Part Four: The Flies Gather (Almost a Revolution)
On the morning of Wednesday, May 17, 1989 Aldous set out for the Haidian post office, or rather for the little square just in front of the post office where the local stamp hustlers congregated. Russ, the Man Who Never Leaves the Youyi, giddy with joy over Aldous’ Lin Biao acquisition, now wanted the rest of the second Ren series from 1967. The remaining stamps only featured Mao, so they had not been destroyed with the Lin Biao purge, and were thus easier to obtain. Still, almost all of the stamps issued during the Cultural Revolution were difficult to find in mint condition; people had other things to think about besides collecting stamps.
About a month earlier he’d met a man in Haidian who claimed to have some Cultural Revolution stamps in perfect condition at his family home in Hangzhou. The man told Aldous he would bring these stamps back to Beijing after an upcoming visit. They’d set the 17th as the date to meet and discuss the sale.
Just outside the Youyi, Aldous saw a large group of people waiting at the Nongkeyuan southbound bus stop. They anxiously looked up the road, wondering why the No. 320 and No. 332 buses didn’t come. A large crowd gathered around Renda (People’s University), about a block away.
Walking towards Renda, Aldous discovered that students were organizing a large march to Tian’anmen. Throngs of people, high-spirited and holding banners, lined up in the street. A speaker above the Renda entrance played the national anthem. Students opened a corridor into Renda and made string fences to keep it clear. Some students wore white headbands signifying they were on hunger strike.
Aldous slipped under the string fence and continued north on Haidian Road. For the entire half-hour walk to the post office Aldous passed people stretched six or seven deep in the road. They shuffled forward from time to time but evidently waited for a signal to start the march. Many spectators lined up along the road.
Since the southbound side of the street was completely blocked, including the bike lanes, all bicyclists were forced to use the sidewalk west of Haidian or the other side of the street. Aldous dodged the former as he pushed his way through the bystanders. Whistles blew, horns were blown and shouts were given as signals to march. The sidewalks quickly filled up with onlookers and the bicycles could no longer move.
Stymied for a moment, Aldous turned to his left and peered through a large iron fence. He watched small children marching in a line around the dirt playground of a kindergarten—no slides, swings, or monkey bars, just dirt. This was a normal recess activity, but the brightly dressed tots were so intent on their steps that they failed to notice the larger march on the street so far beyond their world inside the fence.
Aldous vividly remembered his kindergarten years, pretending to play during the long, uncomfortable recesses, carefully avoiding the other kids and the judgmental eye of his interfering teacher. If she caught him, she would make him join the other children and Aldous dreaded this.
He envied these children; marching in a line seemed an ideal kindergarten activity. The blissful solitude of picking up feet and putting them down again, eyes glued to the back of the child in front, mind set free to wander . . .. Not for the first time, Aldous wished he’d been born in Beijing—except he didn’t want to be Chinese.
Intent on getting around people, he almost walked past the post office. He recognized the stamp hustlers jostling in the crowd for a view of the parade and had an increased appreciation of the immensity of the event. He wouldn’t have thought anything could arrest their trade. Most of the dealers operated with the punctuality of a tightly run business. They kept strict working hours. They took their lunch break at the same time each day. Above all, they never thought about anything during the day except stamps and money.
The immense popularity of stamp collecting in China, combined with the illegal nature of private stamp shops, resulted in a decent living for the stamp hustlers. The very few government approved stamp shops had small inventories and charged exorbitant prices. Even the newly released collecting stamps were hard to obtain. Since 1973, three different types of stamps were issued: "ordinary," "commemorative," and "special." To obtain sets of the latter two types, people needed to purchase special tickets and queue for hours on new issue days. The stamp hustlers waited in all the lines and resold the stamps at a small premium. Recently, enforcement of the law prohibiting private stamp sales had relaxed almost to the point of non-existence and tiny stamp shops operated unobstructed in southern China. Police did not hassle the Beijing stamp dealers and Aldous thought private stamp shops would soon be legalized.
Aldous found the man from Hangzhou standing with the onlookers, stamp album tucked under his arm. He spoke to him but the man’s attention remained glued to the street, despite the possibility of a sale that would gain more money than his normal job earned in three months.
The marchers were very well organized—a month of practice apparently paid off. Somebody said they stretched all the way into the middle of Beida (Beijing University), a 20-minute walk away. The marchers paced themselves well, walking at a regular stride. In preparation for a long day of protest, they warmed up with short, easy chants: "Support the students!" and "Support the hunger strike!"
Aldous finally drew enough attention from the Hangzhou man to conclude the sale. The stamp dealer remained distracted and agreed to Aldous’ offer with little bargaining. Then he asked Aldous’ opinion of the students. Aldous said he didn’t have an opinion but intended to join the march—just to see what was happening at the Square.
"Very good!" said the man from Hangzhou. "Since the buses aren’t running, I won’t have to work today. I will also go." Aldous hadn’t meant to extend an invitation, but he let the man from Hangzhou join him. They merged into the mass of marchers who were holding hands in a losing effort to stay in the neat orderly rows of the beginning of the line.
No one in the march showed any concern about the length of the walk ahead. Aldous wasn’t sure of the distance but it had to be at least 12 kilometers from Haidian to the Square. Most of the students probably routinely walked this far (Aldous habitually hiked farther) but all these other people, like the man from Hangzhou, undertook the trip only because they were infected with excitement. After the round-trip trek their feet might punish them for it.
