Jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiabo was offered asylum from Australia in 1989 but turned it down and went on to become China’s most famous dissident.
Following his role in supporting student protesters in the run-up to the brutal crackdown that year, the literary critic turned philosopher and agitator would be imprisoned and tortured.
After the Olympics he was picked up again and this time given an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power”. He won the peace prize from behind bars and it was awarded symbolically to an empty chair.
The Australian embassy in Beijing’s cultural counsellor at the time, Nick Jose, had become a good friend of Liu Xiaobo in the run-up to the crackdown on the 3rd and 4th of June when the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on protestors to reclaim Tiananmen Square.
“I took him in my car from my flat to the embassy gates and I said ‘Well this is it, we can drive in, the gates will open and the gates will close and you will have effectively sought asylum from Australia or you can go and find friends who live nearby’, friends I also knew,” Mr Jose said.
“He thought about it, he looked at me and said ‘Thank you but no he would stay in China, he was Chinese, China was his country, China was his fate.’
“And so he went off to find his friends and it was only later that night, around 11 pm that his girlfriend called really upset on the phone to say they’d been riding their bikes through a dark street and an unmarked van had just come up and grabbed him and he’d gone.”
Mr Jose was asked how he felt when Liu Xiaobo’s girlfriend rang through and said he had been picked up, whether he had wished he had convinced him to come into the embassy.
“Yes I realised that had been a close possibility and maybe if I’d kind of pushed it a bit harder that might have happened,” Mr Jose said.
“That night I too slept on the floor of the embassy and as I lay awake all of that night thinking about it all, but I think I also came to understand that he had read the situation maybe better than me or at least he had his own understanding of the situation and it wasn’t my right to tell him what to do, to bring him physically into the embassy to a place of no return.”
Taiwanese singer Hou Dejian smuggled into Australian embassy
Mr Jose and others did however bring Taiwanese singer Hou Dejian into the mission. He was once the darling of the Communist Party after he moved to the mainland but that all changed when he went on to support the students.
“He was kind of smuggled in under a blanket or something as I recall,” Mr Jose said.
“But he got there safely. We were very worried about him actually. There was discussion of what was happening with the ambassador, with other senior diplomats and it was decided that this was worth doing.
“Well that Australia would give him refuge. I mean he was a friend of Australia in a sense.”
Then-ambassador David Sadleir told Foreign Correspondent: “The British ambassador had standing instructions that if anybody sought asylum, he was not to spend the night on the embassy premises but we had no rules about this you see, so I just made it up as we went along. Most I think we were right [to protect him].”
Mr Sadleir held back on officially telling the Chinese government that Hou Dejian was being harboured inside the embassy.
“I thought that the longer we delayed, the more that tensions would fall,” he said. “The more that China would want to get back into the world community and the more chance I had of getting him out alive.”
“The Chinese foreign ministry was informed that he was there and negotiations began for his eventual, I don’t know if release is the word, but safe passage out of the embassy and then not so safe passage back to Taiwan,” Mr Jose added.
“They put him in a truck, drove him down to Tianjin,” Mr Sadleir said. “Put him on a fishing boat, put him on a beach in Taiwan. That’s how he did it and from there he made his way to New Zealand.”
Given the importance of the China-Australia economic relationship these days some have questioned whether Australia’s diplomats would be able to behave in the same way if these events happened again now.
For example there is the role of Gregson Edwards in getting television footage of international news networks smuggled out of China to be broadcast to the world.
The former embassy media officer told Foreign Correspondent:
“I had diplomatic cover of course and fortuitously I’d lost a great deal of weight by going to the gym and I had this suit which had been made for me before that and it was a double-breasted pinstripe suit and it was ideal for taping the cassettes of videotape to my body and putting them inside my shirt, buttoning it up and looking a little tubby and then going straight out through the customs and immigration barrier out to the little pod, the departure lounge, and the accosting people who I thought looked like they’d be brave enough to take this handful of cassettes down to Hong Kong for someone waving a sign saying ‘Western television’.”
