Social Education 55(6) pps. 388-391
©1991 National Council for the Social Studies
Tiananmen Square, Mao's Mausoleum, The Forbidden City. As I walked in this enormous open section of Beijing in June 1990, I recalled the poignant covers of Time magazine that showed Chinese students calling for democracy, leading a hunger strike in protest of their government's policies, erecting the "Goddess of Democracy" statue, and even defacing Mao's portrait with red paint. One year later I was on a Fulbright Program Seminar in China with eighteen high school teachers. Our trip was postponed for that year because of "the events of last June," as the Chinese refer to them. Once there, however, we would spend four weeks studying Chinese history and culture and observing firsthand the effects of a political revolution. Before arriving in China, I read critiques of the democracy movement in the U.S. press. I watched every television news report I could, and heard Ted Koppel interviewing Beijing University students about their dreams for the future of China. I admired the students' courage to undertake a hunger strike until the government met their demands. I cheered as they erected the "Goddess of Democracy" statue and placed it on the sacred meridian line that extends through the Meridian Gate into the Forbidden City. I admired the people of Beijing who rode their bicycles to the square delivering food and water to the protesting students. But when some of the workers began to join the students, and when Deng Xiaoping was embarrassed by the disruption in the central square of Beijing during Mikhail Gorbachev's visit, I began to fear that the students' noble ideals would not be realized. When the uprising was suppressed by "The Beijing Massacre" (according to the U.S. press), or "The Turmoil in Beijing" (according to the Chinese press), I knew that my 1989 Fulbright Seminar would be canceled.
Forming Impressions of China
In retrospect, the year's delay made my visit more meaningful; it allowed me to assess the uprising from a unique point of view. For a year, I formed my impressions of China by following the post-Tiananmen analysis in the U.S. press-a narrow lens. Once in China I felt as if the lens was removed. I was able to form opinions based upon my own analysis. Whenever I could, I questioned people about their impressions of "the events of last June." They did not speak with one voice.
In a lecture at Beijing Normal University, Professor Jin Shu-xian, a professor of Marxism-Leninism, stated that in June 1989 a few persons wanted to overturn the leadership of the Chinese Communist party. He said most students did not want to overturn the state, and that the government's resolution of the turmoil met "most people's needs." He emphasized that the government's drive to modernization necessitated complete internal stability. "The people will suffer if there is turmoil," he concluded, setting forth what I discovered is the official rationale for the government's action.
A young Chinese translator I met was ready to study abroad, but because of "the events of last June" could not go. In order to leave, she would have had to be thirty-five years old, have worked for five years, or have received a scholarship from the United States or Canada. She said the only way she could get around these requirements was to pay 2,000 yuan (Y) to the government for each year she was short of the five-year requirement. This was an impossible figure for her to meet on her salary of 130Y per month. Like many other ambitious young students, she was frustrated by the system and desperately wanted to explore the world beyond China.
We visited the United States Embassy in Beijing where we had a briefing with a political officer who had gone to the square each day in May 1989 to speak to the students. He said they wanted "democracy-to be able to elect their leaders on a regular basis." He felt that the government did not try to negotiate with the students and that the government did not have the equipment (i.e., hoses and rubber bullets) to use other methods of control. He also explained that the Beijing University students have more hope and more opportunities than students in less prestigious universities. Therefore, the Beijing University students dropped out of the uprising earlier, leaving those students from the "little [backwater] towns" outside Beijing to dominate the rest of the rebellion.
This political officer felt that, based on conversations with "well plugged-in cadre kids," at least seven hundred to one thousand people were killed. Thousands were arrested by the "sons of bitches," but "we never hear about these." The government says "three hundred [are] in detention but it doesn't say how many others are already convicted." His cynical attitude reflects the effect of his daily confrontations with the Chinese government, the government's insistence that stability is more important than free expression of ideas, and his knowledge that his apartment is bugged.
