In the spring of 1989 I was Far East Vice President of Occidental Chemical (Oxychem), a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, a large American corporation. I lived in Hong Kong where I was also First Vice President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. AMCHAM, as it was known, was the largest American chamber of commerce outside of North America. As First Vice President, I was in line to become president of the chamber in 1990.

Under my direction, Oxychem had concluded a letter of intent with a chemical factory in Qingdao to form a joint venture to produce sodium silicate, a chemical used to manufacture, among other things, detergents. Oxychem was a leader in producing this chemical and held a proprietary license that we would contribute as a part of our equity. This was to be a groundbreaking venture, the first 50:50 jointly owned company between an American company and a Chinese state-owned enterprise.

The time had come to conclude a detailed agreement, and I formed a team of technical, financial, and marketing executives to travel with me to China. Where should we meet with our Chinese counterparts?

Starting in mid-April 1989, China was in turmoil. Violent riots had broken out in Xi’an and Changsha, and in Beijing more than 100,000 students were occupying Tiananmen Square. On May 20, Chinese Premier Li Peng ordered martial law in parts of Beijing. Several hundred thousand troops were mobilized and took up positions surrounding Beijing.

Oxychem and Qingdao decided to hold the negotiations in Zhuhai, a special economic zone that bordered Macau, a Portuguese-ruled territory across the Pearl River from Hong Kong. I took the high-speed ferry that departed Hong Kong for Macau at 9:30 AM on May 31.

Ruins of St. Paul’s Church, Macau
Image Credit Flickr/Razlan

I decided to take care of AMCHAM business before my Oxychem colleagues arrived.  On May 31, I had a luncheon meeting with the American business community in Macau. The conversation focused on the gathering storm in Beijing. Attendees were split between an optimistic assessment – there would be no violence, and economic and political reform would eventually take place – and a pessimistic assessment – the Chinese Communist Party would not give up without a fight, a fight that would likely involve bloodshed.

After lunch I met with Portuguese officials in charge of running Macau’s economy. These meetings spilled over into the next day, June 1, when the Oxychem team was due to arrive in Macau. They arrived on schedule and we set off for Zhuhai at 12:30 PM. After settling into our hotel, negotiations with the Qingdao Chemical Bureau and the Chinese factory that was to be our partner began at 3:00 PM.

Negotiations continued on June 2 and lasted from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM. They were followed by a dinner hosted by Qingdao.

The next day, June 3, negotiations continued. The focus was on Oxychem’s technology and the terms and conditions of the license. They wrapped up for the day at 6:00 PM, after which the two sides gathered for a dinner hosted by Oxychem in the hotel’s restaurant.

The private room where we dined had a television that was tuned to Hong Kong’s Jade TV station. There was live coverage of events in Beijing where martial law troops were closing in on Tiananmen Square. One could hear the sounds of shots and see plumes of smoke from barricades and vehicles set alight by Beijing citizens trying to stop the advance of the troops.

Our Chinese guests were clearly upset. One of them, an engineer known for his progressive views on reform, shouted in protest: “My government has gone crazy!” He was admonished by the senior party member present to be silent in the presence of foreigners. The dinner broke up shortly thereafter.

The next day, June 4, was a Sunday. The Oxychem team decided to take the day off and tour Macau. As we headed for the border, we encountered an eerie silence. There were signs of turmoil the night before. Posters denouncing the Communist party and the government were plastered in conspicuous locations including bus stops. Guards at the border were few in number. Many had deserted their posts. The Zhuhai border crossing was to become a favored exit point for dissidents fleeing post-Tiananmen China.

In Macau I showed my crew around the city and its two islands. I knew Macau well, having lived there in 1972. While touring the sights, we came across large protests outside of China’s Xinhua News Agency in the city center, not far from the Leal Senado. The protesters were raucous but peaceful. There were long lines outside the Macau branch of the Bank of China. People were removing their deposits in a flight from danger, but also in deliberate attempt to bankrupt China’s largest state-owned bank. The Oxychem team decided to return to Zhuhai.

The final negotiation took place on Monday morning, June 5. Talks were suspended by mutual agreement. A sense of dread filled the room. No one had any idea where China was heading. The live feed from Beijing had been cut. We packed our belongings and voluminous files and prepared to leave the hotel. Social order was breaking down. I went to find a young colleague whose room had been entered by two women seeking his company. I shooed them away, and they left after they cleaned out the minibar.

We arrived in Hong Kong to find a city in turmoil. Before the events of June 4 in Beijing and other Chinese cities, including Guangzhou where protesters had blockaded the Pearl River bridge, Hong Kong was primarily a commercial city. Protests of any sort rarely attracted more than a few hundred people. That changed after June 4, 1989. Hundreds of thousands of protesters filled the streets chanting anti-China slogans, condemning the Communist Party. Hong Kong had become a political city. It has remained so to this day.

An emergency meeting of AMCHAM’s Board of Governors was convened on June 7. I pressed for a strong statement condemning what had already become known as the Tiananmen Massacre, but which also endorsed the limited sanctions imposed on China by the administration of President George W. Bush. Most of those sanctions have been lifted, though an arms embargo remains in place. Over the objection of governors representing large corporations, the board endorsed the statement I drafted. AMCHAM subsequently placed the statement in leading English and Chinese language newspapers.

Later on June 7, I received a call from an American parent of a young man who was teaching in China in the Princeton-in-Asia program. His father lived in Kentucky and worked for a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum. He asked me to help evacuate his son from China. I agreed to do so, and word quickly spread that the office of Occidental Chemical Far East would provide a haven for Princeton students who were able to make it out of the Chinese cities where they were teaching. One by one they showed up in my conference room where I and my staff made arrangements for food and lodging, and for tickets back home.

We coordinated our work with that of the American Consulate General, where an emergency meeting of the American community in Hong Kong took place on Friday morning June 9. More meetings were held at AMCHAM the following week. Later that week the last of the Princeton students left my office and returned to the United States.

I stayed in Hong Kong for another six years before returning to the United States. I served my one-year term as president of the chamber, and made my first intervention on behalf of a political prisoner in May 1990, immediately before traveling to Washington D.C. to testify on China’s Most-Favored-Relations trading status. I resigned from Oxychem in 1991 and began traveling to Beijing and other Chinese cities to hand over prisoner lists and visit places of detention. I moved my family to San Francisco in July 1995, and have lived there since, though I keep an apartment and an office in Hong Kong, my second home.