Monday, November 27, 2006

China Stories Pt. 37: Epilogue

"Epilogue" sounds a little grandiose for what is really just the last in a string of scattered recollections of things that happened to me 18 years ago. But there it is.

The first couple of days in Hong Kong were a blur, and caused something akin to whiplash. I stayed with Katherine's family, in their sprawling high-rise condo with epic, sweeping views of Hong Kong harbor.

On our second night in Hong Kong, a friend of Katherine's family invited us all out to dinner - at the Hong Kong Jockey Club. So we descended from the 35th story apartment and drove to the racetrack, where we were the guests of honor at a meal of obscene splendor.

Fine wines were poured. Enormous steaks were foisted upon us. From our table, we had a view across the racetrack, where an event taking place. It was a pop concert, a benefit for the students. We could follow the action, such as it was, on the giant "diamond vision" screens to the side of the stage. They showed pictures and video of the protesters, defiantly flashing their "V for victory" signs.

Our host proposed a toast.

"To freedom," he said, raising his glass of wine.

I felt a little ill. I looked at Bob and Katherine, and I could tell they felt likewise. We certainly supported the sentiment. But we were not even two days removed from being among the students, who were living on the cold pavement of the square, surviving on donated food, and facing the very real prospect of violent suppression at the hands of the army. We had gone from being with these people who were making real sacrifices for democracy, to sitting in this lavish environment, expressing a sentiment almost perfectly devoid of any substance. Our friends (and our friends' friends) were still out there. It seemed perverse, even a little profane.

Of course the crackdown came, as we felt sure it would. In the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, we watched it unfold on TV with a mix of shock and grief. We watched, cried, and spoke little. And we worried, since there was so much uncertainty - how many were killed- hundreds? Thousands? Would there be trials? Executions? And what had happened to our friends?

After the fact, I felt tremendously guilty about having left before the crackdown. I felt guilty for leaving in part because I had come to feel that those of us who had spent time with the protesters had taken on an obligation to bear witness, and that by leaving, I had failed the students. But a lesser part of me also felt a tinge of regret for leaving before the "action," because I wouldn't have those stories to tell. I wouldn't be able to say I was there on June 4th. I felt ashamed for having such selfish thoughts.

Our friends were, thankfully, okay. One of my Chinese friends came to the US not long after June 4. She had been on the streets on the evening of June 3, and had been beaten by the army. She was extremely lucky to have gotten out. One of her supervisors at the University knew that she had participated in the protests; so had he. But he supported her application to go abroad. Shortly after the crackdown, she'd had to undergo numerous interviews to get permission to go abroad, and despite Beijing's stifling summer heat, she'd had to wear long-sleeved shirts to the interviews to cover the bruises.

I was able to spend Thanksgiving 1990 in Beijing with two more of my Chinese friends, and they subsequently came to the US to study as well.

After returning from Beijing, Bob earned a PhD in International Relations. He went on to pursue a career in academia, international affairs and government. I believe he currently holds a Post of Some Consequence at the United Nations.

Randy stayed past June 4, and did bear witness to the brutal aftermath of the crackdown. After returning home to Iowa, Randy founded a program to teach Mandarin to high school students. I was fortunate to be able to go back to China with Randy, serving as a chaperon for a group of his students in 1994.

Katherine lived in New York for awhile, but then got married and moved to the northeast. We eventually fell out of touch.

I became smitten with Hong Kong, and returned to live there from 1991 to 1993. I moved back to Beijing again, too, from 1997 to 1999.

Apparently, I hadn't gotten China out of my system. I probably haven't still.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

China Stories Pt. 36: Leaving Beijing

Bob, Katharine and I decided we would go to Hong Kong together the next day (assuming we could get out).

Our last night, we had dinner with some of our Chinese friends, in the Italian restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel. It was bittersweet for all of us - we had made some good friends, and we were leaving them. We laughed a lot, and we talked about what we would do next. Our Chinese friends would probably try to come to the US to study, but it was uncertain whether or not they would be able to.

I gave one of my friends the key to my bike. It was a rite of passage.

