As the Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post in 1989, I covered the Tiananmen massacre and stayed on in China for more than a year afterward to report on the Communist Party’s crackdown on supporters of the student-led uprising. So as the world marked the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre earlier this year, I was reminded of how the student-led protests there brought out the best in the people of Beijing.
It had been my view, prior to the protests, as China was beginning to open up to some aspects of capitalism, that many of the local citizens were mostly interested in making money. They seemed to have little time for small kindnesses. But the actions of so many people in June 1989 caused me to change my mind. Tragically, hundreds of ordinary citizens from Beijing and surrounding areas died trying to protect the students when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) opened fire as it advanced toward Tiananmen Square on June 3-4, 1989.
The movement began on a modest scale when students from the prestigious Beijing University put up hand-written posters honoring Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party leader and outspoken reformer who died in Beijing on April 15, 1989. Hu was admired for being incorruptible, but elderly leaders who still guided events from behind the scenes had accused him of engaging in “bourgeois liberalism.” They ousted him from the Party leadership because they believed he had dealt too leniently with earlier student protests in 1986 and 1987.
I recall from my coverage of the 1986 protests that the students took note of then-Communist Party chief Hu’s talk about democracy. Hu had once declared that there could be no modernization without democracy. I got to see Hu several times on public occasions both in China and during a visit that he made to Australia, but I met him only once, during a visit to China in the fall of 1986 by Katharine Graham, chairman of the board of the Washington Post Company. During the meeting, Hu struck me as being open to new ideas, and he didn’t blame foreigners for China’s problems.
In 1989, Deng Xiaoping ended up accusing the United States of “manipulating” the student protesters from behind the scenes. But while the students were clearly open to Western ideas, I saw no evidence that any foreign power had manipulated them.
In the spring of 1989, the students at first engaged in poster-writing and spontaneous speeches about Hu that couldn’t be taken as a direct challenge to the Communist Party. But within days they organized demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and called not only for the rehabilitation of Hu but also for an end to corruption among high-level officials and their families.
The students were much better organized than they had been in 1986 and 1987, partly because they had been planning to mark the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement of 1919, when large numbers of Chinese students first mobilized to call for freedom and democracy.
In 1989, the students soon began demanding freedom of speech and the press, more money for education, and, perhaps most significantly, public disclosure of the incomes of government leaders and their families. “Hu Yaobang didn’t have a foreign bank account,” said one of the students’ posters.
As the crowds supporting the students grew close to a million people, I knew that this would be one of the biggest stories that I had ever covered. But I didn’t expect that it would end in gunfire.
Like many others, I didn’t realize that the government would take stronger action until an editorial in the People’s Daily, the Party’s official mouthpiece, denounced the students. The editorial, published on April 26, 1989, accused the students of aiming to “overthrow the government and Party.” The editorial angered the students and tended to galvanize them, but when I read the editorial, I remember thinking, This is it. This comes from Deng Xiaoping. A crackdown is coming.
Communist Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang had lost out to hardliners in the Politburo. Zhao was faulted because he openly favored a dialogue with the students and defended the students’ right to criticize the government. Deng rejected the idea of a dialogue. He was influenced by Beijing city officials who told him that the students were engaged in a “counter-revolutionary rebellion.”
But while the government alleged that the student protesters had created “turmoil,” I had never seen Beijing citizens in such a friendly mood. The crime rate appeared to go down. A group of pickpockets proudly announced that they would halt their activities and support the students.
The first time I recall reporting any violence was on May 20, when the Chinese government imposed martial law in the center of Beijing and moved soldiers toward Tiananmen Square to prepare for a crackdown on thousands of student protesters. The police attacked students lying on the road to halt army trucks heading into the city from the south. Ten of the students were seriously wounded.
The government also imposed a news blackout on Chinese media, and foreign correspondents were told not to go out on the streets. As it turned out, I knew of no correspondent who followed that order. But the government did succeed in halting live CNN broadcasts from Beijing. And the police beat up one of my colleagues when he returned to Tiananmen Square after the crackdown.
But when you think of martial law, you imagine soldiers everywhere, with the police locking people up. It didn’t work that way, however, in Beijing—at least not at first. In a book titled Black Hands of Beijing by George Black and Robin Munro, the authors describe a moment when students and a madcap group of motorcyclists “virtually took over the running of the city.”
The regular police and traffic police had disappeared from view. In the center of the city, I saw students directing traffic. After martial law was declared, I spent part of my days on Tiananmen Square and my evenings trying to follow the motorcyclists, who were nicknamed “The Flying Tiger Brigade,” or “feihudui.” They seemed to know what was happening everywhere around Beijing and relayed information about troop movements back to the students at the square. Meanwhile, in some parts of the city, despite martial law, a nearly festive atmosphere seemed to prevail.
