“Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day.” (Thomas Jefferson)
Heavy one-speed rental bikes were the primary mode of transportation. These were often difficult to ride because the pedals can be out of sync, but I lucked out with a brand-new model that was just my size. Breakfast on the street was by far the best meal of the day. First, the marvelous “eggs pancake of China,” made by a woman working out of a little cart with a hot flat griddle. She poured a scoop of batter onto the pan, swirled it around with a wooden spatula until it was thinner than a crepe, cracked an egg (or two, for an extra 10 quai), sprinkled spices and chopped green onions on top, then rolled the whole thing over a long piece of cooked dough (like a churro, only not sweet and crunchier), and spread hot sauce to taste. We bought this, then rode a little ways to pick up our wedges of watermelon, sold by a guy who hacked them up with a small machete and weighed it out with a scale balanced between forefinger and thumb, next a bottle of sweet yogurt lassi, consumed with a straw on the premises because we had to return the bottle when we finished.
We had several tasks in Beijing. One was to figure out the best deal on train tickets, the other to arrange our visas in order. Because we were travelling through the Soviet block (this was 1989—the fall of the Berlin Wall was still 5 months away), each country required proof of exit before granting its visa. Thus, we had to start with Hungary, then Russia, then Mongolia. On our first day, though, our number one objective was to get to Tian an men square.
It was sunny and hot but after the humidity of southern Asia, Beijing was actually a relief. It was 20-30 minutes by bike, depending on traffic, which was always heavy.
By traffic, that meant bike and bus, and when things got thick on Beijing streets with the bicycles, one crash could mean an instant pileup of hundreds. It could get to be a little nerve-wracking. In addition to regular bikes, there were also bicycle carts, essentially glorified tricycles with 3×5 platforms on the back, which people used to transport everything from auto parts to chickens to popsicles and sodas, to people. Once we saw one with a length of sheet metal rolled up on it and a person stretched out inside the roll, sleeping as the driver bumped and pedaled down the crowded street.
We parked our bikes at the near end of Tiananmen Square, across from Qian an men gate, which is a beautiful structure in the old style, and houses millions of swallows, which constantly swarm about it. The spaces in Beijing are huge—a Chinese block extends the
length of about five US city blocks, and Tiananmen Square is about four Chinese-length blocks long, and about two wide. After reading the reports in Newsweek and other AP reports, we’d expected stench and trash, but actually, considering the number of people camped out there, it wasn’t that bad. As we walked along the Ponderosa-Pine lined sidewalk, past popsicle and soda vendors (orange and lemon lime are the most common flavors. They came in bottles like old coke bottles and roll them on huge slabs of ice that eventually form bottle-shaped grooves. You drink the soda in place and return the bottles.), we saw more and more people camped out in the shade, or just sitting. Several gathered in small groups talking or listening to radios, often when they saw us they’d smile and hold up a “V” sign.
First stop was the huge portico in front of the Museum of Revolutionary History, where hundreds of people were hanging out in the shade. Banners were posted around and a pickup truck full of people drove around. We walked up the steps and sat down next to one of the students, a girl. She spoke a little English, but was shy—another girl came up who could speak better English. They were from Hunan province and had come in by train the day before. They were planning to stay through the weekend, just to see what was happening and to lend their support. As we talked, a crowd gathered around, people just standing there, in a circle around us, checking it out. This was the common interaction we had—somebody would approach us to take a picture with us or get our signature or just talk about America and the movement—and while we chatted, crowds would quietly gather around us. I had a newsfile of clippings that I’d started back in Taiwan, and took notes on these conversations. Most of the students we met were from other provinces, rather than Beijing. There was an organized relief system where students would go home for a day or two to wash up, eat, rest, and then come back and spell others who were tired or sick and needed a break.
We crossed the road to the square itself. The square was a huge expanse with no relief from the burning sun. There is a tall monument to the south of the middle, with stairs and an area for observation. We could walk anywhere freely except that monument, which was roped off to anyone without a press pass (and I could so easily have gotten one from the FCJ!). There were hundreds of tents, propped together with bamboo poles, sheets or lengths of canvas or plastic, most people were sleeping off the heat of the day in the shade of the tents or umbrellas. They had water rations in large plastic jugs, and the ubiquitous popsicle vendors wound their way among the tents. From the monument in the middle of the square, movement leaders broadcast speeches interspersed with music—disco version of Beethoven’s Fifth, or baroque classics, or “the Internationale” Socialist anthem.
