Part Seven: A Few Flies Get Out
From her short-wave radio Amelia learned of scattered killings Sunday night and Monday morning. She also heard of unrest and violence in many other Chinese cities, including Shanghai, Xian, Wuhan, and Chengdu. Soldiers were seen blowing up their own vehicles; tanks placed in formations designed to defend against attack from another army indicated the likelihood of civil war.
One friend of Amelia’s, an Australian woman named Sandy, was eight months pregnant. She had made arrangements to have her baby in a hospital in Beijing, but now wanted to leave as soon as possible. Sandy didn’t speak any Chinese, so Amelia helped her obtain a doctor’s signature in order to get permission to fly home to Australia in such an advanced stage of pregnancy.
Just after the martial law announcement, people at the Youyi hoarded food. The shelves of the compound’s food shops became sparse. Now, even though Beijing residents continued to hoard food and were currently depleting supplies at wet market stalls, Amelia noticed that the stores in the Youyi compound were relatively well stocked. The foreign experts no longer concerned themselves with hoarding food; they were getting ready to evacuate.
Since she herself had no intention of leaving, Amelia bought as much food as she could carry. After dropping off her provisions at her apartment, she made a short reconnaissance outside the compound to see what the immediate area looked like. The free market across the street was doing brisk business, but unusual silence reigned everywhere else. Beijing residents stayed inside for three main reasons: the students had asked for a general strike, no buses were running, and most importantly, they knew that troops shot at people for no particular reason.
After returning to her apartment, she heard a short-wave radio broadcast about a general removal of foreign students from the universities. The broadcast predicted the army would next storm the campuses, looking for troublemakers. Amelia found relief in the knowledge that her foreign friends at Beida were safe, but unease in the fact that she lived in the neighborhood of the army’s next target.
The streetlights didn’t come on that night. Amelia couldn’t see any lit buildings outside of the Youyi, convincing her that the army prepared to invade the campuses. She spent the early part of the evening in a neighbor’s room, along with a group of foreign experts, watching a tape of the Alfred Hitchcock movie Rebecca. General nervousness hid under a veil of forced joviality. The rest of the night she kept to her room, lights turned off, taking furtive peeks out her windows. Straining her ears for sounds outside, she felt like a criminal or a frightened animal. The dark night sent forth few noises—the sound of scattered shooting from far off, late at night, but not much else. The army did not hit the universities.
Amelia saw Sandy and several other friends off the next morning. One by one, people she’d gotten to know well over many months rushed out of her life with a kiss or a handshake. The quick good-byes made her tearful and depressed.
At lunchtime, Amelia gleaned from others around the compound that all the other embassies had contacted their people and provided transportation for those wanting rides to or near the airport. A rumor floated that the US embassy was sending cars to the Youyi at 1:00 p.m., but Amelia later learned they didn’t show. The only nationals stuck at the Youyi were Americans. Amelia still had no plans to leave, but as she talked with other Americans she thought it was woefully deficient of their embassy not to contact them. Amelia and a few other Americans decided to hold a meeting that night for US citizens in order to make a list of names and discover people’s intentions.
About 70 American foreign experts came to the meeting. Amelia also communicated with the American tourists at the hotel, including a group of about 25 nurses in Beijing for a convention. She collected names and social security numbers. The person in charge of contacting the embassy said he’d tried repeatedly to telephone them, but without success. However, one of the tourists did get through. She related that the embassy was sending some cars to pick people up early the next morning.
Amelia and a few others decided to meet the embassy cars. They planned to give the embassy people a list of US foreign experts at the Youyi. They intended to ask about the situation and determine if the embassy urged people to leave or relocate. Most people only wanted transportation to the airport if something catastrophic, like civil war, occurred. Some people who had left for the airport the day before returned to the Youyi because they couldn’t get out of the hectic airport. Other countries had arranged chartered flights for their people, and the Americans at the Youyi wanted to know if the US would do the same.
Out by the front gate before 6:30 a.m., Amelia waited with several other people, including the group of nurses, for the embassy cars. Again, they didn’t show.
One group of tourists was desperate to leave. They had plane reservations for a flight leaving Shanghai that evening for Hong Kong. They were a small tour group whose guide had deserted them, driving off in their mini-van without a word.
Amelia helped try to negotiate rides for these people with the few taxi drivers left at the Youyi. Most drivers wouldn’t go—"too dangerous," they said. A few agreed to take them, but only at the astronomical rate of 800 FEC, or over $215, per car. The tour group needed two taxis and couldn’t afford to pay such a large amount just for a ride to the airport. Amelia told the drivers they were despicable to take advantage of people under such circumstances. The drivers laughed at her.
One of the nurses, a big man from Texas, was very upset with the negligence of the US embassy. He and Amelia went into Building No. 5, where the nurses and many of the other tourists stayed. Here they manned two telephones in an attempt to reach the embassy.
Amelia, accustomed to the Beijing phone system, didn’t think anything of trying several dozen times to make a call before finally getting through. The current crises had considerably worsened the usually horrible phone service, so she expected failure. The Texan lived in a world where phones worked. After they both dialed for 20 minutes straight without success, the Texan surprised Amelia by stomping his feet in extreme frustration.