The bikers, most of them older than the students, became overnight heroes. With the roar of their engines and beams from their headlights heralding their approach, the bikers gave many in Beijing a sense of fun and spontaneity.
In order to confront troop convoys, protesting civilians mustered a ragtag cavalcade of vehicles made up of buses, horn-honking cars, trucks, taxis, minivans, dump trucks and garbage trucks, and even some cement mixers.
One evening my wife Muriel and I followed the Flying Tiger motorcyclists to a suburb east of Tiananmen Square. We found a man sitting on a cement-block wall playing the “Socialist Internationale” on a trumpet to cheers from a crowd. Hundreds of citizens had surrounded army trucks loaded with troops and vehicles carrying water cannons. The trucks couldn’t move. At that moment, many in the crowd seemed to be confident that they and the students they supported would prevail. It was so peaceful, in fact, that Muriel was able to go out each day and shoot video of the protesters, often pushing along our 15-month old daughter Shauna in a baby carriage.
Those peaceful moments lasted up until the evening of June 3, when the army was blocked by crowds of civilians at several gateways to the city. That included an intersection outside our apartment complex in Beijing.
In the early evening, Muriel went with a friend to speak with the protesters who were blocking the troops. She brought along Shauna in a stroller. The protesters were urging the troops not to open fire. A pregnant woman sat on the hood of one truck. Another woman held up her child, who saluted a soldier. But then the protesters seemed to sense that the worst was about to come. They urged Muriel to return home with our baby, which she did.
The first death that we knew of occurred not long afterward, when the panicky driver of an armored personnel carrier ran over a soldier at the intersection.
I thought that I had the perfect plan for dealing with the impending attack on Tiananmen Square. I then had working for me three Chinese-speaking American students who had studied in China. They were such good reporters that one of my colleagues called them “Southerland’s Army.” One was to cover Tiananmen Square and the approaching People’s Liberation Army. The second was stationed in a room in the Beijing Hotel overlooking the square. And the third was on standby several miles east of the square. But this became much like a war, and plans, as they say, rarely survive the opening of hostilities. I had no Plan B.
When the attack came, my man on the square stopped communicating. As I recall, he had one of those Motorola phones as big as a brick that were popular at the time. But all that I got from him was silence. Our man simply disappeared for three days. I later learned from him that plainclothes Chinese policemen on the square had dragged him off the square, repeatedly kicked him in the head, threw him in an unmarked car, and detained him. They took him to a barber shop, blindfolded him, and spoke about killing him. In the end, they drove him out to a rural area miles away from Beijing and dumped him there. Their aim obviously was to get him to stop reporting. That didn’t work. When he returned to Beijing he chose to continue reporting. And we still had many places to send him in and around Beijing.
Our reporter in the Beijing Hotel became our man on the square. But with the army closing in, I decided that it was too dangerous for him to remain on location. I moved him back to the Beijing Hotel, where he reported on civilians being killed and wounded outside the hotel by soldiers in tanks and armored personnel carriers. Some of the civilians who were killed were simply trying to find sons and daughters who had remained on the square till the end. This was the scene that provided the setting for the iconic “tank man,” who stopped a line of tanks by standing in front of them. It was a moment symbolizing an unarmed people standing up to heavily armed power.
To this day, we still don’t know how many people died in the Tiananmen massacre. My own estimate, based on an informal survey of colleagues, was that at least 700 to 800 people were killed but possibly between 1,000 and 2,000. One credible source said that the death toll in Beijing came to more than 2,600 dead. Many other civilian deaths occurred in numerous cities outside Beijing.
The Chinese Red Cross was cited in one report as saying that some 10,000 people were killed in Beijing alone. But if that figure had been accurate, I think that we would have seen many more bodies.
Many more students and the civilians protecting them might have been killed had it not been for the actions of three Chinese intellectuals and a pop music singer named Hou Dejian. Among the “four men of honor,” as they were later named, was Liu Xiaobo, who was imprisoned in 2009 on charges of “inciting subversion” and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. With student leaders arguing among themselves whether to leave Tiananmen or die there, the four colleagues maintained a semblance of order and negotiated a truce with two PLA officers that allowed hundreds of students to escape safely through the southwest corner of the square.
One thing that I can never forget were the bodies that I saw in a makeshift morgue at a hospital near Tiananmen Square after the shooting had mostly stopped on June 4. I’ll never forget the doctor who got me into the hospital despite several unidentified people who tried to block me. The bodies that I saw piled up on a cement floor in the hospital appeared to be those of men in their late 20s or early 30s. They were too old to be students. I guessed that they had been killed while trying to protect the students and hold back the troops as they approached the northwest side of the square. They had nothing but bricks and rocks to throw in order to defend themselves against armored vehicles.