Because Craig spoke fairly fluent Mandarin, we were able to carry on fairly intellectual conversations with the students. I was struck by how well read they were—more than most of my peers. They read the New York Times on a regular basis and knew the roots of American political philosophy better than we did. One young man quoted Thomas Jefferson as his inspiration. I wondered whether they understood and cherished these American traditions more than we, who grew up within them and took all our freedoms for granted. Freedom to be bored?
Not all students we spoke with were so philosophically inclined. They were curious about us—wanting to know what the American people thought of them, why our government wasn’t giving them more support, how our government would react if the same thing happened here, how much did a car cost, what were our favorite rock groups. They were exhausted, spirited, and very inspiring. The American media at the time and now portrayed them as pro-Democracy protesters, but the vast majority – even the guy quoting Jefferson—did not want a change in government. “What do you want?” we asked “Elective government? Due Process?” “No, no…just Li Peng must step down.” “Then what? Why are you here?” “I am studying to be a doctor. In America, doctors drive BMW’s. I want a BMW.” “A big house for me and my wife…” “To go to America, to travel…” “My own business…” “Freedom.”
Each day, there were fewer and fewer students in the square—encampments neatly bundled up their sleeping rolls and boxes of toiletries We felt the energy draining out of the protest. A few days after we arrived, we saw the “Goddess of Democracy” statue rise, and for a few more days, the numbers and excitement were up. But I felt very strongly that the whole thing was simply winding down. A few more days and everyone would be gone…
24 May, 1989.
We arrived in Beijing at about 3 in the afternoon. It was hot and dry and amazingly flat. The streets of Beijing were very wide and lined with tall shade trees. Most of the buildings, except for an occasional skyrise, were one or two stories. At the airport, we had to wait in a long, un-airconditioned line to get our visas checked. There were what appeared to be some tourist groups waiting with us, and some journalists. One journalist was particularly obnoxious at the luggage check-in, he kept being very rude and demanding to the Chinese man he’d hired to carry his luggage… “Be CAREFUL, I said, that equipment is very VERY expensive!!” We looked at the porter and said in Chinese, “Is he your good friend?” He laughed and said, “No, my brother.”
We had to take a taxi into town. Most drivers in the airport were offering rides at 90 FEC (Foreign Exchange Currency), which we thought was too expensive. Finally one guy offered for 50 FEC, so we accepted. Two other taxi drivers followed us out to his car, shouting and threatening to beat up our driver for undercutting the going rate. Steve and the driver’s wife intervened, breaking up the shouting match. As we were driving into town, the couple told us that the entire city of Beijing was in support of the students, that what was happening in Tian an men square was a very good thing, that Li Peng must go, that if the government tried anything, the entire city would rise up against it. We gave them some bumper stickers that we’d gotten in Hong Kong, printed with slogans denouncing Li Peng and supporting the students.
We got to our hotel at about 5:30 p.m. As we paid the driver and lugged our backpacks into the lobby, a 30-ish western man and younger woman approached us. He was wearing very stylish sunglasses and “jams” surfer shorts, had a trace accent. “Would you like to go to Europe by train? I can get you tickets through Russia, very cheap, one-hundred ninety-five dollars.” The official rate was US $250, and we told him we would have to check out other options, but apparently we needn’t have worried about the Trans-Siberian tickets. The Chiao Yuan hotel was five stories high and we were on the fourth floor. The elevator worked sporadically, but not, of course, on the day we arrived with our backpacks. We got a 3-person room for 26 FEC/night (about US$6) and went out to find some dinner and change money.
Back then, money was an interesting project in China. FEC exchanged for about 4-5 to the dollar, but Chinese people used Ren Min Bi, which one could get at 175 to 100 FEC, an exchange closer to 7 on the dollar. It was quite easy to exchange FEC for RMB on the black market, except we had to be careful to count the bills. We got so tired of hearing, everywhere we went, the singsong “Hello? Change money?” we started to greet other foreigners that way.
