The Edge of Chaos
Machines Who Think
Aaron's Code
Tiananmen Square, June 1989




Tiananmen Square, May-June 1989

Pamela McCorduck


June 8, 1989

The Beijing journal entries must be set in context to be understood properly. Thus I include selected entries from earlier days during the previous month when we were traveling elsewhere in China. The names and places are heavily disguised. One Chinese friend—a deeply scarred victim of the Cultural Revolution—told us how shocked he was to see Fox Butterfield "betray" his Chinese friends in Butterfield's Pulitzer Prize Award-winning Alive in the Bitter Sea. "None of these people are safe," he said. "Butterfield didn't do a good enough job of disguising them. When the wheel turns—and it will—there'll be no place for those people to hide." I understood, though when he told me this, it didn't seem as if it could happen so soon. I've tried not to make the same mistake. Thus though the events are chronological, the quotations are from other people, other cities.
By the time we arrived in south China, protestors had already taken over Tiananmen Square in the northern capital of Beijing: it had begun with students, but they'd been joined by office workers and union members.
If I carry away one overwhelming impression of all this, it's that it was a popular uprising in every since: the people—workers, students, intellectuals, farmers, business executives, everybody we talked to, everybody we saw—supported the students. We saw the first sympathy demonstrations in Hong Kong, and thereafter, every city we visited had more and more heated sympathy demonstrations.
Passages in brackets are my later additions and comments.



Guilin, May 18, 1989

Though our lazy guide would have been happy to call it a day twenty minutes after we got off the Li River cruise, an enormous demonstration is taking place in sympathy with the Tiananmen Square demonstrators: all traffic is tied up; it takes us thirty minutes of circling just to get to our hotel. Once there, we ditch the guide and go out to see for ourselves. Peaceful, orderly, but impassioned (and giggly: these aren't students used to publicly speaking out).


Kunming, May 20

Against the advice of our very worried guide, we insist on being left off at the city square this evening, where we can see a rally going on. Our guide's worry [one we'd hear often in China in the next week or two] was that the police were so busy with the student demonstrators that they didn't have time to take care of ordinary business. Thus "bad elements" (where do they get these phrases?) were taking advantage. With our New York City instincts well-honed, we said, okay, we'd take our chances.

At the Kunming rally, we estimate that between 12,000 and 15,000 people are gathered, an awesome sight. Though we're well back on the perimeter (and couldn't understand a word of it if we were closer) we understand the drama.

We are observing—our favorite an old gent in a Mao jacket strolling along wearing a Walkman. But everybody is out—families, couples, old people, young. Ripples of conversation go through the crowd as people point out the foreign devils and wonder why we're there. Nowhere else we've been do we excite such interest.

[Here too began the news blackout that was to follow us off and on through China. The China Daily News, which had felt is freedom and been surprisingly forthright for a few days, an effect perhaps of the journalists marching on behalf of the students, now suddenly ran a front page story on the situation so filled with platitudes and obvious party propaganda that even the most na´ve reader could see that either the report had been "corrected" in the usual party jargon, or the propaganda folks had simply hacked it out themselves—no by-line. Don't they realize how obvious the change is? I asked in my journal, and answered, Being hacks, I suppose not.

The curious thing is how good our news sources were in spite of official bans. We heard endless rumors, but no important news escaped us, even if we finally learned it 24 hours later. Here's how: China has encouraged many to learn English for business and other reasons. English-speaking groups listen religiously to the Voice of America and the BBC, and write down and translate those broadcasts into Chinese. There are also Chinese-language broadcasts from VOA. Those transcriptions soon appear on posters on every telephone pole and wall in China. The Chinese, who are sophisticated about sorting out the news from the non-news, read these posters avidly and compare and contrast with the "official" news. Jamming doesn't help much. What isn't available on short-wave comes in on middle-wave. And, as we didn't know until after we returned to the U.S., fax machines are transmitting information from outside China endlessly.]


Xian, May 22.

The guide tells us the situation is uncertain: students have immolated themselves in Tiananmen Square. So: escalation. [Not true, as it turned out.] Furthermore, she is very dubious about taking us into the inner city—we hear what our Kunming guide told us, that "the police are very busy with the students, so bad elements are taking advantage of the situation." Unfortunately, this guide may be lazy like our first Guilin guide. [Not true, as it turned out. Just deeply frightened.] We are also told no flights are going into Beijing.

A weird dinner in the Chinese restaurant at our hotel, a cavernous place where, half a mile in either direction, there's one Taiwanese couple and one European couple. Otherwise the place is empty. We joke about being on the last plane out. Ha-ha.

