Thoughts on Tiananmen, 30 years later

The “Tank Man” in Tienanmen Square, June 3, 1989

Twenty years ago I was was a young English teacher at Nankai University in Tianjin, China. Located 70 miles southeast of Beijing, Tianjin is the country’s third largest city. It’s also China’s largest port city and the fifth largest deep water port in the world. When I lived there between 1998 and 2000 the place was a capitalist’s dream, with locals and foreigners opening businesses at a head-spinning pace. There was also a surprising – for an American, anyway – degree of freedom. As long as we didn’t touch on The Three T’s – Tibet, Taiwan, and Tienanmen – we foreign teachers could address most any topic.

There was a small section of Nankai’s campus known as “foreigners’ street.” Several restaurants gamely served versions of European and American fare, and there was a shop where you could purchase familiar brands of snacks and essentials along with international versions of the New York Times and Investors Business Daily. The crux of expat life at Nankai was at the end of the street, in a bar and restaurant called Alibaba’s. The restaurant was owned by a Pakistani family, and they served Pakistani, Indian, American, and Chinese food along with Budweiser, Carlsberg, and Heineken beer. There was also a local Tianjin brew called – you can’t make this up – Whiz.

Nothing beats a refreshing bottle of Whiz!

Aside from the fare and camaraderie, a highlight of Alibaba’s was the restaurant’s CNN feed. The internet was in its infancy, smart phones didn’t exist, and connections to the outside world were sporadic at best. Catching the 25 minute international edition of CNN – and hearing James Earl Jones’s familiar booming “This . . . is CNN” was one of our only connections to home.

Then came the start of April, 1999. As the country prepared for the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre the body politic took a decidedly dark turn. In the second week of the month Alibaba’s CNN feed began experiencing intermittent interruptions. It was cut for good by the end of the month. Around the same time the Times and IBD stopped showing up at the shop. International phone calls back home became increasingly difficult, and when we were able to connect at all there was an enormous amount of background noise: Chinese officials wanted us to know we were being monitored.

It wasn’t just the foreigners’ street at cloistered university. The 1989 protests ultimately spread to hundreds of cities throughout China and shook the Chinese Communist Party to its core. As the anniversary approached the entire country became tangibly tense. You felt it in places like Datong and Guilin as much as in Tianjin and Beijing. Everyone and everything felt twitchy, off, unsettled. Understandably so: While there were antecedents in Chinese history to the June 4, 1989 massacre in which government soldiers murdered as many as 2,500 civilians, no one in China seemed to know what to expect from this anniversary. Premier Jiang Zemin fell uncharacteristically quiet. The entire country became a hushed place, waiting for an event, a spasm, a conflagration that felt as inevitable as it was inscrutable.

Suffice it to say, it was an odd experience for a middle class American. An entire population’s behavior changed, like a massive flock of swallows suddenly changing course in accordance with some powerful, invisible impulse. The most surreal part was the silence from official outlets: CCTV continued its usual propaganda and China Daily kept up its daily lambasting of the United States. No one said anything overt, there were no official orders, but everyone still knew: It’s coming. A billion people were communicating without speaking, and everyone seemed afraid.

The last weekend of April I took a day trip to Beijing with two friends. We visited the square, and for a summer day it was eerily bereft of people. At one point, a man opened an umbrella. He had scrawled messages including “Down with corruption!” and “Remember the brave martyrs of June 1989!” In an instant he was swarmed by plainclothes police, who seemed to be virtually the only other people in the square besides us. They hustled him into a van, which sped off. I shudder to imagine his fate. One of the police approached a German couple, grabbed the man’s video camera and smashed it to the ground.

Back in Tianjin, in the early morning hours of May 8 those of us living in Nankai’s foreign teachers’ building were awakened by the sounds of shouting and chanting outside. It was a scene out of a movie: A massive thunderstorm was pummeling the city and lighting up the sky with lightening bolts, many of them striking the 1,300-foot TV tower in the city center. Amidst the storm we heard what sounded like hundreds and soon thousands of voices rising in protest. There were chants and songs, calls and responses, spontaneous ululations. At around two a.m., from my little balcony I started to see students pouring down the campus’s main road toward the gate.

As foreigners we were literally locked into the building every night, lest we roam free and foment democracy in the wee small hours. We gathered in the apartment of a family from Washington state who were the fulcrum of our little community of expat Americans, and discussed what to do. As the sounds of protest grew we decided to bust out. If history was being made we were going to witness it. Ignoring the cries of the woman whose thankless job was to watch the entrance overnight to make sure we didn’t slip out and spread capitalist decadence under cover of darkness, we broke the lock and ran through the storm toward the growing mass of protesting students.

The first sign that all was not as we thought came when we reached the university gates and the main boulevard. Many more thousands of people had filled the streets, which were lined with government buses and trucks, including scores of the ubiquitous big blue transport trucks that plied the countryside transporting crops to market and agricultural supplies to the thousands of small farms in the country’s north east. They’d been haphazardly converted into transports for people, and apparently had made the trip from well outside the city to bring thousands more to the protest. It made no sense. As we watched farmers and workers joining the students in the protest, I turned to one of my colleagues and asked incredulously, “Wait, the government bused people in to protest itself?” Scores of PLA soldiers and police also filled the streets, some of them even joining the protesters.