The next morning, we set out for the airport. We were given the additional last assignment of getting one of CBS's senior cameramen on a flight to Tokyo. Thus the final words from my boss, Susan Zerensky, the CBS Producer Calling The Shots: "if Warren doesn't make that plane I'll kill you."

I can't remember how we got to the airport exactly, but I think one of "our" drivers took us in a small bus. My friend Randy, with whom I had shared the responsibility for the drivers, saw us off. He was staying.

We had to go a roundabout way to get to the airport, to avoid the army and to avoid the roadblocks that had been erected to keep the army out. Along the way, my adrenaline was building, bracing for the scene at the airport.

The airport on a normal day is somewhat chaotic, but after my experience with the train stations, I was not unaccustomed to that. And it was a chaos I could understand. On that day, the chaos was definitely greater, but it wasn't "fall of Saigon" chaos. I wasn't particularly worried about the possibility of not getting out. If I didn't get out, I'd go back to the Shangri-La and try again the next day.

We got in line for tickets. When we got to the front, we asked for tickets to Hong Kong. The employee simply took out boarding cards and placed stickers with seat numbers on them. (You didn't choose your seat. You got what she gave you, and that was that.) She asked me if I had luggage to check.

"Two pieces," I said. Now I knew we were going.

I remember being a little nervous about customs. What if someone had been paying attention to what we had been doing? What if they said, "you've been working illegally, and you violated martial law. Come with us." But I wasn't too concerned about that because a/ China is still run by a gigantic, inefficient bureaucracy; and b/ I was pretty much insignificant, since I hadn't done anything to foment protest. And even if they'd noticed or cared, they'd probably want me to leave anyway, which was fine with me.

The customs officer looked at my visa a little longer than I thought necessary, but then stamped my passport and slid it back to me while looking off in the distance. He couldn't have cared less.

We boarded the plane. I was excited - I was looking forward to being in Hong Kong. My parents were still there for another day, so I would get to see them. At the same time, I had a creeping sense of sadness. This adventure was drawing to a close. The showdown between the students and the government was growing ever tenser, and I had left the arena.

After the plane took off, we circled, I looked down, seeing nothing in particular, but in my mind I saw my friends. I saw my drivers, going about their day just as they did any other - smoking, laughing, sleeping on the job. I saw the students - tired, cold, hungry, scared, but defiant. And then the tears came and I couldn't see anymore.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

China Stories Pt. 35: Time to Go

"The Government called troops into the capital this morning and imposed martial law in parts of the city to crack down on China's growing democracy movement. But tens of thousands of people rushed out of their homes to block troops from reaching student demonstrators in the central square.

"The Beijing municipal authorities imposed strict limits on the activities of foreign journalists, banning interviews or taping on the streets or at government offices, schools, factories and mines. ''Any violators will be stopped according to the law,'' the order said.

"In mid-morning, loudspeakers on Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing announced that martial law had been imposed in some parts of the capital. The announcement said this meant restrictions on movement within the city, but it did not give details. The crowd of workers and students in the square had swelled by then to about 200,000."
- Nicholas Kristof, New Tork Times, May 20, 1989

"Huge throngs, possibly amounting to more than one million Chinese, took to the streets today to defy martial law and block troops from reaching the center of the capital, effectively delaying or preventing the planned crackdown on China's democracy movement. Troops approaching Beijing on at least five major roads were halted or turned back by the largest crowds to have gathered so far in a month of almost continuous protests. Students and ordinary citizens erected roadblocks or lay in the path of army trucks, while others let the air out of their tires.

"[ The Associated Press, in a report Sunday from Beijing, said soldiers had set up roadblocks to the center of the capital and occupied its train station. The report also said as many as 70,000 troopers may have moved into the city center by subway and followed connecting tunnels to the walled palace, the history museum and the Great Hall of the People on three sides of the vast Tienanmen Square. ]"
- New York Times, May 21, 1989
"There was exhilaration as well as exhaustion on central Tiananmen Square as dawn broke this morning, for many of the tens of thousands of students occupying the square had earlier written their wills after widespread rumors that brutal repression would begin during the night. While many still fear that there will be violence, there is a sense of triumph in the capital that ordinary citizens have been able to prevent the Government from carrying out martial law more than two days after Prime Minister Li Peng ordered it."
- New York Times, May 22, 1989

The introduction of martial law, and the attendant dire warnings of consequences for those who violated it, changed the tone of events. It also specifically forbid the activities that I was engaged in on behalf of CBS. As a person who planned to have a long-term association with China, I started to really think about what it might mean to be arrested or expelled.

