COVER

A STARK BEIJING DIARY

A REPORTER CHRONICLES THE TERROR

LOUISE BRANSON June 19 1989
COVER

A STARK BEIJING DIARY

A REPORTER CHRONICLES THE TERROR

LOUISE BRANSON June 19 1989

In the harrowing—and confusing—days following the brutal army attack against student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Maclean’s correspondent Louise Branson, 35, kept a diary of events as they unfolded. Her report:

Sunday, June 4: As dawn broke over Beijing after the Tiananmen massacre, one question haunted me: how could it have happened? I realized that I had had no sleep for more than 24 hours. Incredibly, my four-month-old son, Thomas, slept peacefully through the noise from gunshots that continued to ring around our neighborhood. His Chinese nanny, Wang Ayih, was less sanguine about the situation when she arrived at our apartment in the Jianguomenwai foreigners’ compound. But she agreed to work overtime so that my journalist husband and I could roam the city and report our findings.

It was a war scene. Everywhere there were burning buses, wrecked military vehicles, twisted metal barriers—and blood. Students drove through the streets in trucks displaying the corpses of their dead friends. The incredulity of the people matched mine. “Animals, animals,” muttered a middle-aged woman surveying the scenes of destruction. A nurse from Fuxingmen Hospital, where hundreds of dead and injured were taken, said simply: “We were shocked at the cruelty. Most of us cried.” Sunday was not a day for thinking. It was a day for the terror to sink in.

Monday, June 5: Shooting continued through the night. Wang Ayih came to work again, but she was terrified. I was astounded and touched by her loyalty. “But if I didn’t come,” she said, “there would be nobody to look after Thomas, and you would not be able to tell the world what happened.”

On our travels through the wreckage of the city, we visited the Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital. Zhao Lanzhu, a 23-year-old man with blood-caked trousers, said: “That’s the blood of my friend. I carried him here. He died in my arms.” Zhao said that he and his friend—both clerks at a factory near Tiananmen—had heard the commotion in the square on June 4 and went to see for themselves. As they turned a corner, a tank blasted a hole through the friend’s head. “You must report this,” implored Zhao. “The world has to know the truth.”

Back outside our compound, two army trucks were ablaze. They had been attacked by people with petrol bombs shortly before we returned. Tanks had been moved onto the nearby Jianguomen bridge. “Those tanks are in combat position—to fight other armies, not people,” said our next-door neighbor, a South American military attaché. I called my mother in England. She said that she would fly to Hong Kong and take Thomas back to her home. Beijing was no place for a small baby.

Tuesday, June 6: There were more sounds of heavy gunfire in the night. In the morning, there were almost no people on the streets. At the airport, foreigners tried to buy tickets for any flight out. A friend who had driven his wife and children to the airport said that he had seen new posters along the road: “Hang Li Peng as a murderer,” “Blood should be paid for with blood.” Rain drizzled on the city. The Canadian, Australian and other embassies evacuated their nationals from our compound. They were afraid that fighting was going to break out between rival army factions trying to capture the nearby Jianguomen bridge. Our 14-storey building was virtually empty. There was panic buying in the few shops that remained open. I filled the bathtub in case water supplies were cut; I had already stocked up on formula and bottled distilled water for Thomas.

Wednesday, June 7: Chinese troops raked the adjoining apartment block at our compound with gunfire. As bullets shattered windows, a Chinese nanny had the sense to shove two children to the floor of their apartment. Soldiers later said that they had been looking for a sniper. More likely, they were searching for dissident leaders whom they suspected to have taken refuge in the diplomatic compound.

The British Embassy called to say that an order had come down “from the highest levels in the Chinese government” to let us out in a convoy. We drove away in cars flying British flags. My husband, child and I took up residence at a friend’s abandoned apartment in the safer Tai Yuan compound several kilometres north.

Thursday, June 8: China’s worst nightmare of a huge army at war with itself did not materialize—at least for now. The hated 27th Army had been moved out of Beijing, but the troops replacing it were still loyal to the government. For the first time since Bloody Sunday, Premier Li Peng appeared on television, congratulating the People’s Liberation Army for a job well done. The station broadcast a series of telephone numbers and urged people to call in information on the whereabouts of the “bandits.”

Friday, June 9: The airport was packed, but there was no panic. We watched as a friend took Thomas from my arms for the flight to Hong Kong, and from there to England with my mother. As they disappeared through passport control, I was already missing Thomas terribly, but I felt relieved that he was safe.

Back in the city, some transit services were restored. I took bus No. 35, which crosses Tiananmen Square. As the bus sped under the gaze of Chairman Mao, I counted 55 tanks in the square. A colleague called me later to say that fresh troops had arrived in Beijing to reinforce an already huge garrison. Army units were moving closer to universities in the city’s northwest, and soldiers were also seen at the Academy of Social Sciences. Was this the beginning of a crackdown on dissident intellectuals? It was certainly the beginning of what promises to be a long military rule.