‘The Soldiers Were in Tears’
A young witness recalls the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre and how three months later, fear still haunted Beijing.
Then even August ended. China was disappearing from the news, as portentous events elsewhere thrust themselves to the forefront.
South Africa had started to come out of the dark age of apartheid. Eastern Europe had begun the march to unshackle itself from the Soviet Union. Moscow looked omnipotent no more.
But China lay at a stunned distance. I would stay awake at night hoping to make mental contact with faraway familiar faces. Was Niu Jinjin ok, the yogurt seller in front of Beishida, Beijing Normal University, who had helped out on Bertolucci’s set during the filming of The Last Emperor, and wanted to learn Italian?
How about the cooks at my university’s canteen, who had plunked all the large trays of food on the tables and told us to deal with it, as they picked up banners to go demonstrate in the square in support of the students? Was Song Wenjun, who had dropped out half way through his Master in Fine Arts to join the protests, safe? Had he found his sister? He and I had cycled through the city on June 5 looking for her. The tanks were still in the middle of the street — the burned-out, gutted out tanks. They spoke of horror begetting horror. Others were moving slowly, or keeping watch in ominous lines. We saw truckloads of soldiers everywhere.
Together, we had seen a soldier hanged from a bridge, his charred body ravaged by flames and hatred, and we shuddered in pain. People had built barriers with everything they could find — burned-out buses, the metal partitions that marked the bicycle lines, road signs. We had gone as far as the Military Museum, a Soviet-style building topped by a spike with a red star, to the west of the square that was still entirely blocked off and dangerous. Soldiers had been camping there; through the metal bars we could see some of them freshening their faces in the large fountain in front of the museum, while others stood in rows. People kept coming towards the soldiers, angry, dusty, sweaty, in tears. “What have you done!” some shouted, gripping the metal bars of the gate. “The People’s Liberation Army!” they gasped, still incredulous. A crowd had gathered and Wenjun and I had gotten off our bicycles to watch. A woman threw in what seemed to be a pair of bloodied children’s booties and screamed, “Look who you pointed your guns at!” Her voice was not human.
The soldiers pulled up their rifles and everybody scattered. They shot, bullets flying so close our ears hurt.
We did not find Wenjun’s sister that day, but eventually made it back to our dorms. The streets were torn. Do you remember the fires, the pyres where people threw their army clothes? Nobody wanted to wear that green anymore. The smell of molten plastic burned our nostrils when sneakers and brown rubber belts got thrown in.
Back at Beishida, the crowds were still out in the street. They stopped foreign students to put things into our hands. Bullets. Pictures. Clothes with holes and blood. “You must go back. You must tell the world what has happened. We can’t do it ourselves,” they told us. For the first time since I had arrived in China one year before, that phrase, “meiyou banfa,” “nothing can be done,” which at times had made me laugh, all of a sudden had a solid and undeniable ring to it.
A column of trucks filled with soldiers came towards the crowd, which did not disperse but went towards them. Stunned, I saw that the soldiers were in tears, and some of them took their guns and their ammunition and handed them down to the crowd. A student took a red flag and climbed on top of the first truck as they continued up north, towards People’s University and Peking University. The day after, some said everybody got arrested. Others swore they were shot at. I will never know.
Soon thereafter, I had been evacuated by the British Embassy and brought to Hong Kong. From there I made my way home to Italy, where I joined my family on the Tuscan coast. Throughout the summer, I had startled each time a gust of wind slammed a door shut. Helicopters in the sky frightened me. I understood my grandmother, who had lived through the war and was still tense when airplanes roamed above her. It took me weeks to finally cry, and for the nightmares to stop.
After the first few days, I did not know how to keep talking about what I had seen. My story could only repeat itself, and everybody was quick to offer unlikely solutions. Some would wonder why you could not intervene from abroad when such things happened so publicly. A few thought all the students should be given asylum. Others showed horror, but were using what had happened in China as a tool, to score points in domestic political debates. Others repeated tirelessly that “Mao would not have done it.” Soon, it turned into one more way for people to talk about themselves.
