Twenty-Fifth Anniversary

The protests in 1989 began as marches by groups of university students.

The protests in 1989 began as marches by groups of university students. Copyright 2014 Gregory Rhodes.

A cordon of police locked arms, preventing student marchers from gathering on the steps of the huge statue of Chairman Mao that dominated the center of Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan Province. Authorities were permitting the ongoing marches, but they weren’t interested in an encampment like the one that was growing in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. On this afternoon, however, a group of students didn’t continue marching past the cordon. Instead, they turned to confront it, pressing their bodies against those of the police.

More groups of marchers arrived at the scene, adding their bodies the human weight swelling into the police. Coincidentally, the building next door housed the Public Security Bureau (police) headquarters, and from the roof they photographed and taped as their cordon flexed against the pressure of thousands of students, and finally split in the middle. Marchers rushed up the steps and occupied the Chairman’s pedestal as a permanent base of protest operations.

Heidi and I were living in Chengdu at the time; we spent many hours around the marches and the steps of Mao, among tens and hundreds of thousands of people, their enormous hopes and deep anxieties. Twenty-five years later I can still picture the massed people and feel the pulse of the crowd. I can see the hunger strikers and those who attended them. Heidi and I wandered the crowds and endlessly answered the same earnest question, “What do Americans think of our movement?” Their movement swelled, then began to wane. In hindsight I can see the end game emerging, though at the time I simply thought the protests would run out of steam and end quietly. It’s hard to understate how naïve I was.

Chairman Mao's statue stood over the massive protests in Chengdu.

Chairman Mao’s statue stood over the massive protests in Chengdu. Copyright 2014 Gregory Rhodes.

At this 25th anniversary, what remains most on my mind hasn’t been the large movement, but the small stories, experiences with students and friends, stories of courage I can’t equal. Two experiences have been particularly present for me.

I’ve been recalling an afternoon spent with Yang and Liang, graduate students and friends who dropped by our apartment one afternoon a couple weeks after the protests began. “Have you seen the marches?” they asked tentatively.

Several months earlier Yang and Liang proudly reported they had both been admitted to the Communist Party, an honor they took seriously. Although a few students were disdainful, most recognized that membership conferred serious status and privileges. Yang and Liang hinted that they hadn’t yet made the pilgrimage downtown because it would be unseemly for young party members to associate with anything that challenged government and party authority.

Yet they were curious, drawn. They wanted to see what their classmates were discussing with such fervor. They needed a cover, and we provided one. Yang and Liang could chaperone the foreign teachers to the protest, and explain the “proper context” in which to understand: how the students were well-meaning but misguided, how the party knew what was best for China.

Though Heidi and I had been to the protests many times, we readily agreed to “be chaperoned” by our friends. As we neared the center of Chengdu the crowds grew dense and we had to walk our bikes. Yang and Liang were overwhelmed. Down the streets in every direction as far as we could see were heads of black hair, occasionally parting to allow groups of students to march through. These groups came from across the city and marched their way throughout the city, encouraging workers to join the movement.

Unexpectedly, Yang turned to Heidi and asked, “Do you believe in God?” It was the first mention of faith our friend had ever made, and it came in the midst of a demonstration. Over the course of the two months of protests we had numerous conversations involving spirituality; we had almost none before that. For many the movement was deeply about meaning, not just the right to pick their leaders.

The next day Heidi and I were again downtown, and our university’s students marched past us. Marching was an intimate activity, an expression of connection. Each school’s students were ringed by sentinels who joined hands in a cordon. You had to provide student ID from that university to enter, in an effort to prevent the government from sowing spies and trouble-makers in the group. Within our university’s cluster we caught sight of Yang and Liang, who had chosen to join their fellow students. They were beaming, exultant in their choice to place their special status at risk in order to stand for a new future.

A segment of the Chengdu protesters as seen from the base of Mao's statue.

A segment of the Chengdu protesters as seen from the base of Mao’s statue. Copyright 2014 Gregory Rhodes.

At the time it didn’t occur to me the courage that required. I knew bits of China’s modern history; I knew something about the Cultural Revolution. But I was a young expat on an adventure; I didn’t appreciate the context, and the crackdown had not yet come. I was thrilled to see my friends join the movement, with little understanding what they placed at jeopardy, well beyond their special privileges as party members. Coming from a place of many privileges it didn’t seem so dear to lose a few, and I simply could not comprehend that privilege could be the least of their losses.

What all the protesters risked eventually became clear, of course. The morning of June 4 Heidi and I caught a BBC newscast on our shortwave radio, reporting the bloodshed in Beijing. We rode our bikes downtown to call home – international calls were difficult at the time. A block from Mao’s statue we found a pitched street battle between the police and protestors, the police using cattle prods and truncheons against the students who were hurling bricks. Hospitals filled with bodies. It took a couple bloody days for the authorities to re-assert full control of the city.

Hunger strikers occupied the center portion of the steps in front of Mao's statue, and concerned people regularly came to see them.

Hunger strikers occupied the center portion of the steps in front of Mao’s statue, and concerned people regularly came to see them. Copyright 2014 Gregory Rhodes.

On June 4 students who lived in or near Chengdu returned home hastily. This included Catherine, a slight but determined first year English major who had been the first to challenge me in class, breaking the custom of deference to teachers. Her parents were professors at a university across town. Each day for the remaining week Heidi and I spent in Chengdu, Catherine rode her bike back across town to check on us.

She rode past truckloads of soldiers, most no older than her, their AK-47 muzzles pointed at anything moving on the vacant streets. She rode past the remnants of chaos – a city block burned to the ground by a furious mob, an army jeep overturned and charred in an intersection. Catherine arrived shaking, in tears, afraid for herself and for us. Yet she arrived without fail each day, because I had been her teacher and a guest in her country, and therefore was entitled to such regard.

Her visits followed a pattern. First we’d offer Catherine a glass of tea or water, providing a chance to collect herself. Then she’d blurt the latest rumors as news: “The soldiers are coming today to the universities. Tanks are coming.” This was always followed by a plea: “You must leave now. Can’t you leave today?”

After half an hour Catherine would collect herself and begin the perilous journey home, likely arriving to her parents in much the same condition as she would arrive to us. I always appreciated Catherine’s vast courage; Heidi and I rode those same streets during that last week.

But it was many years before I began thinking of her efforts through her parents’ eyes, long after I became a parent myself. In one-child China, Catherine was everything to them. Still they assented to her expeditions; perhaps they even encouraged them. All for a foreign teacher who’d provided a few months of mediocre instruction. For a foreigner. As children of the Cultural Revolution, when even casual association with things foreign (like owning a book written in English) could get one ostracized and perhaps killed, Catherine’s parents allowed her to take such risks on behalf of a foreigner. I am now the father of an eighteen year old, and cannot even imagine.

In the masses of people protesting at the center of Chengdu and marching around the city, in their counterparts in Beijing and other cities around the country, there were many stories. So many risked their status and more for the cause, and many also risked their safety to insure the safety of others. Nicholas Kristoff has written beautifully in the New York Times about the courage of the pedicab drivers in Tianamen Square who braved bullets to remove wounded students.

I hope those who can will share the individual stories.

Medical students played their own special role, providing care for the hunger strikers, and protesters in general.

Medical students played their own special role, providing care for the hunger strikers, and protesters in general. Copyright 2014 Gregory Rhodes.

Expat in China Books


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