Encore post: Last Days in China, Part 1

Funeral of Hu Yaobang

On May 15, I attended a virtual reading offered by the Autumn House Press in Pittsburgh. One of the readers was Michael Wang, who read a piece about the Tiananmen Square massacre. Since this is now June, the 32nd anniversary, I thought of reposting this piece from 2011. At the time of the bloody crackdown, I was teaching in Seoul and would come home from my night class to watch events unfold on CNN. Later that summer, I was at the photocopy machine in the linguistics department of the University of Pittsburgh, my alma mater, and a Chinese graduate student I knew from before came in to copy something. As soon as our eyes met, both of us thought of China, and we burst into tears. The details are still not widely known inside the PRC, as evidenced by the fact that Chinese university students often only hear of them when they go abroad. Here’s the post:

Half a year after the 1989 Tiananmen Square Uprising, Harriet Adams, a graduate student doing research on the student movements in China and Korea, gave a talk on the pro-democracy movement to members of the Royal Asiatic Society—Korea Branch. It was a well put-together, impassioned but academically correct lecture. It made me very curious about the personal story behind the footnotes, particularly as I couldn’t help but notice the affection Harriet and her Chinese husband clearly had for each other. Harriet agreed to an interview, which took place a few weeks later in her room near her university.

“Both of my grandfathers were missionaries in Korea,” she said. “My mother had been to China and Japan. We had a lot of Oriental things in the home, and my mom often said that a lot of her values were not necessarily American values.” Harriet had started studying Chinese during her second college year, then went to Beijing Normal University for a summer language program and stayed on. She described her first year in China as a time when she was still concentrating on learning the language and didn’t experience the political turmoil on a personal level. In fact, because of the difficulty of reading between the lines of censored newspapers, she was only partially aware of what was going on.

In the spring she made some very close friends and fell in love. After a year in the States she returned to China to get married and to study at the Nanjing University international center. Harriet was determined not to be as unaware of what was going on as she had been during her first year. Her language ability was now up to catching the finer nuances when Chinese students at the center laughed or showed some other reaction during a news broadcast. When outsiders frightened her, her Chinese friends could comfort. What happened, in fact, was that she shared with the people of this great country in a terrible tragedy—as an educated observer, a close friend and as a wife and relative of the Chinese.

Harriet’s Story

A racial issue emerged again that year. When African students at Hehai University went to a Christmas party with their Chinese girlfriends, they were stopped at the university gate, which was not a normal practice. There was a scuffle, though nobody knew exactly how it started, and several people were injured. On the news broadcast it was emphasized that two Chinese were severely injured. It was followed by an attack on the dorm where some of the Africans lived. Rocks were thrown, and windows were broken. The Africans escaped to the train station, many fearing for their lives. When the students were detained and questioned for a few days, there were reports that some of them were tortured with cattle prods. They wanted to go to Beijing to talk to their ambassadors. Then a big protest demonstration of African students took place in Beijing. Many students left, even some seniors who had four and a half years invested in their studies in China.

Although people called the African students “black devils,” none of the Chinese in the public discussion would call it racism. [Foreigners in general are called “foreign devils.”]At the same time as the demonstration taking place, the television networks showed old clips of “foreigners so happy in China,” white students  eating jiaozi [small, boiled dumplings] with their chopsticks.

One evening it was really brought home to me what the others were going through. I was with a couple of friends, one an English teacher who was carrying a video camera for CNN because reporters can’t move freely in China. We were in the square and drum tower area in central Nanjing, about two blocks from the center. There had been demonstrations against the “black devils” in the same place. A lot of people, daiye qingnian [young people waiting for work], hooligans and others, some students were hanging around, and it looked like they were waiting for something to happen. The atmosphere was very tense, hostile, different from the usual curiosity. We walked away from the crowd, and Jessica moved into the shadows and took out her camera. The crowd started moving. Then she suddenly took off. I think she thought someone had spotted the camera. I thought the crowd was just moving toward a demonstration, but my friend, who is also blond, said, “Harriet, look, we’ve got to go.” We started walking, and the crowd followed—I think several hundred people. They were making crowd noises—ooo hhllch—but not saying anything. I could have talked to them if they’d been talking. I was still protesting to Kate that the crowd wasn’t following us. Then a plainclothes policeman in the crowd moved ahead of us and motioned for us to follow. He pulled out a two-way radio and said into it, “Look, we have a huge crowd following two foreigners.”

I thought, “You’re kidding. They’re following us?” I looked and saw a middle-aged lady in a padded jacket looking at me in the strangest way. I thought back and realized this was the raw xenophobia which broke loose during various periods of Chinese history, like the Boxer Uprising. [In 1900, during a period in which the Chinese were greatly oppressed and humiliated in their own country, the empress dowager used a martial-arts society to terrorize and murder foreigners and Chinese Christians.]

