They were already calling it the Year of the Great Loss in China. The student unrest, the turmoil and chaos in the country had already had a dramatic economic impact in loss of tourist revenue due to canceled tours and visits from foreigners.
When violence erupted in Tiananmen Square Saturday, the phrase suddenly took on a tragic new connotation.It was both an exciting and a frustrating time to be in China - exciting because there is no question that this is a pivotal time in the country's history and that however the current crisis goes, things will not be the same. And frustrating, because it was increasingly difficult to know exactly what was going on.
I was there with a group of mostly Utahns to tour the country, to appreciate the culture and history that is so rich in China. The group was scheduled for a three-week tour. I joined them at the last moment for just two weeks because of the extraordinary chance the tour offered to see what was happening in China first-hand.
Student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square and in the provinces had been going on for a couple of weeks by the time we got there. Our stay in Beijing was peaceful and uninterrupted. In fact, we even went down to the square one evening to talk to students.
We had spent several days in Beijing, cruised down the Yangzi River and moved toward the Xian, the ancient and lovely capital of China, when events took a dramatic turn.
We arrived by train in Xian the morning after the army had moved into Beijing. That morning on the train, the Chinese news broadcast simply said that the students were still on the square and that things were getting very dirty. There was, according to our guide, no mention of any violence.
But the rumors began to surface as we got into the city. Troops had moved into Beijing, and 30 people had been killed. By the time we got to the hotel, the number of deaths had increased to 200-300. We drove through a group of students rallying in the street, holding a mock funeral for their fellow students. But the demonstrations were peaceful.
By the next day, the casualty figures ranged from 1,500 to 10,000. And it was getting increasingly difficult to find out what had really happened. Although we had watched CNN broadcasts in our Beijing hotel, in the provinces there was nothing but rumor. Publication of the English-edition government newspaper had been suspended, we later learned - not that it would have been any help. Government newscasts consistently said that no lives had been lost because of martial law in Beijing.
The students had access to Voice of America and BBC broadcasts and were apparently getting some information there. But rumors were rampant: Deng Xiaoping had died of cancer, Li Peng's compound had been overrun, full-scale civil war had erupted, everything was quiet in Beijing.
By noon of our second day in Xian, students there had taken to the streets, blocking intersections, confiscating buses, tying up traffic. Some were wearing targets and signs that said "shoot at me."
But there was no animosity toward Americans. When our bus came to blocked intersections, they cleared the way for Americans and cheered for us, chanting slogans such as "Down with Li Peng" and flashing the V-for-victory sign.
But things were getting increasingly tense. This was the day I was scheduled to leave China, and I was not alone. By this time the government had advised all Americans to leave - not necessarily because they were being threatened, but because of the increasingly volatile situation.
The tour group had left Xian the day before for Chengdu, determined to continue the tour as far as possible. I was scheduled to fly from Xian to Canton and then to go by train to Hong Kong. I had made reservations and had little trouble getting out.
In Hong Kong, which will revert to Chinese control in 1997, events in China were all that people were talking about. A general strike in protest of the killings had been called for the next day. Finally, I could see CNN reports - only to find that it was still difficult to tell exactly what was going on because of conflicting reports. It clearly will take a long time to sort everything out, which in itself speaks of the problems of the media in a Communist country.
My flight out of Tokyo was delayed for three hours, waiting for a planeload of Americans out of Beijing and Shanghai. For the most part, their adventures in leaving the country were dramatically different from mine.
I talked to one group of Swedish students that had been staying at a hotel very close to the square and had had to dodge bullets.
But for the most part, these evacuees said they had felt physically safe - if very nervous. Taxis and buses were no longer running to the airport, and getting around was very frustrating. Some had spent the night at the airport, waiting for a plane out. Some had come away leaving luggage behind. Many were leaving, not because of the danger, but because their work had come to a standstill. Several were technical experts who had been consulting or working on joint projects and work had simply ceased.
A few were angry at what they felt was inadequate help from the U.S. government, but for the most part this group had taken it all in stride. No one, however, was sad to be leaving the turmoil behind. It was not surprising that a great cheer sounded as the plane touched down on American soil in San Francisco.