Thursday, Jun. 18, 2009

A Chinese Reality

June 4, Beijing, China

It was clear by the start of the year that 1989 would be an extraordinary time for China. A free-speech movement had begun to flower at Peking University, where students and some professors held a series of "democratic salons" on the campus lawn. People would stand in a circle and vigorously debate issues that were normally off-limits, like the need for political freedom.

As the Wall Street Journal's Beijing bureau chief, I witnessed several of these gatherings. I'd stand at the perimeter listening to the speakers, marveling at their courage. I'd scan the crowd for plainclothes police and usually spot a couple of likely subjects. Yet the participants never seemed cowed. It was all about openness: Why should anyone object to discussions about issues critical to China's future? The leaders were a 19-year-old history major named Wang Dan and the dissident astrophysicist Fang Lizhi. When the dust would settle some months later after Tiananmen, both had been branded public enemies.

But in early 1989 anything seemed possible, and the risk-taking ethos spread far and wide. One of my most vivid memories was the exhilarating avant-garde exhibition at the National Art Gallery in Beijing. For a few days, the walls of the gallery were filled with the whimsical and grotesque variations on Maoist propaganda that would, years later, make some Chinese artists very rich. Banners unfurled on the street outside proclaimed "No U-Turn," hinting that China would never be the same. The dramatic highlight was an installation called Dialogue, involving a telephone booth with mirrors inside. Its co-creator, a young woman named Xiao Lu, pulled out a handgun and shot two bullets at the work. The police arrived and shut down the exhibition for the rest of that first day. But a powerful statement had been made. A defiant spirit had been unleashed in China that would inevitably lead toward a violent denouement.

All of us seemed like kids at the time — the artists, the activists, the demonstrators, the journalists taking notes — brimming with ambition and churning with idealism and hope. It wasn't always easy for Chinese to mingle with foreign journalists, but we found ways. I used to sneak friends past the official checkpoints into the foreign compound that housed my home and my office. At the end of 1988 my wife — Dinda Elliott, Newsweek's bureau chief — and I hosted a Christmas party at our home. The crowd included liberal writers, radical artists, dissidents. I still remember Fang, in his broken English, boisterously singing along to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

Danger and Possibility
For me, it was all part of a life-changing personal journey. I had studied Chinese in college, and so the Beijing posting — and this incredible, unfolding story of a great nation in great flux — marked the culmination of years of focus and passion. Dinda and I were also awaiting the birth of our first child, whose due date was June 4.

The Tiananmen protests themselves began in mid-April. Students at the élite universities, including Wang, assembled initially to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, who had been purged as head of the Communist Party two years earlier. Hu hadn't been an especially charismatic figure, and ultimate authority rested with Deng Xiaoping, then 85, who had risen to power after the chaos that followed Mao Zedong's death in 1976. But Hu did at least seem to rule from the heart — a trait other Party officials rarely revealed. Hu had lost his job in part for refusing to crack down on the liberal trends that were advancing. To many students, he represented the possibility that China could become a normal country after the vindictive power struggles and purges that had long been the norm.

After gathering on campuses to read eulogies and hang commemorative posters, a few students decided to march to Tiananmen Square to unfurl banners honoring Hu. I and a few other foreign journalists learned of this initial march and drove to Tiananmen Square to see what was happening. As with everything I witnessed that year, there was a sense at once of both danger and possibility. Our presence that night was later singled out in a confidential official account as "evidence" that foreign elements were manipulating the movement to damage China and the Communist Party's rule.

In the coming days, Tiananmen Square filled with protesters. They were orderly, peaceful, impassioned, convinced that they needed to speak up for the nation. CNN had set up its facilities to broadcast from the square, and the world tuned in nightly to this intoxicating drama. I remember a white-collar worker who approached me, thrilled to meet a foreign journalist. "Tell the world that the Chinese people want democracy," he said. Like millions of others around the country, he had been moved by the student movement and had joined the marches. My wife, too, experienced the remarkable spirit of that moment. In the first large protests, when students feared they might be stopped with violence, she was in the thick of things. As students pushed through the police cordons, groups of Chinese would lock arms around her to make sure she and our unborn child got through safely. Grannies threw plastic sacks of milk to her from the sidelines. "Please tell our story!" they would shout.

In early May, Dinda flew to Hong Kong to prepare to have the baby. I stayed in Beijing reporting day and night on the protests. On May 23, while I was working late in the office, she called to say she had gone into labor. I flew into action. Yes, I was covering the story of a lifetime. But I was also about to become a father for the first time.