The policeman took us to a nearby station. The crowd gathered at the gate for a while and then dispersed. The police drove us back to the center in a van. In the meantime, word had gotten back to the center that we were being followed, and several of our Chinese friends had gone out into the crowd to find us.

I was sure I was going to have nightmares about this incident, but just talking about it with the Chinese at the center helped put it in perspective. They identified with the feelings I expressed and laughed and said, “Oh ho ho, those people are going through that.” You have to have Chinese friends.

Over the winter we had a typical urban Chinese wedding and a honeymoon biking down to Guilin. In the spring during the center’s production of the musical Grease, Hu Yaobang died. At first it wasn’t apparent that his death was to trigger anything big. Then big character posters started appearing in Nanjing in Beijing, and jokes were circulated.

For instance, there was a famous song with the words “go with the flow, go with your feeling.” There is a joke about whether the leaders knew what they were doing and where they were going. Three leaders were in a cartI think Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng and Deng Xiaoping. Li said to Zhao, “Well, where are we going?” “I don’t know, ask Deng.” And then Deng said, “I don’t know, go with your feeling.”

There was a saying, “If we don’t do away with the grass hut, then the large skyscrapers will never be built.” Now “grass hut” in Chinese is li peng, which is homophonous with Li Peng’s name.

Those are fairly obvious, but some contained literary allusions which I couldn’t get. The atmosphere wasn’t right for me to sit for hours reading wall posters and looking up characters in my dictionary. So I made do with what I could gather.

Whenever I went to look at big character posters, several people would take my picture. Afterwards the person might say, “I’m just a student,” but everybody knew, particularly as the movement progressed, there were a lot of undercover agents out taking pictures. Once the man snarled at me too, and I was suddenly frightened that this might turn into something like the Cultural Revolution and that any involvement on my part could endanger my Chinese family and friends. Just being out there looking at the posters was stepping on raw nerves.

Hu Yaobang was coming to stand for more than just himself. He had gradually come to be seen as the most liberal among the leadership. When he fell from grace he became a martyr in the cause of democracy and practically a saint. On the morning of April 22, I heard the broadcast of the memorial service as I rode the train into Beijing. At Beijing Normal University I tried to find out what was going on from students returning from the square. Tens of thousands of students had gone to the square the night before when the petition was offered on the steps of the Great Hall of the People. The students waited all night, but nobody from the government came out to recognize their petition. That was a crucial turning-point.

For propaganda purposes the leaders label a movement when it first appears. The label may be very inappropriate at first, but then because of the government’s refusal to negotiate, the movement is forced into a position as radical as it was first accused of being, and the label seems to fit. In this case, the more the government ignored the students and said, “We won’t accept a grain of change,” the more radical students had to say, “If you’re not going to change anything, then it means we have to have a revolution to change the most basic things.”

On April 26, an editorial issued by the government appeared in the People’s Daily and the Beijing Daily, accusing the students “of waging the Cultural Revolution all over again, overthrowing socialism and the party rule, going around like the Red Guards, taking over broadcasting systems on campus, and forcing students not to go to classes.” It sounded so much like the Gang of Four that one of the jokes had it that when Jiang Qing [Mao’s wife and alleged leader of the Gang of Four] saw this editorial in her prison cell, she said, “Oh, let me out. It’s obvious that Yao Wen Yuan [the propagandist member of the Gang of Four] is out of prison and working again, so you should let me out too.” On the day it appeared, the editorial was really too strong, but by late May and June, because the students were so thoroughly frustrated in their efforts, they were calling for something almost as radical.

That spring I was writing a term paper on the accounts of the 1976 Tiananmen Square uprising. [This was an anti-Mao demonstration later blamed on Deng Xiaoping. Deng was labelled a “capitalist roader” and relieved of all party posts, but allowed to keep his party membership.]  I compared the accounts written in Gang of Four rhetoric at the time of the incident and those re-evaluating the incident in 1978 when Deng Xiaoping came into power—how they described the movement, each version of the facts and the rhetorical techniques. I included a comparison with the rhetoric of the current movement because I saw a lot of similarities. People drew a lot of parallels which weren’t valid between the events of 1989 and the Cultural Revolution, but the rhetoric seemed much the same. I tried to get my paper back before I left China, afraid that it might affect visa applications in the future or heavens knows what. I couldn’t, but I don’t think they care that much about what foreigners think. We’ll see.

