I Shook Hands with the Butcher of Beijing

After the obligatory speeches and sumptuous meal, Li Peng and his entourage began to circulate among the crowd, stopping at random to chat with people.

I was teaching English in China back in 1985/86, three years before the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. China had only recently opened up to foreign influences after its experiment with a closed-door policy. Foreign "experts" were honored once a year with a huge banquet for their contributions to modernizing China. There were not many foreigners there back then, so such an event was manageable.

The one I attended was held at a banquet hall dedicated to the People's Army at Tiananmen Square. At the head table were military and political leaders, including the then vice-premier, Li Peng, who was later to become the prime minister who infamously ordered tanks into the square to quash the student-led protests there in '89.

After the obligatory speeches and sumptuous meal, Li Peng and his entourage began to circulate among the crowd, stopping at random to chat with people. To my surprise, he walked up to me, offered his hand (which I shook), and through his interpreter made small talk with me. I didn't think much of it until three years later, when I watched the Tiananmen massacre unfold on Hong Kong television, and to my horror realized that I had shaken the hand of the Butcher of Beijing!

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