(click on photos to enlarge)
Beijing was one of the few major cities in the world where it was perfectly safe to walk along darkened streets at night. This situation was best illustrated by what happened when one of our correspondents left his car parked in a street near Tiananmen Square. When he returned, he couldn’t find it and reluctantly came to the conclusion that it had been stolen. He had, as he always did in Beijing, left the doors unlocked.
The bureau had a small studio and a fixed broadcasting landline to London, but we were careful what we transmitted over that as it was certain to be monitored by the Chinese authorities. Although the Chinese had allowed an unlisted fax line to be installed in the upstairs room we converted into a back-up studio, they had cunningly refused to allow the fax machine through customs. But a fax line is the same as a telephone line, and when I plugged in a spare phone I'd brought with me I discovered that not only was the line live, but I could also direct dial the BBC in London. I linked our temporary studio to this unlisted telephone line and used it to transmit material that might have seriously offended the Chinese authorities. As far as I could tell, the Chinese were never aware that much of what we broadcast was via that line. We used a small device called a Mutterbox to lock the line open -- often without a break for 10 hours at a stretch. We were spending well in excess of £1,000 a day keeping this line open.
During our busiest period, I went three days without visiting my hotel room, except to have a shower and change clothes. Most days it was simpler to snatch some sleep, as the opportunities arose, on a settee in the lounge, or on the bed in our temporary studio. On one occasion, one of our correspondents went 48 hours without sleep. Towards the end of the third week we were able to get four or five hours in bed. We thought we were in Heaven.
I should at this point praise the contribution of Tim Luard's wife, Alison McEwen, who played a key unpaid role as bureau "mother hen", doing a lot of the organising, and most importantly, helping to ease stress and to smooth tempers. We also had the benefit of material shared by London Times correspondent Catherine Sampson who was around a lot, as she was then James Miles's fiancée and later his wife.
I also went troop hunting on a couple of occasions. The first time I got an English-speaking taxi driver to take me to the Great Wall at Badaling, where we had heard rumours of troop concentrations.
Throughout my visit, the weather was mild to hot. There was a colossal downpour one day, but otherwise it was dry and sunny. Despite this, there were only a couple of days with a bright blue sky, because of the terrible pollution. Most of the pollution seems to come from coal fires. There was also a lot of dust in the air, causing everything to feel gritty. Anti pollution measures are almost unknown in China. One of our correspondents recounted how he had been taken by an official to a hill overlooking an industrial town and proudly told: “Look, every chimney is smoking."
I must say I felt quite shattered when it happened – partly because I knew what James Miles, Tim Luard and Simon Long would be going through, but mostly because it is reasonable to assume that many of the people we met and interviewed in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere are now dead or in prison. It was most difficult to reconcile the scenes with the cheerful, spontaneous protests that had been part of my life for three eventful weeks. The people of China had really been asking for very little, yet it was clearly too much for those who had no compunction in turning Tiananmen Square and surrounding streets into a slaughterhouse.
THIRTY YEARS ON...