Sheila Melvin is a free-lance writer based in Washington, D.C.
My decision to return to China for a journey that would take me from the wild, jungle border with Burma to the windswept plains of Inner Mongolia in the summer and autumn of 1990 was not an easy one.
I had been a student at a Shanghai university in the spring of 1989 and had left China shortly after the massacre in Tiananmen Square. I didn’t care whether a decision to return would be deemed “politically correct” by the arbiters of such things back home, but I did fear that the Chinese people I encountered might construe my presence as a sign that the massacre had been forgotten and all was “business as usual” with China so far as Westerners were concerned. But, I wanted to go back.
I wanted to pick up the belongings I had left behind, to visit the friends I had bid so hastily good-bye, and to see for myself if it was true, as countless Western news reports had led me to believe, that the Chinese people, like amnesia victims, had forgotten the democracy protests of 1989 and the massacre that brought them to an end.
Both fears—that my presence would be misconstrued and that the Chinese people had forgotten—were to prove completely unfounded.
Our first night in China, my two traveling companions and I ate at the Cooking School Restaurant in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. We shared a table with two men, one a provincial government official, the other a jewel trader. Upon learning that we were American, the men immediately proposed a toast.
“To America,” said the jewel trader, raising his glass of Five Star Beer high, “the country that saved Fang Lizhi and helped him gain his freedom. If it were not for America, Fang Lizhi would be a prisoner in his own country, or worse. We salute you.”
Startled by the public toast to our country and to Fang, the dissident physicist who sought shelter in the U.S. embassy in Beijing for one year following the crushing of the pro-democracy movement, we joined in the toast. When we had put down our glasses, the government official added, “Do not hate me because I am a government official—we don’t agree with what happened on June 4, either. Not all government officials are bad.”
Realizing that it was safe to discuss openly the events of 1989, I told the men that I had been in Beijing on June 4 of that year. Their jaws dropped. “Then you saw,” said the jewel trader.
“Then you can bear witness,” said the government official.
As briefly as possible, I told the men how, with two American friends, I had traveled by train from a small town north of Beijing and arrived in the capital on the evening of June 4. Public transportation was shut down, a situation we attributed to the ongoing protests. So, oblivious of the ongoing massacre, we had set out walking to Tiananmen Square.
Although we had trod over smashed bricks, rocks, and bottles, past burnt-out buses and army vehicles, the possibility of imminent danger hadn’t occurred to us. Crowds of people filled the streets, most of them gazing silently at the wreckage, so we assumed all was safe.
We came within sight of Tiananmen Square and saw that it was completely surrounded by tanks and by soldiers who were seated cross-legged on the ground. Beijing residents were standing near the soldiers, apparently talking to them. Others hung back, gazing at the Square through binoculars. We took out a camera and snapped some pictures. Noticing us, a dozen soldiers stood up and began pointing at us and shouting. We hid the camera and jogged away. At the intersection, we decided to walk over one block to Chang’an Da Jie, the Avenue of Eternal Peace.
The section of Chang’an between Tiananmen Square and the Beijing Hotel was filled with hundreds of people. Those up close were yelling at the soldiers, those farther back were simply standing and staring. As we neared, several people approached us to vent their fury.
“Do you see them?” asked one man, pointing at the soldiers. “They used to be called the ‘People’s Liberation Army,’ but they are not called that anymore. The ‘People’s Army’ does not shoot the people.”
My friends walked closer to Tiananmen, and a European ran toward me. “I’ve seen 30 people killed where I was standings” he said. “The people are cursing the soldiers. They are calling them turtles and dogs, and the soldiers are getting angry. Something is going to happen. You had better leave.”
He ran off. I looked past the soldiers at the hazy, purple sky and then scanned the street for my friends. It soon would be dark. A sharp noise ripped through the air, a noise I assumed to be firecrackers. It seemed an odd time to be setting off firecrackers.
A second later I saw scores of people running toward me, screaming, and I realized that the noise was gunfire. In response to the name-calling, the soldiers had opened fire with their AK-47 assault rifles and were shooting straight down the street. My friends were nowhere to be seen, so I ran, praying that the shooting would stop. It didn’t.
I dove behind an overturned bicycle cart in the middle of the road. All around me people were falling to the ground, but I didn’t know if they were wounded, or merely taking cover, as I was. Next to me, an old man, apparently in shock, sat in the road staring at the soldiers. His forehead was bleeding, but I couldn’t tell if it was from a bullet wound or a scrape.
The shooting continued unabated. I got up and ran toward the sidewalk where I hid behind a telephone pole with a cluster of women in light summer dresses, all of them quaking in terror. The shooting was soon directed toward the sidewalk, and we all ran.
Somehow, I made it to the shelter of a cross street next to the Beijing Hotel. Here the wounded were being ridden away on the backs of bicycles. The wounded I saw had all been shot in the back. I was surprised at how small the wet, red holes that marked the bullets’ entry into human flesh were.
