Nicholas Kristof’s hair-raising dispatch from Beijing, June 4, 1989

June 4, 2013

Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 2, 1989. (CATHERINE HENRIETTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Looking back on the Beijing protests and crackdown of May and June 1989, it can be easy to lose perspective. It was long ago – 24 years – and China has changed so much since then. The event feels very remote, and its legacy has been so meticulously repressed within China itself, that the desperation and horror of  that day in June have largely receded.

As part of our coverage of the anniversary, it's worth pausing to remember that June 4, when New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof's famous story appeared on the paper's front page. He and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, won a Pulitzer the next year for their coverage of the events that are now a part of history. It's not hard to see why.

Revisiting the article 24 years later helps us better understand what it felt like at the time and reminds us of just how bad it really got. Try reading the below excerpt, of the first three paragraphs, and imagine that you didn't know what country it was from. Does it sound more like China or, say, Syria?

BEIJING, Monday, June 5 -- Army units tightened their hold on the center of the Chinese capital on Sunday, moving in large convoys on some of the main thoroughfares and firing indiscriminately at crowds as outraged citizens continued to attack and burn army vehicles.

 

It was clear that at least 300 people had been killed since the troops first opened fire shortly after midnight on Sunday morning but the toll may be much higher. Word-of-mouth estimates continued to soar, some reaching far into the thousands. Outbreaks of firing continued today, as more convoys of troops moved through the city.

 

The bloodshed stunned Beijing and seemed to traumatize its citizens. Normal life halted as armored personnel carriers and troop trucks rumbled along debris-filled roads, with soldiers firing their automatic weapons in every direction. Smoke filled the sky as workers and students vented frustration and outrage by burning army vehicles wherever they found them separated from major convoys, in side streets or at intersections.

Kristof wrote, as it would turn out, correctly, "By ordering soldiers to fire on the unarmed crowds, the Chinese leadership has created an incident that almost surely will haunt the Government for years to come." He also relayed, as best he could, the still-sparse information about what exactly transpired:

When troops finally seized Tiananmen Square early Sunday morning, they allowed the student occupiers who held on to the center of the square for three weeks to leave and then sent tanks to run over the tents and makeshift encampment that demonstrators had set up. Unconfirmed reports rapidly spread that some students had remained in the tents and were crushed to death.

 

The troops sealed off Tiananmen Square and started a huge bonfire. Many Beijing residents drew the conclusion, again impossible to verify, that the soldiers cremated corpses to destroy the evidence.

Another thing that struck me about reading this story now is that Kristof is still writing for the New York Times, as a columnist. June 1989, as long ago as it feels, is really not so old. As jarringly incompatible as this story feels with the China we know today, the past and the present are not so distant from one another. Current Chinese President Xi Jinping was 35 at the time. Former Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong, a mastermind of the crackdown, died on Tuesday, just a few hours into the crackdown's 24th anniversary.

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Max Fisher · June 4, 2013