One Chinese acquaintance here says bluntly: "We hate our government, you know. Everybody is in sympathy with the students." We're astonished at such bluntness.

This morning I awaken after another of my bizarre China Dreams (Joe says he's having them too-diet, or what?) and immediately think: what if there's a general strike? Our friend's words, that everybody supports the students, has put this in my mind. As I pull out my earplugs, I hear Chinese music coming from outside. Is it reveille from a local commune, or has the military taken over? I do not know.

Down in the lobby at 9:00 a.m., the hotel, which was spookily quiet, has come to life, people waiting to take tours, etc. I'm somewhat reassured by this normalcy. Unfortunately, the hotel is rather far from the center of town, so I have no idea how town is. Nearly an hour since I started trying Hong Kong for a reading, twenty minutes since I handed the problem to the hotel operator (who assures me, as everybody in China who speaks English says, "no problem).

Later. But all international lines are busy forever. We feast on rumors. Students have been killed in Beijing; the army has gone into Tiananmen Square; the army is not there, only on the outskirts of the city. Here, the students march everywhere, carrying funeral arrangements, so they believe deaths have taken place.

We've heard that the farmers are so angry and supportive of the students that they have moved tractors and cars onto the runway of the airport so the army cannot come in massively. In any case, no air traffic in our out of Beijing, and groups of tourists are stranded both there, unable to get out, and here, unable to get in. In the parking lot of the Small Goose Pagoda, we hear the latest: the students have been ordered out or else the army will come in.

With the news blackout, people gather in large groups to read Voice of America and BBC bulletins on telephone poles (this, a Western visitor who's just come back from Beijing tells me, is how news is passed on in Beijing too). Nobody knows what is true. When I tell a Xian friend about the large demonstrations we saw in Guilin and Kunming, he seems genuinely surprised. The government has said only 19 cities were affected, but if backwaters like Guilin and Kunming are having demonstrations, it must be many more cities.

Another friend in Xian says: "We are very disappointed with our government. We wish to replace these people." I say: "I'm surprised you're so candid." The reply: "Nobody would have been until four or five days ago but when people saw the army demonstrating in sympathy with the students, well…"

At the museum, a group passes me with a banner proclaiming themselves "Curators and Archaeological Workers in Sympathy with the Students." A dusty bus has graffiti scratched on it: this driver supports the students. Poor man, I think; I hope he does, and isn't the victim of a joker. A popular leader, Zhao, is rumored to be detained.

We are not officially permitted into the city, and have some words with our guide about this—we haven't come these thousands of miles to look at the outside of the city walls. [We get in unofficially, and things are tense, but hardly threatening.] Joe tells me he gave his lecture at the university with broadcasts of The Internationale as background music, the government taking the last refuge of scoundrels.

No newspapers. TV news is sheer propaganda, we're told, but the English-language news broadcast says the army has not moved into Tiananmen; the students have stopped fasting but are still occupying the square [all true, in the event]. The square is filthy with trash, the news goes on—the Chinese people notice? I think—and supporters of students have blocked roads with trucks, buses, and vegetable stalls. And by the way, public transportation in Beijing is stopped. The army is sympathetic to the students and "only wishes to restore public order." It is indeed martial law, officially. Then the news says an important bridge in Wuhan has been disrupted, but traffic is now back to normal, now for sports and the weather… I feel as if I'm in a nineteenth century novel: "Rumors were sweeping the city." We are told that rumor-spreading is a punishable offense under the Chinese system.

The China Daily finally burps out a business section (only) which we scrutinize. "Foreign business reaction to protests," says the headline of an article with a generally upbeat tone, including this gem: "An employee at Daimler-Benz Beijing office in the CITIC building said she was aware of the students' slogan that government officials should auction their Mercedes Benz automobiles and use the money to pay the nation's foreign debts. "Of course I'm not happy about this," she said. "We want to have more business in China. Although our cars cost a little more than other foreign cars, they save on maintenance…."


Hangzhou, May 24

The plane to Hangzhou is an old Russian prop job, and my knees are battered by the seat ahead of me, an improvement, I'm sure, over the man on the aisle who finds one part of his seatbelt freefloating in his left hand, simply detached from its anchor.

[Awaiting us at the airport is a Western friend, Steve, also traveling in China, whose itinerary coincided with ours in this city, though he and others who met us were delayed by demonstrations in the city center. We exchange information—he's been advised that his Beijing host cannot take responsibility for inviting him. Since he's borrowed a short-wave radio, he's been listening to the VOA, and tells us that 1.5 million were in Tiananmen Square yesterday—not reported in the TV news—moreover, Bechtel is pulling out all its employees. An overreaction, in Steve's view, ours too. Later: Bechtel's employees turned out to be three, they went to Hong Kong, and were returned to Beijing the same day we entered that city.]