Mr Edwards and other Australian diplomats also spoke in frank terms to the government back in Australia about the horrible nature of the bloodshed in the Chinese capital during that June.
It was this advice, sent through in cables, which would bring then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke to tears.
It also led to Mr Hawke deciding to allow every Chinese citizen who was in Australia in June 1989 to remain, if they wanted to, because he did not want to send them back to an unknown fate at home.
Australia’s embassy staff also had a pretty good grasp of the situation after collecting intelligence on the military build up.
Military attache Air Force Group Captain Peter Everett was working with his counterparts from other Western embassies.
“There were two basically military transport airfields, one in the north and one in the south,” Mr Everett said.
“The Americans looked at the one in the south and I went to the one in the north. I was able to drive up and say ‘I’m just going down to see the aircraft museum down here’, and they’d look at me and I’d just drive past.
“Onto the airstrip, drive around the airstrip, count the aircraft, the trucks, the tents, get an idea of how many troops had moved in.
“I was able to do that a couple of times. Then one day, when I drove up, I was stopped by an obvious military policeman who was a local. Instead of a rifle he had a side arm and he told me to bugger off and I did. I didn’t go back.
Dumdum bullets fired into flats of embassy staff
Mr Everett also collected 72 “dumdum” bullets which were shot into the flats of embassy staff near Beijing’s main thoroughfare, Chang An Boulevard.
He explained the structure of these bullets to Foreign Correspondent.
“The core is surrounded by lead. Then surrounded again by a thin copper sheath which peels apart like a banana,” he said.
“When it hits the body the copper sheath peels back and continues on. The lead flies apart and spreads out through the body and the copper core continues on tumbling making a savage hole.
“It cuts through arteries it cuts through everything it hits and that explains why we found that so many people that were hit by these bullets during Tiananmen bled to death.”
With unpredictable violence spreading through Beijing in the wake of the crackdown the decision was made to evacuate the embassy of all but a handful of staff.
Yet, before they could leave, secret coding equipment had to be smashed and classified documents destroyed.
Stenographer Kerry Costanzo was involved in the frantic burning, smashing and shredding.
“We had to burn as much documentation, smash as much communications equipment and other things that needed to be got rid of,” Ms Costanzo said.
David Hanna who was working with the Defence attache was also involved.
“I was essentially the tail end of the process. Here’s a shredder; here’s a furnace. Keep feeding stuff we give you and make sure it’s all gone,” he said.
As was economic counsellor Geoff Raby.
“I have this strong recollection of the decoding equipment that we used – very primitive in those days – the decoding equipment was being chopped up with an axe or a sledgehammer next to the incinerator and then put into the incinerator and burnt,” Mr Raby said.
“That whole morning prior to being tapped on the shoulder in my boiler suit I was throwing documents down the incinerator,” Ms Costanzo said.
“I was literally tapped on the shoulder, the buses are ready, we’re going and I went downstairs, didn’t have time to change, I hopped on the bus and landed in Hong Kong in a boiler suit.”
During a pilots’ strike a Qantas 747 flew into Beijing with a volunteer crew to get all Australians out of Beijing who wanted to leave.
“I do remember, when we finally got on the plane, we took off in an incredibly, an unusually steep way, and the pilot came on the blower just afterwards and said ‘Sorry about that but there was an armed gun in placement at the runway and I didn’t want to take any risks we didn’t need to take so we’re getting the hell of here as quickly as we can’,” Mr Hanna said
Kerry Costanzo added: “I think many of my colleagues will tell you that we drank the plane dry by the time we got to Hong Kong.”
Later in 1989 these diplomats returned to their post to a country where the government had already shut down any public discussion of the events that year: a policy which is still in place today.
“What happened in 1989 is that the Party lost its mandate of heaven,” Mr Jose said. “It lost its moral legitimacy and can’t get it back without dealing with this in some way.”
And, according to Mr Raby: “I think that everyone is smart enough to know that one day there’ll be an account and a reckoning … but yes I mean it’s a matter of time.”
Watch the full Tiananmen: Australia’s Witnesses report on Four Corners