by Ai Li Ke
The first time I flew on a plane, I flew to China, into an encounter with what is now history. It was 1988, thirty years ago. I would depart early in June 1989. It is hard to imagine now, but as I prepared to go, people would often wonder why anyone would study in an unimportant country like China. I was a college student then, long before today’s college students were born. I was there, but I was not there, since I spent most of those months in Dalian. I have not shared this story much, because I was an outsider on the periphery of the event. It is not really my story at all. But then again, it is a fragment of a shattered history.
According to the State media, I suppose I may have been obliquely responsible for what would unfold on Tiananmen, part of the foreign agitators who misled innocent students into their brief rebellion. But truth be told, I was far from a trouble maker. Students were told not to interact with us, since we were spiritually polluted. But they flocked to us, we the students from America the “Beautiful Country.” Imagining, we imagined, a country that had a city that literally had nine hills made of gold. They came to complain about their country. To express their misery and hopelessness. To see if maybe we could sponsor their visa to come to the United States. We delighted in their admiration for our homeland but were also taken aback. It is not that perfect, we insisted. Surely, despite what our senses told us, there was hope for China.
During the fall semester, we studied the language, laughed at the absurdities of life in a Socialist State just emerging from the disturbed cocoon of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. We used black humour to rebut the incessant lack of queues, the constant cries of “meiyou 没有” from shopkeepers and bureaucrats: “No, we don’t have any.” We huddled from cold drafts in bleak concrete buildings and took walks on barren hills, wondering what happened to the trees. We learnt to love Chinese food served in the government-owned restaurants with bored waitresses lined by the walls doing their best not to notice our desire to be served. For Thanksgiving, we dined on duck and sea cucumber. In class, we discussed the utter hopelessness of the Chinese economy. There was no way, we were sure, that the economy could overcome its contradictions and find a way forward.
The first time we went to Tiananmen, we ate fried chicken at KFC on Tiananmen Square. Delighting that this sole American icon had made its way into China. I took a picture, meant to be ironic, of Mao’s mausoleum through the image of Colonel Sanders’ face etched in the restaurant glass. When we visited the tomb, the line was stopped for us, and we were ushered in without a wait to pay our respects to the man we were sure had ruined China and who even officially was 30% wrong. In the Great Hall of the People, we wondered around the Hall gawking at the people, who were corralled behind velvet ropes looking back at the foreigners, roaming free inside their hall. We imagined the response of Americans, if we were made to stay behind barriers and watch foreigners roaming freely in the U.S. Capitol building.
In April, we took a class trip to Shanghai and watched the Sound of Music on television in the hotel. The next day, the airwaves were filled with the sounds of the funeral dirge. Hu Yaobang had died. We continued with our trip. People began to place wreathes on the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen. And stayed. We finished or trip and returned to school. In my journals, the first mention of the happenings in Beijing was on April 26, “VOA reported on Beijing’s student protests for democracy.” It was also on the Chinese national news. Early reports were sympathetic to students on the square. After Zhao Ziyang visited the hunger strikers on the square, and was purged, the reports abruptly changed, and the students became counter revolutionaries. To my current embarrassment, my journal at this point continues about shopping in town with friends, culture shock and petty dramas among the international students. During these weeks, Lucille Ball died. A Chinese student from our school was killed in a mugging on Stalin Square.
Students at our school started to organise a bit and make posters. They demanded better food, a later curfew and lights in the dorm in the late evening. It was a bit disappointing to us, but we figured that the point of democracy was to make real changes in people’s day to day lives. “What else was democracy for?”asked one friend.
On May 15, I wrote that “There was a demonstration [in Dalian]. Women actually broke out of their dormitory. Lots of bottles were broken. They were persuaded to go back in.” Little bottles were a synonym for the premier leader Deng Xiaoping’s name. Normally, the dorm was locked nightly at curfew, and the power was cut off overnight. The next day, the school blamed the foreigners. They said that some of us took pictures, and maybe some foreigners threw rocks and broke windows. I noted that I had seen some Japanese students taking pictures. That was the only day I noted any challenge from the school administration towards the international students.
Students across the city planned marches together. On May 17, I went out with some other Americans and “came upon a line of protesters. All ten universities [in Dalian] were represented. They marched around Zhongshan Circle and headed back to their schools. Many carried banners. Some saw us and called out ‘hello!’. It seemed a bit out of place.” At the time, I thought there may have been 5,000 marchers. Moreover, I wrote, “It was fairly organised, and police cleared back the crowds [of observers]. Along with banners supporting democracy, the Beijing demonstrators and decrying corruption, I saw a banner bearing the star-in-a-circle symbol of the Chinese Communist Youth League. I noted that I saw nothing against the Chinese Communist Party on the banners. “People in one hotel waived handkerchiefs out of windows. There were firecrackers.” The marchers from our school returned to campus and called for a class boycott before disbanding.
Another day there were protests on Stalin Square, and the police were more aggressive, pulling at protestors and trying to break up the protest.
The foreign students debated our place in this. Eager youth, we were drawn to protests and to a sense of something significant, but also felt that it was not about us. So mostly we hung back and observed. We spent a lot of time huddled around the short-wave radio listening to the BBC and the Voice of America. We wanted to go to Tiananmen. We bought tickets, but our programme would not let us. Scott* was not part of the group. He went. He sent us a fax that we read and reread. Many of our Chinese classmates also went, in May. Students in Beijing debated what to do. Many decided to leave, and Scott and our Chinese friends returned to Dalian. New students poured in to Tiananmen from around the country.