A friend takes me past a worker's center, and at my request, translates the wall poster. It says that the government should resign, that even the South Africans had to pay attention to those who fasted, but this fascist government ("you sure you've got that word right?" I say) wouldn't and didn't deserve to remain in power. Of course the workers supported the brave students in Tiananmen Square—they spoke for all Chinese who were fed up, etc., etc. IN CHINA? IN PUBLIC?

Later that afternoon, we exchanged political jokes, though all I could really manage was The Vegetable: everything else required vast amounts of explanation. [Not the best but the most persistent, with variations in every city we visited: "Beijing is a place where 85-year-olds consult with 75-year-olds to see which 65-year-olds should retire."]

One of the great targets of popular wrath has been Deng's son (who in fact was tossed out a window and lost a leg during the Cultural Revolution). A big poster warned that if he didn't change his profiteering ways, he was likely to lose the other leg. And then there were the pictures of Zhou and Deng, the first captioned "Some men are dead and yet they live," the second captioned "And some seem alive but are really dead." It comes from a famous poem, they say. They also say Deng has outlived his tenure—if he'd resigned a year or two ago, he'd go down in history gloriously for his reforms. But now… The subtext is the general view that Mao was gaga from the early '60s on, hence all the horrors of the Cultural Revolution; everybody's afraid Deng is gaga too.

Mao, in fact, is enjoying something of a comeback. I hear The East is Red and other such 60s Greatest Hits. How come? I ask again and again; has this generation forgotten the Cultural Revolution? No, but as somebody explains it to me, at least under Mao we were all poor together. Now, greed and profits are all that matter, and if you aren't in a business that permits profits, you suffer greatly. Inflation has been running 30% per year, and most workers are on fixed incomes.

As an example of profiteering (aside from the endless stories about Deng's son) somebody tells me this story: China has a one-child policy, as everybody knows. When he and his wife found a two-year-old in the street, obviously separated accidentally from its parents, they went to the local police station to report it. The police officer in charge turned his back disdainfully. "You're a rich man," he said. "You can get 16,000 yuan ($5000—five years' salary) in the next province for that kid." Yes, but being parents themselves, couldn't imagine doing such a thing. He had to force the police officer to take his name and address, and within an hour, the child's frantic parents gratefully came for their child. "But that typifies the official attitude," he said bitterly.

Most striking now is the air of joy, of ebullience. Our friends have ranged from hopeful to downright distracted, but H. was high, no other word for it. He speculated that only good changes could emerge from all this: the people were taking their destiny into their own hands. He made it clear he wasn't interested in China's becoming more capitalistic—he seemed contemptuous of those people who bought clothes cheap in Guangzhou and sold them at great profit in the far north, and he found my elementary explanations of risk and return and market demand unconvincing.

But he loved it that he could speak freely to me, that we exchanged bits and pieces of rumor—VOA, China Daily, and when we eventually got hold if it, the Herald-Trib. He lamented the fact that there was no way to get ahead—no meritocracy. He said everybody knew the best brains in China were outside the country—the system drove them out. That's why all Chinese Nobel laureates lived somewhere else. But he was deeply, happily hopeful, and I hadn't the heart to mention what all this reminds me of, the Prague Spring. I suddenly hated those old men who squeezed a billion H.'s for the sake of an ideal gone bad; hated them viscerally, passionately.

Dinner with intellectuals. They have come from an emergency meeting and are much distracted, not at all high like H. We suspect something important has happened with "the situation" but don't know what. [It will emerge that a hit-list of 40 intellectuals has been drawn up by the hard-liners for future action, it's said. If our friends aren't on it, their friends are. And they themselves will be. Memories of the Cultural Revolution are deep and distressing.]

On a tourist boatride the next morning, a stranger practices his English spontaneously: "We hate our government, you know." Be careful! I want to cry out. But it's past that.


Shanghai, May 30

We discover that while we've been rusticating in Souzhou, a fifth of Hong Kong took to the streets to protest the Beijing government, and Sunday, downtown Shanghai was paralyzed by demonstrations. However, our direct news from Beijing has been soothing. [We weren't dopes. We were in constant touch with high-level folks from both our government and the Chinese: they assured us that things had calmed down considerably, that only the tag-end of students were still in the Square, and that we could come to Beijing with safety. This was the reassurance we got up until the moment we boarded the plane for Beijing. And we weren't the only ones so reassured.]

Political discussions with L., and I muse on those self-deluded old men in Beijing, using Qing Dynasty methods in an electronic world. It can work for hours, but not longer. Bravo, VOA. But the cynicism about the government is deep and wide. If the Cultural Revolution didn't do it (and it did for most) this does. All those bright kids too young to remember the CR are getting their political education by the barrelful with all this—and encouraged to learn English so they can enter commerce, they end up learning other things too.