Another moment which I can never forget: As the PLA troops approached Beijing, I heard that villagers had halted a line of military trucks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) northwest of Beijing. I drove there in my office car. The villagers told me how a woman had lain down in front of the lead APC and dared the soldiers to drive over her. In the end, the heavy vehicles got around the woman, but the villagers had slowed them down.
On June 5, I decided that things were still dangerous enough that I had to evacuate my family from Beijing to Hong Kong. I’m grateful that we did that because of what happened next. As the People’s Liberation Army withdrew from Tiananmen Square, soldiers opened fire into an apartment building facing the main avenue leading east from the square.
I lived in the same apartment complex but in another building. I was far enough away to avoid being struck with bullets but close enough to hear the shooting. I hit the floor and called an editor on the foreign desk at the Washington Post to tell him that my apartment complex was under attack and that I had no idea what was going on but would call him back when I found out.
A colleague who had been sent in by the Post to assist me was on the scene. He reported that soldiers firing AK-47s shot out windows in several apartments facing the avenue, including one residence in which two American children were watching television. When the shooting started, a Chinese maid had pushed the children to the floor and lay on top of them to protect them. They weren’t injured. I later learned that not many people were in the most heavily damaged apartment building because the Chinese-speaking military attaché of the U.S. Embassy, Larry Wortzel, had been alerted by a contact that an attack was coming.
According to James Lilley, the U.S. Ambassador in Beijing at the time, the Embassy was able to get some people out of the building ahead of time, but the word didn’t get out to some others who were living there. The soldiers claimed that a sniper had shot at them from the top of one of the buildings in the compound. Moving down the avenue on foot and in trucks, the soldiers also raked other buildings along the way with gunfire. Ambassador Lilley said that the soldiers’ claim about a sniper was “ridiculous” and they knew it. He concluded that the PLA wanted to get all of the foreigners out of the diplomatic compound, and in fact it appeared that they wanted to get all of us out Beijing.
In today’s Chinese police state run by President Xi Jinping, no such series of events, kicked off by a student-led movement, is likely to recur. As Wortzel wrote on June 23 of this year for the Washington, D.C.-based Jamestown Foundation, “Today the Chinese Communist Party leadership would prefer not to use the PLA again in case of riots or unrest.” But with surveillance cameras placed nearly everywhere, any sizable gathering of students would be immediately picked up, and the Chinese leadership has “strengthened and enlarged” the People’s Armed Police (PAP) and created PAP and Public Security Bureau anti-riot units.
“But if the Party center felt threatened again, it is unlikely that Xi Jinping would vacillate and debate: He would not hesitate to crush widespread unrest,” says Wortzel. “The CCP leadership remains as determined as ever to maintain their ruling position, and armed force remains the ultimate guarantor of the Party’s grip on power.”
After the crackdown at Tiananmen Square I traveled to several provinces to assess what had happened outside Beijing. But reporting became more difficult. In Beijing, I found myself being followed by plainclothes policemen nearly everywhere I went. I had to visit one of my contacts after midnight, when it seemed safer to move around. I broke off contact with my best Chinese friend because I feared for his safety. At a meeting of foreign correspondents to discuss the situation, a few reporters expressed their anger at what was happening. I advised against confronting individual policemen who were following us, which in my view would have only made matters worse.
I was also the target of disinformation. A Chinese journalist whom I considered a friend argued that the death toll of civilians at Tiananmen was well below 300, which was the official position. Another Chinese journalist later warned me that my friend worked for state security. Yet another Chinese who claimed to be related to a formerly high-level official offered to provide me with state secrets. Suspecting entrapment, I turned him down and told him that I was too busy to meet with him again.
I still had a few sources whom I could rely on. One was a disillusioned but well connected former Communist Party member who provided details on how many people had been arrested or detained in the government crackdown that followed the Tiananmen massacre. The official Chinese news agency quoted a Chinese judge who denounced my report, saying that it was inaccurate. But nothing further came of it.
Not long after my return to the United States in 1990 after working in China for five and a half years, I appeared on a panel at Harvard to reflect on Tiananmen and its aftermath. A questioner in the audience asked me if in the spring of 1989 we reporters were able to maintain our objectivity when covering the student-led protests. In other words, did we side with the students?
