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Beijing Spring and the Lead-up to Tiananmen Square

The iconic image of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and brutal government crackdown on the peaceful demonstrators is that of the “Tank Man,” the unarmed citizen who, carrying nothing but shopping bags, peacefully blocked the path of tanks sent by the Chinese government to assert control in the days after the crackdown. While the image may lead one to believe that the demonstrations were a short-lived event, in reality the crackdown on June 4, 1989 was the culmination of nearly two months of peaceful protests calling for an end to corruption within the Chinese Communist Party.

The protests began as student-led demonstrations in the aftermath of the death of former General Secretary of the Communist Party Hu Yaobang, considered to be a reformer, who had been deposed by the more hardline elements within the Party leadership.

After his death, students began protesting the corruption within the Party that had led to Hu’s ouster and gathered in Tiananmen Square. Over the next two months the number of protesters swelled to upwards of 200,000 as the Party leadership remained divided about how to respond to the heretofore unprecedented level dissent against the government. The protests ended on June 4 when divisions of the People’s Liberation Army moved into the square and began firing on the protesters. In a shocking turn, the army then turned their sights to the foreign diplomats still in the country.

James LaRocco served as Economic Minister-Counselor from 1988-1990 in Beijing. He and his family had a first row seat to the events of Beijing Spring and the subsequent crackdown on the protesters in Tiananmen Square. As Deputy Director of the Political Section of the Beijing Embassy from 1988-1990, Mark Mohr was in tune with the political rumblings that led up to the protests and the turmoil within the upper reaches of the Chinese Communist Party throughout the months of protests.

David Reuther was working as an Economic Officer in Beijing during Beijing Spring and saw the corruption and intrigue within the Chinese Communist Party that led to the protests in the spring of 1989. Larocco and Mohr were interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy, beginning in January 2011 and October 2009, respectively. Reuther was interviewed by Raymond Ewing beginning in August 1996.

Read the account from Ambassador James Lilley and the Washington perspective from Assistant Secretary Richard Solomon and Congressman Stephen Solarz. Read about dissident Fang Lizhi and the ill-fated banquet months earlier. Go here for other Moments on China.


The Hope of a Beijing Spring –“So unexpected and so quickly crushed”

James LaRocco, Economic Minister-Counselor, Embassy Beijing, 1988-1990

LAROCCO: Beijing Spring took place essentially between March and June 1989. It was a period of about two and half months in which Beijing completely opened up to discussion and ferment. It was so refreshing, so unexpected and so quickly crushed.

My son was 7 years old. The two of us would go out and ride all around all the neighborhoods and occasionally we would stop. I would see a group of about 30 people sitting around talking and they would be talking about what is democracy. I remember some of the conversations.

The most painful one was when we stopped our bikes and there was a bunch of young people. They said, “You’re an American?” and I said, “Yes, I’m an American.”

“Please explain your judicial system to us.” I thought oh, my God. I can’t do it in English. How can I possibly do this in Chinese?…

This was so exhilarating and so amazing to see these people so genuinely interested in democracy and participation and freedom of expression, freedom of being able to do all sorts of activities. They were still very much interested in order, no question about that. Order and stability are very big to Chinese because how else do you hold a country of a billion people together?

But they clearly wanted more say about their lives and they wanted more freedoms. They were feeling this was possible and it was very encouraging. We did this every night for months.

I must say that the weather that spring was delightful, perfect for outdoor congregation. I remember the Sunday before the Tiananmen crackdown. Our whole family went to the Square and we spent several hours talking with the students in their makeshift tent community. I filmed it, and I cherish that film, always troubled by what may have happened to those eager kids with such high expectations. At that time, you could feel the tension nearing boiling point. Something had to happen.

Mark Mohr, Deputy Director, Political section, Embassy Beijing, 1988-1990

MOHR: We knew something was wrong at the time of President Bush’s visit in February 1989, because they acted so awkwardly to prevent Fang Lizhi from attending the banquet. The trigger for the student movement was the death of Hu Yaobang on April 15, and you can’t foresee someone’s death.

