Tiananmen Diary: Thirteen Days in June by Harrison Salisbury / Little, Brown & Co. / 1989 / Buy it at Amazon.com here.
It is a journalist’s dream and a western sinologist’s nightmare to be in China during a violent government crackdown. Harrison Salisbury experienced this firsthand when he happened to be in Beijing in June, 1989 as student protests marking the death of a popular liberal leader went from circuslike good times to a bloody shooting war, a violent confrontation between disaffected students and a hard-line government which claimed the lives of hundreds of students and perhaps thousands of innocent Beijingers.
Salisbury, a reporter for The New York Times and an old Kremlinologist, was already in his 80′s and a famous China hand by 1989. His 1984 walk with his wife Charlotte on the route of the Communist army’s defining Long March resulted in the popular book The Long March (1985). Salisbury knew people in the highest government offices, from President Deng Xiaoping to old-guard Army generals.
He was in Beijing to film a documentary for a Japanese television station, ensconced at the Beijing Hotel with a window overlooking Tiananmen and the Forbidden City. Salisbury of course went to the Communist’s great, 100-acre square to look over the student demonstrators, even signing autographs for those who recognized him. While some China watchers felt something terrible was “about to happen” in China, Salisbury had no sense of impending doom or a coming crackdown.
Salisbury and his film crew attempted to get the right backgrounds for his interviews, staying on for several days at the Beijing Hotel as the students continued to gather and make speeches and were visited by high-ranking government officials. Then out of nowhere came the Army and the shooting began.
In a fast-reading diary format Salisbury delivers what is sometimes literally a shot-by-shot analysis of the conflict at Tiananmen. He crouches in the Beijing Hotel to avoid high-caliber bullets. The sky over the city blackens with the smoke of burning buses the students have commandeered as barricades. Somehow the fighting between well-armed soldiers and students armed with sticks and bricks goes on and on, and spreads throughout much of the city. Thousands of ordinary Beijingers take to the streets to block the way of tanks and troops. Salisbury calls these confrontations, which often ended with humans staring down tanks, an attempt by the people to remind the army of what it is – the People’s Army.
Beijingers did not want the bloodshed at Tiananmen. A growing Chinese economy did not need Tiananmen. As Salisbury leaves Beijing in fear and heads to Wuhan to interview people there and consider what has happened (and always, to set up more shots with the Japanese television crew), he understands these things and develops a very bleak opinion of aging President Deng in particular and China’s future in general. While his assessment of China’s future seems too bleak, in retrospect – the economy did recover from the initial withdrawal of investment from China after Tiananmen – Salisbury was writing shortly after the event and as a China lover and watcher, he was naturally depressed and deeply moved by the tragic violence of government against people. In the end he called the response to the Tiananmen protests an act of terror by the Chinese government against its own people, complete with stray bullets and innocent victims, and thought it represented the death of the “New China” and the end of Deng Xiaoping.
With a 1942 Remington typewriter he first carried to World War II as a news reporter, Salisbury captured the essence of a desperate time and proved his merit as a great newsman. His Tiananmen Diary is an important piece of China literature as well as on-the-scene news analysis, and should be a part of any China student’s library. ##
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