In the Shanghai museum, where my guide teaches me to look at Chinese painting in a way I never have, I see the politics there too. A persistent motif: the solitary scholar and his servant, escaping from the city's persecutions. "Why do you think all those beautiful gardens you love were created?" the guide asks sweetly. In other words, intellectual-bashing is an old, old game in China.

Another dinner with intellectuals, one of them now very well-placed indeed; nevertheless, showing physical signs of the beatings he endured during the CR. When asked what advice he'd give to President Bush, he warms up: Please do not comment upon nor interfere with internal Chinese affairs. It soon emerges he means not only the events in Tiananmen Square, but also the birth control nonsense. "You need only walk down Nanjing Road to see China's problem…" Joe reacts passionately, speaking for us both: we agree it's lunatic, for if China doesn't solve that problem, solving all other problems doesn't matter. And no kind words for the VOA from him, either. It's biased, and reports only what suits it. (Bias probably; what suits it, true: today's news included the birth announcement of Elvis's grandchild.) To this I don't reply, but have many thoughts, including that if the Chinese government permitted a freer press, there'd be no listeners to VOA. Moreover, a generation of Chinese have, willy-nilly, cultivated exquisite sensitivity to government bullshit—any government's.


Beijing, June 3.

And so we arrive. So much for granted have we taken our witty, eloquent and marvelous guides that it comes as a real disappointment to get one with little English and less imagination. We presume he usually guides Des Moines boilermakers. When we ask about tickets to the opera, he confesses he's never been to one. [How I missed my Shanghai guide, whose English was faultlessly colloquial; who led me through the museum so thoughtfully that he finally had to admit, yes, he'd painted a bit when he was a kid…]

But, piss-and-moan: to the main event. After a less than enlightening tour around the Temple of Heaven (and it is Beijing summer hot, and the shocking Great American Gut is out in force—the Rotarians have come in droves from Seoul: one wants to rush home and do situps) we say goodbye to our guide and go off to Tiananmen Square, where of course our guide cannot take us. [I've asked that we stay at the Peking Hotel, about two short blocks from Tiananmen Square, so that if I want to walk to the Forbidden City, I can do so while Joe is away giving talks. Of course we've requested, and get, a front facing room with balcony that looks out on to Dong Changan, and can see the Square close by.]

Rumors abound—that the army sent some people in plain clothes in, that an army truck got entangled with a bicycle, etc. But the Square itself is relatively quiet in the late afternoon heat.

Rows of tents have been set up, ranging from two-man camping tents (donated by the dozens by a Japanese firm, Nikko) to full-sized olive-drab army tents, to makeshift structures covered with the red-white-and-blue striped plastic that usually protects construction sites here. The tents are arrayed neatly, careful rows, each with one or two silk banners, mainly red—it's actually quite festive.

The crowd is very good-natured; people are having their photos taken in front of the Goddess of Liberty just as if it were a tourist attraction (and so it is—even has its own private-venture freelance photographer snapping Polaroids for those who neglected to bring their own). Cold drink and ice cream vendors do a brisk business. Two beautiful young women pass me, one in shocking pink, one in yellow, carrying matching parasols. I take that in pleasurably, then suddenly stop: this is China! Last time I was here, nobody wore anything but blue trousers and white shirts.

The students are relaxed, many sleeping because of the heat, chatting amiably with people who've come to gawk, with each each other. An almost mischievous young man sees us, assumes we're Americans, and shouts joyously: "Freedom!" We give him the thumbs up sign. The loudspeaker is blaring; a chubby kid sits in the shadow of the monument guarding (or anyway, running) the portable generator, himself protected by aluminum sun lounges lying on edge.

Kids are flaked out in the pedestrian subway beneath Dong Changan, sleeping out the heat. It reminds me of Penn Station.

We go to dinner, come back around 8:30. Joe decides to go down to the Square again, and I'd go too, except I have a blister and am exhausted thanks to our Shanghai schedule.

9:55 p.m. Cries have been sounding outside the window of our Beijing Hotel room, but suddenly they increase, and I get up and go to the balcony where I see soldiers going past on foot. They trot—jog—down Dong Changan toward the Square. About 200, no more, jogging two and three abreast, unarmed so far as I can see. They're on the edge of the road in the bike lane, and when people reach out to stop them, they're rough about kicking and pushing away. But I'm puzzled. What can 200 do? Meanwhile, Beijing is doing calm talking heads. Unless the main force is west, this is a very token force. Tiananmen Square looks crammed with people. All traffic—bike and foot—streaming to the Square. A great mass of people east of here, stopped. Can't see in the dark whether it's the army, or people massed the block the army.