The man from Hangzhou persistently questioned Aldous about his views on democracy, demonstrations, and hunger strikes. Other marchers turned their heads to hear his generally vague responses. When he said hunger strikes typically work better when someone famous doesn’t eat or when strikers start to die, the people around him acted as if this was a revelation. Most had never heard of a hunger strike before. The idea of someone not eating for a prolonged period of time profoundly appalled them.
As interested as the marchers were in Aldous’ views, they expressed at least as much curiosity over his shoes. Aldous wore the standard, Chinese black cotton shoe common to older people and country bumpkins. He obtained his pair in the frigid northeast city of Harbin, so the soles contained an extra wad of cotton felt. The Beijingers associated these shoes with very cold weather and the sight of a foreigner wearing them at the approach of summer made Aldous an object of great incredulity.
Aldous had come across this nonsense before. He made one futile attempt to explain that the shoes were not at all hot and he found them quite comfortable to wear in summer. They even lasted longer than the regular black cotton shoes because of the thicker sole. The Bejingers wouldn’t listen to him. They knew those were winter shoes and none of them would dream of wearing them in warm weather. They laughed heartily at the amazingly funny joke.
When they neared the Youyi, the marchers imitated those in front of them in jogging forward past small groups of perplexed police. The word trickled down that the march broke through a thin police line with hardly a pause. When everyone got wind of this they grew even more zealous. Aldous noted a powerful electric sensation that comes to someone moving in a very large crowd.
Huge throngs of people lined the road to cheer them on. Workers at places along their route left their jobs to watch. People took pictures, applauded, sang songs and waved flags. Many joined the ranks of marchers, even without any idea of the reason for the march.
The thrill of having the day off and marching in a gigantic crowd was reason enough to gain new recruits. The signs and banners the students carried expressed support for the "patriotic student hunger strikers" and called for "Freedom and Democracy," but no one around Aldous discussed ideology and no one said a word about revolution.
More police lines around Sanlihe and at the left turn onto Chang’an were broken with increasing confidence. At Chang’an the marchers bulged to at least 16 people wide and all traffic stopped on Beijing’s main east-west artery.
A roar rose from the front of the crowd and Aldous saw a policeman hoisted into the air and cheered like a hero. He pushed his way closer and could make out a sign the policeman held up: "Give way to the students." The slogan of the afternoon, thought Aldous.
As they approached Radio Beijing, Aldous saw a crowd of students surrounding the front gate, chanting slogans: "Radio Beijing tells lies! We want a free press!" Uniformed guards confusedly looked out at the growing group of chanters and gapers from behind locked gates.
Aldous decided to pop in and see Amelia. He pushed through the crowd and waved a stolen Radio Beijing ID card. The guards gingerly let him in and quickly slammed the iron gates shut.
Amelia had known for half a year that China was on the verge of collapse—with the inflation, the corruption and the general increase in lawlessness. She had the feeling that people would eventually put their feet down and demand enough was enough.
She’s never imagined it would happen so soon.
When she saw the huge crowds marching past Radio Beijing and heard the ferocity in the shouts of the group camped out in front, images of revolution leapt to mind. Everyone else in the department entertained similar visions. The few people who showed up for work spent most of their time intently staring out the windows at the amazing line of marchers.
If the huge crowds of protesters weren’t enough to persuade her that the winds of change were blowing in Beijing, the incredible openness of the media and a startling revelation by General Secretary Zhao Ziyang made Amelia view the student protests with great seriousness for the first time.
It suddenly seemed a large portion of the media supported the students. The China Daily showed a picture of reporters from The People’s Daily marching in support of the hunger strikers. They carried banners reading: "Press reform is a must," and "The People’s Daily belongs to the people." The major papers now covered the hunger strikers and their supporters. For the first time they even interviewed some hunger strikers, giving them the opportunity to present their viewpoints.
The bias towards the government line and against the students suddenly shut down—and the impact was startling. A China Daily report on Premier Li Peng’s talk with Mikhail Gorbachev donned the headline: "Premier promises greater democracy." People’s Daily reports on the summit praised Gorbachev for being "incorruptible" and a "champion of reform," the very things the students wished for in the Chinese leadership.
CCTV began to show pictures of the hunger strikers fainting and being carted off to hospitals; its English service was noticeably more liberal in its tone. The lead story for the morning’s Radio Beijing news broadcast was the protesting students and hunger strikers—completely overshadowing the Deng-Gorbachev meeting. Suddenly, people dropped their fears about openly supporting the students in large part because they saw the media as giving them a green light to do so.
By early afternoon the Radio Beijing English Department reporters were in a frenzy. Many stopped work to join the marchers, bringing baskets of clothes for the hunger strikers and food for the other demonstrators. The rest wanted to do stories about the demonstrations. Amelia OK’d reports on health of the hunger strikers, sanitation in the Square, transportation tie-ups due to the marches, and the numbers of people in the Square today.
One of the executive editors came into Current Affairs and only mildly cautioned that student demands could be alluded to but not broadcast. The reporters interpreted this as meaning anything else was OK to report. They rushed to complete stories before a different executive editor could tell them otherwise.
The other big story of the day, besides the hunger strikers and the meeting between Deng and Gorbachev, was a revelation made by Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang during his meeting with Gorbachev. Zhao said that senior leader Deng Xiaoping, officially retired since 1978, was still "China’s helmsman," and since 1987 the Central Committee consulted and deferred to Deng on all major issues. The papers dutifully gave this front-page attention.
