David Rothkopf

The shared secret…

From May 4th through the 6th 1989, the Asian Development Bank held its 22d Annual Meeting at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel in Beijing. Just over two weeks earlier, on April 15, former Communist Party Secretary General Hu Yaobang died of a heart attack. He had been a symbol to reformers in China who had ...


From May 4th through the 6th 1989, the Asian Development Bank held its 22d Annual Meeting at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel in Beijing. Just over two weeks earlier, on April 15, former Communist Party Secretary General Hu Yaobang died of a heart attack. He had been a symbol to reformers in China who had appreciated his willingness to challenge the party old guard and his courageous calls for rapid change. When, in the wake of student protests in 1986 and 1987, he was made a scapegoat by party hardliners and forced to resign, he became an icon of a democracy movement that sometimes appeared dormant in China but periodically, and fairly persistently, would produce energetic protests both large and small.

For these reasons, within hours of Hu’s death, students began to gather in Tiananmen Square. A few days later, as the size of the crowds grew, I arrived in Beijing with my colleagues for the Asian Development Bank meeting. My company published daily newspapers at all the meetings of the world’s development banks and were scheduled to be in Beijing for several weeks, a band of 20 or so writers, editors, photographers, and designers. Most of us were in our 20s. I was the grey-beard at 33.

Our own venture was on the cutting edge of what new technologies were making possible. Thanks to our ability to scrape together a substantial percentage of the few Macintosh computers available for rent in the Chinese capital, we were able to parachute in a newspaper team and put out a full-fledged English language daily with a  circulation of several thousand, distributed each morning to 30 or 40 hotels throughout Beijing. Of course, we needed the government’s assistance and our local partner became the Xinhua News Agency. We were given space in the cramped, rather dreary offices of China Daily, the main official English language paper in China. And we printed at what was then the country’s largest economic daily, regularly referred to by our hosts as the Chinese equivalent of the Wall Street Journal. While our sponsors provided us with great latitude, they did read the paper before it was printed, never seeking to censor but on one or two occasions suggesting we refer to Taiwan as Taipei, China. It stuck in the craw but seemed small price to pay, especially given the freedom we had which seemed pretty remarkable at the time.

When we started work, we viewed the demonstrations in Tiananmen as interesting, a source perhaps of local color and traffic congestion. By the time we left, we viewed them as extraordinarily important and our interaction with the student leaders and frankly with every Chinese person who came in contact with them as not less than life-changing. Today, we look back on the June 4th crackdown that brought an end to the protests and death to thousands (credible estimates range from a few hundred to perhaps 3,000) as the defining moment of six weeks of protests. But 20 years later, I am left with something else, my enduring sense of the energy and even the joy surrounding the protests in the weeks leading up to their tragic end. It was unlike anything I have seen before or since and it infused everyone from the young protestors to the grizzled old Chinese communist party hands who we worked with regularly in our offices at China Daily.

There is no room here for a lengthy memoir. Pity too, because it would be an entertaining one full of stories of getting lost in the hutongs (back alleys) of Beijing, marveling at the lines of people outside the Kentucky Fried Chicken, lamenting the absence of good Chinese take-out food (there were clearly not enough Jews in China to ensure that industry would flourish to American standards), surviving on jars of peanut butter late in to the night, negotiating logistically challenging hole-in-the-floor rest room facilities, meeting warm, fascinating people, seeing remarkable sights, and getting the clear sense that there in 1989, somehow, we were getting a sneak preview of the forces that would ultimately drive the 21st Century.

Nonetheless, I simply wanted to take a moment to mark the 20th anniversary of the brutality in Tiananmen with a word or two about what led those protestors who died to show up in the first place, to put themselves at risk because they were in fact, putting the entire Chinese political structure at risk. And for me, the essence of that is captured in a conversation I had with a fairly senior guy at China Daily, a longtime party member, as he left the office one day to go and view the growing throngs outside the gates of the Forbidden City. “Are you going to report?” I asked. “No,” he said, smiling, “I am going to join in. All my friends are…reporters, editors, old Party members, pretty senior government people. I was there yesterday. They were all there too. It is like a celebration, a parade.” 

Talking to him at greater length and then talking to others at the time from all walks of life in China including the most prominent of the protest leaders, like Wuer Kaixi and Wang Dan, the impression one had at the height of the Tiananmen euphoria was of a society in which everyone had the same secret and somehow it became acceptable to share it and all were relieved and excited to discover what they shared. The famous “Statue of Liberty” and flags and other decorations went up. There was a sense that major change, progress toward democracy, was imminent.

Of course, the power of the moment and the enormous social energy behind it unsettled those in the leadership who were steeped in a Chinese political philosophy where it is stability rather than any ideology that is prized above all else. The constant enemy was and remains the possibility of unrest leading to conflict or worse, anarchy…which is the core risk in a nation as full of complex countervailing forces as China. The result was the massacre.

But the spirit of the six weeks leading up the crackdown has not, in my estimation, died even though recent press reports show the youth of China see the 1989 uprising as remote, its memory faded. China, of course, has grown at a stunning pace in the past 20 years, ascending economically and in international political clout in ways that would have then been unimaginable. Whether this would have happened as fast had democratic reform come sooner is a useless, abstract debate. What is clear is that thanks to the economic growth in the country and concurrent revolutions in information technology, individual Chinese are better informed. Further, thanks to the rise of the country’s private sector, its growing integration with the global economy and the personal growth of the average citizen, the Chinese people are today part of a rapidly changing political fabric.  Whether that fabric must be rent in order to fulfill the dreams that were articulated by those students in that square two decades ago is unclear. But what is absolutely certain is that during the intervening years, that shared secret has not died. In fact, it is no longer a very well kept secret. But because it is so widely shared, it remains one that is so powerful that it is almost certainly of greater significance to China’s future than it is to its past.


 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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