At the beginning of the student movement, there weren’t all that many students on the square. Then the regime, in its ham-handed wisdom, issued an editorial in “People’s Daily” April 26 denouncing the students for their protests and occupation of the square and questioning their motives, which only angered the students and added momentum to the movement.

After the editorial, the movement grew rapidly, to the point that there were hundreds of thousands of students occupying the heart of downtown Beijing. Still the regime did nothing. We knew something was very wrong, but we had no idea what the divisions were within the leadership, or who was arguing with who.

There was a split in the leadership. A few years before, Deng Xiaoping had purged Hu Yaobang (pictured) as head of the Chinese Communist Party. Zhao Ziyang moved from Premier to Party chief, and Li Peng took over as Premier. Hu had favored an opening up of Chinese society, and was particularly beloved in academic circles and by the students. Deng put a lid on Hu’s attempted reforms, and Li Peng kept the lid on. So Li was not popular.

When Hu died in April, the students began expressing their aggravation that a good man had died, while in their opinion a bad man (Li Peng) still lived. They expressed their protest in rallies and in posters in the days following Hu’s death.

Of course, this was incendiary stuff. The students all camped out in Tiananmen Square. They took over the running of downtown Beijing. Finally on May 20, the regime declared martial law in the area around Tiananmen Square. Troops were brought in.

And sometime after midnight, June 4, they fired on the students, killing many. The shooting, courtesy of international television, whose personnel had been brought in to cover the visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to Beijing May 15-18, was broadcast around the world.

The reason that the situation had gotten to the point of violence, again, was that the party was split on how to deal with the students. Party chief Zhao Ziyang, who was politically a moderate and in favor of many of the positions that Hu Yaobang had taken, wanted a dialogue with the students.

Premier Li Peng wanted to deal with the students harshly, taking a typically old-line Communist Party position. Li had the support of Deng Xiaoping, so eventually Zhao was marginalized and the troops were given the order to use lethal force.

“The spring of 1989 was not a democracy movement”

David Reuther, Economic Officer, Embassy Beijing, 1987-1990

REUTHER: Well, here you have the Chinese population in the spring of 1989 with this economic expansion that was being throttled in their eyes by corruption and their answer was to call for a dictator to clean up the corruption. They didn’t see any other method of reinvigorating reform.

From our point of view, the spring of 1989 was not a democracy movement. We went down to Tiananmen Square and talked to demonstration leaders. They did not have a sophisticated understanding of democracy. Remember the demonstration leaders at first were students from the premier universities, meaning they were sons and daughters of ranking Party members.

When the government put out an editorial that said the students were being disruptive, student leaders took offense. In addition to their policy complaints was added the issue of face. So, a lot of things came together.

But Tiananmen was fascinating, in part, because it was a reverberation of what was happening in Europe. European Communism was failing in 1989 yet Gorbachev’s visit in the spring and the whole things starts off in a very Chinese way, a demonstration for the funeral for an honored leader was the excuse to get out into the streets.

Once the students were out on the streets you couldn’t lock the barn door. Gorbachev came, but the demonstrations caused obvious schedule changes….

The Tiananmen students were very disciplined. They could have been civil rights marchers in the 60s. They had their own security, cleaned the square and tried to maximize their presentation of themselves as within the Chinese system by their politeness and conduct….

From time to time, to keep their morale up and connect with the public, the students marched out of the square and around the internal beltway. That would bring them by the embassy and housing compound. I don’t think the Rose Bowl parade or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade was ever as exciting as sitting up on the roof watching just miles and miles and blocks and blocks of people — 10 across — marching down the road.

One of the more beautiful things was the parade of the motorcycle brigades…. Each vehicle had a small Chinese flag on the handlebar and then three very large Chinese flags on poles at about the third rank….

Such parades were very stirring and obviously got people quite involved. In fact, the positive public response was the reason the authorities became worried and the hardliners saw things spinning out of control. (Photo: Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)

What is remarkable about Tiananmen Square is the push and pull between the hardliners and the moderates right up to the end. We heard rumors that the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] was divided. The struggle between the two was like the Greek myth about the sun and wind betting which one of them could get a traveler to take his coat off. That is what Beijing was like up to those first days in June.