Finally, the man from Texas connected with the embassy . . . and then waited on infinite hold. Fit to be tied, he slammed the receiver down. Moments later, Amelia got through to a woman at the embassy.
"Due to the current civil unrest the US embassy strongly urges all Americans to leave Beijing." The woman’s nasal voice sounded like a recording.
"Ok, but how can we do this without transportation," said Amelia. "I’m over here at the Friendship Hotel and there are about 90 people stuck here."
"The embassy is unable to provide rides for that many people. You’ll have to use your entrepreneurial skills, dear. Call bus companies and tourist agencies."
Amelia’s jaw dropped. The suggestion to call bus companies was ludicrous beyond belief. The woman was either insane or she just didn’t give a damn about what happened to them. Amelia swallowed her exasperation and patiently tried to explain how she had tried at length to negotiate transportation to the airport without any success.
The Texan couldn’t believe his ears. He motioned for the phone, but Amelia, trying to avoid counterproductive confrontation, waved him off. The embassy woman complained there were too many Americans in Beijing and they didn’t register with the embassy, so there was nothing she could do. Amelia wanted to tell her the Japanese had twice as many people here and they were getting their people out and that she herself had registered with the embassy and a fat lot of good it had done her.
Instead, she held back her anger and tried to be subtle. She said she’d seen the Canadian embassy bring their people out the day before with large buses. Perhaps the woman could walk down the street and ask the people at the Canadian embassy if the Americans could borrow their buses, since all the Canadian citizens were probably gone already.
The woman started to say something about the "regular staff" not being in right now when the big Texan grabbed the phone. In his wonderful accent he told the woman he had friends in Washington, and they were "damn well going to hear about it if the embassy didn’t get somebody on over here." He gave the woman their names and phone numbers, along with a big piece of his mind. She promised to give the "regular staff" the message when they came in at 8:30 a.m.
The Texan laughed and told Amelia he didn’t know anyone in Washington. He said the embassy woman was "the damnedest fool" he’d ever heard. Amelia could have hugged him. She had also been at the end of her patience with the petty, frustrating bureaucrat, but knew she wouldn’t have been able to tell her off with the flair of the big Texan.
Three hours later a man from the embassy called Amelia. In a brusque manner he told her he was sending over some vans at 1:00 p.m. The vans would relocate people to hotels near the airport. They could not guarantee rooms would be available and the embassy refused to foot any bills. They could not supply transportation to the airport itself but taxis and hotel shuttles moved on the airport road. This was the last time they were going to offer transportation. People who passed up this ride would be left to their own devices. Everyone should be prompt and could only bring one small bag.
Amelia wrote all this down and quickly organized another meeting with the Americans at the Youyi. In the process she ran into the small tour group who needed to get to Shanghai by that evening. They’d met people from a larger tour group with a bus that could fit them in. They were about to leave for the airport and could squeeze in one more person if Amelia wanted to go. They were all extremely nice people from upstate New York and their offer tempted Amelia. However, she thanked them but said she wasn’t ready to leave yet. She planned to wait it out at a hotel near the airport.
At the meeting Amelia explained the situation to the foreign experts. Many were extremely unhappy with the news. Amelia knew these people hesitated to leave all their things behind, but didn’t want to miss their last chance to get out. A fat woman Amelia disliked complained about having to leave "all my rugs and vases." Amelia knew that some people had been here for a long time and had accumulated many valuable items—VCRs, stereo systems, furniture, and works of art. She thought it petty of them to complain when their lives might be in danger.
Not that Amelia wasn’t going to greatly miss the things which she’d acquired: all her lovely antiques which she’d spent so many hours shopping for, and the gifts which she’d stocked up on for several Christmases. It was tough for her too, but not worth risking her life over.
In fact she’d just finished polishing a manuscript for a book for a Chinese publisher, a free-lance editing job for which she was due to be paid a substantial amount of money. The book was about Chinese industry, the new economic reforms, and the modernization plans. Aimed at Western businessmen, the book used distorted statistics to encourage them to invest their money in China. Amelia didn’t think there would be much call for this book now. She feared she’d never see any money for a job on which she’d spent a lot of time and effort.
She frantically packed some favorite items into her small bag. She also packed clothes and a little food because she might be at a hotel for several days. Amelia prayed things would calm down and she could quickly return to the Youyi.
She was still packing when Aldous walked in. He looked like he’d been in a war. The smell of gasoline and smoke pervaded his clothes. Tiny red dots covered his skin. He plopped himself down in a chair and vacantly watched her pack. She reminded him of a faithful dog who travels hundreds of miles to see a former owner, and then sits in the corner as if nothing ever happened.
"You’re leaving," he said. He seemed neither happy nor sad, and was dreamier than usual. His forehead frowned in vague concentration. It was an expression Amelia had once noticed while making love to him; Aldous’s lovemaking was technically perfect, but he watched her and touched her as if intently operating a machine. Amelia found such intense abstraction frightening. Where were his emotions! Was he even aware of what he was feeling?
Aldous nodded at the suitcase and lifted his eyebrows in query.
"I’m temporarily going to a hotel near the airport," she told him. "I’ll wait there until things calm down. I’ll only leave if an emergency situation develops."
"No," he said, "you’re going, all the waiguoren are going." The way he said waiguoren made Amelia wonder if Aldous included himself. She asked him about Tony.