G. has called us twice today from Hong Kong to reassure us. We missed him both times, once because we were in the Square, and once out to dinner. His assistant, A., calls to tell us: a terrible situation for Beijing Chinese, but tourists needn't worry. As I write Joe's down in the Square to see the action. Loudspeakers from the square, much clapping. A tidal wave of humans comes from the square—hence the clapping?

10:15 p.m. More cheering, clapping. Nothing organized—just millions of white shirts on bikes. In the dim light, the effect is hypnotic, especially 15 stories above. Now solid people as far as the eye can see. An overwhelming, once-in-a-lifetime sight. A few unlucky taxis, trapped like flies in molasses, as the people swarm around them. An ambulance trying to get through. The crowd is odd to watch—everyone moving east, then suddenly, traffic in both directions. But the immense drama of that many people. Chaos yet orderly. I feel as if I'm seeing a demonstration of some arcane physics principle. [Which I am, but I don't know that until ten years later.] Utterly incomprehensible from here. Where did the 200 soldiers go? Joe out there in all this. [Wearing only sandals on his feet, I learn later.]

Comes back, says it was "surreal." He saw no sign of the army. We wake again at 2:30 a.m.—much turmoil outside. I think of these brave people in shirtsleeves on their bicycles, trying to face down a modern army.


June 4.

Somehow they came. The Square is burning, occupied with troops. Between us and them (less than two blocks) four buses burn on Dong Changan around us. Breakfast is tense, the staff distracted. Some provisions haven't made it through. [We didn't then know that a woman had been killed at the hotel's entrance; two others injured. We also had no real idea of the carnage at the Square.]

People here in the hotel who saw it tell us the troops and tanks came in about 5:00 a.m., many students killed. We can see a line of tanks facing down Dong Changan toward us—so east—a dozen in one line, perhaps that many more further behind them by the gate of the Forbidden City. One line of troops lies across Dong Changan in front of the tanks, another stands behind that line. Palpable tension.

Of course we heard the ambulances last night, but we'd heard them all afternoon. Then a sleeping pill and earplugs, and I was lost to history. A French TV man says CBS has been arrested. [True. Richard Roth and a cameraman were beaten and detained for 19 hours.] The Beijing contacts advise stay put. I'm slightly concerned about fire. Hard to escape from the 15th floor, and one assumes most services are blocked.

10:10 a.m. The troops open on the civilians, who scatter. Almost magically, two ambulances arrive (we're near the main hospital, which also made us think last night's ambulances might be routine. We also heard gunfire last night, which I thought with undue hope was firecrackers).

10:20 a.m. An ambulance is set on fire by the troops, shooting in earnest, many now dead on Dong Changan. Machine-gun fire. I estimate 15 – 20 bodies left on the road. The civilians move back. Heartbreaking: the little bicycle carts and pedicabs are moving out to pick up the bodies. A dozen acts of heroism before our eyes—all on bike and foot. I think of the Paris taxis that took the troops out to the front in World War I. The pedicabs of Beijing—obnoxious pests the rest of the time—have suddenly become heroes. Someone on a stretcher is borne out of the hotel. We dart in and out, unwilling to catch stray bullets, but also find the drama compelling. The army has moved its line nearer the hotel, east along Dong Changan.

Make that number of dead remaining at least twenty. Haven't these people heard of tear gas?

I think of the kids I saw yesterday at Tiananmen Square, the chubby young guy running the power generator, the earnest but composed young women I saw on bunks under tents. The Goddess of Liberty—yesterday a tourist attraction—gone. A helicopter has been circling overhead. Since it's not military, we assume it's the state news.

[We later thought it was a medevac. Others speculated it was removing bodies in the square for creation so nobody would ever know the real number of fatalities. This seemed to me implausible, since bodies could simply have been burned with gasoline on the spot. Why resort to such high-tech means? Still, we got incontrovertible evidence that the troops were using armor-piercing bullets, an expensive way to eradicate unarmed civilians: why? Probably because they and not ordinary bullets were at hand. So maybe the helicopter was being put to such gruesome use after all.]

10:55 a.m. Sustained gunfire. The pedicabs and three-wheel carts are hauling the dead and wounded away again. The troops haven't moved, so the civilians must have entered the no-man's zone.

Joe collecting phone numbers of airlines, but of course it's Sunday, all are closed, and our CITS [China International Travel Service] guide never showed, so getting to the airport is another problem entirely. A. tells us "no problem" getting a flight out; everyone who'll leave has already gone. Well, this I doubt. We'll try to get to Japan, figuring Hong Kong will itself be in open rebellion.

