My appointments diary for the week beginning 23rd April 1989 has a few brief entries in it. On Monday 24th I caught a flight at 10:10 in the morning from Kong Hong to Beijing and on Thursday 27th I flew back. In between there were a number of meetings in the Chinese capital with business partners – including with a brilliant young Chinese film-maker with whom I was making a documentary about Shell (my employer) and China. It was my third or fourth visit to mainland China that year – a consequence of the growing importance of the potential of the Chinese market to Shell – as it was to all major western companies as Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms held up the promise of riches galore if only the purchasing power of a billion Chinese could be tapped. In the three years since I had first visited China on business progress was certainly being made although all of us were conscious that there was a certain fragility of prospects due to China’s gradual embrace of free markets, on the one hand, but continued totalitarian political system dominated by a gerontocracy of aging leaders – not least Deng himself- on the other. In that fateful spring and early summer of 1989 the institutionalised paradox of a country which had a drive for economic change whilst also still having unelected leaders who would not consider loosening their political grip came to its head.

Earlier in the month, on 15th April, I had been in Beijing when the news of the death of Hu Yaobang, former general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party emerged. Hu, whilst nominally a Deng loyalist, was seen by students, especially at Beijing University, as reform-minded and when he died suddenly this was the trigger for peaceful protests. The Chinese business people that I met that week, all exceptionally well-educated and mostly in their twenties and thirties, were not activists but they argued that for China to modernise they had to create a proper elective government system. Economic progress and democratic reform were two sides of the same coin and indivisible. By the time I was back in Hong Kong after that mid April visit the protests had expanded considerably and on 18th April thousands of students marched to Tiananmen Square both in memory of Hu Yaobang but also to call for change. Four days later there were more than fifty thousand young people in the square – mostly from the universities but also some from amongst the well-educated and somewhat older young business peoples group like those that I had been meeting.

When I returned to Beijing on 24th April a class boycott by students had begun and on the final day of my visit, 27th April, 150,000 students marched through Beijing’s streets to protest and more than half-a-million lined the streets of the city to cheer them on. The international media was giving the protests blanket coverage and whilst it was difficult for me as a visitor to go to Tiananmen Square I was well aware of events from reports fed to me by Chinese friends and especially by China Television when I visited their new Beijing offices on the afternoon of 26th April. The journalists there were amongst the most active citizens calling for change. Back in my hotel that evening I turned on the television to watch CNN and after news from around the world the presenter said “And now back to Beijing and the student protests..” at which point the TV screen went blank with the picture only returning after the CNN reporter had finished his story and the news had moved on. “How do they do that”, I wondered, “- how can they block a satellite transmission which was picked up directly by the Holiday Inn’s dish?” How naïve I was because there was no doubt that there were secret police in every hotel who had control of the TV signal so that transmissions could be censored to guests like me.   

On 27th April I returned to Hong Kong and since then I have never returned to mainland China. In early May the demonstrations in the Chinese capital continued with Tiananmen Square being the main focus of the protests. The Chinese leadership was humiliated on 15th May when the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit was disrupted and a few days later Chinese Premier Li Peng demanded of the student leaders that they return to their campuses and vacate Tiananmen Square. The students said that they were unable to arrange for this and within days Li declared martial law and called in the army. After various clashes over the next few days on June 4th tanks moved into the Square where there were estimated to be as many as one million people – the army opened fire on the protesters – the death toll was probably in excess of two thousand. It was one of the most brutal examples of the exercising of totalitarian power in modern times and an event of unequalled significance in the troubled post war history of the People’s Republic of China.

In Hong Kong the shock at what had happened was all around. My own staff, all young Hong Kong Chinese, joined a march through the central district in support of their cousins in Beijing. The colonial Hong Kong government condemned the events unreservedly – as did politicians and commentators around the world.  All of us who had been frequent travelers to China over the past few years were stunned almost into disbelief- and concern. How many of the young Chinese business people that we had met had been in Tiananmen Square on June 4th and had any been injured or killed? We were never to know. My own conscience led me to decide that I would not travel to China again for any reason whilst the political system remained unchanged – indeed it seems impossible that any person or company with principles could take any other decision. How little did I know!