Protests Elsewhere and Reactions to Them
A minor government official in Kunming in southwest China said student protests also occurred in this capital of Yunnan Province. He agreed with the protests against government corruption and stated that since last June some officials have been discharged. He said no students from Kunming had been killed, and he felt that the government could not have responded any other way to such a direct challenge to its authority. He said that "extremists used the students," and he is angry at the democrats-they caused "bad things for China economically." Several people connected with the government mentioned that extremists or outside influences played a role in the uprising. They seemed to refer to radical students, Taiwanese, or Overseas Chinese-groups with a stake in disrupting the government.
Another man in Kunming, a translator, looked furtively over his shoulder as he whispered to me that many student protests had occurred in Kunming. He said many other people agreed with the students but were too afraid to voice their support. He knew of one Bai minority student who was dismissed from a university in Kunming and sent back to his hometown where he has become persona non grata. This student will have difficulty finding employment and his record will follow him for the rest of his life. This gentleman also said that because the peasants and the workers have enough to eat, most of them did not join the students. He added, "I am warm in winter. I have enough to eat. But I want to be free to think for myself, to be rewarded for what I do. Here it is just the same for everyone." Frustrated with the system, he desires a better future for his family, particularly for his young daughter.
This concern reflects the attitude of many younger people we met. They were ambitious yet unconnected with the Communist party. They had seen others getting ahead through connections and had realized that despite their personal efforts and ambitions, few opportunities were open to them because they had chosen not to join the party.
We also spoke with a teacher who spent a year on an exchange in the United States. Since his return to China he had joined the Communist party and had risen in the field of education. He said most of the students in Kunming (at least ten thousand) demonstrated. He felt the government was patient with these protests. The Kunming students voted to send ten students on to Beijing. Later "some elements" controlled the students. When questioned specifically about Tiananmen Square, he said "the government reported that thirty-four to thirty-six students were killed," adding that, "Since I am in this position, I believe the figures." He mentioned that the government began to pay more attention to corruption. A teacher from his university was sent to prison because he got "out of hand." When this teacher gets out of prison, he cannot return to Kunming. This educator then added humorously, and with some sarcasm, "When he gets out of prison, he'll start a free enterprise and get rich." He also felt that Zhao Ciyang was used by the students: "He should have worked with the leaders, but he went his own way." This man also believed, as did several other Chinese we interviewed, that foreign journalists provoked the situation. This teacher had obviously chosen to accept the party's explanation of events with little reservation. As a result, advancement opportunities were open to him.
In Xi'an, the ancient capital of eleven dynasties, we explored further opinions and attitudes about the democracy movement. A teacher at a university in Xi'an said that all the students protested and filled the People's Square. He said some classes stopped and many of the teachers went to the square "to watch out for their students." He confirmed that all who protested could be blacklisted and have difficulties for the rest of their lives. This young professor explained that he hoped to work for one of the joint-venture capital hotels where he could earn several times his 130Y (about $26.00) per month salary. Meanwhile, his wife worked, and he worked an additional job in order to afford such "luxury" items as a refrigerator, which costs about 1,930Y (about $380.00). This ambitious young teacher had figured out how to live within the system and, in some ways, to get around it.
Shanghai is a bustling city settled by Western merchants between the Opium War of 1840 and World War II. On a steamy night while walking along the Bund (waterfront), I met a young man of twenty-eight who taught himself English by listening to tapes. When I mentioned I was from New York State, but not New York City, he astounded me by saying "Oh, Upstate New York-Buffalo? Rochester? the Finger Lakes Region? Lake Ontario? Lake Erie?" He explained that he loves everything about the West, even romanticizes its benefits. He had found a sponsor in the United States and hoped to be able to leave China one day and come to the United States to study and to work. He and his sponsor had completed all the necessary paperwork and guarantees, and he planned to wait in one of the long lines we saw near the United States Consulate in Shanghai in hopes of becoming one of the 5 percent of applicants that obtain visas. Like other Chinese wanting to leave the country, he complained about the lack of opportunity for career advancement in China. "Everyone is treated alike and it doesn't matter whether you do a good job or not. People sometimes sleep or read on the job." This energetic young man said many who get ahead do so through quan chi (the back door), that is, through knowing someone in the party.
