32 years on from Tiananmen Square my memories of Hong Kong

From my 1989 diary:

Protests in Hong Kong in June 1989 after Tiananmen Square


“In the middle of April 1989 I visited Beijing again and coincidentally was there on April 15th when Hu Yaobang died and set in motion a momentous train of events (Another coincidence of April 15th was that that was the day chosen by Life Magazine to photograph one of their “Day in the Life” books. They had hundreds of photographers throughout China recording just this one day in China’s history. I commend the book to you as a vivid picture of the extraordinary diversity of the country).

I flew back to Hong Kong from Beijing on April 15th and returned a couple of weeks later for another business trip. By then students had begun to mass in Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of Hu but also to demonstrate in favour of democracy. I saw some signs of the protests but not did actually visit the Square.

One evening I was in my hotel room watching CNN (The Cable News network which was received by satellite in many of the top hotels in the city). The newsreader said something like “And now over to CNN news reporter X in Tiananmen Square, Beijing for an update on the Student protest movement …” at this point the screen on my TV went blank. A few minutes later the picture returned but by then, of course, the report on China was over. It was my first experience of censorship in action. What a futile gesture that censorship was, incidentally, as the news reports continued to go to the West over the following weeks – particularly during Gorbachev’s visit.

That visit to Beijing was my last (to date) – you will understand why. After the Tiananmen massacre our business in China was temporarily halted and our people were brought out of Beijing. “My” documentary, although finished, has not been transmitted.

During May we watched the developing situation in China with fascination. Interest in Hong Kong was, of course, intense. Tens of thousands of Hong Kong people took to the streets to march in support of the protesting Students. Actually the protestors in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities were by no means only students. Many of Shell’s business contacts in the Chinese institutions were seen by our Beijing staff taking part in the marches. In Hong Kong most of my staff joined in. There was one extraordinary day towards the end of May when hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Hong Kong with a Typhoon nearby. There was an strange sense of foreboding, tension you could cut with a knife as martial law was declared in Beijing and the troops began to approach the Square, only to be turned back by the peaceful protesters. The news reporting from Beijing was excellent, the Hong Kong media, the American networks and the BBC (Kate Adie) were all very good. The last week in May saw the erection of the Goddess of Democracy statue in Tiananmen Square, a naïve copy of the Statue of Liberty but all the more poignant for its naivete.

On Sunday June 4th Ann and I were due to have a day out on the Shell boat with our friends Jerry and Isabel Wood. At around 7.30 our clock radio woke us with the awful news about the movement of troops and tanks into the centre of Beijing and the terrible carnage that was taking place. Sleeping protestors had been run over by tanks, troops were firing indiscriminately into the crowd. Death and destruction. The radio brought a message of condemnation from President Bush and from the British Government. The Governor of Hong Kong eventually joined in. We joined our friends in a shell shocked state. We went ahead with the boat trip but the mood was sombre as more news came over a portable radio. When we returned to Queens Pier thousands of Hong Kong citizens were massing in the streets. Black armbands had appeared. There was a feeling of disbelief, and of fear. In eight years Hong Kong will be handed over to these murderers!

Our office in Beijing closed and our people managed to get flights out. We welcomed them to the office with relief. One secretary had been staying in the Beijing Hotel which is close to the Square. A bullet came through her window. She spent the rest of the night under her bed! None of our staff was hurt and all managed to get out soon after June 4th.

Ann and I were still deeply under the impression from these events when we started our “Home Leave” holiday later that week. It was impossible not to feel emotionally involved. We had both visited Beijing many times and had met with some young people who we were sure would have been involved in the demonstrations. Only a few months earlier we had entertained a visiting party of CCTV people in Hong Kong, taking them out for the day on the Shell boat. One of the party had been heavily involved in a CCTV programme called “River Elegy”, a partly political fictional tale which dealt honestly with some of the excesses and failures of the Chinese Communist Party. What would happen to him now? What would happen to the young economist that I worked with in one of our projects; he was urbane and western in his outlook – he had been educated for two years at Berkeley California; was he involved in the protests, was he still alive?”

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