"I saw Tony last night. He was all right when I saw him. He said he was going to try to get to Shanghai and hide out with some friends there. He sends you his regards." Aldous sank back into self-abstraction, pondering arcane mental puzzles.
Amelia watched him for a moment and considered simply walking out the door and leaving him there. She found she couldn’t do this. "Aldous, do you know what you’re going to do?"
He nodded slowly. "Yes, I’ll have to leave Beijing. Even when things calm down they won’t be the same as before. Not the same...." He paused for a full minute. Amelia re-packed her bag to hide her discomfort. "You know," Aldous continued, "I’ve been thinking about going to Xinjiang for awhile. Then maybe move on to Pakistan." Xinjiang was a poor region in China’s primarily desolate far northwest; exiles were often sent there. It was one of the last places Amelia would think of going.
Amelia felt sorry for Aldous. She understood he’d led a very difficult life that had left him emotionally and mentally scarred. All he really wanted was some respect, security, and a bit of power. He’d somehow managed to find these things in Beijing and had been happier there than anyplace else. Now his guanxi days were over and she imagined he’d return to the life of the wandering afflicted—those who keep moving to try to escape something inside. The urge to help him struck her, but she’d tried to change him in the past and knew it didn’t work.
Aldous stood, carried her packed bag downstairs and walked her to the front gate. Amelia kissed him on the cheek, despite the dirt and the smell, and sincerely wished him good luck. Aldous walked out of the Youyi compound and headed west.
When the embassy vans arrived the next day, Amelia discovered she’d been lied to on the phone. The vans would only go to the airport and would not stop along the way to drop people off at hotels. An embassy man strongly urged everyone to leave. People at the Youyi voiced concern about availability of flights and lack of money. The embassy man said there was a United Airlines charter flight coming in at 3:00 p.m. that afternoon with room enough for everyone to get on. Only a passport was needed and credit cards would be accepted for payment.
Amelia found a stack of leaflets on the floor of the van. Under a US embassy letterhead she read:
DUE TO THE CURRENT CIVIL UNREST AND DISRUPTIONS OF TRANSPORTATION IN BEIJING, THE U.S. EMBASSY OFFERS ASSISTANCE FOR AMERICAN CITIZENS AND THEIR DEPENDENTS SEEKING TO RELOCATE FROM THE UNIVERSITY DISTRICT TO SAFER QUARTERS IN THE CITY.
AMERICAN CITIZENS AND DEPENDENTS WILL BE SENT BY BUS TO HOTELS WHICH HAVE BEEN CONTACTED BY THE EMBASSY AND WILL OFFER GROUP RATES TO RELOCATEES. ALL COSTS ASSOCIATED WITH HOTEL ACCOMMODATIONS AND MEALS MUST BE BORNE BY RELOCATEES. THERE WILL BE NO CHARGE FOR TRANSPORTATION FROM THE UNIVERSITY DISTRICT TO HOTELS.
THE U.S. EMBASSY IS WILLING TO ASSIST AMERICAN CITIZENS TO SEND URGENT MESSAGES TO RELATIVES IN THE UNITED STATES, SHOULD NORMAL TELECOMMUNICATIONS BE UNAVAILABLE. THE EMBASSY MAY ADVANCE SMALL LOANS TO AMERICAN CITIZENS HAVING NO OTHER RESOURCES OR ACCESS TO FUNDS FROM OTHER SOURCES. SUCH LOANS MUST BE REPAID UNDER TERMS OF A LOAN AGREEMENT.
FOLLOWING THE RELOCATION OF AMERICAN CITIZENS TO HOTELS, THE U.S. EMBASSY WILL CONTINUE TO MAKE EVERY EFFORT TO KEEP THEM ADVISED OF THE GENERAL SITUATION IN BEIJING. RELOCATEES WILL BE PROVIDED EMBASSY NUMBERS AVAILABLE FOR 24 HOUR CONTACT. SHOULD RELOCATEES ELECT TO LEAVE BEIJING, THEY WILL BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR OWN TRAVEL ARRANGEMENTS. AT THIS TIME THE AIRPORT CONTINUES TO FUNCTION AND COMMERCIAL AIR SERVICES ARE AVAILABLE.
THE U.S. GOVERNMENT ASSISTANCE TO AMERICAN CITIZENS AND THEIR DEPENDENTS IS CONFINED TO RELOCATION OF UNIVERSITY AREA RESIDENTS TO SAFER QUARTERS. THE EMBASSY IS NOT ORGANIZING AN EVACUATION OF CITIZENS. FURTHER INFORMATION OR CLARIFICATION CAN BE OBTAINED FROM AMERICAN CITIZEN SERVICES, U.S. EMBASSY. 532-3831
EXT. 252 (9:00 A.M. - 5:00 P.M.) OR EXT. 560 (NON-OFFICE HOURS).
Amelia asked the embassy people about these notices. "Oh, those are old," one of them said. "You can call the number on there for clarification."
She debated getting out of the van, but she wondered if the embassy people knew something she didn’t (why they wouldn’t tell her she couldn’t guess) and that maybe she’d better get on the United Airlines flight. Everybody else must have felt the same way because almost all the people who showed up decided to go, some leaving extra suitcases standing in the Youyi parking lot, which the embassy people had been adamant about not allowing, despite there being enough room for many of them.
