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Reporter's Notebook: Tiananmen Square Reflections

FILE: Hundreds of thousands of people, seeking political and economic reforms, crowded Beijing’s central Tiananmen Square May 17, 1989, in the biggest popular upheaval in China since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.
FILE: Hundreds of thousands of people, seeking political and economic reforms, crowded Beijing’s central Tiananmen Square May 17, 1989, in the biggest popular upheaval in China since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.
VOA correspondent Al Pessin was expelled from China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. He reflects on that time, the vast changes in China and the journey he has been on since then.

It’s about 7,000 kilometers from Beijing, China, to Kyiv, Ukraine, but I took a much more circuitous route. And it took me 25 years.

As I looked out of my hotel window this May onto Kyiv’s Independence Square, I saw the tents and makeshift memorials that bore witness to the people who had stood up for democratic values in the face of a violent onslaught by security forces just a few months earlier.

I couldn’t help thinking about another square, in another country, in another time.

In 1989, I was in my second year as VOA Beijing correspondent. And Tiananmen Square was mainly a tourist attraction.

It was a fascinating time in China, with economic reforms being expanded and baby steps of political reform being tried. From Beijing, and from my previous assignment in Hong Kong, I had been following China’s efforts to emerge from the shadow of the Maoist experiments of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

In the late 1980s, any political activities by China’s students appeared to have been quashed by a crackdown on demonstrations in 1987. The government labeled them “bourgeois liberalization” and sacked the Communist Party secretary general, Hu Yaobang.

After that, the most political activity the students seemed able to muster were some small protests demanding better food and living conditions at universities. Their main concern appeared to be getting their degrees so they could ride the tiger of the expected economic boom. For the first time since the communist revolution of 1949, they were being encouraged to go out and make money.

A surprising development

That’s why what they did starting in mid-April 1989 was such a surprise for China watchers, the Chinese government and possibly for the students themselves.
VOA correspondent Al Pessin, shown with an unidentified vendor, covered China during the Tiananmen Square. He appears in a video from the U.S.-China Institute.
VOA correspondent Al Pessin, shown with an unidentified vendor, covered China during the Tiananmen Square. He appears in a video from the U.S.-China Institute.
On April 15, Hu Yaobang died, and students staged a small protest on Tiananmen Square to honor him and to demand that the Communist Party reassess his legacy. They saw Hu as a champion of reforms and his ouster and death as a threat their implementation.

The small movement grew quickly and expanded its goals to include demands for further economic reforms, an end to corruption and more transparency in the opaque world of the Chinese government and Communist Party, as well as the students’ old demands for better conditions at universities.

But what is often forgotten when writing about the “student-led democracy movement” is that it expanded to include people from all walks of life all across the country. By May, there were large protests in every provincial capital and many other cities, and they involved workers, professionals and even government bureaucrats.

I well remember riding toward Tiananmen Square and getting stuck in a back alley as throngs of marchers streamed past and around our car. My colleague, Heidi Chay, a young American with excellent Chinese, became very animated.

“Wait a minute,” she said. “Look at those signs!”

She was pointing at the banners being carried by the various groups of marchers. They identified staff members from factories, offices, hospitals and other “work units.” And the marchers were middle-aged, pot-bellied factory workers and bespectacled intellectuals. Some were wearing lab coats or hospital uniforms.

As soon as the crowd cleared, Heidi got out to walk to Tiananmen Square and talk to people. I told the driver to turn around and take me back to the office. I had a whole new story to file.

Protests gather strength

The protests continued to grow, with foreign media estimating more than a million people on the square and surrounding streets on two consecutive days. They came out to support student leaders who were on a hunger strike to press their demands.

VOA was extremely popular on the square, with students holding up radios so crowds could hear our Mandarin-language newscasts. Others transcribed our stories and posted them on electrical poles around the city. People asked me if I knew some of our famous Mandarin broadcasters. VOA pulled out one colleague from that service, Betty Tsu, who had come to report on the protests, fearing for her safety if there was a crackdown.

The occupation of Tiananmen Square was an embarrassment for the Chinese leaders, but their hands were a bit tied in mid-May.

They decided to delay any crackdown until after the historic May 15-19 visit by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for the normalization of Sino-Soviet relations after three decades of chill.

I was in the press pool for the handshake between Gorbachev and China’s senior leader Deng Xiaoping in the Great Hall of the People, on Tiananmen Square. The Soviet leader’s wife, Raisa, arrived first and someone asked her what she thought about the colorful encampment outside. She said she hadn’t seen much because she had spent most of the day traveling in the widely rumored but, until then, secret network of tunnels under the central part of Beijing.

Martial law declared

As soon as the Gorbachevs left, Chinese leaders declared martial law, banning protests, meetings of more than a few people and most activities related to news coverage. The relatively moderate approach of Hu Yaobang’s successor, Zhao Ziyang, had been reversed, ending his career. Zhao made an emotional visit to the square on May 19 to urge the students to go home, but they refused.

Two tense weeks followed. Troops were ordered to retake the square, but were blocked by thousands of ordinary citizens along their way. After several attempts, unarmed troops tried to retake the square on June 2, but were pushed back by the students. The troops returned on the night of June 3 with their weapons and orders to shoot if necessary.

They cleared the square and the surrounding streets, and burned the students’ camp by the morning of June 4.

No one knows how many civilians died that night, but international estimates put the number in the hundreds, perhaps the thousands.

The army took control of the center of the city, deploying troops and armored vehicles. One tank unit took up positions on the ramps and bridges of a major road intersection right outside my apartment window, about six kilometers from the square.