The hotel was on a long, poplar-lined boulevard bounded on one side by a wide canal, and on the other by various shops and restaurants, including the “Great Wall Bar and Café—International Meeting Place,” and the “Garden Restaurant,” featuring “Good Service, Mongolian Specialtys [sic] and Normal Dishes.” We went there the first night for dinner and had greens, kung pao chicken, some chicken broth and tomato soup that was very thin, greasy and salty, with scum floating on top. The chicken and greens were good, though. We also ordered beer. I wrote this in my diary: “I think I’ve discovered the real reason why the Nationalists lost out. The beer in Taiwan is remarkably bad, with a soapy aftertaste – I’ve been told they treat it with formaldehyde, and it tastes like it. However, the PRC brews several different brands, all the ones I tried were quite good. The Communists apparently knew the right way to win over the hearts and minds of the people. In the war between beer and ideology, I think brew will always win out in the end…”
“Tiananmen” means “gate of heavenly peace,” which may seem ironic in the context of the student protests of 1989. Unless, of course, you believe that peace is somehow the end result of struggle, in which case, the “Gate of Heavenly Peace” would be a perfectly appropriate portal to Chinese politics.
The gap between these two perspectives is the chasm that underlies my feeble efforts, then and now, to understand the events I witnessed twenty years ago. I like irony as much as the next guy, but the older I get, the more I begin to think that irony is the outcome of our (meaning western) inability to appreciate the weird mysteries and happenchance that so often structure events. “Gate of Heavenly Peace—how ironic!” might be a classically western response. But what do we know of “Heavenly Peace?” And not knowing, how can we proclaim it ironic? Doing so is easy and lazy, it means we don’t have to dig deeper or ask more penetrating questions, of ourselves, of our memories.
For the past few days, I’ve been reflecting on how my months of living in Taiwan prepared me to comprehend the complexities of Chinese politics in general. My complete and utter ignorance of Taiwan’s political “situation” when I arrived in the winter of 1988 underwent a series of quick challenges as complete strangers would often engage us in political conversation. One elderly gentleman invited Eleni and I up to his office for tea, “gave us chiclets, talked about history, economics, politics, communism.” Another guy took me out to dinner at the Grand Hotel, where I learned “about ROC [Republic of China] politics—the KMT and the DPP, and whether or not reunification is still a viable option.” Through various encounters of this sort, I learned “that one must be very careful about what one says” in terms of politics there. Especially when the “one” in question was a left-of-liberal graduate of a Portland, OR liberal arts college, a devoted reader of Mother Jones, Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky. In the Reagan era, I was pretty used to swimming against the mainstream of politics, but I was not interested in getting into political battles as a guest in another country.
In 1989, Taiwan was still under the martial law erected by the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) back in 1947. Taiwan, or “Formosa” as it was known to Westerners, was first settled by Han Chinese in the seventeenth century (there is scholarly controversy as to whether those settlements constitute “colonies”). In 1895, Taiwan became a Japanese colony and remained such until 1947 when the Chinese Kuomintang government, facing defeat by the Communists, fled to the island under Chiang Kai-Shek. The resulting Legislative Yuan, comprised of representatives from various districts around mainland China, positioned itself as the legitimate, if exiled, ruling government of all of China and so remained the single-party government of Taiwan for over 40 years. But in the late 1980’s, the logic of KMT rule was coming under increasingly critical scrutiny, as the aging—and dying—population of legislators began to force the issue of electing Taiwan residents into positions of political power. Wikipedia notes that “The primary political axis in Taiwan involves the issue of Taiwan independence versus Chinese reunification,” making for a strange tension between intense hostility toward the People’s Republic, and longing for the homeland, strengthened by cultural bonds of language, religion, and familial ties.
In one of those odd coincidences of fate, my own hometown of Marysville, California played a role in this history. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Marysville was home to a
thriving Chinese population, and at the turn of the century was home to Sun-Yat Sen, founding intellectual and president of the KMT, as he worked among the Chinese diaspora to build support for the 1911 overthrow of the Qing dynasty. As a child, I enjoyed the annual Bok-kai festival and opening of the temple to the general public, so that in Taiwan the sounds and scents of temples and festivals reminded me of my childhood home.
Twenty years ago today, on 4 May, “approximately 100,000 students and workers marched in Beijing making demands for free media and a formal dialogue between the authorities and student-elected representatives. A declaration demanded the government to accelerate political reform.” [Wikipedia: At the time, I was almost as clueless about the modern political history of the People’s Republic of China as I had been earlier about Taiwan’s. I did not know about the tradition of student protest in Tiananmen square, and the importance of those movements in Chinese political memory. Ninety years ago today, in 1919, the May Fourth movement was launched in Tiananmen square as students, merchants and workers protested the government response to the terms of the Versailles Treaty and called for replacing traditional Chinese values with increasing openness to science and technology. The 1989 students and their supporters interpreted their own actions through the lens of the 1919 movement, as patriots struggling for transparent governance and modernizing economics. Deng Xiao-ping’s Communist Party faced a no-win situation, with the imminent historic visit of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in mid-May and all the international visibility that would bring, over against the widespread popularity that the students were gaining among Chinese people in every province.