All the vans had American flags prominently displayed, along with signs in Chinese identifying them as Americans. They drew much attention as they turned out into the street. People pointed at them and talked among themselves.
They passed through the remnants of shattered roadblocks and saw burnt out vehicles, most particularly at the Andingmen intersection looking south from the third ring road. Army vehicles patrolled the streets. Several other foreign flagged vehicles made their way to the airport: big bus loads of Japanese, little cars with British and Australian flags, cars with flags Amelia didn’t even recognize.
Soldiers standing at attention with machine guns lined the road to the airport. The trees behind them revealed large bivouacs. An embassy man said these soldiers were from the 38th Army; they were not a threat and simply defended the road. Amelia wondered whom they defended it from. Unlike the civilians, the soldiers didn’t pay any attention to the foreigners fleeing their country.
Amelia tried to talk with the closed-mouthed embassy people and get more information. They gave her the strong impression they didn’t want to be bothered. Amelia told them she’d known people who went to the airport and couldn’t get flights out. These people had told her plane tickets were nearly impossible to obtain. The embassy people assured her that plenty of flights were available; she would have no trouble getting on the United Airlines flight. This flight went to Tokyo. Amelia said she had relatives in Hong Kong and wanted to go there. They told her she’d better go to Tokyo and get a connecting flight to Hong Kong.
If she went to Tokyo, Amelia knew she’d need to have someone wire her money. The flight to Japan alone would over-extend the limit on her credit card. Her contract with Radio Beijing promised to pay for her flight home, so she hadn’t planned on the expenses of a flight back to the States. She now hoped she could stay with her relatives in Hong Kong until the situation settled and she could return to Beijing.
The embassy vans dropped them off and sped away. Amelia took one look at the people bulging out of the airport and knew she’d made a big mistake. Inside was total mayhem. No one knew where to go yet everybody was trying to go somewhere. Huge lines leading nowhere snaked through each other. A great swarm of panicked and confused people swirled around a whirlpool centered in front of the customs desks.
After awhile, Amelia found a sign marked "United Airline standby," but the large group of people waiting near it had no idea of its purpose. Amelia methodically searched the airport and came across long, narrow corridors lined with people on both sides. She discovered the United Airlines office buried at the end of one of these corridors.
They had been closed for lunch since 11:00 a.m. and were now about to re-open. Amelia queried the dozen or so people waiting in front of the door and found out none of them had heard of a United Airlines flight today, but all were very interested. Almost every person in line had originally tried to leave on other airlines but had failed because embassies were using them for evacuation or the airlines were insisting that tickets could only be paid for in cash. They’d all heard United was the only airline accepting credit cards.
Amelia persuaded the first person in line to let her ask the United Airlines people how tickets could be purchased for this flight. She normally didn’t like to jump in front of people in lines (a common occurrence in China that galled her) but desperation overruled her scruples.
An unsympathetic United Airlines person told her no flight was scheduled to come in at 15:00. He said their next flight wasn’t until Friday (it was Wednesday) and the Friday flight was all booked up.
Amelia was incensed at the embassy people for again lying to her. She would now be stranded at the airport for several days, despite so many assurances to the contrary. She told the United Airlines person what the embassy had told her and pleaded with him for help.
Eventually the United Airlines man told her of a special plane coming in on Friday morning to pick up embassy people and their families. He said he didn’t think they would use up all the seats and if Amelia could call the embassy and get her name on their list she could possibly board the plane.
Amelia considered this answer was at least better than nothing. She found a desk covered with a row of phones, waited in the huge lines in front of them, and started calling, and calling, and calling. She discovered six other people waiting for the phones were also trying to contact the US embassy. For a solid 45 minutes they took turns trying to call on four phones. Three times they managed to reach the embassy, but were either cut off or endlessly put on hold.
Amelia quit the rotary phones with aching fingers and a great determination to show up for that Friday morning plane, demand they take her, and the hell with their list.
She felt an embarrassed anger at her incompetent and deceitful embassy. She’d never been particularly patriotic but living abroad had made her so. She increasingly found herself bragging about America to her foreign friends, and she bristled at some of their criticism she thought they too generously heaped on the American government.
When President Bush came to visit China after attending Japanese emperor Hirohito’s funeral, Amelia went to see him. She waved an American flag and enthusiastically applauded the president, even though she hadn’t voted for him. When Bush gave Zhao Ziyang a pair of tasteless, gaudy cowboy boots decorated with American and Chinese flags, Amelia was embarrassed by Zhao’s comment that maybe he’d wear the boots when he came to America, implying that he wouldn’t be caught dead in them in China. She even tried to apologize to her Chinese friends for the uncomfortable incident surrounding the gift.
Amelia came to identify herself with her country. She watched the Olympic Games (in Seoul) for the first time in her life and fervently rooted for every American. Things she had previously criticized about her country she now saw as trivial when compared with the problems of other countries—like China. She was proud of her homeland, and it hurt her that her embassy in Beijing was so rotten.
Aldous had a vague notion of hiking up to the Great Wall and following it west on the way to Xinjiang. He figured he couldn’t get lost that way.
