Written by Jean-Pierre Cabestan.

I arrived in Beijing on 15 May 1989, the same day as Gorbachev. Waiting for my luggage, I could see on the airport TV screens the Soviet president cum Party general secretary making his first speech to the Chinese public. I was part of a delegation of French jurists invited by the Chinese government to a conference on administrative law and legal modernisation. Though organised by the French Society of Comparative Law, our group included the top brass of the Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest administrative court, as China was then interested in our own experience of administrative litigation. Most of us (not me) were visiting China for the first time, but we were all quite intrigued to land in a capital city where the major square and political heart, Tiananmen, had been occupied by students for several weeks.

We rapidly realised that the conference had been organised by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) powerful organisation department. We were hosted not in Beijing’s usual hotels located in the Jianguo menwai district but in the Wanshou Binguan (Ten Thousand Longevity Hotel) on Wanshou Road, in the Western part of the city, near Muxiji, in an area filled with military and Party facilities. The hotel was run by the CCP Central Committee and usually hosted delegations of brother communist parties.

It was a two-day conference (16-17 May) followed by an afternoon roundtable at the Great Hall of the People, the Pharaohnic and cavernous seat of the National People’s Congress, China’s hand-picked parliament, situated on the Western side of Tiananmen Square.

Many of the Chinese conference participants arrived late to the venue, stuck in traffic because of the diversions caused by the students’ occupation of Tiananmen Square. But they were keenly interested in the French administrative legal experience and particularly in our tradition of having disputes between the government and citizens settled not by the usual judiciary but by a network of administrative courts capped by a Conseil d’Etat set up by Napoleon that is formally chaired by the Prime Minister but is fully independent.

At the time, led by Zhao Ziyang with the support of Deng Xiaoping who had endorsed the CCP 13th Congress resolution adopted in 1987, Chinese reformers were rebuilding the country’s administrative law, a branch of law that had been destroyed after the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949. And in spite of the gathering in Tiananmen Square, an administrative litigation law drafted in the spring would be promulgated in the autumn of 1989.

But in May 1989, Zhao Ziyang and his advisers were more ambitious: they wished to craft an administrative law and a civil service system that would help consolidate the separation between the Party and the state (dangzheng fenkai), restricting the role of the former to “political leadership” and make the latter more open and transparent. Though approved by the Party Congress, this reform would be killed after the Tiananmen massacre.

With students demonstrating against government corruption as the backdrop, I was asked to translate rather surrealist interview questions put by a young China Daily journalist to the number two of the Conseil d’Etat (the head of the Litigation Chamber) who became impatient and cross with the naiveté of the questions asked. Among them, the ones related to the French recipe for ferreting out government corruption came back obsessively, revealing to us more about China’s problems than anything else. The French interviewee kept underscoring the rarity of corruption cases among his country’s civil servants, while the Chinese interviewer reacted with dismay and more naïve questions that showed her superficial knowledge of our country’s government system. After 20 minutes, the French judge asked me to tell her that the interview was over.

The afternoon in the Great Hall of the People on 18 May included an unexpected development that has since turned in one of my favourite personal anecdotes. As the meeting went on and on, peppered with boring presentations about China’s legal reforms, as most of the local experts invited were expressing very conservative views for reasons that I would understand the following day, I felt that I needed to go to the toilet. Asking the way, I ended up in a water closet on the other side of the building with a magnificent bird’s eye view on Tiananmen Square. I could see the square half filled with students, mostly coming from the provinces, as we would learn later, since many Beijing students had already gone back to their campuses. I did not have a camera with me. But I informed some of my French fellows of this exclusive view and in turn most of them visited this rather privileged toilet. I took advantage of this refreshing walk to peep into some of the provincial rooms, named after the particular Chinese provinces where their official delegates meet.

These improvised walks did not go unnoticed by our distinguished hosts. At the end of the roundtable, the NPC security complained that some of us had trespassed into restricted areas of the building and as a result the organised visit of the Great Hall of the People was cancelled. Obviously, we did not belong anymore to the people!