Around the square, the atmosphere grew much more tense. Helicopters flew low up and down ChangAn Boulevard, and circled the square. Students (and others) placed wet handkerchiefs over their faces, fearing that the helicopters would drop tear gas. One definitely got the sense that something was imminent, that the endgame could happen at any time.

Then they arrived by train and occupied the train station. This was really, to my mind, the beginning of the end, the point when regular people started to see now way around a violent confrontation.

Around this time (it was May 19 to be precise), I was in the northeast corner of the square, where CBS had set up. We had been in the square all night. At some point in the wee hours of the morning, a student came over to give me a tip.

"Zhao Ziyang is in the square. He came to talk to the students."

I was polite to the student, but skeptical. Why would China's Premier be in the square talking to students? Besides, I had heard many many rumors by this point - Deng Xiaoping is dead, Li Peng is stepping down, Li Peng was attacked by his bodyguards - that I discounted it heavily.

Well, it was true. Zhao had come, in effect to apologize to the students that he couldn't protect them. He had been relieved of all of his positions, dismissed. In hindsight, this too, seemed like a fateful step - here was the final brake on the senior leaders' impulse to crack down, and he was saying, in effect, I tried. I'm sorry.

By this point, it was very difficult to maneuver around the city - it could still be done, but it required ingenuity and knowledge of the back streets, and more than a little guts - especially for the locals. It was getting harder for us to be useful to CBS, too.

Once martial law was declared, and the train station was occupied, most of our taxi drivers ceased to work for us. A few stayed on, tempted by offers of more money. Instead of making $70 a month, they were making $100 a day. Even then, they wouldn't go near the train station.

At this point, my parents' tour had concluded, and they were in Hong Kong. They called me and said, calmly but urgently, "if you wanted to come to Hong Kong, NOW, we would be very much okay with that. We think that might be a really good idea."

I discussed it with my friends, and decided. May 23, 1989. It was time to go.

China Stories Pt. 34: "The People Love the Army!"

So. My parents continued on with their tour, I continued to work at CBS, and the demonstrations continued as well.

As the days passed in the middle of May, a confrontation became increasingly likely. The People's Liberation Army was moving into Beijing, numbering in the tens of thousands.

But as the Army tried to enter the city, an amazing thing happened: people - regular people from every walk of life - blocked them from entering. They created barricades of cars and buses, and even laid themselves down in front of trucks, slowing the PLA's progress. They showed the recruits - young, very apprehensive. They were mostly rural boys with very little education, who barely spoke Mandarin. People would speak to them, try to start a dialogue with them. They'd say, "the people love the People's Liberation Army! And the Army loves the people!"

These poor kids were in a very tough position. Imagine if a bunch of 20 year olds from rural Kentucky, or Alabama, or Idaho, were asked to occupy Times Square. Or Union Square in SF. (I wish that sounded more absurd than it does.)

Somewhere in the midst of all this a couple of things happened that stick in my mind.

One day, Wu'er Kaixi came to the CBS offices to be interviewed. He was the student leader from Beijing Normal University. A native Beijinger of Uyghur descent, he had Matinee Idol good looks and loads of charisma. In the televised meeting with the Country's senior leaders, Wu'Er Kaixi made strident remarks, still dressed in a hospital gown (I can't remember, but I think he'd been hunger striking). He dramatically fainted at the end of his speech.

I remember that we sent a car to get him and that he brought along his girlfriend. Then I also remember him sitting around at CBS for half a day, drinking beer. This somewhat tarnished my view of him as a leader.

Then, for some other story, I was called into do a voiceover of the English translation of someone speaking in Mandarin. It was for either the CBS Evening News, or a piece for 60 Minutes. Anyway, my voice was on the broadcast, so I called my grandparents to let them know so they could listen for it. So that was kind of cool.