And so, in an odd twist, both Chinese governments faced challenges to their hegemonic power at the same time in 1989. In Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party was gaining ground in its challenge to the one-party rule of the KMT, which would result in the lifting of martial law and open elections within a few short years. On the mainland, the student challenge would take a different route.
What did I learn about Chinese politics, entering its history through the portal of Taiwan in the sunset years of the Kuomintang? Only that the animus behind those politics are deeply, complexly different than those at work in the western world, that I could never fully understand it. I learned that the surface impression was never—could never be—the full story. This lesson gave birth to an ambiguity—or to an ability to entertain, if not embrace, paradox that has never left me.
sweats and heaves, tormented by hot nightmares of rain. And I? Finally–the train to Hualien. Finally a seat (I’ve spent the majority of the ride flattening my buns on the stair–but at least that way I could see and smell and witness the phosphorescent countryside in the spring).” (April 28, 1989)
In his dystopian film noir Bladerunner, Ridley Scott imagines a Los Angeles transformed by environmental catastrophe into a dark, closely crowded cityscape of multiglot populations drenched in a never-ending downpour. We Taipei expats loved that movie, convinced that Scott had spent a lot of time in Taiwan’s industrial capital, to capture its visual and audio essence so completely. Sometime later I came across information that confirmed that hunch but today I don’t know if was a reliable source or just a rumor.
Taipei struck me at first as a “giant, nondescript, dirty grey city with Chinese writing,” but quickly discovered that the human scale of Taipei was to be found in the side lanes and alleys that run like warrens in between the major thoroughfares. In these narrow lanes, away from the thick of the traffic and smog, are the night markets, mom-&-pop shops, even courtyards and gardens. I was especially enchanted by the apothecaries and temples squeezed in amongst the neon-lit shoe stores and snack shops.
I visited Taiwan for a week in 2007, and was struck by the transformations in this city. A huge investment in infrastructure has reduced the traffic and pollution immensely. Gone are the piles of garbage on the street corners, the betel-nut juice-strewn sidewalks, the endless traffic jams as scooters, private cars, taxicabs and buses all convened simultaneously into three lanes of traffic. In the late 1980’s Taipei vied with Mexico City as the most polluted city in the world, and many residents wore surgical masks as they walked around outside. My friends and I were often sick with upper-respiratory infections, and I frequently wrote home in letters that I felt as if I had inhaled a cheese grater. When my mom came to visit me at Christmas, she thought to help me counteract the effects of pollution by bringing about a pound of pure vitamin C with her. That would be a pound of white, powdery crystals that she, inexplicably, packed in a ziplock baggie and stowed away in her luggage. At the airport when she arrived, the customs official searching her luggage lifted the baggie into the air, looking at her quizzically. “It’s for my daughter,” my mom said, flustered. Then, gesturing the act of suffering from a cold, she explained, “It’s for her nose.”
Amazingly, she entered the country, and I got my Vitamin C. The other foreigners at the airport were left shaking their heads in disbelief.
Like the characters at the end of Bladerunner, I escaped to the countryside when I could, or more accurately, Hualien, a mid-size coastal town that I had fallen in love with the first month after I arrived in the Republic of China. I tried several times to relocate there but in spite of the miseries of Taipei I ended up staying there for the duration of my two-year sojourn. The money was good and I quickly became attached to the social fabric of the expatriate community there.
Taiwan was never a tourist destination in those days, but hardcore travellers to Asia learned that they could make decent money to fuel their travels by teaching English in the private language centers that populated the city and catered to high school and college kids, mostly, called Bushibans. I ended up working for one of the more prominent, “JJ English Language School” (JJ ELS). Most of my friends there were English, Australian, and Canadians, many of whom would work for six months to save up money, then travel to places like India, Thailand, and especially trekking in Nepal for another six, then return. My first year there I saved enough to go to Thailand for a week, then home for the summer. When I returned the following fall, I landed my morning job at the Free China Journal, a night job teaching at JJ’s, and made enough money in the 8 months to fund my dream trip–the Trans-Siberian train from Beijing to Moscow, and ultimately, to Athens and my next job–teaching on the island of Kalymnos in Greece. Oh yeah, and I also bought a Trek 800 bike–the one I still own and ride to work on a regular basis.
