From Woodstock to War Zone: A WSJ Correspondent Recalls Tiananmen Protests

Jun 4, 2014

From Woodstock to War Zone: A WSJ Correspondent Recalls Tiananmen Protests

By William Kazer

Twenty five years ago, the Chinese army smashed its way into the heart of Beijing, crushing a peaceful protest movement inspired by a desire for a taste of democracy. I was a reporter based in Beijing at that time, working for the news agency then known as Reuters and covering the protests that erupted following the death in mid-April of reformist leader Hu Yaobang. I had been in Beijing for about a year, and I was about to get a front row seat on a pivotal — and tragic – event in Chinese history.

Over a six-week period a protest movement emerged from the university campuses, spreading to Tiananmen Square – where Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949 – and then to cities around the country. China’s leadership labeled the protests a conspiracy to sow chaos, seeing them as a challenge to its rule as well as an embarrassing disruption of an important fence-mending visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

On the campuses and in the square itself there were feverish discussions of the urgent need for political reform and the best means to stem official corruption. But for much of the time the student tent city in the square often took on the festive atmosphere of a counterculture event – even with the drama of a hunger strike. Students and pop stars strummed guitars, couples danced and cassette tape players blared rock music. That was before the bloody events of the night of June 3-4, when Beijing quickly went from Woodstock to war zone.

Students kept up with developments by copying handwritten transcripts of reports heard on short wave radios tuned to the BBC and Voice of America. They were hungry for news from the outside world and for signs that the leadership might react to their demands; foreign reporters instantly drew a crowd. That often got in the way of reporting. Mingling with the protesters were informants and plainclothes security people observing, taking notes and photographing.

Along with other foreign reporters I occasionally camped out in Tiananmen Square with the students until the early morning, waiting to see when the government’s patience would finally wear out.

The student leaders were also clearly enjoying the media attention – and loath to return to the campuses — despite repeated entreaties by some of the older academics advising them. But by late May the ranks of demonstrators were thinning and many observers believed the protests might peter out by themselves.

On the night of June 2 a phone call woke me up from a sound sleep. A voice at the other end said soldiers were on their way towards Tiananmen. I raced over just in time to see groups of young and inexperienced troops, mostly unarmed and wearing sneakers, who had run in from the east side of the city. Tired and poorly led, they were turned back by the students, who refused to let them pass. As the soldiers made their chaotic retreat, their rations were scattered in the street.

The following afternoon I saw a convoy of trucks carrying older, tougher soldiers, their advance halted by crowds of people admonishing the People’s Liberation Army not to train its guns on China’s own people.

That night I took my turn as one of the editors in the bureau. Then the bloodshed began. As my colleagues called in from public phones around the city, the crackle of gunfire in the background punctuated their reports.

Word of the use of real bullets spread quickly. Angry citizens used rocks, bottles, sticks and anything else they could find in a vain attempt to slow the army’s advance. A retiree I knew who lived in a home in an old “hutong” alley later told me that she had just had a delivery of coal bricks for heating in the cold winter, still half a year away. Piled up outside her door, they vanished overnight, having been hurled at the troops that were fighting their way along the Avenue of Heavenly Peace and headed towards the square.

Newly installed white traffic dividers were pulled across the roads, placed in the path of armored personnel carriers, sometimes with effective results. Buses were torched and their charred wreckage used to block intersections.

In the safety of the bureau office we spent much of the evening on the phone, telephoning hospitals and any contacts we had who could help try to piece together an estimate of the carnage.

Our gravest fears were about the fate of Reuter colleague Andrew Roche, who disappeared that night, caught up in a security sweep near the center of the city. He was blindfolded and had a pistol jammed in his nostril, according to his own moving account of the incident. His captors made it clear the pistol wasn’t just for show. He was released the next day, shaken but unharmed.

Foreigners were hardly the main target but they were caught in the army’s crosshairs. Three days after clearing the square, soldiers fired into some apartments in at the Jianguomenwai compound for diplomats and journalists, where I lived.

Larry Wortzel, then Assistant Army Attaché at the U.S. embassy, later recounted that the day before one of his Chinese military contacts calling to warn him to stay away from his apartment in the compound the following day. The caller, a young lieutenant he knew, told him emphatically that if he had to be in the vicinity not to go above the second floor. He wasn’t there when bullets were sprayed into his and other apartments, fortunately leaving no one hurt. “They were automatic and single shots,” he recalled recently, adding that he recovered armor-piercing rounds from his apartment. Asked what happened to the officer who warned him: “I never saw or heard from him again.”

The following day my wife Audrey and some Reuters staff were evacuated, driving on nearly deserted roads to the airport, where families were already camped out, waiting for a flight out of the country. Audrey had no booking or ticket but she managed to get on a Swissair flight that had been diverted to Beijing to help get people out. She was happy to be going wherever the plane was headed. It turned out to be Bangkok.

The news story at that point became a gloomy routine of new arrests and warnings to those who resisted the government’s iron fist. Young men were rounded up and shown in official photos squatting with their hands over their head. One showed a forlorn-looking man handcuffed to a tree. Friends spoke of numerous political study sessions at the places they worked and of being compelled to stand up and voice support for the ruling party.

Later I left China for a break and on return in July, I moved back to the same diplomatic compound that had since become a ghost town in a sullen and defeated city. This was still the mood several weeks later as I headed for the seaside resort of Beidaihe, where Communist Party leaders traditionally met in the heat of the summer. I spent a four-hour train ride in near silence as adult passengers sat warily, making no eye contact or conversation, unsure who might be watching or listening. Only the children spoke or laughed, unaware of the political upheaval around them.

At Beijing’s universities the students who remained on campus summed up the bitter national mood with a private protest on their t-shirts that read “bie re wo” — “Don’t mess with me.”


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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