The Conservatives said to the Liberals, “Okay, let’s see if you guys can get them to stop demonstrating.” So, troops were sent in unarmed without their officers and the Beijing public stopped them from getting to the student center. The moderates in the government failed, the moderates in the student demonstration slipped away with martial law.

The streets were left to the people of Beijing and a more inexperienced group of student demonstrators. Well, if a political process started moderately, it rarely becomes softer, and often reverts to harder.

What happened on the night of June 4 was that the hardliners moved armed troops into Beijing and, like the Paris Commune of 1848, the population of Beijing rose up. The students were a minor focus of what happened that evening. The Western press missed a good story by creating a students versus government story.

Forgotten in that story — and part of the legacy for the Chinese — was the city of Beijing rose up in revolt. All the destruction, all the death, was caused by the troops fighting their way into Beijing. By the time the PLA arrived at Tiananmen Square, the students surrendered and were marched off very easily, according to a Latin American ambassador who was near the square until early in the morning.…

Obviously on the night of June 4 there was shooting all over the place. Beijing was full of tourists and business people. It became obvious that the situation in Beijing was very unstable. So, all the embassies in Beijing evacuated their nationals.

We ultimately evacuated about 1500 Americans, tourists, business people, our own embassy staff. The Japanese evacuated 4000 out of all of China. All the embassies slimmed down their missions.

There were probably fewer foreigners in Beijing on June 6, 1989, than in the last 500 years. Think about it. The point is that the dream of any nationalistic Chinese for the last 200 years, since the First Opium War, is to get the foreigners out of China, because it is the foreign influence that corrupted and weakened China. So, there were conservative elements in the Chinese structure that were very pleased to see these departures.

Something was known in advance. Something whose objective was to scare us away, to make us close all of the embassies.”

LAROCCO: Our radar was totally focused on what was going on. We couldn’t avoid it. It was right outside our doors, whether at home, while shopping, in the parks or at the embassy.

At the same time, I would say that we were a bit naïve. On the day of the Tiananmen crackdown, we had Boy Scouts camping out at the embassy. They were there as tanks rolled down the street just outside the compound.

While I and others faulted the RSO [Regional Security Officer] and our intel, I must confess that the notion that a government would run over and deliberately shoot down its own people was very difficult for us to comprehend….

There was nowhere to escape so we saw the tanks going down the streets. We saw people thrown onto the backs of trucks and taken off. We saw people shot at. We heard gunfire all the time. All of our local employees left because they were actually employees of the PSB, run by Chinese security. So all of our 300+ local employees were gone. With our families evacuated, we Americans were on our own.

We were outraged because these were people who we really depended on to keep the embassy operating. All of them were ordered to go home. I can tell you certain stories of certain Chinese who in fact, defied that order, but I don’t want to do that because I can’t be sure that even to this day they would be safe from recrimination.

The PLA – Chinese Army — shot as many as 600 rounds into an apartment complex where our Americans lived. I don’t know how much of that story ever came out. We were truly outraged, but the message was clear:  Get out.

There was a Chinese ‘ayi’, as she was called, a maid who saved the lives of American children by throwing her body over them as the bullets raked across the room above them. We moved the families out as quickly as we could….My children had matured overnight via Tiananmen.

REUTHER: In the morning of June the 6th, or two days after Tiananmen Square, a group of soldiers who were walking along Jianguomen Dajie [the famous Beijing shopping street] in front of the diplomatic compound suddenly started shooting up from the street into the building.

Into the diplomatic housing compound, building number one. They said they had received sniper fire from the roof of the building. More to the point: the platoon hidden in the building across the street simultaneously poured fire horizontally into building number one. Given a 10-floor building, if you are shooting from the street, bullets will lodge in the ceiling the first six inches or so from the window.

In this case, however, you had horizontal fire poured into the apartments of the American, British, Japanese and German military attachés, those same embassies’ security officers, one American economic officer and one Brit. They just trashed those apartments with automatic weapons fire. Later the American Defense Attaché told me that he received a phone call from somebody he knew in a central military unit who said, “Don’t be home at 10:00,” click.