Everybody talked about what they saw as a major signal from the Party Secretary. The reporters and the students took it in a positive light. Many of the students saw Zhao Ziyang as their main ally in the Central Committee. They took his statement to be an incredibly bold attempt to send a message indicating he personally supported the students but the still powerful Deng tied his hands.
Amelia had initially read Zhao’s statement as a capitulation to Deng, a signal Zhao would now tow the Party line. But some of the more savvy reporters convinced her this couldn’t be so. Zhao’s making the statement during a meeting with a foreign head-of-state clearly indicated a break with the Party line. A deferential statement could only happen during an all-Chinese cadre meeting.
She now realized Zhao was distancing himself from Deng and explicitly sided with the students. She also sensed a more ominous side to his message. He might be washing his hands of the consequences resulting from the demonstrations. The message could also be a warning to the students: "Watch out, I’m not really in charge here, Deng is, and there’s no telling what he might do."
Amelia looked at the picture of the diminutive Deng Xiaoping on the front page of The China Daily. His smiling face was wedged between a comparatively gigantic Mikhail and his wife Raisa. Last night’s TV cameras showed the ancient Deng had difficulty simply feeding himself. What was going to happen now that people knew for a fact what they’d always suspected—Deng was in charge? Was he the evil imp many of the students made him out to be?
"Amelia," Tong Zhijuan called from the doorway, "your husband is here."
For a second Amelia wondered what the heck she was talking about. Then she recovered as Aldous walked in. Aldous’ extraordinary composure seemed other-worldly in the unsettled Current Affairs office.
His stoic placidity had first attracted Amelia. She remembered a backpacking trip they went on not long after meeting. Their mutual friend Kyle from San Francisco had organized a hike through the rain forests of Olympic National Park in Washington. A friend of Kyle’s and a couple from Oregon accompanied them on the nearly 60 kilometer hike through the lush Hoh rain forest to rugged Mount Olympus and back.
The trip was unexpectedly arduous. The constant rain thwarted attempts to start a fire, despite endless attempts by Kyle’s friend (a man who bragged about his backpacking expertise), and an entire tube of stuff guaranteed to start a fire anywhere. The first night out, the Oregon couple hung a pack full of food incorrectly and a bear ate most of their provisions. The couple spent the rest of the hike bickering, while the expert backpacker traded complaints with Kyle.
Aldous had carried the heaviest pack and despite being the worst equipped (worn-out gym shoes, borrowed, ill-fitting backpack and plastic rain poncho) he never voiced a word of complaint.
Amelia had interpreted his silence as inner serenity. Struck with him at first, she took several other trips with Aldous around the American west and was as smitten by his apparently perfectly controlled inner peace as she was by the gorgeous scenery. One night, in a starkly beautiful canyon in southern Utah, Amelia found herself pouring out her soul to this all-understanding Buddha. It wasn’t until much later that she discovered his self-possession wasn’t at all peaceful, or even in control.
Aldous hadn’t come to see her at work in quite a while. "How are things going?" he asked.
"Fine," said Amelia automatically. "Well, things are a little chaotic," she added with a nervous laugh.
Aldous perused the foreign newspapers on the desks pushed together in the center of the room. His fingers absently bent paper clips.
"I was thinking of heading down to the Square with the marchers," he said. "Would you like to come along?"
Amelia knew if she declined to go Aldous would be just as likely to wander back to the Youyi as continue on to the Square. He knew she wanted to go to the Square. A flash of affection sparked for this bizarre robot of a man—and also a pang of anger. Aldous could never be the man she wanted him to be.
She agreed to go with him; her curiosity could hardly be contained. With so much chaos, and so many people missing from work, no one would note her absence, even though foreign experts did not go out to cover stories.
Aldous was exceptionally good at pushing his way through crowds. His fierce glares and snarling upper lip prevented retaliation against his forceful shoving. Amelia felt she might need his skills if she wanted to get into the Square.
Not long after they flowed into the river of people heading east on Chang’an, a student near Aldous asked if he was the man from Madagascar in the Square a week ago. The handsome, neatly dressed student introduced himself as Tony. He asked, in passable English, if Amelia was his wife.
"Just friends," Amelia jumped in. They were only married in the eyes of the Chinese at Radio Beijing. Amelia’s contract provided free transportation for spouses, so in an insane moment she’d let her new boyfriend tag along with her to China on a fake marriage certificate.
In conversing with the student, Amelia learned he was very active in the student demonstrations. In fact he was one of the second level student leaders. The top student leaders were generally a brash, immodest bunch, charismatic outlaws with more puissance than intelligence. One foreign expert described them as a cross between moneychangers and intellectuals. If Tony was any indication of the next stage of student leadership, some sharp people would step in after the probable jailing of the first tier.
Tony’s real name was Lei Feng, and yes, he was named after the famous "model worker/soldier" whom everyone was told to emulate during the Mao years. The name slightly embarrassed him, which probably explained why he introduced himself with his English name. He studied English and Political Science at the Foreign Affairs Institute, a small university about five blocks north of Radio Beijing, known (along with the big three universities: Beida (Beijing University), Renda (People’s University), and Beijing Normal) for being most active in the demonstrations.
