The massacre of unarmed civilians that happened in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989 in Beijing did not end the story of suffering, sorrow, and trauma for the city’s residents that year. Indeed, the murders in Beijing – some reliable sources say of up to 10,000 people, as quoted by the British ambassador to China at that time, Sir Alan Donald – were the dramatic catalyst for a lengthy period of quiet but highly effective terror under martial law that lasted for the rest of the year.
The story of those six months is largely untold, for three reasons. First, there were very few foreigners in Beijing following the massacre. At most embassies, and among the still tiny business community, all but essential staff were evacuated from the city. Many did not return for weeks or even months thereafter. Second, there were few Chinese who would have dared to talk with a foreigner at all, much less with a foreign news outlet. The consequences would have been arrest, detention, and possibly worse.
The third reason also relates to the Chinese population, who made up, it must be remembered, far more than 99.97 percent of the population of the city at that time. Beijing, and the rest of China, was still healing from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, which had only ended 13 years prior, in 1976. The 10-year period of that upheaval, which saw families across China torn apart by internal betrayals, society upended by zealous revolutionaries, and traditional markers of Chinese culture virtually erased from both physical and psychological domains, had also claimed a still unknown number of lives, certainly in the millions. Beijing residents were not completely inured to the massacre of 1989, but they had seen madness and murder before.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
I had lived in Beijing since August 1987, first as a student at the Foreign Affairs College. The following year, at the end of my course, I felt compelled to stay longer, feeling that I had only scratched the surface of this fascinating, maddening, country. I found employment with a multinational company, and then with the Australian Embassy.
Somewhere there are photos of me standing on the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square during the early demonstrations in April 1989. When the first demonstrators came out to honor Hu Yaobang, the Chinese leader who had sympathized with and supported earlier student protests in the 1980s, I was right in the middle of them from the first week on.
I was in the United Kingdom on June 4, having traveled across Asia and Europe on the Trans-Siberian railway three weeks earlier, in early May. I woke up that morning, as did the rest of the world, to the horrific news that People’s Liberation Army tanks and soldiers had killed thousands in and around the square. I may not have completely stopped crying for the next five days.
I flew to Hong Kong within days, where I managed to get through by phone to South American and Spanish friends who had not been evacuated. They implored me to bring foreign news accounts of the massacre. Even senior diplomats had been unable to access any international media for full accounts of the horror that had occurred.
I went around to newsstands throughout Central and Tsim Sha Tsui, buying up, and often being given donations of, as many international magazines and newspapers as I could carry. I then went to Dragon Air to buy a ticket into Beijing. Dragon Air said that they had nothing but evacuation flights going into the Chinese capital, but that if I really wanted to chance it, they would give me a ride in for free.
The plane into Beijing was practically empty; not more than five passengers sat in the large, roomy cabin. Signs at the check-in desk at Kai Tek Airport in Kowloon had been clear: newspapers and magazines were completely forbidden to be taken into China.
My hand-carry duffel bag was full of the newspapers and magazines I had collected. It also contained two packages of feminine sanitary napkins, one unopened and one open, with two pads missing. I had deliberately bought them in Hong Kong so that the contents of the packaging would be written in Chinese, as well as in English.
As I sat by the window in the rear of the plane, I tore out article after article of news and photos of the massacre, folding them into small packages no more than 3 inches square.
With each article, I took out one sanitary pad, and opened up a pocket along the long side of the napkin among its layers of cotton. Each folded article slid neatly into the pocket and became virtually unnoticeable, invisible to any but a dedicated searcher.
I then returned each pad to the center of the opened package, so that the top and bottom layers were both unadulterated. In order to fully inspect the contents, therefore, a Customs officer would have to not only look in through the open top, but would also have to handle and remove the pads, as well.
An hour out of Beijing, as I came close to finishing my task, a flight attendant came toward my seat. One of the unfolded articles was lying on the seat next to me. She grabbed it, saw others peeking out of my duffel, and opened up the door of the restroom across the aisle from me. She fell to her knees and began ripping the papers into tiny pieces, pushing the shards into the toilet.
More fearful than angry, she told me in a panicked voice that each time they flew into Beijing, the plane was meticulously searched by Chinese security services. “Even the toilet container,” she said, as she attempted to make the papers unrecognizable. “If they find anything,” she said, “they won’t let us back into China.” Another flight attendant, and then I, joined her on our knees in the toilet, shredding my papers to bits.
The flight crew didn’t know about my hidden cache, though. The collection had grown to over 15 graphic articles secreted in their cozy pockets. And I didn’t tell them.
China was still a country in which no one talked about sex or any subject close to it. One of my otherwise well-educated teachers had asked me the year before why she wasn’t getting pregnant, despite sleeping in the same bed as her husband on his infrequent visits home from his job in another province. The answer turned out to be that the process leading to pregnancy was unknown to them both.
I was betting that the Customs officials in Beijing Airport would be all male, and thus easily mortified by anything so closely associated with the taboos of the female body. As the Customs official opened my duffel, I was about to find out.
He threw everything else from my bag onto the table between us. He opened my camera, and saw there was no film. One by one, he looked closely at my very typical belongings. Hairbrush, makeup, a Chinese-English dictionary, a few clothes. Then he reached back into the duffel to pull out the first of my two big packages.
Halfway out of the duffel, he saw the Chinese characters blazoned across the plastic outer wrapping of the package. His face went red to the roots of his hair. He dropped the package back into my duffel as if his hands were burned.
Barely able to look at me, he pointed to the other, unopened package. “Yiyang,” I said, “the same.” He pushed the duffel back to me, and motioned for me to repack my things. I walked out of the airport and took a taxi to my waiting friends, who had congregated together into an apartment at one of the diplomatic compounds that are spread around central Beijing. As we drove into the city along what is now the old airport road, nicknamed “The Nixon Road,” as it was built for his visit in 1972, we passed burnt-out buses, and tanks at every major intersection. Martial law was in full swing. The taxi driver told me to be careful.
I was heartened to learn later that year that my contraband media and copies of it had made the rounds of several embassies and their political staffs. One ambassador thanked me for having taken the chance. I told him quite sincerely that I had been happy to do it, and that it had been a calculated risk. But I didn’t tell him why.