Part of me is tempted to move out to the Lido Holiday Inn, halfway to the airport. But that would be prudently dull. We are utterly abandoned by CITS. No guide, no phone call; no one answers a phone there.

11:50 a.m. More sustained gunfire. It echoes down Dong Changan. The bikes stream east, away from the soldiers. The speed of the bikes an almost dream-like, slow-motion thing. Moving at such a speed, things do seem surreal. That's part of what Joe meant about the Square last night.

The troops, it seems, came up perpendicular to Dong Changan as well as along it, and we hear civilians hit the soldiers with rocks to try and get them to stop; the soldiers fired into the air, then kicked people and shot them. After a rather awful lunch, us forcing food down because we don't know when we'll eat next, we wander to the front door and see a large bullet hole has shattered the glass. This may be why we saw someone carried out. [In fact, windows were shattered on the second and fifth floors of the hotel also. Other hotel guests would later tell us they saw gunfire from the bushes at the west wing of the hotel, as if the army had stationed plainclothesmen there to help the machine guns do their job—as if they needed any help. But it was true that by Monday, gunfire sounded very much closer than the gun emplacements.]

1:55 p.m. Almost on the hour, spurts of sustained gunfire. The crowd rolls back. The helicopter, which we now presume is a medevac, keeps going by just above our window. Finally tear gas, maybe. The skies are darkening. Is Beijing about to have one of its famous afternoon downpours? The air has been hot and dry, full of fine dust from the desert. Billowing smoke from the southern part of the city, where an American Soldier of Fortune has told us the convoys of troops are. Presumably trucks set afire by the enraged people. Chants of protest.

3:40 p.m. Lee and Sandy call [Pamela's brother-in-law and sister.] To them it sounds ominous—it is. [Sandy will tell me later that she never heard my voice sound like that before; such iron control it sounded like a stranger's.] A. calls and advises us to wait until tomorrow—again. R. calls from Hong Kong, interrupting A. A thundershower clears the street considerably of civilians, but the army is still in place, of course. Apparently there will be a general strike in Hong Kong.

[The international phones kept on working, even though our hotel, the nearest to Tiananmen Square was crawling with foreign journalists, who were sending the word out: all this reaffirming that the Middle Kingdom doesn't give a shit what the world thinks; it only wants to control the minds of its own 1.1 billion.]

The American Embassy advises us to stay put tonight, try and get out ASAP thereafter, but not without prior arrangements—that is, bookings and confirmations. Tonight hopeless because of both civilian and military roadblocks, troops on the road.

Lee calls us back with confirmed reservations on Tuesday, bless him. Now all we have to do is reach the airport. Hope that we get through before the general strike (say) and yet after things have calmed down enough to permit passage.

The rain has lifted a bit. One hears the sound of a power saw cutting metal—the burned out buses in other streets being sawn into pieces? Strangely, one hears the birds…

6:00 p.m. Quiet out front, but I can hear heated chanting from what seems south of the Square. And gunfire.

After dinner (somewhat Spartan) we stroll out the front entrance. I realize what the two minibuses are doing there—blocking all but one small entrance, just in case. And as we're taking in the evening air, a pedicab pulls up, one young Chinese, one young Caucasian, bearing enormous boxes—take-out from the Palace Hotel! ("I don't blame 'em," says a permanent resident of the Peking Hotel; "I'm getting pretty sick of the food here myself.")

[Over dinner we've met this permanent resident, formerly a professor in the U.S. He himself saw the tanks coming up Dong Changan as we were dead asleep, phoned his wife in the U.S. so she could hear the noise and gunfire firsthand. He tells us certain pieces of gossip that turn out to be false. But one which seems not to be is that the troops were kept isolated for weeks, not allowed to read papers or see TV; they were told they were coming in to put down an insurrection. They're "peasant boys, 16 or 17, frightened to death themselves." Many tales (some perhaps even true) of little old ladies lying down in front of the tanks all these weeks, preventing them from moving closer in.]

8:50 p.m. An enormous burst of gunfire torches a bus in front of the hotel. Eerily, the hotel lights (outside) go off; the streetlights come on. We still have electricity, but for how long?

10:00 p.m. Very still outside. In some ways that's stranger than the noise. More rain, which people seem to hate more than bullets. Though it clears, and damps the torched bus, few people have come back. Lights on in the city as if normal. Perhaps a curfew has been imposed. I wonder if we'll wake tomorrow to find ourselves inside the military perimeter. [During the day, I saw an ambulance, clearly marked, and bearing a white flag, simply go up in flames as it was trying to rescue—the result, I now guess, of the indiscriminate use of armor-piercing bullets.]