As a history teacher, I encourage my students to look at historical events from various perspectives. In Beijing I was able to purchase several books published by the Chinese press. One slick publication entitled The Turmoil in Beijing presented "the events of last June" from an entirely different perspective than that found in the U.S. press. While the U.S. press focused on the rights of the students, their desire for having an increased voice in the government, and the need to end government corruption, this publication showed no bleeding students, no "Goddess of Democracy," and no students suffering the effects of their hunger strike. Instead, it depicted young, uniformed members of the People's Army smiling, helping people, bleeding from rocks being hurled at them, and even strung up naked and burned. The Chinese press reflects the government and Communist party positions, and the leadership's emphasis on stability and the need to preserve their hard-fought revolution.
After visiting the country for four weeks, I have many images of China. It is a vibrant country with thousands of years of rich history. Chinese people made engineering, scientific, domestic, and musical discoveries much earlier than those in the West. In China, 80 percent of its people engage in labor-intensive agriculture; many of them still employ the farming methods of two thousand years ago. Yet China has made substantial advances since its liberation in 1949, especially in the last ten years.
Through my personal interactions in the country, I discovered warm, friendly, and open people, many of whom shared their feelings, hopes, and dreams with me. A family of four welcomed me, a total stranger, into their eight-by-twelve-foot combination living room and bedroom, and offered me dinner and their best rice wine. I observed people willing to do anything to leave their country, and others willing to join the Communist party in order to advance themselves. Still others lead successful, fulfilling lives without becoming involved with the "system."
I observed a country populated by 1.2 billion people in which people in the cities accept and adapt to the one-child policy, while people in the countryside largely ignore these policies because they need sons to work their fields. I saw women still suffering the effects of years of bound feet and spoke with other women about job advancements and opportunities denied to them and about the practice of killing baby girls.
I observed a rigid political system just beginning to open its economic system to the free market techniques of the West. I saw a country experiencing grave social and economic problems, still feeling the repercussions of June 1989. China, because of its huge population, market potential, and position among the major world powers, is a place the United States government and its students must learn about, understand, and appreciate.
References Useful in Understanding Contemporary and Historical China
(Many of these references were suggested by the National Committee on United States-China Relations to help us prepare for our trip.)Chen, Nien. Life and Death in Shanghai. New York: Penguin, 1986. The personal struggle of a Western-educated wife of a former Kuomintang official during the Cultural Revolution.Fairbank, John King. The United States and China, 4th ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979. This introduction to modern Chinese history is written by one of the foremost sinologists in the United States. In this readable book, Fairbank explores basic themes in China's earliest history, contemporary political developments, and U.S.-China relations.Liang, Heng, and Judy Shapiro. Son of the Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983. Liang Heng recounts the effects of the various political campaigns of the 1950s and the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution on himself, his family, and Chinese society in general. The book provides valuable insights into day-to-day life in both urban and rural China.Salzman, Mark. Iron and Silk. New York: Random House, 1987. A collection of anecdotes culled from the author's two years in China teaching English to doctors in Changsha, this amusing and enjoyable volume provides insight into the workings of Chinese society. Especially valuable for those wishing to acquire an understanding of the "essence" of China.Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1990. This volume is the product of a China scholar's thirty years of research. It traces four centuries of history from the late Ming period to Tiananmen Square.Temple, Robert. The Genius of China. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986. This narrative is based on the research of Professor Joseph Needham. It is a wonderful introduction to the achievements of ancient China.Deborah Doyle teaches global studies and advanced placement European history at Pittsford Sutherland High School in Pittsford, New York 14534.