Those who escaped uninjured were comforting each other. “It’s nothing,” people told me. “It’s nothing. You’re all right. But, when you get back to America, make sure to tell the people there what you saw today in China.”
My friends rounded the corner onto the cross street. The man standing next to them when the shooting started had taken a bullet in the stomach and dropped to the street, dead. The shooting still went on.
As we walked hurriedly down the street, groups of people applauded us and thanked us for being there. Others shouted out their estimates of the dead—10,000 was the number generally given—and yelled that the soldiers had been burning bodies in Tiananmen Square all night. We made our way through back streets and alleys to the train station, passing on the way hundreds of people preparing to confront the soldiers, armed with nothing but their sorrow and their rage. When I urged them to turn back, they laughed.
The train station, filled to overflowing, looked like a refugee camp. We jumped on the next train to Shanghai and left the country by boat five days later.
When I finished telling the two men in the restaurant what I had seen in Beijing in June 1989, they looked at me with anguished faces.
“Our government lies to us,” said the government official. “How many do you think really died?”
“I am glad you were not hurt,” said the jewel trader. “What happened to you shames China.”
Where the Heaven Is High
Tian gao huang di yuan is an old Chinese saying that translates, “The heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” It has several meanings, one of which is that the farther a person is from the emperor, the freer he is to do and say as he wishes without fear of interference or punishment. Although China technically no longer has an emperor, the saying is as applicable today as it was in any dynasty.
Across China, but particularly in regions distant from Beijing, ordinary people—teachers, factory workers, entrepreneurs, government officials, taxi drivers, journalists, and service workers—used chance encounters with me to loose their pent-up emotions concerning the 1989 protests and the government’s repression of them.
In Lijiang, a remote town in Yunnan Province two days from the nearest airport or railhead, a young entrepreneur described the democracy protests staged in her town. When I expressed surprise that Lijiang, with a population of 50,000, had been the site of democracy protests, she chided me. “We have universities!” she cried. “We have students and we love freedom the same as the people in Beijing!”
Her boyfriend, a factory worker, assured me that the people of Lijiang were well-informed about the nationwide student movement and about the massacre that ended it. “It was Li Peng’s fault,” he told me. (Li Peng, the Prime Minister, announced the declaration of martial law in Beijing on nationwide television and is widely blamed for the violent suppression of the protests.) “We hate Li Peng,” he continued. “And we don’t like Deng Xiaoping, either. The only Chinese leader we like is Mao Zedong. He made mistakes, but he loved China.”
On trains, in the crowded second-class carriages in which I rode, passengers continually sought opportunities to speak with me about the massacre.
“Last year , we had hope,” said a 46-year-old factory manager, his voice shielded from other passengers by air rushing in through the open window. “The students rose up and we all supported them and there was hope. But, since the June 4 incident, there is no hope. It was horrible. Horrible.”
Said another man on the same train, “We used to love our country. We used to be patriotic. But not now. I don’t like the government; I can’t stand it. No one can. We are just waiting for another chance to rise up.” Asked when that chance would come, he replied, “It’s too hard to say, but it will. This cannot go on.”
A third passenger on the train had just returned from the Middle East where he sold Chinese-made water pumps. “If the Beijing students rise up again and the Shanghai workers unite behind them, then we will win for sure,” he explained in fluent English. “But, we don’t want revolution. Too many will die. We want peaceful change.”
On another train, a wealthy private businessman volunteered his explanation as to why the protests did not succeed. The democracy movement failed, he said, because the students were too young, didn’t remember the Cultural Revolution, and “did not understand that student protests never succeed in China.” He felt that most Chinese had supported the protests “in their hearts, but many were afraid to show it.” He went on to describe his nation as one racked by crime, prostitution, drug abuse, and even occasional terrorist acts such as the blowing up of trains. After Deng Xiaoping dies, he speculated, “It could be like your North-South war. The governments of many provinces don’t want to listen to Beijing anymore. They may fight.”
Nearer the Emperor
Closer to Beijing, discussion of the protests and of the massacre was more muted. Even the phrase “June 4 incident” was avoided in favor of the more innocuous “last year,” or “in 1989.” But, while direct criticisms of the government were veiled or avoided, resentment hung thick.
In Shanghai, students at prestigious Fudan University, many of whom were active in the protests, had returned to school a week before the scheduled start of classes in order to perform manual labor such as weeding, pruning, raking, and painting. Asked if the labor was voluntary, a Fudan employee said, “No. It is punishment.”
The criticism voiced in Shanghai often took the form of sarcasm. Mention of the growing democratic freedoms and economic prosperity in Taiwan sent a cab driver and a professor into spasms of bitter laughter. “Freedom! Ha, ha, ha! Look out the window—freedom! Taiwan freer and richer than China? Ha, ha! Freedom and wealth—we have so much of it, we don’t know what to do with it. Didn’t you know?”