His brain was starting to become less troubled by the rapid decline of his adopted home. So long as he didn’t have to return to the nightmarish American world of fast food, cars, lonely highways, and anonymity, Aldous felt ready for anything.
He hiked through a dry hilly region dotted with trees and brown desiccated shrubbery. He came across a sign with some words resembling English:
GRADE FIRST OF FIRE PREVENTION AREA
EVERY FOREIGN GUEST OVERSEAS CHINESE DONT INTO THE FOREST SMOKING OR HUNTING SEAL UP BIRDS ETC—MA E EVERY THING THE KIND OF FIRE FORBID TO PLUCK THE SEED CLIMB AND BREAD OFF BRANCHES, DESTREY FOREST ETC—BREAK RULES AND REGULATIONS WILL BE PROSECUT ED.
MEN TOU GOU POLICE --- OFFICE.
The arid hills ended before Aldous could find a bird to tempt him into hunting or "seal up." He emerged into a field of waist-high greenhouses made of plastic sheets and metal frames. Aldous couldn’t tell what was growing inside because condensation from the plants made the sheets opaque.
Near the greenhouses came an extensive field of withered pear trees. The spindly plants screamed out for drops of moisture. Aldous obliged one by urinating on it. He remembered reading about a water shortage around Beijing. He took a short drink from the bottle in his backpack to replenish his precious bodily fluids. He crawled inside one of the greenhouses for a nap.
The Wall sprang up before he’d expected it. Surely he couldn’t have walked so far? He had either been daydreaming or this wasn’t the Great Wall.
He found some foot and hand holds and scaled the five-meter barrier. On the other side was . . . a golf course? Yes, it was a golf course all right, maybe not Augusta, but it was fairly well laid out.
He jumped down into neatly clipped grass, and walked past well-watered trees, bushes, and greens. There was no dearth of hydration here—everything blossomed with health. At first he didn’t see any golfers, but he eventually found a party ready to tee off on the 8th hole. There were four men, but only one of them seemed to be playing. The other three followed along behind, riding in a cart marked in English: "Beijing Golf Club." Aldous figured if any country needed three caddies per golfer, it had to be China.
As he got closer, Aldous recognized the lone golfer as Zhao Ziyang, the Party Secretary who was placed under house arrest after martial law. The other three men evidently doubled as guards. They demanded to know what Aldous was doing there.
Aldous pulled out a rarely used trump card: a forged letter from Deng Xiaoping giving him permission to do just about anything. The guard caddies looked at it with dubious uncertainty. Clearly it couldn’t be legitimate but the audacity of the move left them hesitant. Then Zhao Ziyang asked Aldous if he cared to play the back nine with him. When he accepted, the caddies didn’t raise any objection.
Golfing was not one of Aldous’s better games. In fact, he couldn’t remember ever playing before. It seemed simple enough though. He aimed low bouncing drives at the nearest tree and the ball inevitably rebounded out towards the green.
"You have a rather unorthodox strategy for your drives," noted Zhao, "you must be quite a pool player, the way you angle those deflections."
Zhao made up for the drives by out-putting Aldous. As they walked to the 14th tee, Aldous whispered near Zhao: "I’ll take out the two big ones and you throw your club at the guard with the Mao button. We’ll steal the golf cart and head over the wall."
"Perish the thought!" chuckled Zhao, "I have no desire to escape. I’m in no physical danger here and can think of no better place to bide my time until the political situation reverses."
Aldous was starting to get the picture. Zhao was like a jumped checker piece, waiting to return to action as a king—once the right moment came.
"Deng was purged twice, you know," Zhao continued. "He spent his days sharpening his bridge skills. I prefer golf."
"It’s a healthy game," agreed Aldous.
"Not only that, the Japanese are very keen on it," said Zhao. "We hope the Japanese will invest a lot of money in China, and they do a lot of business while playing golf. It’s in China’s best national interest to have a future leader who is well-versed in the game." Aldous marveled at the vision of the man. Perhaps there was hope for China after all.
Aldous played several different sports with the foreign experts at the Youyi: tennis, badminton, both Chinese and International chess. He’d carefully developed a technique of staying ahead for most of the game before either tying or just barely losing. He double-bogeyed the last hole, after Zhao made par, and lost by one stroke.
"You’ll make quite a diplomat young man," observed Zhao, "I could learn a thing or two from you. You’ll go very far in life."
"I’ve done well in China," said Aldous. "We’ll see how I fare in Pakistan. Good luck to you, sir."
Aldous shook hands with Zhao in his dream and then continued on towards the Great Wall. He certainly would miss Beijing. Maybe he’d be able to come back some day.
Amelia staked out an area at the airport along with a few friends and acquaintances. Apparently, this would be her home for the next few days. Large groups of people did the same. They cooperated by taking turns watching the luggage while each had a chance to go upstairs to eat in the airport canteen.
The canteen offered two choices: spaghetti or curried rice. Amelia and a friend from the Youyi each ordered one, intending to split them. The over-priced dishes were so awful that the hungry pair could not choke them down. Amelia saw that she would live on biscuits and crackers during her sojourn at the airport.