I wanted to go back to Beijing.
I arrived back in Hong Kong in early September, in the steamy heat of the subtropical late summer. Every newsstand and bookshop had piles of books full of photos and reconstructions of the protests and their aftermath. I bought everything, reading it in my jet-lagged insomnia, throwing it away quickly. I could not bring it up to Beijing, for sure, I thought, and what would the point have been? Everybody there knew, like I did.
On Sept. 4, in Victoria Park, there was a big vigil to remember what had happened just three months before. I struck up brief conversations with people who looked at me in disbelief when I said I was flying to Beijing the next day.
Of course I was scared. But I had to be back. Had to cancel the scarred city from my mind with new images. Had to will away the fear.
At the check-in counter, I was told to take care. I landed — do you remember how small the old airport was, how quaintly socialist it looked, yellowed by the dust storms from the Gobi, in the days before pollution?
As I prepared to line up at immigration, an officer jumped out from the VIP/Diplomatic counter and came towards me, inviting me to skip the queue. “I am a student,” I said, sticking to the line. “You are our welcome foreign guest!” he smiled. So I followed him and was out in no time.
Returning to my dorm, I looked up at the roof terrace where we had watched the first students’ demonstrations as they marched down Xinjiekou, as soon as the news of Hu Yaobang’s death had spread. Now, at 10 o’clock at night, nothing much happened at that hour.
All my belongings had been packed in a large cardboard box and left in my room, waiting for instructions. Even my bicycle was still parked downstairs with all the others, near the boiler rooms where we went to fill our thermoses. The foreign students dorm was nearly empty: a handful of North Korean students, a woman from Liberia desperate to leave but “hostage to my country’s skewed diplomacy with Beijing.” A couple of short-term students. One English teacher.
On the surface of bricks, asphalt, and concrete, Beijing looked like it was healing. One day I took a taxi to Jianguomen, a few blocks east of Tiananamen. Just before entering the Avenue of Eternal Peace, the driver put on a cassette tape, and while the wheels of his car wobbled slightly over the tank marks in the asphalt, he blasted Cui Jian’s “Yi Wu Suo You” — “Nothing to my Name,” the anthem of the students in the square. We looked at each other through the rear-view mirror, without saying a word.
The corner buildings in the diplomatic compound at Jianguomen still had bullet holes in them. Some nearby trees, too. It became a sullen way of mapping the City of Onsetting Forgetfulness: spot the bullet holes. Exchange notes with friends about where they are to be seen. Report how quickly they are being erased, the concrete filled in, the trees chopped down. Sometimes, the whole bullet-sprayed building disappearing in a mass of dust and rubble.
Martial law was still in force, yet nobody seemed self-conscious in pointing out the bullet holes to each other. Or in asking off-handedly: “Where were you?”
Everybody had to be home by 10 p.m. One evening, a friend came to look for me, and after the first heavy hellos that tried to make up for all the questions that could not be overheard, he insisted we go dancing at Juliana’s, in what was then the Lido Hotel. He was fretting in a nervous selfish hurry; already tired of being robbed of his youth, of a desire to be careless, irresponsible, dancing in a foreign-owned hotel with a language student met a few months before on campus. We went, even though Juliana’s had become a cavernous hole with just a few tipsy businessmen. We left a few minutes late. The taxi driver who brought us back to the university kept scolding us for keeping him in the streets at that hour, yet he wanted his fare too badly to refuse us. We got stopped, right at the intersection with Hepingli. A soldier asked us to pull down the windows and stuck his rifle through, before looking in. He withdrew it when he saw my face and instructed the driver to take the foreigner back safely. My fretting friend was ashen. He never asked me to go dancing again.