On April 27th I managed to get through a gate of Beijing Normal University. The marchers were on the basketball courts, all lined up behind their banners in contingents from various academic departments. That’s when I first heard and saw Wu’er Kaixi in action. I was really interested that there was a Uighur [a national minority] in charge of the students there. He had perfect Mandarin with no traces of a Uighur accent, and you could see he was a very charismatic leader. Word had reached him that the police were waiting at an intersection south of the campus, blocking the way to Tiananmen. He was going from group to group, telling them the news, telling them to consider very carefully whether they wanted to demonstrate because they were taking a big risk.

There was a lot of hubbub, a lot of people gathered around watching. I didn’t hear everything, but I remember he said, “Now be sure to follow the directions of the leadership exactly. The leaders listen to the directions of the top leaders, and the top leaders listen to the directions of the top leader, and I am the top leader.” There were cheers, lots of cheers. You had to admire his bravery, but I  wondered, “What kind of democratic process is this?”

When they left the campus, I followed through a side gate. It took about half an hour for the demonstrators to get through the main gate. It was so crowded I couldn’t see whether the officials finally opened the gate or whether the students forced their way out. On the street there were people up on the buildings and lining the sides of the road, watching. The students started marching south. I think there was even one rather small line of policemen right there, but that didn’t stop them for very long. They were chanting their slogans, bittersweet ones like, “We love the people’s police, and the people’s police love the people.” I remember seeing a few banners that read, “Uphold the Chinese Communist Party”—which at the time was not sarcastic—and “Freedom” and that sort of thing. The main slogan of course was, “The students love the country, and loving the country isn’t a crime.”

They came out in force that day. There was a very palpable feeling of outrage at the editorial the day before, particularly at being called a tiny little group of schemers, yi xiao cuo, a term that was once used for the Gang of Four. Back at the center, when we were watching the news on television and that epithet was used, there were gales of laughter. At that time there were—what—tens of thousands?

The demonstrators didn’t cross the intersection lined with fifty to a hundred policemen. Since I had circled way around on my bike, I caught up with the demonstrators at the main intersection, where the swells of people forced me closer and closer to demonstrators. Wu’er Kaixi came right up to me, and said, “Please”—he was very polite— “please make way for us, we’re going to go this way.” He smiled and said thank you, and everybody got out of their way. I went ahead on my bike.

Eventually at Second Ring Road the demonstrators met up with contingents from the northern campuses. There was a huge presence of policemen at that intersection and off to one side. Later there were some scuffles. There were several lines of policemen arm-in-arm at different places on the route.

The demonstrators were stopped twice on their way to Tiananmen, but they got through. The groups came together and went on to the square. I met up with some friends, we found good seats and sat down. There were so many students it took two and a half hours for the students to march by in columns of about five or six students across, so I imagine around fifty thousand is a reasonable number. That was the number given by the Western press.

Many people gave food and drink to the students. I remember some middle-aged women who rode up on their bicycles with full strings of qishui [orange pop in linked plastic containers shaped like hot dogs] and cartons of yogurt, bread and baozi 

[steamed umplings] and handed the stuff to the students. The students were very thankful, and I remember them exchanging greetings with construction workers on the roof of a building,  Where the route went under bridges, the bridges filled with people long before the students arrived. Under the bridges the vibrations were amazing—from the masses of people on the bridge and the students chanting. Then an elderly gentleman saw me taking pictures and said, “Duo zhao ji zhang—take a few extra pictures,” as if to say, let everyone know of this great event.

There were a lot of foreigners watching. I was handed a pamphlet in English—about the nepotism and corruption in the government—by someone who might have thought I was a reporter. It also discussed the sacking of Qin Benli, the editor of a Shanghai journal, the World Economic Herald, because he defended Hu Yaobang’s liberal record and attacked those who purged him in 1987. That was a big freedom of the press issue.

At Xidan the police let the students go by but held the crowd back. The crowd was pressing and pressing. We finally went off through an alley, and I saw lots of troops going into a little shop. There was obviously an underground passage to somewhere. Too many were going through the storefront. We met up with students again in the Tiananmen Area, and this time I showed my student ID and spoke a little Chinese. They had marshals with special armbands for extra protection. It was a long day of walking, at least twenty-five miles for the students. It was hot, beautiful weather. For a long time I stayed around Tiananmen and the Great Hall of the People, watching the columns go by. A high school student came up to me and told me that students at least two high schools were also boycotting classes that day in support of the college students.

The demonstrators turned north, but by then the columns were beginning to break up, and some students were beginning to go home. I remember my friend’s saying, “The residents in this part of Beijing aren’t going to think the students are very well organized.” But the atmosphere was still quite palpable. As we rode ahead of the demonstrators, we saw people lining the bridges, waiting. That was April 27th, a momentous day.