Tony was impressed that Amelia worked at Radio Beijing and said he knew some people there. Amelia described the present atmosphere at Radio Beijing while Tony listened attentively. They discussed the importance of the media and freedom of the press.
As they neared Tian’anmen, Tony organized the roughly 65 students under him to clear a path into the Square. Without this Amelia doubted she would have gotten there—Aldous notwithstanding. When they reached the intersection on the northwest corner of the Square, Tony pulled out a cellular phone and made a call to the student leaders camped out near the Monument of the People’s Heroes. They directed him to stand ready to open a path for ambulances departing with unconscious hunger strikers. The students’ organization and use of technology surprised and impressed Amelia.
Amelia chatted with Tony when he wasn’t busy organizing his group. She soon decided that he was not only intelligent, but also thoughtful, curious, innocent, and perceptive. He reminded her of Li Zhenqiang and Jun Hao, two Radio Beijing reporters for whom she had a special fondness. She could understand how the students under him would look to him for leadership and his modesty and commitment made him the ideal person for the top leaders to give orders to. She was about to ask Tony why he hadn’t joined the hunger strikers, whose numbers now topped 3,000, when it occurred to her that the students needed people like him to stay fit and keep things running.
This was the largest demonstration yet—an estimated 1.1 million people were in and around the Square. Amelia had never seen anything like it and she’d seen some amazing crowds since coming to China. The scale was awe inspiring: twice as big as Woodstock and even more peaceful. Factory workers, government employees, teachers, journalists, taxi drivers, school children, retired people, and even some policemen and soldiers all joined in support of the students. Everybody was caught up in a mood of exhilaration, festivity, and hope.
People sang patriotic songs; vendors passed out food for free or next to nothing. Students chanted: "Protest against the government’s indifference towards the students," "Support the fasting students," and "We want dialogue with the government now." An occasional ambulance blared as it carried fallen hunger strikers to a hospital. Many strikers immediately returned to the Square after receiving enough I.V. fluids to recover their senses.
Forgotten by his companions, Aldous drifted farther away from the preoccupied Amelia and Tony. He spotted Chi and Xiaoyong, each holding up poles supporting the ends of a large banner. Yellow characters on a red background proclaimed: "Democracy! Liberty! Freedom!"—three words as meaningless to Aldous as they were to Chi and Xiaoyong. Chi somehow caught his eye and waved him over before he could take evasive action. Ten million people in town and he somehow kept running into these two!
"Isn’t this great!" said Chi.
"Look at all the people here," said Xiaoyong, "over a million."
"Are there more or less than for Mao’s funeral?" asked Aldous, just because he knew that Chinese liked to compare things. He always heard people state that one thing is bigger, smaller, older, or newer than some other thing; or this person is shorter, fatter, smarter, or prettier than that person, even while compared parties were present.
"More," said Xiaoyong. "Many more," added Chi. Aldous knew neither one had any idea.
"What happened to the money?" whispered Chi. Everyone in the surrounding area pricked up his or her ears.
"We dropped some money near the end of our business deal," he fabricated. "Our end profits total 980 kwai." This was less than half the amount Aldous got from the moneychangers, but Chi and Xiaoyong widened their eyes in anticipation.
Aldous handed Chi a wad of about 200 renminbi. "Here is part of your pay for your excellent labors."
"What kind of business are you in?" asked a bystander.
"Import-export," said Aldous. "China is soon headed for economic prosperity." Normally, a statement like that drew smiling nods of assent, but not this time.
"Only if we press ahead with the economic reforms," a man said angrily. "We need more freedom to do business. We must have leaders who are not corrupt. Our leaders must care more about the people and work for the future of our country. Instead, they feast at banquets and take bribes." This drew cheers from people nearby.
"Your shoes are too hot," said a woman to Aldous.
He didn’t hear her. The serious tone in people’s voices, the chants and the speeches, all worried him. He wandered off in a daze. Everything was going to change and he didn’t like it.
Meanwhile, Amelia was wondering how so many people had come into this world when a commotion broke out not far away. She and Tony went to investigate with a few of his students, pushing through the swirling masses that quickly gathered round. As they got near, Amelia saw an American news crew, in town to cover Gorbachev but now stationed at the Square, moving towards the center of the altercation.
A man had been caught picking someone’s pocket. He had been searched and several other stolen wallets were found. The students held him in custody and some student leaders stood deciding his fate.
The American news crew tried to put their cameras on the captured man—his stolen wallets laying in front of him. A first level student leader gave an order to stop the filming. Immediately, several students jumped in front of the camera to block its view of the pickpocket.
The news crew was incensed. Their American interpreter argued with the student leader: if they were demanding freedom of the press, they should let the camera show everything, not just what the student leaders wanted them to show. His argument affected some of the students, including Tony, but the student leader waved it off.
"When the government allows the cameras to show everything, then we will too. Now we have to do everything we can to support the movement and to make sure it is shown in proper perspective," the student leader pronounced, and no amount of lecturing on media freedom by the foreign newsman could sway him. For him, the end justified the means.
The next day, May 18th, Amelia woke up in her Youyi apartment. It took her a moment to recollect the long exhausting day before. She remembered the excitement of the student march and the activity in the Square. She had remained at Tian’anmen until nightfall, talking with Tony and other students. Then she had walked all the way back to the Youyi with Tony and his group. They were comrades now—singing songs and waving banners. The Beijing students of 1989, like their American counterparts 20 years before, were certain they were about to change their world.
