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Greenberg on Tiananmen: AIG did the right thing

Hank Greenberg on Tiananmen
Hank Greenberg on Tiananmen

Wednesday marks the 25th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and one American business leader who refused to pull his operations out of China at the time says he still stands by his decision.

Hank Greenberg was the CEO of insurance giant AIG in 1989, and he made the decision to stay in China, even as other Western businesses fled the country. He first took AIG into China in 1975.

Greenberg discusses his decision in the CNBC video above from 2013.

Thousands of Chinese students and workers protested in favor of democracy in Beijing and elsewhere for almost two months in 1989 before the People's Liberation Army was sent in by China's autocratic government to put down the protesters, killing at least hundreds and possibly more than a thousand. Precise figures on the number of dead has never been revealed by the Chinese government, which still works hard to squelch any discussion of the slaughter.

When Greenberg talked to CNBC in 2013 about Tiananmen, he strongly defended his decision to stay in China even in the face of great condemnation of China and its leadership.

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In a phone interview this week, Greenberg elaborated on the decision he made at the time.

"I wouldn't change anything about what I said back then," he said. "We were just months away from finishing the largest hotel and office complex in Shanghai at the time, and leaving China wouldn't solve anything."

"We thought long and hard about what our position would be," he said, adding that he "discussed it with my board."


Greenberg was one of the first American executives to begin doing business in China. He knew many members of the country's leadership including Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the country in 1989, and Shanghai mayor Zhu Rongjii, who went on to become Chinese premier in 1998.

When asked if he had conversations with members of China's leadership at the time about what happened, Greenberg said, "There was a lot, but I can't say."

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"They believed there were foreign elements stirring things up," he said of the Chinese leadership at the time.

And did they express remorse? "Not that I can recall," he said. "I'm sure there was some, but remember, I was still a foreigner."

As for the other companies that left at the time, he said: "They all came back, like we knew they would."

—By CNBC's Michelle Caruso-Cabrera