As good French citizens, we loudly protested but to no avail. To compensate this unexpected disappointment, our guardian angels took us to the square where I was able to chat with a couple of students, from Hebei and Sichuan, totally unaware (as we then were) of what was being decided behind closed doors.

That evening, we missed the huge demonstration in the square, having no option but to join the group for a formal dinner at the French Embassy in Sanlitun that we reached, not without difficulties, using the third ring instead of Chang’an avenue, then the usual and fastest route from the Western to the Eastern part of the city.

The following day, I met a friend from the the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Philosophy at his place. His speciality was Nietzsche, and he was a well-connected academic since his wife was a vice-minister’s daughter. He told me that Zhao Ziyang had been sacked the day before and that he was deeply worried about the path that was being taken by China’s elites.

Our Chinese hosts had planned to take our group to the Forbidden City, using the northern gate, as the southern entrance had been closed. But I had decided to let them go as I had learnt, watching TV the night before, that Martial Law had been declared in Beijing. Around 6 am, I was awoken by a swelling rumour coming from Chang’an Avenue: Beijingers had started gathering near Muxidi to prevent the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from moving into the city centre. The hotel security guards looked at me in a strange manner moving out and back to the hotel at such an early time, but they did not stop me.

From there I visited some French diplomats of my acquaintance who were literally devastated by Li Peng’s decision. But wasn’t it expected after the fiasco of the Chinese Prime Minister’s failed dialogue with the student leaders? In the morning two helicopters flew over Tiananmen Square but on the whole, the city was quiet and the students unperturbed as if the martial law had been declared but not implemented. Actually, the martial law could not have been executed at once because the CCP authorities had lost control of the city.

Our group had to stick to its schedule and the following day we left Beijing to Shanghai. It took us some time to reach the airport, once again using the third ring. At several intersections, we were stopped by students and Beijingers who had set up check points and placed buses and lorries in the middle of the road as an attempt to prevent the PLA from moving into the city. They stopped us briefly and became very friendly when they realised that we were foreigners heading to the airport, making large victory signs to us with their fingers; many of us replied in the same way.

We were welcomed in Shanghai on 21 May with a half million people demonstration on the Bund and in the surrounding streets. We just spent an afternoon and an evening busy with a heavy on alcohol banquet hosted by the local Law Society. But we managed to convince our caretakers to bring us to the demonstrators, up to a point as our bus was stuck near People’s Square unable to move further. We had an argument with our guide who wanted to pull out of the crowd, my regretted mentor, a rather grey Soviet Union specialist, unexpectedly getting very vocal with him. He calmed down, but our driver had the last word, concerned about the well-being of his working instrument and taking us back to our hotel.

The following day, 22 May, we landed in Hangzhou. There, the demonstration was of a much smaller scale as if the beauty of the Western Lake had distracted the local people from getting mobilised. Our hosts knew what was coming but said little.

Yet, the situation was then perceived as very confused. As I arrived in Hong Kong the following day, one newspaper headline indicated that Li Peng had taken the reins of the Party while another one stated that Zhao Ziyang had prevailed. Some people were obviously ill informed or nurtured ulterior motives.

After I returned to Paris, another ten days passed before we learnt about the massacre, watching TV, at the end of a Saturday evening dinner with friends. Then we could not fully take the measure of the earthquake that the Beijing Spring and the subsequent massacre had provoked.

My own experience of and contact with Tiananmen taught me that it is very hard to judge important events, or history in the making, as we witness it. It is always later, when we can gather more information about what really happened that we can start better understanding the reveal magnitude of events and draw more convincing conclusions from what we saw and witnessed. That is why I admire journalists who can react to and assess quickly an event. That is also why I am not a journalist but an academic.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan is Professor and Head of the Dept. of Government and International Studies, Hong Kong Baptist University.