She dragged her weary bones out of bed and tried to rub the sore stiffness out of her overworked legs. She rushed down to catch the Radio Beijing mini-bus but it didn’t show up. Amelia gratefully returned to her Youyi apartment and went back to sleep. A noise in her living room woke her. Alarmed, she snuck over to the bedroom door and looked out with trepidation.
A short, fat, fu (housekeeper) leafed through one of her photo albums on the desk. Amelia took a deep breath of annoyance but then decided she would only make thing worse by saying something. The fu would simply wait until she was out again before nosing through her things.
Amelia stomped through the living room on the way to the bathroom. The fu started at the unexpected noise and swung her head. Then she quickly recovered, scowled at Amelia, and pretended to dust the desk.
On the way back from the washroom Amelia saw the fu pushing a grimy mop across the living room floor. The fu used the same mop in all the apartments she worked on without ever cleaning it. Instead, she periodically doused the ragged thing in foul-smelling disinfectant and Amelia could not tolerate the smell. She’d asked the fus several times not to mop in her apartment.
The fu dragged the mop across the rug in the center of the room, too lethargic to lift it on her way to the other side.
"Excuse me," said Amelia, "please don’t bother to mop up any more. I intend to do it myself."
"What if there’s an inspection?" snapped the fu. She was surlier than most; Amelia remembered her and had never seen her smile.
"I’m going to clean it. Don’t worry about an inspection." As if she would, thought Amelia. She must know I’m hardly ever here anyway. "You can just say that I told you to go."
"Go now?" asked the woman. "I have to make the bed."
Amelia couldn’t imagine why this woman, who obviously didn’t like her job and didn’t want to do it, would persist in giving her a hard time about leaving. "I’m not feeling well. I’m going back to sleep for a little while. I forgot to put out the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign."
The fu left with an indignant huff.
Too awake now to fall back to sleep, Amelia started thinking about all she might be missing. It was almost 10:00 a.m. and she wanted to see what the newspapers had to say about yesterday’s demonstrations. Also, Tony had promised to call her at Radio Beijing if he had any major news about what the students were planning. She wanted to hear about what her other work colleagues had seen at the Square and find out what they were thinking. No time for sleeping! Big things were going on.
She called one of her Youyi girl friends and was able to borrow a bicycle to ride to Radio Beijing. As she rode in she thought about how excited the young reporters and announcers in Current Affairs had been the day before. All under 30 years old, many were bright and curious. Although Amelia complained of their laziness, some were quite capable of spurts of industry. They took advantage of their access to foreign newspapers and magazines. They looked at Xinhua reports with a measure of skepticism and occasionally tried a little creativity and perseverance in getting to the bottom of a story. Despite certain knowledge that parts of a story would be cut for political reasons some persisted in writing a complete report.
Their friendly, good-natured personalities could sometimes bring a breath of fresh air to Amelia’s workdays. They were such a welcome contrast to the apathy that seemed to pervade all aspects of Chinese life. She considered them friends and had a special fondness for four or five. She invited her favorites over for potluck dinner parties and often brought them presents when she came back from trips to Hong Kong.
In turn, the Current Affairs people thought Amelia was tops among the foreign experts. They often waited for her shift before turning in a story. This meant Amelia labored twice as hard as the other foreign experts when she worked in Current Affairs, but she didn’t mind. It made her week when one of them dug around a story and tracked down an interesting tidbit Xinhua would never report. She loved to discuss current news with Chinese who had minds of their own and a willingness to sometimes say what they thought.
Amelia’s half-Chinese lineage made a big difference in the way she was treated at Radio Beijing. The reporters accepted her more readily and the head of the Foreign Experts’ Department often gave her preference over other foreigners because of her bloodline. While Amelia appreciated her advantage, she detested the double standard.
These student protests were the first interesting and important issue Amelia and the Current Affairs reporters could tackle together. The reporters had found issues like the suppression of the Tibetan people and the anti-African student riots and demonstrations both uninteresting and politically dangerous. The reporters delivered equivocal responses to these issues and she suspected, to her great dismay, that for the most part they sided with their government.
But the student protests were a completely different story. Absolutely everyone in Current Affairs fervently agreed with the students on this issue, primarily because they empathized with their plight. They had been university graduates not long ago and were not satisfied with their lot in life. Nearly all university graduates are assigned jobs upon graduation. They have little to no control over their placement. Occasionally, the government permits some graduates to find their own jobs; they do this when there are virtually no jobs available for them.
When she first came to Radio Beijing Amelia expected the young reporters to feel lucky to have a position there. However, the attitude of the reporters was that while they could have been stuck with worse, they still didn’t like their situation. None of them majored in journalism while in school, and few held any interest in reporting. Consequently, many spent their working hours bored out of their minds with a job in which they felt trapped.
Transfer out of a job after assignment was nearly impossible. The reporters couldn’t even quit. The director would simply refuse to release their work files, which were essential for getting a job with a proper work unit, one providing bonuses, health care, and, most importantly, housing.
Amelia remembered a night-editor’s battle with the department to quit his job. The department refused to let go of their only night-editor. About a year ago he stopped coming to work—putting the nightly news show permanently on hold. He lived off his parents, hoping Radio Beijing would release his work file some day so he could get another job. Amelia learned he had become active in the student demonstrations.