Something was known in advance. Something whose objective was to scare us away, to make us close all of the embassies….(Pictured: Tank at intersection near diplomatic compound)

This shooting had a great impact on us — being shot at tends to do that to you — but we were quite determined that we would not break off relations with China, they were stuck with us.

We would stay engaged and not be scared out. In fact, we presumed the perpetrators were a small cabal of people and that there would be others who were not supportive of this kind of thing. But, if we left, if we did what the shooters wanted, then we would also leave the reformers naked to them.

What is interesting about this is that the Tiananmen Incident reintroduced China into American domestic politics. American politicians expressed the outrage we all felt. But after a while, moralistic statements about China became just another jab at one’s American partisan opponent. So, a situation developed where some in Congress were calling for a break in relations with China and the imposition of penalties, which meant the same thing.

This created an interesting situation where the last remnants of the Boxer Rebellion and Congressional China critics were making common cause, saying, “Break off contact.”

And you have the Bush Administration saying, “No, we have to stay engaged with China because we can’t let them break it off and go their own separate way.” In fact, the advantage at that time of having Bush as President was that, because he had been head of the earlier Liaison Office [which opened after the U.S. and China re-established ties], he understood how important the whole issue was. I believe he understood how crucial it was to maintain contact with China

“It almost reminded me of the scene in ‘Gone with the Wind’, driving as Atlanta was burning”

LAROCCO: I have never told anyone this before, but I must confess that I simply could not resist going down to Tiananmen and seeing what was going on in the city. The night the Tiananmen crackdown started, I was hosting a dinner at my home. We got the word that the military had moved into the square.

I immediately ended the event and drove one of the guests home. I drove as close as I could to Tiananmen, seeing everywhere I drove burning buses, fires, tanks and people running. It almost reminded me of the scene in Gone with the Wind driving as Atlanta was burning.

The following morning, I and some other officers were summoned to the embassy for a meeting with the Ambassador. I took a roundabout way, skirting Tiananmen, going around it but coming right to the edge of the square. At the first roundabout west of the square, twisted, charred, burning buses were literally piled up, bulldozed into this strange sculptural Tower of Babel. It was scene I will never forget.

Beijing was the turning point in the handling of crises and evacuations by the U.S. government. To begin with, Washington just didn’t know what to do. We were playing it by ear.

They told us to refer to the Emergency Action Plan, but this was a massive, unwieldy document written in unintelligible bureaucratese. You might as well be reading the phone book. It was useless. Things were happening so quickly, and we simply had to make it up as we went along.

Washington did not understand. They said the Swiss got out quickly, as did the Japanese. Of course, the handful of Swiss in the country pulled up in their Mercedes and boarded a plane. The Japanese, so orderly, all came to their embassy with two bags, boarded buses and were hauled out of the country in waiting Japanese charters. Americans? We don’t behave this way. We don’t like to be ordered around, especially if danger is not readily apparent. We’re tough, right?

All of us at the embassy took our turn at the phones, pleading with Americans to assemble at this place or that so we could get them out of the country. Let’s face it: Americans don’t want to be told what to do and so many said they felt safe and they didn’t want to leave, especially if they had to pay to get out.

So often only a handful of Americans would be there at the pickup point. And so often, hours later we would get frantic calls from those who did not show saying that there was gunfire around them. Please get me out. At that point, streets were blocked and we could not get through.

But here’s the bottom line: No Americans were killed, despite the confusion and what seemed to us (and the Americans we served) a very painful operation. I am so grateful to this day that Jim Lilley was our ambassador. He was a man who had run unpredictable and risky operations for decades. He knew immediately what to do. He was always calm, in charge, and always knew exactly what to do.

He called in about a dozen of us, said we would be his team during the crisis. We looked at each other, detecting immediately that we weren’t the recognized hierarchy of the embassy. But Jim knew each of us well, our strengths, our character, our reliability, and to be frank, we all knew and trusted each other to do our part.

Jim put me in charge when he went back to our apartment for the night to catch some sleep. I would be there all night and well into the day before I could go home for a few hours’ sleep. In those days, we had to have the phone off the hook 24 hours a day for Washington to talk to us. They constantly peppered us with the same questions: what’s the body count? Is the resistance holding up? How many Americans have you evacuated? How many Americans are still left?

