inured to the massacre of 1989, but they had seen madness and murder before.
I had lived in Beijing since August 1987, first as a student at the Foreign Affairs College. The following year, at the end of my course, I felt compelled to stay longer, feeling that I had only scratched the surface of this fascinating, maddening, country. I found employment with a multinational company, and then with the Australian Embassy.
Somewhere there are photos of me standing on the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square during the early demonstrations in April 1989. When the first demonstrators came out to honor Hu Yaobang, the Chinese leader who had sympathized with and supported earlier student protests in the 1980s, I was right in the middle of them from the first week on.
I was in the United Kingdom on June 4, having traveled across Asia and Europe on the Trans-Siberian railway three weeks earlier, in early May. I woke up that morning, as did the rest of the world, to the horrific news that People’s Liberation Army tanks and soldiers had killed thousands in and around the square. I may not have completely stopped crying for the next five days.
I flew to Hong Kong within days, where I managed to get through by phone to South American and Spanish friends who had not been evacuated. They implored me to bring foreign news accounts of the massacre. Even senior diplomats had been unable to access any international media for full accounts of the horror that had occurred.
I went around to newsstands throughout Central and Tsim Sha Tsui, buying up, and often being given donations of, as many international magazines and newspapers as I could carry. I then went to Dragon Air to buy a ticket into Beijing. Dragon Air said that they had nothing but evacuation flights going into the Chinese capital, but that if I really wanted to chance it, they would give me a ride in for free.
The plane into Beijing was practically empty; not more than five passengers sat in the large, roomy cabin. Signs at the check-in desk at Kai Tek Airport in Kowloon had been clear: newspapers and magazines were completely forbidden to be taken into China.
My hand-carry duffel bag was full of the newspapers and magazines I had collected. It also contained two packages of feminine sanitary napkins, one unopened and one open, with two pads missing. I had deliberately bought them in Hong Kong so that the contents of the packaging would be written in Chinese, as well as in English.
As I sat by the window in the rear of the plane, I tore out article after article of news and photos of the massacre, folding them into small packages no more than 3 inches square.
With each article, I took out one sanitary pad, and opened up a pocket along the long side of the napkin among its layers of cotton. Each folded article slid neatly into the pocket and became virtually unnoticeable, invisible to any but a dedicated searcher.
I then returned each pad to the center of the opened package, so that the top and bottom layers were both unadulterated. In order to fully inspect the contents, therefore, a Customs officer would have to not only look in through the open top, but would also have to handle and remove the pads, as well.
An hour out of Beijing, as I came close to finishing my task, a flight attendant came toward my seat. One of the unfolded articles was lying on the seat next to me. She grabbed it, saw others peeking out of my duffel, and opened up the door of the restroom across the aisle from me. She fell to her knees and began ripping the papers into tiny pieces, pushing the shards into the toilet.
More fearful than angry, she told me in a panicked voice that each time they flew into Beijing, the plane was meticulously searched by Chinese security services. “Even the toilet container,” she said, as she attempted to make the papers unrecognizable. “If they find anything,” she said, “they won’t let us back into China.” Another flight attendant, and then I, joined her on our knees in the toilet, shredding my papers to bits.
The flight crew didn’t know about my hidden cache, though. The collection had grown to over 15 graphic articles secreted in their cozy pockets. And I didn’t tell them.
China was still a country in which no one talked about sex or any subject close to it. One of my otherwise well-educated teachers had asked me the year before why she wasn’t getting pregnant, despite sleeping in the same bed as her husband on his infrequent visits home from his job in another province. The answer turned out to be that the process leading to pregnancy was unknown to them both.
I was betting that the Customs officials in Beijing Airport would be all male, and thus easily mortified by anything so closely associated with the taboos of the female body. As the Customs official opened my duffel, I was about to find out.
He threw everything else from my bag onto the table between us. He opened my camera, and saw there was no film. One by one, he looked closely at my very typical belongings. Hairbrush, makeup, a Chinese-English dictionary, a few clothes. Then he reached back into the duffel to pull out the first of my two big packages.
Halfway out of the duffel, he saw the Chinese characters blazoned across the plastic outer wrapping of the package. His face went red to the roots of his hair. He dropped the package back into my duffel as if his hands were burned.
Barely able to look at me, he pointed to the other, unopened package. “Yiyang,” I said, “the same.” He pushed the duffel back to me, and motioned for me to repack my things. I walked out of the airport and took a taxi to my waiting friends, who had congregated together into an apartment at one of the diplomatic compounds that are spread around central Beijing. As we drove into the city along what is now the old airport road, nicknamed “The Nixon Road,” as it was built for his visit in 1972, we passed burnt-out buses, and tanks at every major intersection. Martial law was in full swing. The taxi driver told me to be careful.
I was heartened to learn later that year that my contraband media and copies of it had made the rounds of several embassies and their political staffs. One ambassador thanked me for having taken the chance. I told him quite sincerely that I had been happy to do it, and that it had been a calculated risk. But I didn’t tell him why.
Part 2: Life Under Martial Law
Curfews, army checkpoints, and most of all pervasive fear marked life in Beijing after June 4, 1989.
The great divide between Beijing’s 9 million Chinese residents and the infinitesimally small foreign population of less than 1,000 became starkly evident as the city sunk into the long, siege-like period of martial law which followed the massacre of June 4,1989.
I was a member of the tiny foreign population that lived under martial law in Beijing during that second half of 1989. There were no more than a few hundred of us, and some nationalities and regions were represented more than others. The majority of foreigners left in Beijing were from countries that had not gone to the expense of evacuating their embassy staffs. By definition, therefore, there were very few foreign residents left from the richer countries, such as the United Kingdom, most of Western Europe, the United States, or Australia.