Before 1989 was out Shell was back in Beijing and seeking to re-establish its business projects as if nothing had happened. Whilst the phrase “Corporate Social Responsibility” was in its infancy at the time it was clear to me even then that it was so much poppycock. Tiananmen was not forgotten by most individuals in the west – but the giant corporations without exception returned to China as soon as they could salivating at the business prospects there and turning blind eyes to the massacres of June 1989. Internally in the Republic many brave Chinese have continued to demand that the truth be told and have continued to argue for political change – and many have spent a decade or more in hidden jails for their effrontery. The cover-up has been extensive in China – a wall of silence descended over the protests of that Beijing spring and they are not openly on record anywhere within the PRC.

As well as the Chinese state forcibly erasing the evidence of what happened in 1989 they have insisted that even companies like Google do the same. Visit Google’s Chinese website  and enter “Tiananmen Square” in the search engine and there will be no links to anything on the internet about what happened in the Square in May/June 1989. And it was, of course, a subject avoided or ignored by the International Olympic Commission when they shamelessly awarded the 2008 Olympic Games to the Chinese capital – an affront in every way and in particular to the thousands bereaved as a result of the Chinese Government’s actions back in 1989, and since.

For the last decade or so we have wondered at the astonishing economic growth of the People’s Republic of China and it has certainly been remarkable. But whilst the Chinese economy, at least in the cities, has been transformed there has been no progress at all in respect of Human Rights. Indeed a recent report by Amnesty International said that today “…official policies are even more stringent [than they were in 1989] and censorship and media control [by the government] are even tighter.” The Chinese state apparatus carries out as close surveillance of its citizens as it ever did and the power of the nine leaders of the Politburo is as absolute as it was in the time of Mao or Deng. The growth of China to the position that it now has would have been impossible without the active connivance and encouragement of the West. Multinational corporations, like Shell I’m sad to say, have ridden roughshod over those concerned about the fact that China remains a state where there are none of the freedoms of speech and expression and the rights of fair trial and democracy that we take for granted. And ironically the movement of manufacturing from the west to China and the reliance that western countries now have on China not just as a market for goods and services but as the supplier of a huge percentage of the world’s raw materials and manufactured products has reinforced the invincibility of the Chinese leadership. How different it might, perhaps, have been if, after Tiananmen Square, the West had turned its back on China and refused to   conspire with the Chinese leadership. The conspiracy of silence suited all too many in the West from Governments to Businesses to ambitious executives seeking rewards from business success in the People’s Republic.

In 1989 my wife and I had planned extensive tourist visits to the parts of China that my business had never taken me. To Shanghai, Guilin, Xian and other beautiful places resonant with history and natural beauty. Of course after the events of May and June these plans were cancelled. In the early 1990s we walked together along the Unter den Linden and then through the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin – the Gate was the symbol of a divided Germany and after the fall of the wall, also in 1989, it symbolised freedom and the granting of democracy to the repressed East German people. It was a moving moment for us both. Should a similar granting of freedom to the equally oppressed people of China occur in our lifetimes we will fly to Beijing and place some flowers on the monument to the fallen of 1989 that would no doubt soon be created by the enlighten leaders of a newly democratic Chinese state. And when today, 4th June 2009 – the twentieth anniversary of those unspeakable horrors, we go to vote in the European elections as we cast our vote we will remember the 1.3billion Chinese who have no such rights safe in the knowledge that whilst it may take longer than our lifetimes for the evils to be corrected it will happen one day that is for sure.

With the world in economic turmoil we may agree with Churchill who once said in similarly difficult times “It is not our duty at this time when difficulties are so numerous to interfere forcibly in the internal affairs of countries.” The inevitable implication was that there would be a time when difficulties were not so numerous – and when that time comes is it too much to hope that we will stop kowtowing to the Chinese dictatorship and start to argue with them that the time for change is long overdue – as is the time to apologise for, and as far as possible put right, the grotesque crimes and injustices of Tiananmen 1989?

Be Sociable, Share!