In Beijing, where residents were supposed to be eagerly preparing for the Asian Games, workers and intellectuals alike expressed the belief that the government’s prime motivation in sponsoring the games was to wipe out memories of the massacre. “It won’t work,” several people told me. In the lobby of a Beijing hotel, a young writer ignored the surveillance cameras trained on the coffee shop in which we sat and eagerly questioned me about the fate of such escaped dissidents as Chai Ling, Liu Binyen, and Yen Jiachi. Unfortunately, I was unable to tell him anything he didn’t already know from listening to the Voice of America.
Beyond the Wall
I left China on a train bound for Moscow. My fellow passengers, most of them Chinese, opened up noticeably once we were beyond the Great Wall, even more so when we had left China behind and entered Mongolia. Outside the boundaries of their nation, scientists, teachers, opera singers, and tai chi masters spoke freely of the hopes they had lost the day the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square.
“I joined the Communist party five years ago when I was young and believed it could still save China,” said a scientist on his way to Germany. “On June 4, I learned just how stupid I was. I would give up my party membership today if I weren’t afraid that doing so would hurt my family.”
A 28-year-old English teacher from southern China obtained permission to board the train by somehow convincing authorities that Moscow was his first stop in a land-and-sea journey to Uganda, where he intended to visit his uncle. The teacher, whose taxi-driver brother had lent him $1,000 for the trip, had no intention of going to Uganda. Neither did he have any plans to return to China until he had gained citizenship in a Western nation. He made his decision to leave China immediately after the troops moved into Tiananmen Square.
“I have friends in Italy,” he explained. “They can help me get a job in a restaurant. It is better to be a dishwasher in Italy than to be a teacher in China.” 
1. A brief item in The New York Times, December 9,1990, mentions the phrase “The Chinese Amnesia” and attributes its coining to “a prominent Chinese exile in England.” The phrase is specifically used to describe the manner in which imprisoned Chinese dissidents axe forgotten and more loosely used to describe the way in which the Chinese supposedly forget their failed democracy movements and the men and women who have been killed or jailed because of their democratic aspirations.
In an October 7. 1990, article in The New York Times entitled “Fax from Tiananmen: TV and Contentment,” Nicholas D. Kristoff paints a picture of a rural Chinese populace that is content with its lot and supportive of the government’s decision to massacre the democracy protesters, He writes, “Here in Song, home to peasants like those who make up 70 percent of China’s population, people seem relatively satisfied with the Government and with the crackdown.” It may be true that rural Chinese are more inclined to be supportive of the government than urban Chinese, but I believe that the tone of the article, and of many other similar articles published in the popular press in the past year, is thoroughly misleading.
2. We were obliged to leave China by boat because the trains weren’t running and all the roads in Shanghai were blockaded, making it impossible to get from my university to the airport, except by motorcycle. Officials at the U.S. consulate in Shanghai did nothing to help the 20 American students at my university. In fact. 1 was unable to reach a consular official by phone until the early evening of June 8, although I called dozens of times on June 5, 6, and 7. One American who got through to the consulate on June 7 was asked if she realized that she was calling after working hours.
Students from Canada, France, England, Italy, Belgium, and Hungary were evacuated from the university, which was considered an extremely dangerous place to be if troops moved into Shanghai, and then flown out of the country. Consular or embassy officials from Japan, Poland, the U.S.S.R., and Burundi were in frequent communication with their nationals at the university. Only the West German consulate was as insouciant as the American consulate, but, in the end, it sent cars to take the German students to the harbor. The American consulate refused even to do this.
3. When I asked this man if the May Fourth Movement in 1919 didn’t qualify as a sucessful student movement, he explained that the May Fourth Movement was different because it was a protest against powers outside China, not inside.
According to Chow Tse-tsung, author of The May Fourth Movement; Intellectual Revolution in Modern China, the first recorded incident of students gathering to criticize the government took place in 542 B.C., when Confucius was 9 years old. The criticism was tolerated by the government. In the first century B.C., 30,000 students at the Imperial College protested the government’s punishment of an official they considered meritorious. In the second century A.D.. students joined with officials and intellectuals to criticize the government. Several hundred were imprisoned and executed.
As to why the phenomenon of student interference in political affairs first arose. Chow writes, “In a monarchy without a genuine legislature or system of popular representation, it was perhaps inevitable that the educated minority should under duress seek to express itself.”
4. Electricity also was denied Fudan students during the 1989-90 school year as punishment for participating in the democracy protests. Students, who live seven to a room. were permitted only a ceiling light until 11:00 P.M. No electricity was provided to the outlets where students normally plug in radios, fans, and other appliances.