A friend of Amelia’s at Radio Beijing, Liu Wei, was an intelligent, ambitious woman. She was an announcer at Radio Beijing and wanted to be the TV anchor for CCTV’s English language news broadcast. She sought a transfer to CCTV (who wanted her) but did not receive it. Finally, she obtained permission to work both jobs. Working two jobs netted only slightly more income, but she became somewhat famous because of her exposure on CCTV. She laggardly continued to do her Radio Beijing job, longing for the day she would be allowed to leave.
Most of Amelia’s favorite Radio Beijing reporters and announcers wished to go abroad. Usually their only chance was to enroll in a graduate program. Many obstacles stood in their way. In order to obtain permission to live temporarily abroad they needed to work a minimum of eight years for a good work unit. Then they needed to wait for permission from their work unit director. Radio Beijing was currently stingy about giving out permission because several former employees went overseas without returning. Amelia knew that if her friends at Radio Beijing ever succeeded in leaving the country, they too would not return.
A close Radio Beijing friend of Amelia’s, named Du Mei Li, had a husband who was studying in a small university in America. She sought permission to visit him for three months, but was denied. The director told her the only way she could leave would be if she obtained a scholarship to study. He lectured her on the importance of ensuring workers who went abroad returned with valuable technical and language skills.
Du Mei Li was prepared for this. She had taken the GRE and TOEFL examinations before coming to work for Radio Beijing because she knew the director didn’t give employees time off to take these exams. Du Mei Li’s husband was an exceptionally intelligent man who had made a very good impression at the American university. Du Mei Li, bright and eager, was dedication personified. She studied assiduously and did well on her exams. Despite tremendous odds and after much effort by both her and her husband she managed to secure a full scholarship from the university her husband attended.
Du Mei Li went to the director with the scholarship in hand. Clearly, he hadn’t expected her to get one. He told her if she took the scholarship she would have to quit her job at Radio Beijing.
She was crushed. Du Mei Li was perhaps the only reporter who truly wanted to work at Radio Beijing and the director knew this. She hadn’t been planning to stay in America permanently and didn’t want to face the onerous task of securing another position upon her return.
She wrote to her husband and anguished over the decision for two weeks. She knew the scholarship represented a big opportunity and it tormented her to see it slip by. She missed her husband terribly; she hadn’t seen him for three years, and Amelia often noticed her crying over the letters he sent. Finally, she decided to quit her job. Amelia knew she now meant to leave China permanently—if she could manage it. Du Mei Li’s close relationship to her family made leaving China particularly agonizing but she decided to make the move.
She wrote another letter to her husband telling him she was coming. She changed money with Amelia to get enough foreign currency for her move. She went to the director and told him she’d decided to quit.
He refused her. Without his approval she could not obtain a passport. He’d lied to her the whole time, stringing her along and hoping she would give up before he’d have to give her a straight rejection. Chinese bureaucracy could be more diabolical than the water torture.
This episode devastated Du Mei Li. Before the ordeal, she was one of Radio Beijing’s best workers. Now she went through the motions of working and appeared to be in a perpetual stupor. Amelia tried to encourage her, and help her out of her funk but there wasn’t much she could do.
Amelia could barely contain her fury at the director for what she saw as his heartlessness, and never forgave him for what he did to Du Mei Li. Amazingly, Du Mei Li didn’t blame him for refusing her. She knew that if she’d gone and not come back he would face pressures from his superiors. He was very careful about whom he allowed abroad: mostly older workers and people who had spouses and children in China.
Even before the student demonstrations reached mammoth proportions, Du Mei Li became their most active supporter at Radio Beijing. She made up bundles of clothing and food to take down to the students. She boiled water for them and helped clean in the Square. She followed every aspect of the student movement with fervent intensity. It was something for her to do since she could no longer find the heart to work at her job.
Yesterday was the first time Amelia had seen everyone at work excited and enthusiastic. This was a dream come true for her. She peddled her bike faster on the way to work, actually looking forward to getting there.
Radio Beijing was as chaotic as it had been the day before. The few people around expressed surprise at Amelia’s presence. The stories they worked on in Current Affairs were impressively daring: a hunger strike by university professors in front of Zhongnanhai (Communist Party headquarters) and interviews with students who spoke of their determination to sacrifice their lives for their cause.
Li Zhenqiang and Jun Hao came in late and immediately left for Zhongnanhai and the Square. Lu Yaping, who had recorded interviews with students the day before, was writing a story with newfound diligence. Du Mei Li, along with many others, did not come in.
Amelia greedily read the English language paper China Daily. She was euphoric when she saw the switch towards a freer media continued. The main headline read: "A million march in support of students," and another front pager said: "Top leaders urged to meet with strikers." The paper was full of news about the demonstrating students. Their demand that government leaders meet with student leaders was reiterated several times. A major statement by Gorbachev on the last day of the Sino-Soviet summit received one thin column.
On its third page The China Daily printed a picture of their own staff members participating in yesterday’s demonstration. They were shown holding banners reading: "Support for democratic fighters and press freedom," and "Top government leaders must have direct talks with students as soon as possible." The night before, CCTV’s English Service had also shown CCTV workers participating in the march.
The government’s presence seemed to have evaporated. They continued their call for students to quit the hunger strike and resume classes. No one paid any attention.
By noon, a look out the window showed another "million people day" was in the making. Crowds streamed down Chang’an—a bit later than the day before because many had stayed at the Square until late. An air of anticipation swept through Current Affairs; everyone was certain something important would happen today. Amelia hoped Zhao Ziyang would come out and announce to the students that the hardliners had backed down and dialogue would begin.
