Tiananmen: Shouts That Turned To Silence Two decades ago, Xiao Bin, a 42-year-old factory worker, claimed he saw tanks crush student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. After he spoke to American journalists, he was sent to labor camp — and his story became a well-known cautionary tale.

Tiananmen: Shouts That Turned To Silence

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/104731094/104763500" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This week marks the 20th anniversary of China's student democracy movement. Two decades ago, the world was riveted by television images of thousands of Chinese students and their supporters who occupied Tiananmen Square for weeks. On June 4th, 1989, they were violently removed by the Chinese military.

NPR's western bureau chief, Alisa Joyce Barba, was a TV producer in Beijing at that time and has this Reporter's Notebook.

ALISA JOYCE BARBA: I sent a man to labor camp 20 years ago this week. His name was Xiao Bin. He was 42 years old, a factory worker from the northeast Chinese city of Dalian. Here's how it happened.

It was the day after the Chinese troops had cleared out Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing - June of 1989. The city was a wreck: streets still full of burned debris, roaming crowds of angry and excited citizens, tanks still playing chicken with students on the main thoroughfare.

We were two or three blocks away from Tiananmen Square, on a side street. I was working with ABC News correspondent Jim Laurie and a camera crew. There were crowds everywhere, gathered, talking excitedly. One group had coalesced around a tall, thin middle-aged man who was shouting and gesticulating. The tanks ran over students, he declared. They ran right over them as they sat in the square. We turned our cameras on him and on the excited crowd behind him.

(Soundbite of shouting)

Mr. JIM LAURIE (Correspondent, ABC News): Fear of the reign of terror is being fought with anger.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of crowd chanting)

Mr. LAURIE: Defiantly they chant, down with the Chinese government.

Jim Laurie, ABC News, Beijing.

BARBA: We were all still trying to sort out the truth of what had happened on Tiananmen Square that night. Who died? How many died? Where did they all die? Confirmation of anything that had really happened or was happening was impossible to come by. It was a state secret.

Two days after our story aired on ABC World News in the U.S., the raw footage of our interview with Xiao Bin appeared on Chinese nightly news. There was our shot of the tall, angry, gesticulating man, my voice in the background asking him, did you see it yourself? And him saying, yes, they ran right over students. And then below this shot, a scroll overlaid the footage, saying, in Chinese, this man is a counterrevolutionary rumor-monger. If you see him, turn him into the Public Security Bureau - that's the police.

The next day there was this report:

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

BARBA: Xiao Bin had been turned in by a neighbor in Dalian.

Mr. XIAO BIN: (Foreign language spoken)

BARBA: He was shown on national TV on his knees, crying, asking for forgiveness for his crimes. Eventually, he was sentenced to 10 years in labor camp.

We watched that TV footage in our hotel rooms. It felt very personal. It felt like the Chinese state, its vast security apparatus, had come right into our rooms, into our faces and said, we will hurt the people who talk to you, and we will silence you. It was terrifying.

In the months and years after Tiananmen, as the crackdown continued, reporting in China changed. And that's partly because of Xiao Bin. It became a well-known cautionary tale, at least in Beijing: This is what happens if you speak to foreign journalists. We'd interview people and they'd ask, will I get in trouble if I speak to you? Honest answer: Yes. You will.

In the 20 years since the terror of those days, China has prospered beyond anyone's wildest imaginings. Beijing today is unrecognizable from the city that hosted those marches, demonstrations and hunger strikes. Its population of bureaucrats and intellectuals, who once joined the students in jubilant protest, has grown rich and appeared to have made an implicit deal with the Communist Party — you enrich us, and we'll stay off the streets. We'll be quiet.

With this global recession, though, as cracks are beginning to appear in the armor of the Chinese economic juggernaut, one has to wonder, will that deal endure? And finally, what happened to Xiao Bin? Five years after he was sent to labor camp, a small item appeared in the Chinese news — Xiao Bin had been paroled. He was sent home to Dalian and tracked down there by ABC staffers still working in China. Xiao was in poor health, they discovered, and he wanted help to go to America. That was the last we heard.

Alisa Joyce Barba, NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.