It was only then that the adrenaline tapered off and we stopped to listen to what the people were shouting. Instead of the expected “Down with corruption,” and “Let the flowers of democracy blossom” (two famous refrains from the 1989 protests) we heard, “Down with America!”

Wait, what? Down with America? What on earth was going on? After all, the late 90s were a good time for U.S.-China relationships. In June 1998 Bill Clinton became the first U.S. President to visit China since Tiananmen. When I’d first arrived in Shanghai less than a after that historic visit shop windows were still filled with American flags and full size cardboard cutouts of Clinton himself. Being an American in China at that time was to be something of a curiosity and even a minor celebrity. I lost count of the glasses of beer and cups of tea to which I was treated by locals who just wanted to know more about my country, the people who stopped me in the street to ask in broken English about life in America.

As the mood on the street seemed to turn increasingly antagonistic a group of my friend’s students walked by. In our best Mandarin we asked what was going on. I’ll never forget one girl’s answer: “We are protesting the American attack on our embassy! America has killed three Chinese and declared war on our country!”

A nearby group of clearly intoxicated young men heard the exchange. They began chanting, “War with America! Victory for China! War with America! Victory for China!” Never in my life had I felt so scared and alone. At that moment there was no one within a thousand miles who could have helped us. As the young men confronted us a detachment of police encircled them in turn – and us. They allowed a few minutes of what amounted to a free-for-all, as the men threw drunken punches and tried to wrestle us to the ground. Even in the midst of a situation that was rapidly spiraling out of control I remember feeling a distinct sense that things somehow remained under control, if only barely. Maybe it was the looks in the soldiers’ eyes, the nonchalance with which they watched the crowd attack us. I experienced a moment of profound cognitive dissonance: I feared for my life, yet somehow trusted these foreign, if not outright adversarial, soldiers ultimately to save us. Sure enough, after a few minutes the soldiers closed ranks around us. They shoved the throng of young men out of the way and escorted (I use the term loosely) us back down the main campus road and back to our building. That locked front door no longer just kept us inside, it kept the protesters out.

We would spend the next several days locked inside, with armed soldiers providing a protective cordon. Students threw rocks and rotten food at our windows, shattering several and prompting sleepless nights. At one point my roommate – with the best of intentions – went out to the balcony, unfurled an American flag, and gave a peace sign. Unfortunately, the protesting students thought he was giving a victory symbol and went berserk. That night someone threw a Molotov cocktail through our shattered window and lit our carpet on fire. For the remainder of my time in that apartment it reeked of burned carpet and the pot of Jasmine tea I used to snuff the fire once and for all. The university set up a “Talking Wall” around the corner where hundreds of students wrote anti-U.S. messages and drew pictures, including one of Bill Clinton dressed up like Adolf Hitler giving the Nazi salute. All the while, CCTV maintained a relentless drumbeat of anti-U.S. propaganda.

After about a week, it all stopped. It was as if the government had flipped the On switch on May 8, and flipped the Off switch on the 15th. Not so much as a hint of protest remained. CCTV and China Daily reverted to form with critical but measured reportage about the U.S.. If there’s such a thing as political whiplash China experienced it.

The United States embassy in Beijing, May 15, 1999

As soon as we were able several of us took the train to Beijing to register with the U.S. Embassy. Suffice it to say there were some panicked family members back home. We discovered that protesters had trashed the building and grounds. Windows were boarded up and a foot-deep layer of garbage covered the ground. Protesters had thrown paint and rotten garbage at the walls. When we arrived we were greeted and quickly escorted inside by Marines in combat gear. I’ve never been more grateful to step foot on U.S. soil.

Many theories have been proffered as to the cause of the U.S. bombing. President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeline Albright stuck to the official line that the bombing was a mistake attributable to an outdated map. In contrast, an investigation by the UK Guardian concluded the attack was in fact intentional, due to the fact that the Chinese had been providing electronic intelligence assistance to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. There were also suggestions that the Chinese, still decades behind the West militarily, were eager to learn about U.S. cruise missile and stealth technologies (after all, the Serbs successfully downed an F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter during the conflict).

Personally I have long suspected another explanation. Except for the Great Cultural Revolution, the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square and around the country arguably constituted the single most significant political moment in the history of the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership of the country. The difference was that the Cultural Revolution began as official government program, whereas the protests were an incredibly rare example of grassroots, democratic activism. They nearly broke the Party.

Moreover, Jiang Zemin came to power as a direct result of the government’s responses to the protests. He emerged as a leader of the hardliners who ultimately prevailed, and barely six weeks after the bloody crackdown he was elevated from Mayor of Shanghai to head of the CCP and military. Few Chinese leaders could have been more sensitive to the anniversary.

Is it possible, then, that the Chinese government intentionally turned their embassy into a military target? After all, it is not difficult to fake electronic signatures such as the ones the Guardian claimed were responsible for the Air Force’s targeting decision. Moreover, even casual observers doubted the “outdated map” excuse from the get-go. In reality the U.S. had detailed, current maps of both military targets and civilian facilities such as hospitals, churches, schools – and diplomatic facilities.

In short, it’s entirely possible that the United States was fooled into providing Jiang Zemin and the entire Chinese leadership with precisely the kind of propaganda they needed to deflect attention – just long enough – from the tenth anniversary of Tiananmen.

Again, I have no proof beyond my experiences in China at the time, the timing of the consulate bombing – and the extraordinarily convenient propaganda opportunity it handed the Chinese government at a time of maximum internal danger.


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