Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

An Optimist's Diary of Tiananmen in June


TIANANMEN DIARY: THIRTEEN DAYS IN JUNE by Harrison E. Salisbury, Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 176 pp., $18.95

THERE is little reason for anyone except an occasional Sinologist, journalist, or news junkie to read a diary about the June 3-4 massacre in Beijing.

About these ads

After all, we already watched Dan Rather breathlessly broadcast the student protests from Beijing, saw the pro-democracy photos in the news weeklies, and read numerous front-page stories about the massacre.

But Harrison Salisbury's ``Tiananmen Diary: Thirteen Days in June'' is not a typical diary. It is Salisbury's vehicle for positing his theory about why China's senior leader Deng Xiaoping, who had brought the Middle Kingdom out of the dark ages of the Cultural Revolution, sanctioned the People's Liberation Army slaughter in Beijing.

Salisbury was making a TV documentary about the 40th anniverary of the Chinese People's Republic (this Sunday). He and his crew had rooms at the Beijing Hotel overlooking Changan Avenue and part of the 100-acre Tiananmen Square. It was as if the Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times writer and editor had gotten an advance copy of the following day's gruesome script.

On the afternoon of June 2, he worries, ``Would they [Chinese] bring troops into Beijing and not employ? I think not.'' Before turning in that night he writes, ``I did think the government had been tolerant. Almost quizzically tolerant, but I was suspicious that this tolerance was the velvet that conceals the mailed fist.''

Salisbury is not a humble diarist. He claims to know China ``as well, if not better than, any member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo.'' Nor is he one of the masses. Although approaching 80, he flippantly comments on Midwesterners in their 70s who are on ``package tours that preoccupy so much time of American middle-class retirees.''

But because the author of ``China: One Hundred Years of Revolution'' and ``The Long March: the Untold Story'' has travelled to and written about China for three decades, his observations carry weight. His frequent name-dropping of Chinese officials validates his points and does not appear as self-congratulatory back-patting, as it would be with an author of less stature.

Much of ``Tiananmen Diary'' is written in half-sentence bursts. This style is effective as he observes the violence on the street below his hotel window and records the rat-a-tat of machine-gun fire on June 4 and 5.

About these ads

Salisbury leaves Beijing on June 5 and spends the remaining eight days on a tour of provincial towns and cities. He talks with Chinese - students, workers, urbanites. But he is not always chronicling his conversations, relaying rumors, or comparing the springtime bloodbath that killed hundreds - perhaps thousands - to similiar violent events in Russian and Chinese history. As his book unfolds, he increasingly focuses his microsope on Mr. Deng, the 85-year-old leader who ``has blown it - really blown it - himself, his great reputation, China present, China future.''

In fact, while some of his analysis of the past 2-1/2 years of party maneuverings makes its way into the actual diary, most of his examination comes in the book's final 19-page ``A Fortnight Later'' chapter.

Salisbury maintains that since the early 1987 pro-democracy student demonstrations, Deng has planned for a means to terrorize the population while giving the Communist Party a chance to impose absolute control on an unruly citizenry - all the while removing the spotlight from China's economic problems, He says Deng's hatred of the students, whom he privately called wa wa (children), increased after they humiliated him by disrupting his schedule when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Beijing last May.

Despite China's propaganda machine, the people of Beijing have not swallowed the government's line that Tiananmen did not happen or that bao tu (bandits) and huai ren (bad men) burned trucks and held back troops.

While China's future appears bleak, Salisbury confesses that, ``I was one who thought the students of Tiananmen could change the mind of the stubborn men who run the country. Yes, even that of Deng Xiaoping.'' While Salisbury was admittedly naive in so thinking, one can but hope that a similar optimism may some day be well founded.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.