Last Days in China, Part 2

Pro-democracy demonstration

In Part 1, Harriet described the xenophobic mood and the widespread discontent preceding the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, then the glorious day of April 27, when she followed the demonstrators from Beijing Normal University from the school through the square and beyond.

Harriet’s Story

Sometime in the next few days, the officials had a dialogue on TV with the previously recognized student organizations [set up by university officials]. Some of the questions put by these student leaders were pretty lame, but some were to the point. The answers were rather patronizing, but they were at least talking. The activists said it was not a real dialogue.  I was shopping with a friend in Beijing on May 4, the anniversary of the 1919 student protest against China’s humiliating Japan policy. This is a traditional day of protest. We tried to follow a group of students going toward the Jianguomen area [where the foreigners live] by taking the subway, but the subway stops along the route were all shut down. At the Beijing Hotel the crowd was impossible. I think the police may have been blocking the crowd further toward the square but letting the students go by. There were fewer demonstrators than on April 27, and emotions weren’t running as high. After that, students went back to classes. That spring there were periods of intense activity and times when we’d return to our schoolwork, but keep an eye on the news.

The next phase was the hunger strike, when Gorbachev was in town and the movement spread nationwide. If you listened you’d see that everything was connected to the movement in one way or another—but not explicitly. It was such an emotional week. One student who appeared on television struck me as being the embodiment of the new spirit of self-sacrifice and courage. He said that because of inflation and corruption people had lost all faith in the party, the only force in China, and had no faith in China’s future. In words that became famous he said drastic steps against corruption were called for, “chong laozi kai dao” [starting with myself. Laozi, “old one,” when used to mean “myself,” is a term a father uses for “myself, the old one.” When used by a student this is a common, but disrespectful language. Here it underscores the fact that the students wanted to speak from a position of equality, not deference.]

In Nanjing huge demonstrations were held in support of the hunger strikers in Beijing. They weren’t covered in the media, even though in 1986 much smaller demonstrations had made headlines in The New York Times. We showed support quietly by giving free drinks and T-shirts to the demonstrators from our center when they got back. In addition to recording all of the Chinese news, I was working with a friend, taking notes on all the BBC broadcasts. In the morning, for example, I usually listened to the 6:00 or 6:30 news on my Walkman, then informed people as they got up, and then caught the next BBC broadcast. The analyses were very interesting, but nobody really knew what was happening.

That very week there happened to be an international conference on Sino-American relations outside Nanjing. One of the Chinese delegates said the student movement had discovered nonviolent activism. But most people stuck their prepared talks, making predictions about the next decade, apparently unaware that under their noses all of what they said was being changed. When two of the conference directors came to our center to give a talk, there was a huge demonstration taking place outside, drowning out their rather traditional views of Sino-American relations. They also lost their audience, which went out to watch. I thought it was so symbolic of the path events were taking.

On May 18, Li Peng and other officials met with representatives of the hunger-striking students. Some very powerful emotions were touched by the meeting. The students were physically exhausted. Their voices were very hoarse, and some were sort of half-dead anyway. By that time some people were refusing water as well as food. Wu’er Kaixi apparently had already been hospitalized. At one point we saw him being given oxygen, but his spirit was so strong.

He always had something feisty to say, although some people say that he went overboard when he told Li Peng, “We called this meeting, and you’re late.” The state leaders, sat opposite the students and had their say. Li Peng said all the standard things in the standard ways and lost his train of thought, and the end he was fidgeting in his chair as if he had another appointment. His delivery was occasionally rather comic, especially when he ended by telling the students, “Give my sincere regards to your comrades on the square!” When he said “sincere regards” he was waving his fist and screaming at them. This meeting was being broadcast live nationwide. The “sincere regards” became a national joke. If the leaders had been a little more sophisticated, they might have won some people over, even with their hard rhetoric.

