As June 4 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, many people who were eyewitnesses described feelings of deep sadness; grief for lost hope and youth.
For Canadian sinologist Diana Lary, this was especially true because most of her adult life had been tied to China.
“June 1989 for me was one of the saddest and most painful periods of my life,” she said of China’s military crackdown using tanks and guns to kill hundreds, if not thousands, of pro-democracy student protesters in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
“It started out with such excitement. In April and early May, we thought that something terrific might be happening in China.”
Lary, now 77, first travelled to China in 1964 as a teacher from Britain. She left before the violence of the Cultural Revolution, but returned again afterward.
By the 1980s, she was a professor at York University, a specialist in modern Chinese history. Fluent in Mandarin, she knew Beijing like the back of her hand. These skills made her invaluable as the Canadian embassy’s “resident sinologist” and would be called upon after the Tiananmen massacre.
In that spring of 1989, Lary was in Beijing doing research. Like other westerners, she was captivated by the idealism of the university students camped out in Tiananmen Square. She went there frequently to speak with them.
“They were upset about corruption. The students’ basic values, their protest for freedom of expression, was another example in Chinese history of students taking the lead in demanding political reform,” Lary said.
“It was spontaneous and it came at a perfect time of the year. The sky seemed to be blue almost all the time.
“It was a made for television event: the colours of the flags, the students were young and hopeful. And some of the student leaders spoke English so that made them appealing to outside audiences,” she said.
“No one in the leadership knew what to do about it. The students were hugely supported by the population.”
‘Pointing their guns’
The night of the massacre, Lary happened to be in the city of Jinan, about 250 kilometres from Beijing. She rushed back to the capital by train, arriving late night June 5.
“I got a pedicab with a wild-haired driver. Completely silent, very little light. About a dozen tanks, plus personnel carriers, hundreds of soldiers. Tanks pointing their guns in all four directions,” she wrote in her diary.
“The driver was turning round constantly and asking me whether this was fascism or not.”
Lary and other Canadians took refuge in the embassy.
“I slept on an office floor … The Chinese staff talked about the rumours of how many people had been killed,” she said.
“We lived on cigarettes, we didn’t have much food. The whole embassy was packed with people. Some were having nervous breakdowns.”
In Ottawa, the decision had been made to get people out. “The phone lines were terrible. One line to Ottawa was kept constantly open.”
‘Very shaken Canadians’
Lary volunteered to go retrieve other Canadians in hotels and university dorms across the vast city. Her fluent Mandarin made her an obvious choice.
“Diana was fearless in her determination to get the Canadians in Beijing to safety,” said Charles Burton, then a young scholar and now a senior fellow at the MacDonald Laurier Institute. “She was ebullient, a person of strong liberal convictions and ideals and great kindness. An eccentric aunt that all us students loved to be around.”
Lary hopped into an embassy mini-bus with a Canadian military guard. She covered the vehicle with Canadian flags from the embassy. “Flags were stuck all over the sides, back and roof of the van. Everyone in Beijing would recognize the Maple Leaf,” she said.
They picked up about twenty “very shaken Canadians, none of whom spoke Chinese, some of whom had only been in Beijing for a few days,” she said. “My feeling almost all of the time was cold anger that the authorities dared to behave like this.
“I loved Beijing and I couldn’t believe that they had done this.”
On June 7, Lary and a first group of Canadians flew out of Beijing on a flight to Tokyo.
“Very scary moment just before we took off – border police came on the plane and did a check of passports, presumably to see that we had no Chinese on board,” she wrote in her diary.
Lary’s tearful arrival in Canada, falling into the arms of her daughters, was captured by Canadian media.
Many other Canadians flew into Hong Kong — then a British colony — where protests in solidarity with the Chinese students were happening.
“In Hong Kong … the people watched Tiananmen and felt they were looking at their future,” said Lary.
Colin Robertson, then 34, was the Canadian Consul in Hong Kong tasked with helping panicking Canadians desperate to leave the region and get home.
“It was all very unclear as to what was going to happen. We were concerned about a breakdown in China,” said Robertson, now a commentator on international affairs living in Ottawa.
Robertson, who kept correspondence from the period, describes in a letter the outpouring of grief in Hong Kong. “There was a huge queue of mourners signing a petition of protest. Beside them a pyre of flowers, which were being added to by the minute.”
Robertson wrote he had lunch soon after the Tiananmen massacre with a Chinese government official based in Hong Kong. The official confided to the Canadian that he had faith in the young Chinese. “When these old men are dead, then we can move forward again,” the official told Robertson.
Lary said she won’t forget the student movement, even though the Chinese government tries to erase it from history. “This will always be a moment in time,” she said.
“I feel sad that what came afterward is the thirst for money and economic advancement. I could never join the side of people who allied with that.”
“Some call the students naive and silly. I think they were very brave. It is also a lesson that authoritarianism can win in (the) short-term but not (the) in long-term.”