Thirty years ago on June 4, 1989, Shirley Ruble was on assignment in Beijing with the U.S. State Department when the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred. Shirley shares her memories in her words and photographs.

It was June 1, 1989, and I stood on Tiananmen Square at midnight. Fourteen paralegals were invited by the U.S. State Department to travel to the Republic of China and introduce democratic law to Chinese officials in criminal courts, prosecutors’ offices, labor farms and prisons. 

We made the 18-hour flight from Seattle to Beijing and were greeted by three Chinese Ministry of Justice officials. They checked us into the Beijing-Toronto Hotel, a few blocks from Tiananmen Square. As they left, they gave us a warning: “Do not go to Tiananmen Square. It is filled with hoodlums. It’s unsanitary. Sewage and garbage rot in the streets. No toilets. Air stinks. Not safe.” 

Our group leader, Mickey Ryan (not her real name) called us to a meeting in her room. “Do we want to go to the Square tonight?” She took a vote and it was unanimous. We changed our shoes and slipped out of the hotel. 

On the street we were swept along by hundreds of thousands of students, marching in units, waving signs that read, “Student Power” and “Long Live Democracy.” 

The Square  

The magnitude of the Square overwhelmed me. Later I learned it was the size of 10 football fields. Vendors sold steamed chicken and orange drinks. Clear plastic tarps and makeshift tents flapped in the wind that blew over the gray paving stones. Bare light bulbs illuminated tents with red crosses on them. Chinese medics bent over students lying on cots, tending to their needs. Green portable toilets were parked every three or four tents. 

A spotlight shined on a 33-foot-tall paper-maché statue of the Goddess of Democracy, holding her torch high with both hands. 

The students surrounded us and shouted, “You are Americans! Will you sign my notebook?” They rushed at us holding out pens and paper. I got into the spirit of it and signed, “Shirley from Seattle, U.S.A.” I asked if I could take their pictures. They cried out, “No, no,” covered their faces and ran away. 

We began walking back to our hotel. Mickey saw two taxis and hailed them. Gratefully, we accepted the long ride back. 

Stone Forest 

Our delegation had no idea in just three days the Chinese Army would end the pro-democracy demonstrations on Tiananmen Square. Every night, we walked over to the Square, not knowing if we were being followed or not. 

Our itinerary kept us busy meeting with legal officials in law schools and courtrooms and touring labor farms and prisons. 

On the morning of June 3, 1989, something strange happened to us in Beijing. A chartered bus took us on an unscheduled two-day trip to Stone Forest. We had no idea an attack on the students was scheduled for 10 that night. Stone Forest is a three-hour drive from Beijing and the home of the isolated Sani Tribe. 

At our hotel, we ate a late dinner of bird’s nest soup, steamed fish-head, goat-cheese and water chestnut cake before going to bed. At 4:45 a.m. on June 4, Mickey awoke all of us by banging on our doors. Her sister back home called Mickey on her cellphone. She said she watched the Chinese Army fire on unarmed students. CNN, predicting the massacre, filmed it from a wall overlooking the Square. “We have to leave immediately,” Mickey choked as she said the words. “President H.W. Bush ordered all Americans out of China.” She called the Ministry of Justice and asked to have a meeting. 

Train to Hong Kong 

Two hours later, Mr. Chen arrived without a greeting and sat in a chair by the window. “You are safe here and you should not worry,” he said. “Because I am Chinese, I understand the situation better than you do.”   

Mickey played the role of a diplomat to perfection. “I thank you for your hospitality and efforts to assure our safety. Your concern is greatly appreciated. I will treasure your friendship the rest of my life.” Any hope of our leaving the country alive depended on our cooperation.  

After a 15-minute meeting with Mr. Chen, there was nothing to do but wait to be evacuated. There were no available flights out of the country for two days. Instead, the Ministry gave us tickets to take the train to Hong Kong, a British colony where we could safely fly home. 

Our hosts took us by bus to the train depot. As we drove past Tiananmen Square, we saw an empty, blackened plaza, where the smoke of battle still hovered making it impossible to see more than a few yards. Fires smoldered in the wreckage of armored carriers. The hulk of burned out buses, with blown-out windows, lay on the debris-strewn streets.

Homeward Bound  

It is nearly impossible to know how many were killed the night of the massacre. The Chinese estimate 241 students. The Chinese Red Cross put the figure at 2,600. British intelligence set the count at 10,000 with thousands wounded and 2,000 arrested. Bodies were burned and hosed down the drains. 

Seven soldiers killed. 

June 10, 1989, was our last day in Hong Kong. We finished our itinerary at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, taking day trips but they did little to lift our spirits. 

After 21 days of hell, we laughed and cried as we walked along the jet way to board our plane. The Boeing 747 gracefully lifted off and circled over Victoria Harbor where sampans crossed the sheltered waters. 

We floated above the clouds. From my window, I looked into the brilliant red sunset for a glimpse of home after surviving the bloody streets of Beijing.

Shirley Ruble is an Alumna of Merit graduate of Whitman College and received a nonfiction award from Pacific Northwest Writers. She is editor of the Pioneer United Methodist Church newsletter and published “Washington Odd Fellows Home, from 1897 to the Present.”

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