I answered that at certain times some of us probably did lose our objectivity. The student protesters were young and idealistic. They enjoyed respect and popular support throughout Beijing and in dozens of cities outside the capital. One can argue that the students turned out to be hopelessly naive about what they could achieve in a Communist-ruled state. But it’s important to remember how young they were. I did maintain objectivity and distance from the student leaders to the extent that I never made friends with any of them. I never invited any of them to my apartment or to a meal. I also tried to understand the government’s thinking as well as paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s underlying fears of possible chaos. Deng had been persecuted during the Cultural Revolution when Mao Zedong’s Red Guards devastated China. As Black and Munro described it, Deng was unable to distinguish “between peaceful dissent and the last years of Mao’s rule.” But for Chinese citizens who cared about corruption among officials but dared not speak out about it, the students were admired for their courage. For many Chinese, as mentioned earlier, they represented “China’s future.”
Finally, when a massacre occurs, it’s difficult to talk about objectivity. As part of an investigative series that I did for the Post on the deaths caused by Mao’s various campaigns, I had visited a village in China once where all of the men—all of them farmers—had been killed by Red Guards, who accused them of being “capitalists.” There was no “other side of the story” in this case. This was simply madness.
I would like to close out these recollections of Tiananmen with a few words of remembrance for Roderick MacFarquhar, a British journalist, parliamentarian, and a Harvard University professor who died early this year at the age of 88. MacFarquhar (who had invited me to appear at the Harvard panel) was perhaps best known for his three-volume study of Maoist China, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution.
I had gotten to know MacFarquhar during my tour in Beijing. Rod, who would visit Beijing to renew contacts and collect research materials, would stop by my office to chat and photocopy some of the materials that he had gathered. He provided me with useful perspective at a time when China appeared to be opening up to the outside world but still remained under the control of the Communist Party.
In the end, when Deng Xiaoping, China’s supreme leader, decided to send in the PLA to crush the unarmed demonstrators on Tiananmen Square, it didn’t surprise Rod. As he wrote in the New York Review of Books on September 26, 1991, “Deng’s authority was just sufficient to overcome divisions in the military and to engineer the bloody crackdown in the Tiananmen Square.” China’s aged leaders, he wrote, “were offered a peaceful resolution by the students in the uprising of 1989, but they feared the emergence of an independent workers movement like Solidarity” in Poland. The leaders wanted to avoid at all costs what they called “the Polish Disease.” When workers at factories near Beijing began arriving at Tiananmen Square, it marked a turning point. The leaders appeared to feel that it was one thing to have to deal with university students but another to deal with brawny factory workers.
But for some, Rod was also known for welcoming to Harvard leaders of the Chinese student protest movement who fled China following the Tiananmen massacre of early June 1989.
“Rod said that it was incumbent on the community of China scholars to provide support for intellectuals, students, and professors, who were being persecuted,” said Michael A. Szonyi, a professor of Chinese Studies and director of John King Fairbank Center at Harvard. “He made a home for them at Harvard,” Szonyi told editors at the Harvard Crimson.
Among the students Rod welcomed to Harvard was Wang Dan, a student leader whom I, as a reporter, had often observed holding a megaphone at Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. Wang spent five years in prison in China in the 1990s before being released and allowed to travel abroad, later earning a master’s and a doctorate in history at Harvard. Wuer Kaixi, another student leader at Tiananmen Square, studied at Harvard and then went on to get a master’s at Dominican University in California.
Unlike many scholars, who feared that talking publicly about Tiananmen might damage their chances of getting access to China, Rod endorsed a university course on Tiananmen and provided suggestions on how to teach such a course. Harvard students who attended the course, which was taught by the scholar Rowena Xiaoqing He, helped to organize a symposium on April 26, 2014, marking the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. I attended the event as a panelist together with a former student leader named Shen Tong, two old journalist colleagues, and Jeff Widener, the AP photographer who took the famous picture of “tank man” at Tiananmen Square.
Rod will be remembered by many of his former students for his lively teaching style and his ability to explain the Cultural Revolution as a form of madness. According to the Harvard Crimson, his undergraduate course on the Cultural Revolution attracted 600 to 700 students per semester. This made it one of the best-attended courses seen in recent memory at Harvard. It was held at Sanders Theatre, the biggest lecture hall on the campus.
According to Michael G. Forsythe, a former teaching fellow for the course, MacFarquhar would have the fellows dress as Red Guards for the course. They carried copies of The Little Red Book, a collection of writings by Mao Zedong that was widely distributed in China at the time.
“Rod . . . would go up to the lectern and lecture for an hour without any notes, just holding the class spellbound,” Steven M. Goldstein, a professor emeritus of government at Smith College and longtime friend of McFarquhar, told the Crimson. “He was trying to get people to understand the Cultural Revolution, but also understand how a society can go mad.”