Amelia read all the newspapers she could: London Times, International Herald Tribune, and all the Chinese papers. Close to two o’clock she prepared to skip off to the Square. Suddenly, the weather shifted dramatically. The morning had been as beautiful as the day before but the sky darkened as if a sheet had been thrown over it. It was so startling that people began to talk about it being a sign—the Mandate of Heaven.
It looked like Beijing was going to have the thunderstorm of the century, so Amelia reluctantly abandoned her plan to go to the Square and went home to her Chinese apartment. From her window she could see great crowds of people reverse their flow on the Fuxingmen overpass (many draping their banners over the bridge) and make the same change of plans. Whatever the change in weather meant, it succeeded in preventing another "million people day" at the Square.
It didn’t rain though, at least not at once. For an hour and a half the sky got darker and darker, and just when Amelia thought it couldn’t possibly get any darker, it got darker still. By 3:20 the day turned into night. Amelia had never seen such weather! She started to have visions of the Apocalypse.
When it did finally rain, at just past 3:30, it was somewhat anti-climactic. A good downpour soaked the streets but Amelia had worked herself up for fire and brimstone. She still worried about the students in the Square, especially the hunger strikers. In their weakened state they could easily become seriously ill. Later, on the evening news, she learned the students took shelter in public buses brought into the Square.
Also on the news—Li Peng and Zhao Ziyang visited hospitalized hunger strikers. The bedridden students applauded them and in a bizarre gesture, asked for their autographs.
As the news ended an announcement flashed across the screen reading Li Peng had consented to meet with student leaders. The meeting would be broadcast live later in the day from the Great Hall of the People. Amelia jumped up in her seat. It was just as she’d hoped—the students had won a major victory!
But when she watched the meeting she saw no progress had been made. The highlight came at the beginning when a brash student leader chastised Li Peng for showing up late. The rest of the "meeting" consisted of Li Peng lecturing and berating the students for causing chaos in the capital. Li demanded the end of the hunger strike and a return to classes. He paid no attention to anything the student leaders said. As this became increasingly obvious they grew more and more sullen.
Amelia had never liked Li Peng before. Now she saw why so many people in Beijing hated him like a worst enemy.
Aldous slept in a refugee camp during a war. Food was scarce and everyone looked malnourished. He wished for a honey sandwich.
They had walked for hours the day before on the Long March, and now they were camping, and sleeping, and hoping for a chance to eat. Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai encouraged people to remain steadfast in their determination. Some people died and were carried away in stretchers to little white ambulance trucks.
Aldous woke without any idea of his location. The surroundings looked like his dream refugee camp. A hazy early morning mist drifted over a cement battlefield of makeshift tents and torn banners. Tattered garments covered bodies sprawled about the ground.
Tian’anmen Square slowly formed before his eyes. He remembered being there till late, talking with some of the most militant students. Seemed like he’d been in the Square for a very long time.
Aldous’ dream made him hungry but he didn’t have any food. He walked around the Square until he saw some breakfasting students, and joined them. Almost none of the students still in the Square were eating anything solid. Some of the fasting students, already exhausted and sickly, had even started refusing water the day before. The few students who ate didn’t eat very much.
He spent the morning lying on blankets with the nearly comatose students. He daydreamed and spoke when people spoke to him. Aldous enjoyed living outside under primitive conditions. He relished the stiff feeling he got from sleeping on the ground. He appreciated the squalor of the Square and the general chaos of the scene.
He didn’t particularly like the stench. The garbage lay knee deep in some areas and grew by the minute. Many of the fasting students had diarrhea from drinking water that had not been boiled. They were also flatulent and hadn’t properly cleaned themselves in a week. The few public washrooms near the Square could be detected from two blocks away. It didn’t bother Aldous too much, but he had no intention of spending many more nights sleeping in the Square.
He was thinking about returning to the Youyi when a commotion at the north end of the Square drew his attention. People said Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng were there. He heard applause and happy shouts.
Li and Zhao had arrived, but they didn’t seem to be together. Each moved about in different areas, talking briefly with individual hunger strikers while TV cameras followed. Their contrasting styles were obvious to Aldous. Li seemed like a politician on the campaign trail, pumping the hands of bed-ridden hunger strikers and dripping pretense with every oily smile. Zhao on the other hand, appeared genuinely moved by the debilitated state of the students. He acted diffident, and even afraid—a far cry from the always confident Li.
Aldous ignored Li and went to hear Zhao address a group of students from inside one of their buses. Zhao was nervous and touchingly inept with the megaphone he tried to use. Aldous had difficulty making out his words; the students kept snatching megaphones from Zhao and replacing them with others, hoping for better sound quality. They would stick several in his face, and then pull them all away at intervals. Flustered by all the waving megaphones, Zhao didn’t speak clearly.
A tearful Zhao said: "I came too late, too late." He seemed panicked and guilty: "We deserve your criticism and we are not here to ask for your forgiveness." Zhao meant that he wasn’t here to make lame excuses.
The rest of his words weren’t important. Zhao’s concern for the students, and even perhaps great worry for their safety, showed through. When his impromptu speech ended students asked him for autographs, and he clumsily obliged.