This constant quest for information at times proved exasperating as we were working tirelessly to get people out of harm’s way. One evening, late at night, when it was impossible to gather any data, I became truly exasperated at the list of endless questions and the demand for immediate answers.

I held the phone up to the window, then pulled it back and barked into the phone, ”Did you hear that? It’s tank fire. And it’s right outside our compound. You can expect no further answers for the time being. We will let you know when we have any.”

I then took the phone and shoved it into a desk drawer and closed it.

Reflections on the U.S. Foreign Service during a crisis

I give a lot of credit to Robert Kimmitt who was the Under Secretary at the time and was running the operation back in Washington. He was a level head and made sure we got the help we needed, especially charter aircraft to get Americans out. After the crisis was over, he ordered a full after action report which resulted in a new, more user friendly manual and procedures. It was the first usable template for crisis management in the modern era and served well in future crises.

All of this was under the always helpful leadership and guidance of [Secretary] James Baker. When I reflect back on the crisis, we had the perfect individuals in charge: Baker, Kimmitt and Lilley….

To many, the image of a Foreign Service officer is a man in a pinstripe suit wearing wingtip shoes sipping a martini at a gala reception of elite….But it was not at all reflective of the image I thought the Foreign Service was before I joined, and not the image my friends and relatives back home had. Then came Tiananmen.

I must admit that I joined the Foreign Service for adventure, excitement, travel, crisis, cross-cultural experiences. When Tiananmen started to happen, my juices went into overdrive. I truly felt alive. I believed that all the training I had received, throughout my life, prepared me for this moment.

Perhaps Jim Lilley saw this in me and others he chose as key members of his team. He had himself been in countless situations like this, and he was truly unflappable, ready for anything. What I learned during the Tiananmen crisis is that our basic instincts come to the fore during a super high intensity crisis like that one.

Some of our finest officers, especially Chinese speakers, froze in place, unable to move. I recall the most fluent Chinese speaker with years of experience in China before joining the Service, an Ivy League education, all the right training and background, whimpering in my office. I was stunned. I wanted to say, “Get a grip. We need you. American citizens in distress need you. Our country needs you. This is your time. Snap out of it. Let’s go!” But I didn’t.

So many thoughts flashed through my mind, of [General George] Patton in Sicily, of stories of soldiers excelling during training only to freeze and drop their weapons when thrust into battle, of those in sharp contrast with little to commend them stepping forward and performing heroic acts.

While I would never presume to compare Tiananmen with the heat of battle, it prompted basic instincts to show themselves. Some underperformers in the day-to-day work of economic reporting and contact work leapt into action, pulling us all forward with them.

On the other hand, some of our embassy stars in the normal working environment went missing, holed up in their apartments, not answering our calls.

The Foreign Service is a profession, but one that needs all types of personalities. We need the tea leaf readers as much as we need the crisis managers. We need the masters of traditional tradecraft as much as we need the intrepid “expeditionary diplomats.” The martini-sipping, reception-going smooth as silk diplomat, a master prier of information from the European elite, is a needed FSO as is the civil affairs diplomat in a helmet in Kandahar.

We are all FSOs, and we are all needed. As for the person whimpering in my office, I consoled and had him/her escorted to the airport to be evacuated with the families. I never reported that behavior, and this person returned to post after the crisis and performed admirably as one of our finest reporting officers.

The leadership of China was determined to preserve the Communist Party at all costs. Full stop. That has always been uppermost in their minds, and it remains so to this day. They were determined to preserve the Communist Party and they saw this as a threat and they were going to put it down at whatever cost.

How many people died, I have never seen an accurate figure. How many people were exiled, I have never seen an accurate figure on that either. It was brutal and meant to punish severely and leave a lasting lesson. They replaced a number of leaders in their usual quiet way.

Keep in mind that these leaders were also Communist Party members. So it was done mostly outside the spotlights. This led then to all kinds of dissidents who either fled the country or went to prison, some of whom became symbols of the repression. They have always received our morale support, and have always been a wedge in our relationship with the Chinese leadership.