'We lived on cigarettes': Canadian describes hiding out in embassy during Tiananmen Square massacre

In the spring of 1989, Diana Lary was the resident sinologist at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing watching with hope and anticipation as Chinese students took to the streets demanding political reform and freedoms. But when the protests were violently crushed that June, she risked her personal safety to retrieve Canadians caught up in the chaos.

Diana Lary was embassy's resident sinologist and witnessed the violent crackdown on student protests

In this June 5, 1989 file photo, Chinese troops and tanks gather in Beijing, one day after the military crackdown that ended a seven week pro-democracy demonstration on Tiananmen Square. Hundreds were killed in the early morning hours of June 4. (Jeff Widener/Associated Press)

During last week's commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre, eyewitnesses described feelings of deep sadness and 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, possibly 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, 77, first travelled to China in 1964 as a teacher from Britain. She left before the violence of the Cultural Revolution and returned  afterward. 

By the 1980s, she was a professor at York University in Toronto, 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 meant she was called upon after the Tiananmen massacre.

In the 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," Lary said. "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.

"It was spontaneous and it came at a perfect time of the year. The sky seemed to be blue almost all the time."

She said the colourful protest flags, young age of the students, who were still full of hope, and the fact that some of the student leaders spoke English made the event appealing to international audiences.

"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.

In this June 4, 1989 photo, a student protester puts barricades in the path of an already burning armored personnel carrier that rammed through student lines during an army attack on anti-government demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. (Jeff Widener/Associated Press)

"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."

But not the ambassador, Earl Drake. "It was as though he was born to lead an operation like this," she said. 

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, an Ottawa-based think-tank.

"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."

A newspaper report from 1989 shows Diana Lary (centre) with her children, after she returned home from China following the massacre. (Submitted by Diana Lary)

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 set off into an eerily quiet Beijing.

"Saw lots of burnt out vehicles along the ring road. Heard gunfire out to the west, but very far away," she recorded in her diary.  

They picked up about 20 "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."

Leaving Beijing

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.

Thousands of people attend a candlelight vigil for victims of the Chinese government's brutal military crackdown three decades ago on protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square at Victoria Park in Hong Kong on June 4, 2019. Hong Kong is the only region under Beijing's jurisdiction that holds significant public commemorations of the 1989 crackdown and memorials for its victims. Hong Kong has a degree of freedom not seen on the mainland as a legacy of British rule that ended in 1997. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

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."


Jennifer Clibbon is a radio producer with CBC Syndication. She began living and working in Russia as a freelance journalist in 1985 and was the news producer in the CBC's Moscow bureau from 2000 to 2003.