I had been to Tiananmen Square many times, including a visit on the evening of June 1, when I and a colleague from an American newspaper concluded it was not a good idea for two foreign journalists to be in the middle of the crowd, with an attack expected at any moment. We moved to the side and later went home.

Bearing witness

That’s why I was not there two nights later when the troops did come. But I spoke to many emotional survivors of the attack, including one American professor who had taken shelter under a bridge as the troops marched toward Tiananmen and saw bullets streaking past.

FILE: Medical workers at Beijing's Fuxingmen Hospital look at bodies of protesters killed by soldiers around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
FILE: Medical workers at Beijing's Fuxingmen Hospital look at bodies of protesters killed by soldiers around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
The following days were equally tense, with reports of political machinations in the Party and of some Chinese military units refusing orders related to the crackdown. When the troops who had taken the square were relieved, and rode past the buildings where many foreign journalists and diplomats lived, they sprayed the compound with bullets. Fortunately, no one was injured. Most of the foreign families had already left.

Almost immediately, the Chinese government launched a withering propaganda campaign, trying to convince people that the students had been sowing turmoil and chaos, and that there had only been a handful of deaths -- none of them on the square itself.

The same colleague I had seen on the square June 1 had gone back on the night of June 3. Weeks later, she told me how relieved she was to receive her photos from the processing shop in Hong Kong because the Chinese information machine had made her doubt what she had seen.

Ominous calls

In the days after the massacre, we received a series of strange telephone calls at the VOA Beijing Bureau. One call came as my interpreter and I were watching the evening news. When I picked up the phone, I heard the audio from the news program, which shortly came to an item criticizing VOA. When it ended, a voice came on the phone in English. “You hear that! You hear that!” it said. Then the line went dead.

There were other calls, too, and they appeared to be scripted. The caller would say, “Is this VOA?” And when I said it was, the caller would shout an expletive and hang up.

By June 14, things were settling down. Then the phone rang again.

The voice on the other end said I was “summoned to an interview” at the Beijing municipal government offices, just off Tiananmen Square. The city government’s structure was being used to implement martial law. Many national government functions had been suspended, including much of the foreign ministry, which usually dealt with issues related to foreign correspondents.

I arrived at the appointed hour and was shown into a small reception room, where a television light was shining and a camera was recording. I was invited to sit on a sofa, with a Chinese official I had never seen before in a chair on the other side of a coffee table. Seeing the camera, I placed my audio recorder on the table as the man began to talk.

Expelled from country

He read a statement accusing VOA of distorting the facts and violating martial law restrictions on news reporting. He accused me of “illegal news gathering” and “fomenting counterrevolutionary rebellion.” He ordered me to leave China within 72 hours.

I made a counterstatement, denying the allegations and telling him that I, and all of VOA, had made the most accurate and balanced reports that we could throughout the democracy movement and crackdown. Then the meeting ended.

As I rose to leave, he demanded to have the cassette on which I had recorded the session. After some negotiations, I sat back down and transcribed the recording into my notebook, gave him the tape and left.

He had also ordered me to present my passport at the local police station before the end of the day. When I did that, an officer stamped a cancellation onto my resident visa and gave me a new visa good for 72 hours. If memory serves, he charged me the equivalent of $3 for the service.

The expulsion provided me with my “15 minutes of fame,” as friends crowded my office that evening for an impromptu news conference, and calls came in for interviews from news organizations around the world.

John Pomfret, then of the Associated Press and now with the Washington Post, was ordered out on the same day. He came to my office for a photo.

I appeared to have been expelled because VOA’s reports were reaching the Chinese people directly with the real story of what had happened. John was likely chosen because Chinese officials associated the AP with the United States, and because he spoke excellent Chinese and had very good contacts among the students.

When we left three days later on a flight to Hong Kong, many colleagues came to the airport to cover our departure, and a Chinese government crew filmed the scene from an upstairs walkway.

Inspired by Chinese people’s spirit

I had the great opportunity to be a witness to history in Beijing in 1989, but my part of the story is insignificant. What I took away from the experience was a renewed belief in the spirit of the Chinese people, demonstrated by their willingness to risk everything to assert their rights -- even in the face of state repression and, eventually, military force.

Over the years, I have had the chance to cover other pro-democracy protests in other squares -- Tahrir in Cairo, Egypt, and Martyrs in Tripoli, Libya, among others.

This year, I had the opportunity to cover Independence Square in Kyiv, where protesters had taken a similar path. It is always a moving experience to speak to people about their desires for a free and democratic future, and to see them put everything on the line to achieve it.

In that context, I am reminded of one final phone call that came as I was packing up my desk. It began like the others, “Is this VOA?” “Yes,” I said, somewhat wearily. But then there was a pause, and the voice on the other end finally said, “Don’t be discouraged.” I said, “What?” And he repeated, “Don’t be discouraged.”

I held my breath. I didn’t know what to say. Finally I managed, “Don’t you be discouraged.” Sounding nervous, he said, “OK, OK.” And then he hung up.

China today is a very different place than it was in 1989, modern and dynamic, with one of the world’s largest economies and millions of well-educated citizens eager to build their country. Political reform once again appears to be off the table. But I have no doubt that the Chinese people will someday resume the march toward the greater rights and freedoms they so dramatically reached for 25 years ago.

VOA correspondent Al Pessin and other journalists appear in “Assignment: China,” a documentary series on American news organizations’ coverage of events in Beijing in 1989, from the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute. Click here to watch: .