June 4, 1989 - Beijing, China

Sharon Dirlam (MAT 27) shares her story of Beijing's deadly pro-democracy demonstrations

Sharon Dirlam, MAT 27, and her husband, John McCafferty, worked at the China Daily and reported for the Los Angeles Times in Beijing, China, in 1989.

We were in Beijing, China, during the 1989 democracy movement and the brutal repression that followed.

On April 15, 1989, Hu Yaobang died, and pro-democracy demonstrations began in Tiananmen Square. The demonstrations and marches went on for seven weeks. Those days of demonstrations had a festive air. Not only students marched; teachers, nurses, engineers and school children joined in. People poured into Beijing by bus, truck and train to join the movement. The international media descended on the scene, amplifying the voice of hope to the world.

There was no rioting, looting or fighting. Nor was there a satisfactory response from the government to the demands for democracy and an end to corruption.

In the fourth week, a hunger strike began.

Then came a night of unpredicted cold rain. A Red Cross worker came through our China Daily workers' compound calling for help. People poured out of their apartments with sweaters and blankets for the chilled youngsters at the square.

But the democracy movement with its hope and euphoria and solidarity of purpose ended in the bloodbath that the world outside China watched with horror on television. In Beijing, the government took control of news coverage. On the night of the crackdown, people in our compound stood outside until dawn, talking, listening to the sound of gunfire.

Every day leading up to June 4, since martial law had been declared, we'd had the increasingly urgent feeling that events were going to explode.

Soldiers came into the city by the trainload, some from the deep countryside. One reporter saw a young soldier gazing at a traffic signal. He asked, "What is this light, red and green?" These ill-prepared troops, unarmed until the fateful night, were confronted by excited and even, they probably felt, menacing young demonstrators. There had been fights earlier in the day.

Late in the evening of June 3, a sultry hot night, noisy crowds gathered around the hunger strikers in the square. The order was given, the soldiers opened fire, and people fled in all directions. Some of the students heading back to the university were shot as they left the square. By morning, tanks and other heavy equipment circled the square, pushing the remnants of the occupation into piles to be removed.

In the days that followed, the Chinese government commanded complete control of the news, and to this day there is no accurate death count.

Rumors flew wildly, like the report of tanks squashing people in the square. Hospitals and clinics filled with the wounded and the dead. By any account, it was a horribly tragic night.

We asked one of our friends, "Why didn’t people run with they saw guns pointed at them?" He said, "We really didn’t think the People’s Liberation Army would shoot their own people."

The night of the crackdown was followed by days of PLA soldiers shooting around town, much of it in the air, as a warning to people to stay indoors. Numerous demonstrators were arrested. One chilling sight in the aftermath was an open truck roaring by on our street, filled with manacled, sad-looking men.

Beijing grew quiet. Most foreigners fled. Tiananmen Square was swept and scrubbed. The China Daily removed all Western news publications from its libraries, and its reporters, along with workers everywhere, underwent long sessions of "re-education" in order to memorize the government’s version of the events, officially labeled "a counter-revolutionary rebellion." One of our colleagues said wearily, "It is very hard to repeat the official version while part of your mind tells you otherwise."

American friends, heading for the airport, asked us, "How can you stay under these circumstances?"

We’d thought about leaving, too, but our Chinese friends didn’t have the luxury of choice. Our leaving would prove nothing; it would hurt our friends, not their government. What an education it was to watch the government’s propaganda machine work its relentless spin over the next several months. More subtly, we were learning something else as well: that our Chinese friends had two levels of thinking: the official pragmatic level and the deeply personal level.

Those two levels merged in the demonstrations for democracy, but it’s a slippery climb to the elevated plateau where idealism meets reality, and in 1989 the ascent met with failure.

  • Contact Sharon Dirlam at dirlams@juno.com
  • Read an OurWorld article about Sharon Dirlam's book Beyond Siberia


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