10:35 p.m. Presumably I hear the tanks coming up. I do. Menacing. I'm deeply frightened. They patrol Dong Changan until we go to sleep.


June 5.

We waken to what's become "normalcy," the troops in place, the tanks behind them. A young waitress at breakfast asks if we're frightened. Yes, we say. I am too, she says. She lives five minutes walk from the hotel, and says walking is normal.

Our telephone is cut—perhaps because of all the foreign reporters in the hotel. The foreign currency exchange is closed—no reason given, just closed. Luckily (I guess) CITS is across the road, so Joe can go there on foot. Even luckier, there's a pedestrian subway, so if gunfire breaks out…but we have no idea if they can help us.

The floorman shows us that our phone was off the hook in the bathroom: our phone was off the hook! No sooner in place than our guide calls us, will try and get us to (and into) the Holiday Inn, halfway to the airport. We shall see.

American Embassy advises—nothing startling. Perhaps tomorrow will be calmer, they say. In fact, today is superficially calmer. No gunfire up and down Dong Changan, though we've heard it sporadically elsewhere. A loudspeaker is giving obviously official announcements—that is, as calm and uninflected as a computer.

Last night I dreamed I was descending a metal staircase thousands of feet above the ground. I turned to go down it backwards, ladder style, so I wouldn't have to look at my destination. Of course it metamorphosed into a lacy, 19th century wrought-iron ladder; through its filigree I could still see the distant ground, and felt vertigo coming on; I would fall—

10:00 a.m. The hourly gunfire down Dong Changan. Perhaps in the air; people are scattering; no casualties that we can see. I look down into Tiananmen Square and see a little pile of white rubble, all that remains of the Goddess of Liberty—but that that remains is a small miracle. And of course it remains in people's memories, and on their snapshots.

At 11:00 a.m. our guide showed up and said the driver was outside waiting, as indeed he was. Outside on Dong Changan, that is, the gates having been wired shut. I'd dressed carefully: black shirt and pants in case I didn't want to be seen, white shirt over it, in case I did (or needed a white flag), sweater, raingear. We carried water, no food. We rush out, pursued by the floorman who knows we've paid our minibar bill, but the paperwork hasn't been done properly, toss our suitcases over the fane and climb over after them. A very nervous moment when the driver pulls out onto the avenue—I've timed the gun volleys and they usually come five to ten minutes before the hour. We weave through the bicycles and metal road dividers mangled by the tanks, then turn north on Wangfujing Street. Though it's full of people, none of the shops are open. At each intersection there are burned-out bus hulks, the people's ramparts. Aside from circling the bus hulks and one burned-out army jeep, the trip to the Lido Holiday Inn, a spot in the country halfway to the airport, is relatively serene, not at all what we were expecting. 

Once here, we say goodbye to our guide (no culture, maybe, but guts) and driver and thank them for their courage—for if all was calm, we had no right to expect that. And indeed later, people from the Beijing Hotel recognize us, and tell us they left an hour and a half after us only by bribing a taxi driver with 300 yuan. They also tell us that just after we left, the tanks rolled down Dong Changan, and "one brave little guy" ran out in front of them, and they tried to evade him. Finally he crawled up on a gun turret and someone came out; they had a talk, and then the brave little guy's friends pulled him off, and the tanks rolled on. [This is a story and image that will become iconic in newspapers around the world. Who he was, and what happened to him, remain mysteries.]

The Beijing Holiday Inn is a different world. People are laughing, griping, pissing about lunch plans. When I've said goodbye to our guide in the lobby, I sit down and am suddenly overcome with grief for all the misery and hopeless courage of flesh vs. tanks—I begin to cry for the first time, but pull myself together. An American, whose young son has just understandably been complaining about being cooped up in the hotel, turns to me.

"Been here long?"

"About five minutes."

"Where did you come from?"

"The city center."

Having expected to hear Shanghai or Souzhou, I have his alert attention. "How are things there?"

"Unspeakable," I say. "Simply unspeakable." And he doesn't press me, which tells me how my face must look.

We call and get Jordan [Pamela's 8-year-old nephew] who's equipped with a list of questions—where are we, room number, etc., for San and Lee have gone to a party, but they call us back almost immediately. They're frantically relieved to hear we've made it this far: much family burbling and loving jokiness. God bless my brother-in-law, who must have pulled every string on earth and under heaven to get us those plane tickets.