People wandered around the sales counters, trying to find something to buy with their soon to be useless renminbi. It was a difficult task—almost everything for sale was outrageously priced junk. Amelia wound up buying some towels to sleep on, a good supply of bottled water, a pair of tennis shoes, and a few small bottles of Maotai—the expensive 106 proof banquet drink. If things got really bad, at least she wouldn’t feel it.
Amelia returned to her spot and tried to get as comfortable as possible. She used one of her towels to wipe off a seat on a window ledge littered with dead flies. She had been thinking about trying to sleep on the window ledge, but when she saw how quickly the flies dropped onto it after banging into the window, she decided to sleep on the floor. She pondered about what made the flies want to get out so badly that they flew into the window until they died.
Dusk set in and Amelia tried to get to sleep as early as possible. Her eyes were just starting to close when a man named Randy, a neighbor in her cramped airport space, came up and said a British woman from the Youyi had given him a ticket for a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong departing Thursday evening. The British woman was taking an earlier flight set up by her embassy for their citizens. Not needing the ticket, she’d given it to Randy along with her card, telling him if he used it he could reimburse her.
Randy had his wife and son with him, so one ticket didn’t do him a whole lot of good. He gave the ticket and the card to Amelia. She was ecstatic! One more day at the airport was better than two days, and Hong Kong was much better for her than Tokyo. Her luck was beginning to change!
Randy’s wife appeared and said she’d heard of an added Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong leaving that evening—seats might still be available. The three of them wandered back into the now nearly empty long narrow corridors. Cathay Pacific, like most of the other airlines, had closed over an hour ago, but a sign on the door announced an extra flight at 9:00 p.m. People were to line up near the Bank of China counter to buy tickets.
They looked at their watches—it was 8:35 p.m. They ran to the Bank of China counter and wildly looked around for Cathay Pacific. They saw a man taking down a sign. They went up to him and learned it was the same as the one they’d seen on the Cathay Pacific door.
The man told them there were still a few seats available on the extra flight to Hong Kong. Amelia could get on with her ticket if she had it stamped at the ticket window. Randy could buy tickets there as well.
In a frenzy of anticipation, Amelia waited in the ticket line while Randy and his wife changed money at the Bank of China. Amelia got her ticket stamped. Randy sprinted up and handed money to the clerk. It wasn’t enough; even lying about his son’s age to get half price on a ticket left him 900 FEC or about $240 short.
Amelia only had a credit card and some renminbi. She knew that in all fairness she would have to give Randy the stamped ticket, since he had it first. In a numb shock, she was just about to do this when a British man they knew from the Youyi spoke to them. "Excuse me, but I overheard your problem. My embassy already got me a ticket out of here. I have some extra money and will lend you what you need." He gave it to Randy, who wrote down his address. The generosity of other foreign experts was pulling them through.
They bought the extra tickets and raced downstairs to get their things. They had exactly 11 minutes to get through customs and have their passports stamped. Ordinarily, Amelia would have thought she’d never make it, but she’d caught too many lucky breaks to fail now. She had to make it.
She did. The languid passport and customs people knew panic when they saw it and were in no mood to hold people up. Amelia, Randy, and his family walked onto the plane with less than a minute to spare.
They walked into another world, another dimension. No one frantically rushed about, pushing into this line or that. No one changed money or fought with anxiety. Cheerful, neatly attired flight attendants efficiently waited on passengers who sat calmly in their seats with perfect expressions of relief.
When the plane took off from Capital Airport, and it was clear to everyone that they were finally going to get out of Beijing, the plane erupted with applause and shouts of joy.
Even before her evacuation, Hong Kong had been Amelia’s favorite city. At one time she preferred San Francisco, but the experience in Golden Gate Park with the knife-wielding vagrant left her unable to relax there. Hong Kong bustled with excitement, yet it seemed safe. Her shopping trips there had always been rejuvenating after the dusty grayness of Beijing. Now, as she swooped down into Kai Tak Airport, amid a garden of neon lights, she thought she’d never seen a more appealing haven.
When she called her relatives, an elderly aunt and uncle, Amelia thought they were overly concerned. They wanted to take a cab to the airport to pick her up. Amelia told them it was silly for them to make the trip.
Later she found out why they were worried. A riot broke out in their Mong Kok neighborhood the night before. Demonstrations against the June 4th massacre in Beijing had been huge in Hong Kong, with over a million people participating in one. People expressed their extreme displeasure with the government due to take over in 1997. For the most part the demonstrations were peaceful. The one notable exception erupted into a street riot in the poor areas of Yau Ma Tei and spread north into Mong Kok. Windows were smashed and some cars set on fire. However, Amelia saw nothing dangerous on her cab ride from the airport.
She’d always liked her aunt’s apartment. It was full of goofy, homey things: the musical doorbell which played "Happy Birthday," "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," and "Clementine"; the two aquariums, one with turtles and the other with huge, bug-eyed goldfish; and her uncle’s cactus room, filled with a hundred types of prickly plants.
She especially liked the display case in the living room. These things were very popular in China too. People placed hokey little treasures in them, proudly displaying the type of things that collected dust in her parents’ basement. Amelia thought her aunt’s case a masterpiece: the model Statue of Liberty with a built-in thermometer, the Liberty Bell music box that played "Yankee Doodle," the plastic lobster, and the dried puffer fish. She was extremely glad to be there.
