Sunday, August 13, 2006

China Stories Pt. 22: To the Square

BEIJING, Tuesday, April 18 - Several thousand students marched through the capital in pre-dawn hours today, chanting democratic slogans and singing revolutionary songs as they mourned the ousted Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang and called for a more democratic government.

The demonstration was the most significant sign of unrest in China since student demonstrations for democracy were crushed more than two years ago.
- The New York Times, April 18, 1989

Bob and I hustled back over to the plaza where students were gathering. Students were milling around, waiting for something to happen. Occasionally there were short speeches, followed by applause and shouts. Then a buzz went through the crowd and a cheer went up. This was at about 11pm.

The crowd, which I would estimate at about 1,000, started moving toward the University's main gate. I'm not clear if the group was only from Bei Da, or if there were also students from Qinghua University (which is next door). As the group made its way south past People's University, students from that university joined in.

The group was made up mostly of students, but there was a significant contingent of non-students, which also grew along the route. There were also teachers, some foreigners, and some (foreign) photographers and reporters.

The atmosphere was festive. There were songs. They sang the Internationale, which is like Socialism's theme song. They sang "We Shall Overcome." I say "they" - I didn't really know the words to the Internationale, although later one of my Chinese friends taught me. Many of the Chinese students knew the words to "We Shall Overcome" better than I did. They shouted slogans - "down with bureaucracy!" for instance, and "Li Peng step down!" Li Peng was the Premier at the time. He had been elevated to his position in the wake of Hu's dismissal. Even though he was the adopted son of Zhou Enlai, he was a conservative and a hard-liner and consequently, he was not well liked.

Along the way, I struck up a conversation with a first-year science student from Fujian province. He said he remembered the protests from 1986 and 1987, and that he was excited to be part of something like this. I saw some of my teachers, and a few of my fellow exchange students. We exchanged looks as if to say, "can you believe we're doing this?"

Map of the Route to the Square (by my recollection)

I don't know how far it is from the university district in northwest Beijing to Tiananmen Square - 10 miles, I would guess. (I would have thought that in the internet age, that would be a relatively simple thing to look up. Not for me, anyway. Prove me wrong, kids! Prove me wrong.) I had my bike, but at times the crowd moved so slowly that it made more sense to walk. It was crowded enough that I worried about running into someone.

I was familiar with the route, having done it by car, by bus and by bike before. But it seemed completely different now. Even though it was midnight, then one, two, three in the morning, the group was exuberant, energized by a unity of purpose. At the same time, the city around us was calm, silent. There were virtually no cars on the road. The streets were dark, since all but the major avenues did not have streetlights. Our group may have been full of energy, but this city had been here for centuries, and had seen dynasties and republics come and go. It seemed to sleep soundly as we marched by.

The excitement and tension gradually built during the long walk. After three or four hours, we reached Fuxingmen, the intersection with Chang'an Jie, the wide boulevard that forms the northern edge of the square. Chang'an Jie, the Avenue of Eternal Peace, is the main east-west street in Beijing. It is Broadway and Pennsylvania Avenue combined. As we turned to head east on Chang'an Jie, the sense of anticipation was palpable.

The majority of China's senior leaders live in Zhongnanhai, a large walled compound just northwest of square, and almost directly across Chang'an Jie from the Great Hall of the People. (In fact, there was a tunnel connecting the two, so that the leadership could get back and forth underground.) Our route would take us right by Zhongnanhai's (well-guarded) main gate.

As we reached Zhongnanhai, with the square and the Tiananmen Gate coming into view just ahead of us, a tremendous roar erupted, and everyone around me began to run. It sent a chill down my spine - it still does when I think of it. I ran a little ways before clumsily hopping back on my bike.

This group - euphoric! triumphant! - poured into the vast empty darkness of the square. This group that had seemed so big and full of energy seemed to diminish and then nearly disappear into the dark center of the square. The voices which had seemed loud and strong moments before now dissipated. Tiananmen Square was the civic equivalent of a black hole.

I rode my bike into the square and parked it well back from the crowd. I remember that I locked my bike - I didn't want someone to steal my bike. Despite the idealism in the air, I regarded that as a real possibility. Who wanted to walk the ten miles back to campus?

The group reassembled in the center of the square, around the Monument to the People's Heroes. Everyone waited and watched, as some students tried to figure out how they would get the wreathe, and themselves, onto the ten-foot high base of the monument. Eventually one of the students was able to scramble up, eliciting a wave of shouts. "Hao! Hao!" they shouted. Good.

I looked behind me, at the giant portrait of Chairman Mao staring placidly down. I looked over my right shoulder at the Great Hall of the People, at the large windows that faced the square. I wondered if anyone was paying any attention. I didn't see anyone looking out, but the lights were on.

The first student up helped a second up, then a third. Everyone shouted encouragement. Other students then handed up the wreath. The students read the list of conditions which they'd read back on the campus. They reiterated the demand that the government reevaluate the career of Hu Yaobang. They called for an end to official corruption. All of this was met with continuous cascades of applause and cheers.

After awhile, it seemed that the event had run its course. Then several Beijing city buses showed up. I didn't know what was going on until one of my friends explained: they were there to take students back to the University district. (Apparently during the previous demonstrations in 1986 and 1987, this had also happened. "Okay, you've made your point. Back on the bus.") I guess someone had been paying attention after all.

Those of us who'd ridden our bicycles got back on our bikes for the ride back to campus. The group riding back was fairly quiet now. We were tired. Around us, the city was waking up - there were people out for morning jogs, and many older people doing tai chi. Then, not long into the ride back, I realized I had a flat front tire. It was still too early in the morning to get it fixed, so I just had to ride on the flat all the way home. We got back around 6:30 or 7am. I just had time to grab some breakfast and get to class on time - though that didn't concern me greatly.


At 3:51 PM, Anonymous Jesse said...

lovely post, I've been dying for you to continue the story.

At 4:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yay, new update!

At 11:41 PM, Blogger Jenny said...

Whoa. That was epic.

What an experience!

At 9:32 AM, Blogger k said...

You know, it's just cruel to stop here.


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