As people in Australia and around the world remember the events of June Fourth 1989, I think back to my own experience. The story is worth repeating and perhaps can give some guidance to all who are presently trying to deal with the conundrum that is the People’s Republic of China.
Thirty years ago I was the Director of the China Branch of the International Wool Secretariat, based in Hong Kong. My main task was to open up the China market for wool from Australia and other IWS member countries (New Zealand, South Africa and Uruguay). I and my staff spent most of our time in China and had good contacts in most provinces. In the first week of June 1989 I was all set to accompany the Chairman of the New Zealand Wool Board on a visit to China when the Chinese Ministry of Textile Industry, which was to host the visit, asked us to delay because of the uncertain political situation in Beijing. That is how I came to follow the events of the Tiananmen Massacre from Hong Kong.
I remember that a typhoon hit Hong Kong that weekend. Offices and shops were closed so people had no choice but to stay home and watch 24-hour news coverage of events in Beijing on television. Hong Kong people were shocked by the violence and the collapse of the hopes of the students and workers who were protesting in Tiananmen Square in central Beijing for democracy and an end to official corruption. My staff rushed back to the office to use the fax machines to send local newspaper accounts and pictures to their contacts, and through those channels they also collected information about other protest demonstrations in various cities across China.
On June 5thJohn McPhee, the Managing Director of IWS, rang me from London, being very concerned about the situation in China. He had heard that most foreign companies were withdrawing their staff and closing their offices in Beijing and he asked me whether IWS should abandon its plan to open an office in Beijing. I proposed to him that I go to Beijing and consult Australian Embassy staff, the Ministry and other contacts and then offer some well-grounded advice after a day or two, and with his approval I then took the first available flight. I remember that the plane was empty, although on arrival in Beijing I found the airport crowded with people waiting for flights out of the country. The hotel in town was also deserted.
Driving through the city, I could feel from the vibration of the taxi that the pavement of the main Chang’an boulevard was cracked with ruts left by tank tracks. I could see blood on some walls and bullet holes in many buildings, including the Dongzhimen Apartments where several embassy staff were housed. I talked to those staff, and to many other people. One Chinese journalist friend, who lived on Chang’an, west of Tiananmen Square, at an intersection where tanks that had arrived from the south turned right towards the centre of the city, told me how the small son of a neighbour had been excited to see tanks on the street and had gone out onto the balcony to get a better view. There he was killed by a tank mortar fired directly at him. There were many such stories.
I expected to meet senior officials at the Ministry of Light Industry but I was surprised by an invitation conveyed to me at my hotel that we would meet over a lunch to be hosted by the Deputy Mayor of Beijing Mme Wu Yi – who would later rise to become Vice Premier. I believe that this unusual courtesy was because the government was extremely concerned about the flight of foreign business from the country. Over lunch Wu Yi asked me if I had followed the student protests and I told her straight out what I had seen and heard and what the reaction had been in Hong Kong and elsewhere. She then started to give an alternative account of events. I interrupted to say that I understood that she had a duty to give me the official line but I could not accept it because it was completely different from what I believed was the truth. I asked her not to continue because if she did so I would feel obliged to argue each and every point and, since we maintained such opposite positions, there could be no reconciliation or agreement. I reminded her that I had come to Beijing to discuss future directions for the wool industry and to see if there was a role for the IWS and suggested that we focus on that point.
Wu Yi and the representatives of the Ministry of Textile Industry assured me that their policies regarding foreign investment and technical cooperation had not and would not change. The upshot was that I advised John McPhee that we might expect substantial setbacks to trade but that the long-term potential of the Chinese market was not in question and I recommended that IWS continue to pursue its market objectives.
My assessment proved correct. 1989 was a boom year for Australian wool exports. A year later however China’s imports fell largely because of a boycott by American companies, the Australian Wool Corporation had not listened to my warnings, set the floor price too high, and the wool market collapsed. That is another story.
Jocelyn Chey was Director, China Branch, International Wool Secretariat 1992-95. She is a Visiting Professor at the University of Sydney and an Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University.