Sir Alan Donald, British ambassador to Beijing during Tiananmen Square killings, dies aged 87

Diplomat and China expert who played leading role in Hong Kong handover sent secret memo estimating 10,000 people died in 1989 crackdown on protests

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 July, 2018, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 July, 2018, 8:26pm

Sir Alan Donald, the British ambassador to China at the time of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and who also played a critical role in the Hong Kong handover, has died at the age of 87.

He died peacefully in his sleep on Saturday, July 14 at a hospice in the Weald in Kent, according to his family. He is survived by his four sons, his seven grandchildren and his wife.

The fluent Mandarin speaker and Cambridge-educated career diplomat was among the most respected experts in sinology, the study of China, in the West.

Tiananmen was a tragedy Beijing won’t face up to, regardless of death toll

Donald’s mission as British ambassador in Beijing between 1988 and 1991 came a critical time for China’s relations both with Britain and the rest of the world following the Communist Party’s crackdown on the student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

It resulted in deadlock in the ongoing Sino-British talks about Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty, when up to one million Hong Kong citizens took to the streets to express their support for their mainland compatriots’ pro-democracy movement.

Donald was watching events from the rooftop of the ambassador’s residence, on the night of June 3-4, when People’s Liberation Army soldiers and tanks moved into Tiananmen Square to clear the gatherings of student protesters and end six weeks of nationwide protests calling for democracy and political reform.

The next day he lost no time in advising Britons to leave the country.

He and Lady Donald sheltered more than 60 British nationals in the embassy for several days as lorryloads of PLA soldiers fired indiscriminately in the streets outside Beijing’s foreign residences.

A secret cable written by Donald at the time was declassified only last December and provided previously unknown details of the killing.

In the account, Donald quoted one unnamed friend of a member of China’s State Council, the cabinet, as saying that he estimated the number of people killed by the army was more than 10,000. Many overseas media had suggested it was around a few thousand.

In the cable, Sir Alan had also provided a horrific description of the massacre, saying that armoured personnel carriers had attacked students and “ran over bodies time and time again to make ‘pie’ and remains collected by bulldozer. Remains incinerated and then hosed down drains. Four wounded girl students begged for their lives but were bayoneted.”

The message is now kept in the UK National Archives at Kew in southwest London.

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In the aftermath, Donald had worked hard to repair Sino-British relations in an effort to resume the talks on Hong Kong’s handover.

His diplomacy may have helped smooth the way for prime minister John Major’s visit to China in 1991, the first major Western leader to visit Beijing after the Tiananmen killings, which also triggered widespread criticism of London.

But perhaps his most influential role in Sino-British relations may have come earlier when, as assistant undersecretary to the Foreign Office from 1980 to 1984, advised the British government on its approach to the negotiations.

Donald was seen as having played an instrumental role in the creation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a historic document that arranged the smooth handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to the China.

One of his predecessors as ambassador to Beijing, Sir Percy Cradock wrote in his 1994 book Experiences of China that Donald had played an instrumental role in the process with his “resources of flexibility and good humour” in exhaustive discussions with Margaret Thatcher before the negotiations with Chinese officials.

His importance to the process was further strengthened by his previous role as political adviser to the governor of Hong Kong between 1974 and 1977.

Donald later became known for his stubborn opposition to efforts by Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, to pursue a unilateral package of democratic reforms in the colony.

He saw the campaign as in breach of the spirit of the Joint Declaration and favoured private diplomacy and rejected a confrontational approach when dealing with Chinese leaders.

“A modest and well prepared democratic advance in Hong Kong should be no threat if China were seen to accept that successful reform must lead to political reform,” he wrote in a South China Morning Post opinion piece published on April 7, 1993.

“When one compares the strategic goals of China and the strategic interests of Hong Kong and its people, the continuing search for common ground is more likely to produce the right result than concentrating on difference in political philosophy.”

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Sir Alan was born in Inverurie, Aberdeenshire on May 5, 1931, to Robert Donald and Louise Turner. He joined the British Foreign Office in 1954 and began his China diplomatic career as serving the third secretary between 1955 and 1957 in British mission in China.

He returned to Beijing as Oriental Secretary from 1964 to 1966, during which time he witnessed the start of the Cultural Revolution.

As well as being posted to China three times between 1955 and 1991, Sir Alan served as a diplomat in Paris, Athens, Kinshasa and Jakarta. He was ambassador to Zaire between 1977 and 1980 and ambassador to Indonesia from 1984 to 1988.