I thought then and still think today that Taiwan is an undiscovered treasure for travellers. It is a stunningly beautiful island, and very accessible for westerners, without being westernized. It may sound condescending, but I don’t mean it to be–the Taiwanese are the warmest, most amazingly friendly people I have ever met anywhere, and I am hopeful that I’ll make it back there with my kids before another 20 years have passed.
However, back in April, 1989, I was anxious to move on. The pollution and especially noise were starting to get to me. About a month before I left an article came out in the China Post recommended that western women living in Taipei for over six months wait 2-3 years to have children because of the heavy metal concentrations in the water. That really scared me. “I have itchy feet” I wrote “And it’s not just foot fungus.”
…the People’s Daily newspaper printed a famously controversial editorial criticizing the students who had gathered in Beijing’s Tian An Men Square, to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, reform-minded former General Secretary of the Communist Party. The editorial, entitled “It is Necessary to Take a Clear-Cut Stand Against Disturbances,” established a hard-line official response that escalated the student protests, leading ultimately to martial law and the tragic events of June 4.
By pure chance, I would be witness to some of those events in Beijing. At the time, I was an English teacher and editor in Taipei, Taiwan, a somewhat rambunctious mid-twenties party animal, saving my New Taiwan Dollars for a long dreamed-of trip on the Trans-Siberian railroad, from Beijing to Moscow, then on to Budapest and finally Athens, Greece. I was also a wanna-be writer and journalist at the time, so welcomed the opportunity to see “history in the making.” Although I have lost my newsfile from that era (a carefully-compiled treasure trove of clipped news stories and notes from interviews with participants), I still have my personal journal and photographs. This blog will be a roughly day-by-day remembrance of my experience of that time, two decades ago.
HUGE disclaimer: This is a personal narrative, by an American just passing through, written 20 years after the fact. I claim no special connection to the events themselves, and other journalists and historians have written far more authoritative analyses of the events of June fourth. I will draw on their work and encourage readers interested in more serious accounts to follow those references. In looking briefly over my journals, I suspect this narrative will lead me as much to reflect on the process of aging as much as on the events themselves. I was, and remain, a fairly narcissistic writer, which is probably why I’m drawn to the blog format. Despite that, my intent is to always remember the students and residents of Beijing who took such enormous risks with their lives in a struggle to change their world. I don’t claim to have a special understanding of that struggle–but having witnessed some of it, my life has been indelibly stamped by it. This blog is an effort to bring that witness forward–another perspective to the many excellent ones already in play.
Twenty years ago today, 27 April, around 50,000 students gathered to protest the People’s Daily editorial. In Taiwan, I was only slightly more aware of these events than most foreigners. In 1989, the right-wing Kuomintang was still in power, and most of us had very little access to English-language news. In my position as editor for the Free China Journal, however, I did get daily copies of the South China Morning Post, allowing me to track the events up to my departure for Beijing via Hong Kong in May.
But the struggles of students in Beijing were still peripheral to my consciousness in late April. I was mostly concerned with my various relationships and how to bring meaningful closure to them, after living almost two years in Taipei. And getting philosophical. I may have been out partying until the wee hours of the morning most nights, but on the bus to work I read Spinoza and Annie Dillard, and various other works, all piling into my brain and journals as I thrashed around, trying to figure life out at 25: “Walking by the river in the pouring rain with thunder crashing overhead, thinking about the joy and frustration behind this compulsion to write. The joy is that I can go out, feel, taste, experience something– and, if that moment is right, it will soak itself into me and come out through my words and I can return, take myself back to those moments in time and relive them. But the frustration is that one can never quite replicate–that it is actually a cruel illusion, a torturous windmill that I chase–to try and grasp and create and tie down into a feeble permanence that which is essentially impermanent and ungraspable. I need to learn to let go of the things I love–
I can, now, to a certain degree but it is difficult. I suppose it always will be–Intellectually I can accept these things and know that there is no path that I could choose that will completely minimize these risks–these bumps and bruises– the pain of leaving and knowing that a thing is gone forever… Yet I know that at the same time I leave a good thing behind, I am moving toward something else, another landscape, another heart, I’m a sailor of a sort as well…”
I wrote those words blissfully ignorant of the truly different landscape I would be getting myself into in a few short weeks, as thousands of miles away the whirlwind Beijing spring turned a corner and began the spinning vortex that would draw me and most of the rest of the world, one way or another, into its center.