On May 19, Zhao Ziyang went to visit the students on the square. Li Peng went along, actually, but he left earlier and didn’t make a speech. They both tried to look solicitous of the students. Zhao was visibly moved by what was going on around him. He started out with an apology. But then, before discussing any of the issues the students were striking for, he said, in words similar to those used by the hardliners, “You guys, you can’t sacrifice yourselves, somebody is using you, sacrificing you, you’ve got to stop your hunger strike and go back.” His entire speech was broadcast several times, but people didn’t know how to take it, because nobody knew what was happening in the leadership power struggle.

That week Zhao had publicly distanced himself from the hardliners when he told Gorbachev about a 1987 secret agreement to defer to Deng Xiaoping on all policy decisions. [Zhao’s remark was an announcement that Deng still wielded the power in the country, despite the fact that Zhao and Li were in the head positions.]  As commentators said, “Zhao was washing his hands of everything that had gone wrong in China for the last few years.” After his speech the students swarmed around him, asking for his autograph. Many people, especially the most active people in the movement, thought that that was sort of a stupid, embarrassing thing to do.  The next day Zhao was fired and thus became a martyr for the cause.

That night around 11:00 there was a special meeting when martial law was declared. We knew it was going to happen, and we stayed up to see it. I sat through the night with many Chinese friends and a few other American students, listening to the hourly updates on VOA and other coverage, just to figure out what was going on in Beijing. I vividly remember one of the army people telling me, “Tonight everyone in Beijing is in physical danger.” We discovered that the troops were all-positioned around Beijing. At first we were astounded. Then there was a debate about whether the troops would enter the city and what they would do when they got there—whether they would use force or not. The army people at the center tended to believe that they would, that the army wouldn’t be divided, although they didn’t support military action—no way. Their predictions about what the army would do were accurate.

So that was the night of May 19th and the morning of the 20th. As the days of martial law continued, we examined word-by-word how the situation was treated in the official press. Next to the hardline account, there were descriptions of what was going on in the city. The tension was very, very high the first few days, and then a week passed and then almost two, and people suddenly remembered they had term papers to finish. We would gather to watch the news, and we came to accept that this was just the way it was.

Now, on a more personal note, graduation was planned for the next weekend. My husband and I had made arrangements for him to come down that Wednesday so we could spend a few days seeing Nanjing. Then after graduation, we planned to go back to Beijing for the summer. My husband had just gotten his passport at the end of May, and after he got his exit visa we planned to go to our American wedding in August. That’s not the way it happened.

On June 3, the reports came of the tear gas and stone-throwing, and then the massacre. In Nanjing the Chinese and Americans together came to a realization of what was going on, in the sense that the news was filtered through us, interpreted by us. It didn’t come on the evening news like it might have in the West. We got it in stages. The live CNN coverage you had wasn’t available, but we did have VOA and BBC. We only knew that very drastic measures had been taken. We didn’t know any of the specifics.

One of the things the authorities do, of course, is manipulate rumors. Earlier there were rumors that the Foreign Ministry had declared itself independent from the government, now we heard the death toll was in the tens of thousands. Looking at the Chinese news, anybody could tell there was something incredible going on in Beijing. The news would come on, and then it would be cut off, and then it would come on again and be cut off—indicating a fight over control of the broadcast. Then they would show some clips of how the troops had been attacked and burned to death. Then we knew how many of the units had been killed and what happened to the soldiers.

Those days were the worst days of my life. I knew that my husband was supposed to come down Wednesday. Our family in northwestern Beijing, not close to Tiananmen. I talked to some of my foreign friends in Beijing who were evacuated to hotels in other parts of town because people were afraid the troops would go onto campuses. Those days are just a blur in my mind now. I didn’t really eat, I stayed in my room the whole time, I listened to the news and waited for a phone call. I couldn’t get in touch my family in Beijing. I don’t know whether they were cut off or whether it was just because nobody was working. Nobody really knows. But of course there was no phone at home, anyway. So if my husband wasn’t at work does that mean? Maybe he’s safe at home, maybe not, you know?