San says: "We were praying for you in church today." I thank her, but the funny thing is, I knew it. Sometime in the morning after breakfast, I felt a great rush of comfort, and thought, Mom is praying for me. I could actually feel it. I didn't realize, of course, it was the combined forces. It was only a momentary feeling, but I knew exactly what it was. Must tell San this. And she adds, God love her, "I know this doesn't count for much under the circumstances, but it wasn't a broken pipe under your bathroom you'll be glad to know." I start to laugh, and she understands perfectly.

All the kids want to talk to each of us, which touches me.
We try to sleep, and do so for a while, until one of our multiple guardians calls to make sure we're all right.

Fine, so we turn on TV and miraculously, there's CNN, uncensored, showing the carnage. We'd heard many rumors and God knows seen more than enough; official Beijing radio had reported no civilian casualties, but a thousand military casualties "thanks to the troublemakers and insurgents."

But there's Dan Rather, and there are shots of not-so-dear-old Dong Changan, the Avenue of Eternal Peace, obviously taken with a telephoto lens from our hotel. How these films got to Japan is a mystery to me, but the world knows. Far more than most in Beijing know. The hospitals and morgues are overflowing: the force was brutal beyond belief.

I think: does the world know you don't need whole divisions to suppress unarmed students? But you do need them to suppress a city of eleven million, and this is what's happening. If ever there was such a thing as a popular uprising, this is it. But what's a few thousand to a government that, in its time, has killed tens, maybe hundreds of thousands?

The troops keep pouring in, and nobody can figure out why; what comes next. Tiananmen has been secured; the city is under martial law de facto as well as de jure.

After these thirty-six, forty-eight hours I am not calme et tranquille.
A Chinese-American in the elevator tells us dolefully that he can't get out until Saturday. "Of course the airport will be closed within two days." Why? Troops in support of the students (i.e., the contra-Deng faction) may be brought in; perhaps civil war is imminent. We take this in with a large grain of salt, but it would help to explain the numbers of troops in Beijing.

The lobby jammed. A quartet plays light classics, the musicians all Chinese, the music all European. As the Titanic sank…


June 6

Just before I fell asleep, I heard gunfire. I then heard my blood pounding in my dears for five minutes, a sign of our stress. Up at 5:45, and after an inedible breakfast (dry grapenuts moistened with watermelon chunks) we make our way outside for the Holiday Inn shuttle. Though we're first or second in line, we're soon pushed into the driveway by the mass of folks and luggage behind us. An American woman tells me she's heard the Peking Hotel was to be evacuated today anyway. The military wants it for HQ. If true, that tells me my worst fears about this conflict are true. [That is, civil war. We could never confirm the Peking Hotel story, though we heard it from three different sources.]

Joe persuades a rattletrap cab to take us to the airport for the staggering sum of 150 yuan—and so we speed down the road to the airport, our fellow travelers wishing us luck, and go for it, the trunk flying in the breeze, since it won't close, my feet wedged onto the jumper cables on the back floor, but so what! Arrive at the airport at 7:15 a.m., and things are already jumping, except for the bureaucracy, which is moving at its usual pace. One man inquires reasonably how he's supposed to get his luggage X-rayed if X-ray doesn't open until 9:00 and his flight is at 8:00?

[As any reader can tell I maintained my sanity by maintaining my journal. It goes on and on. To summarize: the airport was pandemonium, though probably not as bad as it would get a day or two later. In the various lines we met other Columbia faculty, and even H. T. Kung's former brother-in-law! For the first time in my life, I regretted my occupation was on my exit visa.

The flight we were now scheduled to leave on (a week before we'd intended to leave China) normally comes in from Tokyo on a Monday night, the crew overnights in Beijing, and then flies out Tuesday morning. UAL had indeed flown in last night, taken a look at the situation, and flown crew and plane back to Tokyo. We spent anxious moments wondering whether the plane would come back to fetch us that Tuesday morning. Even when we were all aboard and buckled up, immigration service came aboard and said the plane must be detained: "Two passengers have not had their passports stamped." For five tense minutes we waited for that to sort itself out, me suspecting these two wanted asylum and to be taken with us; or that it was a transparent ploy to keep us from leaving; but no, it was the very inventors of bureaucracy keeping up a venerable tradition. Another ten minutes waiting for clearance—not a plane has come in or out for hours, but we need ten minutes for clearance! Six hours to the minute after we'd arrived at Beijing International Airport, we lifted off. Gratefully.

We were eventually persuaded to go back to China in 2003 by David Lee, one of Joe's former Ph.D. students. David had endured horrible circumstances during the Cultural Revolution—a story in itself—had miraculously got out, earned his Ph.D. at Columbia, and then later returned to found Bell Labs China. "If I can go back, so can you," he argued, and he was right. It too was another memorable trip, but as if to another country than the one we'd so gratefully left in 1989.]

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Modified: July 03, 2012