The Hong Kong media extensively covered the crisis in China. People were interested in finding out every detail about what was happening in the country that would soon be their own. Because of the close economic connections between Hong Kong and southern China’s Guangdong province, news of the chaos in China sent the Hong Kong stock market plunging by 22 percent. A dark cloud had suddenly been cast over the future of this vibrant city.
When Amelia saw the gruesome pictures of people being shot down and mowed over by tanks, she was as shocked as when she’d walked into the little hospital and witnessed first hand how bloody the suppression of the students had been.
Signs and banners supporting the students and condemning the government in Beijing decorated the streets. Black ribbons hung from the antennas of many cars to mourn the dead. TV and radio stations aired emotional songs calling for democracy and honoring the bravery of the dissidents in China. Wreaths were laid at the memorial to the war dead in Victoria Square. Groups of students camped out near the Star Ferry terminal, playing the Chinese national anthem over and over, while collecting and displaying photographs of the violence in the mainland. One group spent many hours randomly faxing news reports into Mainland offices. They displayed a lone reply from students in the People’s Republic: "It will not be covered up!"
Along the harbor front, political cartoons decorated the columns of an elevated walkway: Deng as a running dog, Li Peng in a Nazi uniform shooting a gun at students and hitting himself in the hand, Deng as Frankenstein with Li as Dracula, and Deng using bayonets for chopsticks to eat the Chinese people out of a bowl. The last cartoon poster was a particularly well designed computer graphic.
Amelia followed the news fervently. She found out Chinese professor Fang Lizhi, the noted dissident she heard criticize the government on the BBC, sought protection in the US embassy. It gradually became evident that civil war would not occur. Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng reappeared to quash the rumors that they were either dead or shot. They congratulated the soldiers for their "heroism" in quelling the "counter-revolutionaries" and appeared to be in control.
It was hard to tell how much of the news was fact and how much was rumor. On June 8th she read two short blurbs in the South China Morning Post that she prayed were rumor. One said Wang Weilin, the man she’d seen hold up the convoy of tanks in front of the Beijing Hotel, was "presumed" to be dead. Amelia had hope this one was false. She knew a lot of stories the papers "presumed" to be true were false. The Chinese authorities weren’t totally wrong when they accused the foreign media of "rumormongering."
The second article almost stopped her heart: "the announcer from Radio Beijing who had broadcast that students had been killed has been shot dead by troops." After reading this she had a flashback to when, during the Olympic Games, she’d been goofing around in the office, waving the American flag. Li Zhenqiang pulled out a Chinese flag and ran it up a makeshift flagpole while singing his national anthem. Even though they were joking, Amelia had been impressed with the love Li Zhenqiang so obviously felt for his country.
She also remembered a discussion she’d once had with Li Zhenqiang about democracy. Li Zhenqiang expressed admiration for the American political system (which he imagined to be more democratic than it is), but he did not think that such a system would work in China. He claimed China needed the stability of the Communist Party, and the Party only needed to purge itself of corruption and try to address the people’s needs more honestly. Li Zhenqiang himself joined the minority and became a Communist Party member because he wanted to help and improve his country by working within the system.
And now the government of the country he loved so much, and the leaders of the Communist system he supported, may have shot him dead for broadcasting a criticism of the student massacre.
A few days after leaving Beijing, Amelia went to pick up photographs she had developed and met a New Jersey woman who was also in China during the turmoil. They chatted for a time about their experiences.
This woman worked as a courier for a delivery service. She had been in Yangshuo, a small town just south of Guilin, when the massacre occurred. She and some other foreigners debated whether to fly or take the train to Guangzhou (Canton), in order to leave for Hong Kong. She chose the plane. She later found out that the train was held up and almost everyone onboard robbed.
The courier also saw Chinese take advantage of foreigners during the chaos. When she arrived at the Guangzhou airport the taxi drivers told foreigners it was unsafe to go into town. They said their only chance to get out of China was to take a ride with them to Shenzhen—the "special economic zone" bordering Hong Kong.
The taxi drivers charged 400 FEC per person and 100 FEC per piece of luggage. Many people paid several thousand FEC to get families into Shenzhen. Fortunately, this woman didn’t believe the taxi drivers. She went into Guangzhou, which was perfectly safe, and took a train to Shenzhen for 18 renminbi.
When Amelia told of her ordeal in getting out of the airport, the woman was surprised.
"Really?" she exclaimed. "I heard a broadcast on the Voice of America saying the embassy was getting everyone out easily, and the US even brought in special planes to fly people home for free. In fact, I even considered going up to Beijing in order to take advantage of the free ride home."
When Amelia left this woman she wondered what other lies the VOA had told people. They must be learning a thing or two from Radio Beijing and the American embassy in Beijing.
Amelia tried to drown her grief with shopping marathons. On one outing she came across a T-shirt with Chinese characters across the front reading: "We will never forget the spirit of those who died on June 4, 1989." Amelia didn’t think she’d ever be able to wear the shirt; still, she decided to buy it. She viewed it as a memorial to her recently departed friends, who she never wanted to forget.