I soon realized that there were stark differences between my experience of martial law and what Chinese friends and colleagues were forced to face. It was hard to compare notes, however. I, and most of my foreign friends, had little to no contact with Chinese friends and acquaintances in Beijing. To have made a phone call (to those who even had phones — less than one in 100 did), or worse, to have made a personal visit to a friend’s home, would likely have been catastrophic for the Chinese friend.
A close friend was a grandson by marriage of one of China’s 10 grand marshals. His wife’s family sat at the pinnacle of Chinese political power, prestige, and revolutionary pedigree. Even he, however, made it clear in a brief and nervous visit that he and his family could not see or talk with me until the crisis was over; that it was simply too dangerous for them.
One of the most defining features of pre-Tiananmen life in Beijing as a non-Chinese had been the constant attention from local residents that most foreigners received each time we stepped into public. Chinese were not accustomed to seeing people who did not look like them on the streets of their city, and most were not too shy to openly express their surprise and curiosity. It could feel at times like harassment, but it was not born out of ill will. We were always stared at. We were often touched, rubbed, and asked about our strange features. Those who had cameras usually wanted a photo together with their new foreign “friend,” even if that friendship was just a minute old.
In the post-Tiananmen Beijing administered under martial law, this behavior completely stopped. Walking around central Beijing during those first few months after the massacre, I felt invisible. Local residents not only didn’t stare at me or my friends, they seemed not to see us at all.
This astonishing change of behavior underscored the party line being spouted through China’s state-run media: Foreigners had fomented revolution in China, and had plotted to overthrow the government. It had been necessary, therefore, to root out the traitors who were working on behalf of foreign interests. The PLA was sent in to defend the people from the foreign forces and their local collaborators who had tried to destroy China.
People on whom I desperately wanted to check were off-limits. One was my older teacher from the Foreign Affairs College, and her husband, who had studied at Duke University in North Carolina in the 1940s and 1950s (and who, as a Chinese, had been forced to leave the United States when the Korean War broke out). My teacher had often sneaked me into their apartment on campus. Sitting on the bookcase in my foyer today is a cigar box full of the Mao and other “revolutionary” buttons she had been forced to wear during the Cultural Revolution. Handing them to me in 1988, she had told me that she “never wanted to see them again.”
Contacting this venerable couple would have implicated them in the eyes of the government in a foreign subversive plot to take down the Communist Party.
I also wanted to know the fate of my students. Although not in China to teach, I had volunteered one afternoon a week to help a class of bright computer science students improve their English. Two of my students and I had twice gone together to the demonstrations in the Square. Although I knew where each lived (part of their assignments had been to describe, in English, how to get from our classroom to their homes), again, the consequences for them of a visit from their American foreign teacher would have been devastating.
Two students in my class died on June 4, but I didn’t learn of that until the following year. I leave their stories untold for now, as I know that their families are still in China.
I went back to work for the Australian embassy, and occasionally for the New Zealand embassy, as well. Biking up to San Li Tun most mornings, I came out of the northeast gate of my apartment compound and rode right past the residence of the U.S. ambassador. Black sedans with dark tinted windows were perpetually parked outside the residence for the entire period of martial law and for nearly six months afterward.
The Chinese astrophysicist Fang Lizhi was inside. Internationally-known and respected for both his academic work as well as for his political activism, he and his wife had been constant and very public thorns in the side of the Communist Party since the 1950s. Over the years, they had both gone through periods of favor and expulsion from the party. They had slipped into the U.S. embassy on June 5 and were given immediate asylum. Dr. Fang was on China’s most-wanted list, although he did not directly demonstrate in Tiananmen. I bade him silent good wishes each morning and evening on my way to and from work.
Beijing was under curfew. There had been few nightspots for foreigners prior to June 4, and most of those were forced to close in the Western-branded hotels that housed them, not reopening until many weeks later. Instead, we bonded in one another’s homes, traveling at night between them despite the curfew that forbade it.
We could be stopped and searched at any time. Tanks took up residence on the roundabouts at the main intersections of Second Ring Road and beyond, and on the Jianguomen Bridge on Chang’An, which crosses over Second Ring Road in front of the diplomatic compound.
One afternoon, I was traveling by car with three friends along Chang’An Avenue to the Jianguo Hotel, Beijing’s first joint venture hotel. We could have walked, but thought that would have invited more attention from security than driving.
As we entered the Jianguomen Bridge from the west, uniformed soldiers stepped out from the side of their tank and motioned for us to stop. This was not uncommon, and we got our passports ready for inspection, per a protocol that we had all experienced many times before.
Three soldiers surrounded our vehicle, looked at the passports of my three friends, and then suddenly opened my back seat door and yelled at me to get out of the car, pulling me out as they did so. Two of my friends started to get out of the car to help me; they were pushed back and kept inside by soldiers who stood guard at each car door.
One soldier came in close and trained his AK-47 inches from my stomach, moving me a short distance away from the vehicle, toward the railing of the bridge overlooking Second Ring Road.
“Huzhao,” he said, “passport.” I already had it in my hand. He lowered his rifle and took the passport from me, perusing it slowly and deliberately, stopping on some pages where visas, and exit and entry stamps, had been placed. He saw the Chinese visa, my recent visa to the Soviet Union, a stamped entry into East Germany, and trips to West Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K., and Hong Kong. Having thoroughly inspected the document, he handed my passport back to me and nodded. He motioned me back to the car and we left.
The young soldier had just spent several minutes reading my entire passport upside down.
We knew that the young PLA troops were green, and probably more scared of us than we were of them. The vast majority were from the rural, provincial areas of China. They only knew what they had been taught, and that was that foreign influences had tried to overthrow their country. I don’t blame the young man who aimed an AK-47 at my mid-section. The responsibility lies with the political party that lied to him about why he was there in the first place.