In 1989, ten days before the Tiananmen Square massacre, my friend Julie and I sat in the China Travel Services office in Hong Kong and debated whether we should travel to Beijing. The U.S. embassy was warning that our safety could not be guaranteed. Should we go anyway? Grappling with our indecision, Julie asked the stone-faced woman behind the counter, “Is it safe?”
The woman stared hard at us and then looked away. “It is China.”
We decided to trust our intuition and go. Three days later as we walked towards the international gate in the Hong Kong airport, two university students carrying a stack of newspapers stopped us. “Are you going to China?” they asked. We nodded dumbly. “Please take this newspaper for the students.” Their request was half-plea, half-command. Julie faltered, worried about the consequences of smuggling suspicious reading material. Our tour book clearly stated: “It is illegal to import any printed material detrimental to China’s politics, economy, culture, and ethics.” The newspapers were full of Chinese characters that we could not read, and we had no idea just how ‘detrimental’ they might be.
Hoping the custom officials would overlook the newspapers, I reluctantly agreed to carry them. Besides, as a U.C. Berkeley graduate, I found it difficult to resist a student protest. I stuffed two copies of the newspaper into my carry-on bag.
The plane was full. A zombie stewardess served stale crackers and dishwater tea. We arrived and breezed through customs without any problems. The air in the terminal felt squeezed dry, all actions confined, all conversations muzzled. I kept thinking of how many times as kids we believed we could dig a hole to China.
Waiting for us in the arrival room was Miss Ren, our 23-year-old tour guide. “Hello, my name is Elizabeth,” she introduced herself and paraded us toward the exit. Tall and slight, she raised her arm high above her head and slightly waved her hand, like a lily caught on a summer breeze. This hand seemed to magically invoke wondrous adventures. She led us outside into an old van.
Our ride to the hotel was along a shady road full of people on bicycles, donkeys pulling carts, cars, trucks and an occasional flock of sheep. “So where do you like to visit?” Miss Ren dutifully asked. With the flurry of tour cancellations, Julie and I were to have Miss Ren and the driver all to ourselves.
“Tiananmen Square,” we said in unison. This was definitely not one of the stops on our five-day Beijing tour. “Oh, no. You can’t go to Tiananmen Square,” she explained. “It is dangerous there. Bad men will steal your money.”
Once she was gone, Julie and I considered her advice, but decided to take our chances and quickly ordered another cab. “Tiananmen Square, please.” We pointed to the Chinese characters in our tour book, the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Without a word, the cab driver dropped us off at the Beijing Hotel, three long blocks from the square on Chang’an Avenue. The street was like a giant river flowing with people and bicycles. We entered the moving stream of humanity, many wearing Mao suits, and arrived on foot to the square.
Upon arrival, I was stunned to see Tiananmen Square filled with hundreds of thousands of young people, its massive 109-acres alive like a giant squirming organism. Julie and I began to penetrate the crowd, occasionally reaching for each other’s hand, afraid of being separated. Slowly, we began to focus on the sights around us. There were piles of people, piles of garbage, piles of bedding. Legs stuck out beyond large umbrella roofs. Long lines for bean soup, cabbage, and flat bread wove around us. Hands stretched eagerly to grab orange ice pops. Waving above the crowd were hundreds of red flags, each bearing a school’s name. A voice shouted over a loud speaker. Later we learned that these announcements celebrated the return of Lee Wong from the United States, denounced the stubbornness of Premier Li Peng, called for ambulances, and sang out slogans.
Buses with broken windows acted as toilets. Shattered glass was strewed dangerously close to makeshift hovels and bare mattresses. Looming over the student protest was Mao Zedong’s Mona Lisa smile; his gigantic, now desecrated, portrait baring witness to the scene.
Standing behind nylon cords, student guards protected the inner sanctity of their leaders. Julie and I slid under the cords and walked closer toward the core of the rebellion, the Monument to the People’s Heroes. Twice we froze as tall student sentries harshly barked, but our Western faces were our tickets through. I hugged my purse tightly against me. Inside were the Hong Kong newspapers.
We arrived at the monument to find a cluster of young people recording a political statement. Another group was running an old printing press while others painted signs, yellow characters on red backdrops. Nearby, two male students sat eating raw garlic and tomatoes.
A young woman who spoke English approached us. She was a medical student and had just arrived from Hunan province. Fueled by the recent demonstrations, spirits were high. Our new friend offered us a metal cup of cold bean soup. I hesitated, not wanting to insult her, but ashamed to eat what little food the students had. I felt awed and humbled by how these students had empowered themselves with the hope and determination to change their iron-clad country.
“Are you afraid?” I dared to ask. “No,” she answered bravely, full of joy. “We are supported by all of Peking. We would not be able to survive without their feeding us. They will never let the soldiers through.”
A male student then joined us. “What change do you want?” I asked. “We want freedom,” he said. “We want a kindness. There is no freedom when one man rules everyone. The cry from all the students in China is only one.” He raised his fist. ‘Li Peng Go Away.’”
“We want to travel freely like you,” answered the young medical student. “We want to read newspapers and know the truth. You have democracy in America, don’t you?” she then asked. “What do you think?”
I was startled by the question. “Well, yes, I suppose we do,” I said, looking out at the hundreds of thousands of students who inspired and shamed me at the same time. How often had I taken my freedom for granted? I could read any newspaper I wanted, live wherever I wanted, even travel to places like China. But freedom is only relative, I thought, remembering Rosa Parks, World War II Japanese internment camps, Kent State. I wondered how long it could last here like this. Suddenly I remembered the newspapers and gave them to the two students. They scanned them as if they were a map to lost treasure.
Julie and I stayed with the students until nightfall. The protest was eerily quiet, orderly, poised. We met no bad men. Our money was not stolen. As we wove our way out through the crowd, I spied a couple holding hands. Dressed in stockings and heels, the young woman demurely sat on a dirty mattress. Her delicate, floral print dress accented her long pale neck. Together the couple smiled hello.
That evening my heart wrestled with the fear that I might soon learn of the students’ demise. For the rest of my stay, I thought about them constantly. While we sat on camels for our photographs at the Great Wall. While pedaling rented bicycles through the peach orchard near the hotel. On the way to Ming’s Tomb, we spied soldiers riding in green army trucks. Our guide forbade us to snap pictures of the passing enclave.
Soon afterwards we flew home. A few days later, one morning while walking past a newsstand, I froze and cried out. The People’s Liberation Army had stormed Tiananmen Square in the night. I felt as if I had swallowed a stone, like someone had died in my own family. The balmy spring day became obscenely bright. I will never forget how those Chinese students – their courage, hope and faith in humanity — touched me … on their own battlefield. On their own burial ground.