On May 20, martial law was declared in Beijing. BBC reported that there was action in twenty cities across China, but Dalian was not one of them. The local students briefly believed that martial law had ended the protests until someone played the Chinese-language Voice of America in front of the English Department. The next day the students held a ten-hour march to protest being lied to about the state of affairs in Beijing. I managed to get a call through to a relative in the U.S., who said she thought the students were trouble makers. My parents thought I should come home. People back home did not seem to know a lot about what was happening, though there seemed to be a fair about of news coverage.
We listened to the news, waited and speculated. Would the army attack its own people? Would Deng Xiaoping remain in power while the much-hated Li Peng stepped down? We didn’t know. We kept going to Chinese class and, if my journal is accurate, annoying the heck out of one another. We spent a bit more time with our Chinese friends as they were inclined to break the no-contact-with-foreigners rule and were also not going to class.
On May 25, I wrote, “The students at Da Wai are so non-committed. They began only when it was safe and stop at any threat. Now their parents are being notified. Our students boycott class—and then play cards instead of demonstrating.” I was more impressed by the students at the technical college. On May 29, “the power was cut out at 10:30 PM for the first time in a few weeks (as it had been before the protests). Students shouted and broke bottles until the lights were turned back on.” Later I noted, “The students feel like they have a new power.”
One American complained that her phone call cut off when she started talking about students in Beijing being arrested and students in Dalian’s facing job placement penalties. (In those days, jobs were still assigned to graduates.)
On June 2, we heard reports that the number of students in Tiananmen was back up to 50,000 after a decline when many decided to leave and perhaps renew the protests later.
Everyone knows what happened in the early morning of June 4, but no one knows exactly. Prior to these events, China was a rather unimportant developing country, so I wrote rather blandly, “One suspects this day will go down in infamy, at least for Sinologists. I did not hear the news until I took photos to Terry.”* In town, we saw a small group of students protesting. There were a lot of rumours. Our study abroad program began preparations to evacuate us as soon as possible, though we did not feel we were in any danger at all.
At a friend’s house, the television news had reports from Beijing. I wrote about it, “Only violence by students was shown. Only wounded soldiers were shown. The screens were largely grey and black. They showed burned corpses [of soldiers]. There was an odd line of trucks shown that was burned out.” There were lists of students who had been active in Beijing and were now wanted criminals.
There was a rumour that the army was ordered into Dalian to restore order, but refused, saying it was unnecessary. Indeed, unlike some cities, Dalian was quiet and orderly. We learnt that the LA Times reported that four Pomona College students were missing in Dalian. Our four classmates from Pomona College found that to be amusing.
As of June 9, the Chinese student dorms still had power all night, but if they came back after curfew, they were made to stand outside. One of our Chinese teachers was interrogated by the police. Our Chinese friends came to us, shocked. A student wrote an embittered poem and the word “sorrow” on a Chinese flag and gave it to me. He told me to never forget. Our friends didn’t believe in their country, but they always wanted to. In those days, there was so little hope.
One June 13, our group of Americans flew to Hong Kong. All of us who shared Scott’s surname, including me, had our bags searched. They missed some things and found some things, which they confiscated.
In Hong Kong, we bought Democracy bumper stickers and T-shirts with the faces of the student movement leaders: Wang Dan, Wu’er Kaixi, Chai Ling. We bought Cui Jian’s music, the anthems of the student movement, and listened to them over and over. I went to Victoria Park where there was a duplicate Goddess of Democracy statue. The “music, crowds and visual effect were moving,” I reported. We mourned and we celebrated freedom, memory and truth. We heard rumours of students from Dalian who had made their way to Hong Kong.
I returned to China the next year. First-year college students had a year of military training added to the curriculum. One American friend went to Tiananmen, but I said there would be nothing to see. She later said I was right. It had been cleaned up with no sign of what had been. Eventually I went back, too. I stayed in close contact with one of my friends who had participated in the protests. I do not think we ever spoke of those days again.
I worked on a project about memory and studied the Chinese and foreign news reports. The facts were the same. It took a few days for the Chinese press to start to tell a unified story. All of the reports agreed that on the square, intellectuals negotiated for a withdraw of students from the south end of the square. There was fighting and people were killed on the streets leading to the north end of the square. In foreign reports, many students were killed, and a few soldiers. In Chinese reports, many soldiers were killed and not many students. Also, the students were not brave martyrs for Freedom, Democracy and the American Way, but were innocents misled by a handful of counterrevolutionaries and foreign forces. No one knows exactly how many were killed. The basic facts as reported were the same. Propaganda is based on the truth.
I learnt that people had probably not died there. The tents crushed under tanks were empty. The dying happened elsewhere, on Beijing’s broad avenues. On the square, three intellectuals negotiated the surrender of the square and the safe travel of students from the square from the southern end. In those days, though, that was not something that could be said. In China, we could not talk about it at all. In America, we could not suggest the martyrs had not died on the square itself. It took about ten years for this to start to be reported in Western sources, and soon became accepted as fact.
The students in Tiananmen were my peers. I have been with them when the death of Deng Xiaoping was announced, and they stood and mourned. I have been with them when drunk, shouting “fuck the party” remembering a classmate who committed suicide during the training that followed the massacre. But people learnt that the Party was in power. I learnt that the Party was in power. We went on with our lives. Many became successful. Except for occasional glimpses of fury or sadness, we do not speak of what is in our hearts.
I have also met people who were in the People’s Liberation Army that year. I did not ask.
And the flag, bearing “sorrow” may never return from exile in America.
[Author’s note: Names have been changed, as they must be.]
Ai Li Ke was the English name assigned to the author by his Chinese teacher. He is a failed academic, who has lived and worked in China for over a decade in various cities. He continues to study China and to travel to China. Over the years, he has introduced many Americans to China.