When the two leaders left the Square, scuttling off with their security men and film crews, reactions to their visit were mixed. Some students hoped real dialogue, unlike the farcical Li Peng meeting, was just around the corner. Others worried over what they saw as Zhao beseeching them to leave the Square. A rumor spread that Zhao initially planned to come to the Square alone but Li Peng tagged along so as not to be upstaged. Some believed Zhao’s visit was a final warning (the first being the statement about Deng) that the military was about to be brought in.
Aldous decided to ride the subway to Xizhimen, not far from the zoo, and walk home from there. He knew the subway would be even more crowded than usual because many buses weren’t running.
Aldous preferred the subway to the buses. The subway cars lacked steps to get on and off so it was customary for people to be even more inclined to knock each other over, pushing and shoving, in competition for seats, or in making a sometimes harrowing exit.
Aldous would usually wait for a big changeover stop, like Fuxingmen, where many people transferred to and from the two main subway systems. He would pause while the first massive wave of people exited the car. Then, just as the biggest and most aggressive of the people shoving their way onto the car appeared in the doorway, Aldous would hit them like he used to in his days as a sadistic, high school defensive back. He relished the hearty jolt of knocking the assertive shovers back, and out of the running for a much too coveted seat.
When he got to the Qianmen subway station, he found it closed off by students and subway workers. He queried them and learned there were about 2,000 soldiers in the subway. They had entered at the Beijing Railway Station and were presumably headed for Tian’anmen.
Many rumors had floated around the Square that the troops might try to use the subway to get in. Fear spread that the tunnels connecting the Party leaders’ residences just to the west of the Forbidden City with the Great Hall of the People could be used to furtively pop soldiers into the midst of the students. People also talked about the extensive network of old bomb shelters. The students suspected the existence of a lot more secret underground passages near the Square.
The students at the Qianmen subway station related how the subway workers cut the power once the soldiers entered the tunnel. The troops had been trapped in there for two hours.
The mood around Radio Beijing Friday morning (May 19th) was marginally calmer than the previous two days and a few more people came to work. Amelia frantically polished stories on the demonstrations. She got daring and used words like "courageous" and "defiant" to describe the hunger strikers. These words might be scratched out, but the current philosophy was to attempt to pass as much as possible through the executive editors.
Amelia ate lunch as she usually did in the Radio Beijing canteen. All the other foreign experts returned to the Youyi for lunch, but Amelia preferred the jostling line-up at the windows, counting out the little chits for payment, and the slop of food being transferred from the huge iron woks into the rectangular metal tins the workers brought with them. She liked the comradery of eating with the reporters, and they loved her for eating with them.
After lunch, she was laughing and joking with the light-hearted and jubilant reporters when Li Zhenqiang came in with a frightened look on his face. He told them he had just returned from the Public Security Bureau and an important statement was about to be issued. He said the statement would consist of three main points:
1. All demonstrations are now illegal.
2. All non-student demonstrators are subject to repercussions.
3. Li Peng had described the current situation as turmoil.
At first Amelia didn’t understand what the big deal was about this statement; these points had been evident for some time. But Li Zhenqiang and the other reporters assured her of its importance. They were all very frightened and predicted a crackdown on workers who had joined the demonstrations. They also said the use of the ominous word "turmoil," instead of "chaos" or "unrest," meant the military would be brought in.
Amelia trusted the reporters’ instincts when it came to the subtle art of reading between the lines of official government statements. She now believed something awful was about to occur. The reporters’ fear was contagious.
A short while later, an executive editor came in with a memo. She handed it to Li Zhenqiang and told him to pass it around to everyone in Current Affairs. The editor was in a slight panic. She told the reporters they would have to stay after work today and Current Affairs would probably have to be re-edited before the evening broadcast. She ordered all the Chinese to stay after work for a department-wide meeting.
The memo basically reiterated Li Peng’s statement, emphasizing the point that no Radio Beijing personnel were to take part in any demonstrations. No specifics were given about what the punishment would be for not complying, but no one was asking. The memo also decreed employees could no longer leave the building during working hours. So much for journalistic reporting, thought Amelia.
Right before Li Peng’s statement was due to be broadcast a rumor raced down the hierarchy saying the top minister of Radio Beijing did not want the word "turmoil" included in the statement. Supposedly, a lot of calls went out to ministers and checking was done, but Li Peng meant what he said and the statement was broadcast at 6:30 that evening.
The BBC called Radio Beijing requesting information on the current situation. They’d called earlier and received nothing. Amelia had heard about this and asked to be given the phone the next time they called. So Amelia talked with a BBC reporter. The reporter asked if she could call back later and do a taped interview. Amelia agreed, but she now felt a little nervous about talking to the BBC. When she called back and did the interview her responses came out a lot more tight-lipped than they would have if the interview been conducted half a day earlier.
When Amelia went home that night her cousin’s friend from the Public Security Bureau waited for her with a car. He said it would be a good idea if Amelia temporarily moved back into the Youyi, just until things calmed down. Amelia didn’t want to go, but the way he spoke left no room for argument. She also didn’t want to get her cousin in trouble. The PSB man wouldn’t say anything more specific about why she needed to leave. Amelia hoped the move wouldn’t be for too long. She packed up a few essentials and was dropped off at the Youyi.
That night, as Amelia watched the 10:10 CCTV English news broadcast, a subtitle flashed by (in Chinese!) announcing the end of the student hunger strike. Amelia slept little and was anxious to find out what was going on.