The center showed the entire series about the civil rights movement in the US, Eyes on the Prize. But otherwise it was in mourning. In Nanjing there were protests against the government action. People got together and made paper wreaths and marched to the square with them, carrying tape recorders playing funeral music. A white flag with the Chinese character for mourning was flying at half-mast. The wreaths were placed at the bottom of the flag post.

There were rumors that martial law would also be declared in Nanjing and Shanghai. The demonstrators set up roadblocks to prevent the troops from coming in, but of course that also disrupted traffic and provided an excuse to call in the troops. I don’t know how the negotiations went, but word had it that the students and the government had reached an agreement that as long as the students didn’t block main arteries there wouldn’t be martial law. The Nanjing Daily carried headlines saying, “No people to gather in groups of two or three on the street” and “No looking around at things,” and other items suggesting martial law was coming, but no troops came. The trains were blocked in many places. Then Shanghai students were run over and the train turned around and attacked. In Chengdu a whole shopping mall was burned down, with estimates of 300 dead.

We were waiting to hear. Our fax machines had been working all spring, people faxing us things from Hong Kong and everywhere. We got some Western press reports, which we posted near the mailboxes until things got bad. Ten people left, and all the stuff was taken down.

Graduation exercises were cancelled at a meeting after the evening news. The American co-director got up and said, “We’ll mail your diplomas later. Obviously we can’t have a celebration now.” After the American co-director spoke, the Chinese co-director got up, holding a piece of paper with a few sentences on it. He broke down in tears.

Just thinking about it makes me feel that way, just talking about what China lost. I was torn up. I didn’t even know if my husband was alive. I don’t know if that’s incredibly selfish or not. Eventually he called. He had no phone at home, so he had gone into town, and there was still random fire going on. After he described the blood on the streets, the helicopters overhead, the tear gas, the carcasses of buses on the street and the fires, it didn’t help much knowing he had gone out in it to call me. Eventually he arrived in Nanjing, though the train took a half-day longer because it was stopped in so many different places. Of course he didn’t want to talk too much because he could be accused of rumor-mongering, which was counter-revolutionary crime. There was a special phone line from our place to the U.S. Embassy, so we were able to call and find out what to do. The embassies were telling foreigners to leave.

We went back to Beijing. In a way I’m glad did. If you see it at least you realize it still exists. The people in Beijing were going about their lives. I couldn’t contact many people to say good-bye, but at least I could see the family and see that they were all okay and see that the city was still standing. You could see the bullet holes in some of the apartments near the Jianguomen area where the foreigners, the journalists and diplomats stayed, and the tank tracks on the Avenue of Heavenly Peace. At first the square itself still had tanks on it. Then they rolled out, but it was still under armed guard.

People couldn’t talk like they did before, but that didn’t stop them from talking. They talked where they knew they wouldn’t be overheard, that’s all. When I was getting my hair permed, one lady in the shop talked about a man she worked with who was killed. She said a grandmother who lived near the Tiananmen area, who had not turned out the light, but had just gone over to the window to look out, was shot. They were speaking their minds, I guess they didn’t think any of them would turn the others in for money, although there was a lot of that.

After a while you can even get used to seeing armed guards on the streets. You know, when I first went to China in 1986, if it had been like some countries in Central America where you see armed guards everywhere, then I would have accepted it to begin with. About ten days after the crackdown, I rode from our house northwest of Beijing to the subway stop, about fifteen minutes. I counted forty armed troops on the street.

Anyway, we finished up my husband’s paperwork. The embassy issued him a tourist visa, which has cost us no end of problems, but it did get us out, and we left—two days before all exit permits were cancelled. For the first month back in the U.S., I was just emotionally and spiritually removed from it all. I just felt the pure selfish relief that he wasn’t killed and that it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I mean, civil war would have been much worse. Granted, the tragedy was horrible, but nobody suffers like the people do if there’s a civil war.

I don’t know what will happen. I am certain there will be a re-evaluation of what happened and that things will be set right, at least to some extent, before the end of the century. All those eighty-year-olds in the leadership will die. History does not always repeat itself. But I don’t know. That’s one reason why I probably will never go into politics, because you’re expected to know what the future’s going to bring.