She got through to Radio Beijing later that day. First she talked to a reporter in the English department. He sounded very nervous about speaking with her. He said the director was "sick" and that an assistant director, a man whose name translates as Mr. "National Day," and whom the reporters used to make jokes about (they labeled him "lefter-than-left") because he was such a hard-core Communist Party man, was now in charge.
Amelia remembered a New Year’s story written by this same Mr. "National Day." It was a recap of the year’s world news as seen by a Maoist. Amelia found it pure propaganda garbage and voiced protest against the piece’s claims that "the United State’s insidious plans for world conquest and domination were thwarted by the combined efforts of the smaller nations, and people’s heads were being turned towards the shining light of communism, thanks to the peace-loving efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping." Amelia had never seen such drivel, but the piece had aired despite her complaints.
Amelia spoke with Mr. "National Day." He told her the situation was calm and under control. He said Radio Beijing was welcoming back their foreign experts. Amelia asked how many foreign experts had come back. He was vague at first, but she finally got him to admit that none had yet returned.
Up until now, Amelia still had thoughts of returning to Beijing and finishing up her contract. If for nothing else, just to get her belongings back. She had heard that businessmen were already returning to China. But the thought of going back to work now and helping to polish the new lies people like Mr. "National Day" were getting ready to disseminate upon their people and the rest of the world was too much for her.
She described the items in her apartment she wanted shipped to her and gave the new director her address in the United States. He kept asking her for her aunt’s address and phone number in Hong Kong, but she wouldn’t give it to him. Her aunt also had an apartment in Guangzhou and they returned to the mainland on occasion. Her husband had been a member of the anti-communist KMT. She didn’t want them associated with her in any way, for her own sake as well as for her aunt and uncle.
Amelia started describing a few more things in her apartment she wanted sent, when it became clear the new director wasn’t paying attention. She kept hearing an occasional placating "yes, yes," after everything she said, but it finally dawned on her that nothing would be done to help her. His only intent was to get some foreign experts back to work so he could provide a facade of normalcy. When he realized he would not succeed in persuading her to come back, he bluntly reminded her that she had broken her contract so they were under no obligation to send her things.
She hung up the phone feeling angry and frustrated. The Mr. "National Day" people were in charge and China was screwed for the foreseeable future. The news reports told of crackdowns and informants. Fear spread, and the hard-line communists were firmly in control.
That night, the news showed the Chinese television campaign to round up the "very, very few hooligans and counter-revolutionaries" who were the cause of all the "turmoil." They flashed phone numbers for informants to call and proudly announced that one of the leaders of the student movement was turned in by his own sister.
They showed pictures of the captured "counter-revolutionaries," handcuffed or tied to poles, heads bent low, faces haggard and often showing signs of beatings. Amelia kept a close watch on the downcast prisoners. One of her worst nightmares came true when she recognized a battered Tony being led into a gray interrogation room. A chill went down her spine and she burst into tears.
Amelia had been toying with the idea of a vacation, perhaps to Nepal, Thailand, or Malaysia, something to get her mind off what she had seen in Beijing. Now she knew this was impossible. Her thoughts repeatedly returned to Du Mei Li, Li Zhenqiang, and Tony. She feared for all the other reporters and Chinese friends she’d made in Beijing, and what their lives would hold for them in the future. She had reoccurring dreams about soldiers shooting at people. She kept remembering a sign she’d seen pinned to a memorial wreath in Victoria Park: "We breathe and touch democracy... and now vanish."
The next day she bought a ticket for the States. On the plane, while watching an idiotic movie in which Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito were supposed to be twins, Amelia felt intensely guilty about getting away from China so easily. She would go back to America, where everyone would quickly grow bored with Beijing. She would find a job and perhaps even find someone worth marrying. Her experiences in China would haunt her, but she didn’t have to stay there. Meanwhile, her surviving Chinese friends would live their lives under a repressive regime.
The darkened plane lulled her to sleep. She dreamed that she was back at the Youyi Friendship Hotel, trying to persuade a reluctant Aldous to leave.
"I’ll lose all my guanxi," complained Aldous, stomping his foot like a frustrated child.
"Aldous, even Russ is leaving," said Amelia. "Your guanxi will be useless without any foreign experts here."
"They’ll be back," said Aldous. "When the smoke clears they’ll all be back. Look, some of them have returned already."
Aldous pointed to a crowd of people standing near a tank. Behind the tank a long line of soldiers stretched into infinity. Amelia recognized Russ, some foreign businessmen, and several foreign experts from the Youyi.
"Everything is under control," said the lead soldier through a megaphone. "The hooligans and counter-revolutionaries have been suppressed." The small crowd cheered.
"Where is Tony?" shouted Amelia.
"There is no Tony," said the megaphone. "Tony never existed."
"They’re lying," cried a distressed Amelia. "Can’t you see they’re lying!"
"It’s OK," said Aldous. "Everybody lies."
"Shhh," said Russ, coming up and putting a calming arm on Amelia’s shoulder. He smiled broadly. "Of course they’re lying. They’re always lying. Don’t get so upset. Chinese history is filled with calamity and persecution. It just isn’t possible for 1.1 billion people to live freely and democratically in one poor nation."
That’s not true, thought Amelia. That can’t be true....
A stewardess woke Amelia to ask her if she wanted chicken or beef for dinner. She blinked her eyes and chose chicken.