Sometimes, at night, you could hear loud bangs and wonder if a soldier had shot at someone, and why, and how. Nobody could ever be sure. The rumors flew. People whispered, in their rooms, about plainclothes police and informants who had been giving away names of students and sympathizers, of people not to be found again, of conspiracies and leaders’ sudden illnesses, of convoluted plots to whisk the students to safety. Some was true, some was invented in fear and powerlessness, all was impossible to verify.
Beishida felt too desolate, so I transferred to Peking University, where all the few returning foreign students seemed to have congregated. But as the students there were those most involved in the demonstrations, the authorities decided to suspend the first year and send all the freshmen to the army instead. The notice-boards at Sanjiaodi, where the political posters had been hoisted just a few months before, where the international TV crews had filmed the students keeping up-to-date with the strike and its developments, where impromptu speeches had been given, was now a deserted triangle dotted with forlorn little posters advertising English classes, chess tournaments, and qigong demonstrations.
We cycled to the market to buy groceries, but had to watch out for the photographers keen to take shots to go with inane stories about foreigners being back and nothing much having happened. A classmate ended up in one of those, a photo of him smiling at a cucumber seller splashed across the China Daily that made him shiver with embarrassment.
I saw Wenjun again. His sister was fine. Unlike most people I knew, he was not scheming to move abroad: “I am 22. They are old. They are not going to be around for my whole life,” he said.
In early winter, the streets started to be dotted with heaps of cabbage. Unlike previous years, though, when shoppers eager to stock up on northern China’s favorite cold weather vegetable formed long lines, this year, people refused to buy them. It was a small act of insubordination. Amid the total powerlessness, people could refuse to buy state-subsidized cabbage. So the People’s Daily came out with an editorial that extolled the virtues of “patriotic cabbage” (aiguo baicai). After a few weeks, the cabbage heaps were smellier, and many work units were ordered to buy it up. The university canteens were full of it.
I never saw Niu Jinjin again, nor her yogurt shop. One day, I went back to the Military Museum to visit an exhibition on the dongluan, the “unrest.” I stared into the fountain, half expecting to spot the bloodied children’s booties still there. The exhibition was pretty accurate — it had student T-shirts, full of signatures and slogans. Megaphones, pictures, flags. It recorded the beginning of the events truthfully, but then the narrative explained that “a small group of black-hands” had hijacked the movement and caused chaos. It skipped a few days, and showed happy soldiers restoring order, happy Beijing people back in the cleaned up streets, happy kites in the sky. Happy foreigners returning.
In November, the Berlin Wall fell.
In January, martial law was lifted in Beijing.
Little by little the city tried to shake off the gloom, but it stuck to everything regardless. At a dinner at the writer Mang Ke’s house, a painter kept hanging her head in despair, saying, “Life has no meaning!” Her husband wanted me to reply, but I did not know what to say.
Everybody drank too much.
Big public works soon got underway that would take years to complete. The large intersections on the concentric ring-roads would be dismantled one by one, substituted with flyovers that would make it impossible for the citizens of Beijing to once again patrol the city, to stop the soldiers, to talk to them and tell them not to proceed, or to warn the striking students if any suspicious movement of troops could be detected.
Eventually, the square itself would become what it is now, a vast expanse off-limits to any kind of improvised gathering. Old, tight-knit communities got blown apart and fragmented as ancient neighborhoods in the center of town got dismantled, and business high-rises built in their place.
Shopping malls, even wider roads, and a Central Business District obliterated all human-scale urbanism, and forgetting began, enveloping like a straitjacket.
Turned inside out, the city would never again look like a place where young protesters, their eyes aflame with hope, could gather more than one million people, in a mad carnival that grabbed its freedom with both hands, joyous and tragic, before being suffocated.
It became a city of wealthy desires and ambition. Years later, mourning yet another ancient building that was being demolished, I asked a shopkeeper nearby what she thought of all the vanished hutong. “It’s the new Beijing,” she replied. “We common people have no say over it. Meiyou banfa,” she added. “Nothing can be done.”
Photo credit: AFP/Getty