I rushed to Beijing's airport and ditched my car in the parking lot. The airport was jammed with foreigners trying to get out of town. Despite my desperate pleas, no one would give me their ticket. I finally begged a sales agent and got on the next flight to Hong Kong. It made an unannounced stop in Tianjin; a stewardess explained that this was so the pilots could have breakfast. I was dying. This was before the era of cell phones, so I had no way to reach my wife. Finally we landed in Hong Kong. I cut in front of everyone at customs, immigration and taxi lines and told my cab driver to take me to Matilda Hospital on the Peak. He started driving but then stopped, saying he didn't know the way. I was dumped in a crowded commercial district in Kowloon and had to flag another cab. This one took me to the Matilda. As we drove up the front drive, a nurse emerged. "You must be Mr. Ignatius. Come with me." We ran upstairs to the delivery room. The doctor had given up on me and was finally telling my wife it was time. "Push," he instructed, just as I entered the room. Within minutes, Oliver was born.

Pawns in a Power Struggle
Twelve days later, on June 4, the Tiananmen massacre took place. I was still in Hong Kong. While I regret not being in Beijing to bear witness to the tragedy, my absence in a sense helps expose as untrue China's official explanation for its violent response. For by early June the movement was starting to flag. Many foreign journalists decided then to finally take long-overdue R&R breaks after weeks of intense coverage. The Beijing-based students had largely returned to their campuses. And while a flow of students was still arriving from outside the capital, the protests were losing their momentum.

The fact is, the students had become pawns in a power struggle at the pinnacle of the Party. The hard-line faction within China's leadership had taken control and had the army at the ready. On May 19, these men had voted to declare martial law. Zhao Ziyang, an economic reformer who had replaced Hu as Party leader in 1987, had refused to sign off on the plan and was ousted. The only question was when and how the assault would take place. I suspect the hard-liners wanted to crack down so defiantly that they would wipe away not only the protesters but also the liberal political ideas that were beginning to take root.

The Party's official line is that it put down a rebellion, just as any right-minded government would do. The reality was different. The protesters still on the square were orderly and, as their numbers dwindled, on the verge of becoming irrelevant. But on June 2, the Party without warning sent thousands of troops rushing in toward the center of the city. Unarmed, they accomplished only one thing: ensuring that much of Beijing took to the streets again in agitated concern.

And the next night the soldiers returned, this time in tanks or armed with machine guns. Eyewitnesses reported indiscriminate shooting into the crowds. If China's leaders faced, as they later claimed, a violent rebellion, it was because they had created one. By the early hours of June 4, hundreds of citizens were dead. Wang Dan, the young man who had led those democracy salons, topped the most-wanted list of fugitives after the massacre and was arrested within a month. (Years later, he was allowed to leave for the U.S.) Fang Lizhi took refuge in the U.S. embassy, where he would remain for a year before China let him emigrate.

Immediately after the violence, I returned to Beijing. My wife and son joined me a few weeks later. It was a grim scene. The sense of hope had been crushed. Few would even dare talk to a Western journalist. Most of our Chinese friends laid low; it was months in some cases before we even knew whether they had survived the massacre. Official goons in cars and on motorcycles followed us whenever we went out. Knowing our phones were tapped, we made up false rendezvous, hoping security agents would take the bait and waste their time staking out our false leads.

The country fell into a deep darkness that would start to turn only in 1992, after we had left Beijing, when Deng Xiaoping realized the country had veered off in the wrong direction. He took a celebrated trip to the freewheeling south and called for a reinvigoration of China's capitalist-style reforms, restarting many of the initiatives that his onetime protégé, Zhao, had championed. The Chinese economic juggernaut was under way. But political freedom has yet to flower.

Power Book
As for Ahao, he would spend the last 16 years of his life under house arrest, out of the public eye. He died in 2005. It had been assumed, and lamented, that he never left a memoir about the events of 1989. Was he too bitter? Too feeble? Too tightly controlled? In fact, under the nose of his captors, he was secretly recording his take on what really happened during Tiananmen.

More than a year ago, I was brought in on that secret by Bao Pu, the political activist whose father, Bao Tong, had been Zhao's closest aide. The younger Bao had been tasked with assembling and translating, in Hong Kong, the 30 hours of tapes Zhao had secretly recorded. Bao Pu brought me in as a co-editor, and this May Simon & Schuster released Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang. The book can't be sold in mainland China. But unauthorized versions of the Chinese-language edition are being downloaded across the country. Zhao's memoir will reveal to many Chinese the extent of the disagreement at the highest levels on how to respond to the Tiananmen protests. They will learn that some top officials advocated a softer approach and a tolerance for dissent that they argued didn't threaten the Party or the nation. The killings, in other words, didn't have to happen.

Yet the victims of Tiananmen did not die in vain. The crackdown produced deep anguish around the world. Later in that tumultuous year, when the winds of protest arrived in East Germany, leaders there faced a similar choice. In the end they avoided bloodshed. They opened checkpoints at the Berlin Wall, and the East bloc was on its way toward gaining its freedom.

Someday, the Chinese will have their day, too.

Ignatius is editor in chief of the Harvard Business Review