I mark June 4th every year, and remember the hundreds, thousands of peaceful demonstrators in Tian An Men Square, Beijing who, in 1989, were gunned down by the People’s Liberation Army: you couldn’t make it up.
I’d been travelling around China with my normal engineer travelling partner, whose crassness I secretly loathed, on one of my normal tours of China trying to sell industrial materials to the Chinese who, though very happy to entertain us and therefore avail themselves of a banquet, only rarely bought anything from us. Who could blame them?
Buying our stuff, even though it was of a far superior quality to theirs in those days meant spending scarce foreign exchange and their products were readily available for the local currency at a fraction of the price. My company was among many that mistakenly believed that China was a huge untapped market. Who knew that it would become a market only for designer handbags and fast cars, that could not be made domestically?
So, twice or three times every year, we used to spend a few days in Beijing then travel to Xian, Wuhan, Shanghai, sometimes Shenyang, or Tianjin or Dalian before exiting via a day spend mooching around Hong Kong. Yet this time, as we switched on the television news in our hotels, all built in the mid 1980s with identical rooftop revolving restaurants and coffee shops, we saw reports of police quelling dissent from “counter-revoutionary elements.” It was like this unrest was following us around China.
I returned from that trip at the end of April 1989, I think, and by May there were demonstrators in Tian An Men square. Night after night on the BBC Nine o’ Clock news we watched their ranks swell. They wanted democracy and openness, they said. We didn’t pay much attention to them really, as who knew the scale of the imminent bloodshed?
Then, on 3rd June it became clear that the Chinese government would tolerate this no more. There were reports of protestors being gunned down; of roadblocks at major transport intersections around the city; of tanks being sent in to quell dissent.
The thing is: the Chinese people, so long raised to believe that their army would never fire on them, were sitting targets.
Back in London my colleagues and I faxed Western news reports to client organisations in China in order to try and present a more balanced picture of what was actually going on. And I was trying to find my friend Desmond, on a British Council scholarship to Nanjing, where he had married a Chinese girl. The family had endured several interrogations from the Secret Police – in Chinese the Public Security Authority – because of her involvement with a foreigner. The last British student in China we think – everyone else had been evacuated – he would not leave his wife. It took several early morning calls – the time difference is eight hours – to secure their safe passage to the Consulate in Shanghai. At one stage her luggage was in the hold of a plane out of the country when it was suddenly decided that she was missing one (newly conjured) rubber stamp and it was taken off again because she was not permitted to fly.
The next time I went to Beijing, I blagged my way past the Security Police cordon around Tian An Men Square and walked alone across the vast, silent windblown space, grey in the freezing late autumn light. On the Monument to the Heroes of the Revolution, I saw bullet holes and bloodstains on the stonework. How many times had I cheerfully crossed this square in an overcrowded bus or air-conditioned taxi? Now it was empty. Desolate. The bitterly cold breeze whistled past my ears. The significance of the date was not lost on me: November 11th.
At this point most western companies withdrew their investment from China and that was effectively the end of my career in Chinese. I had an affinity for languages at school and, the Russian empire then being on the verge of collapse, the local careers teacher suggested I learn Chinese at university. I was carried about on a wave of the glamour: I became almost a minor celebrity at parties: the girl who was going off to study Chinese at university, including a year in China. Suddenly my parents and their community were (mostly) talking to me again in hushed tones of intrigue. There was much less of the incredulous, “But LANGUAGES??? Why Languages? Why not a doctor?”
And this is how all those ambitions ended in dust as did my political leanings. Brought up in a fairly left-wing household, I had been a member of CND and, as I recall, apologist for Michael Foot. Communism was, to me, a panacea.
It was when I spent a year in China as a student and later on working trips there that I realised how many jobs are manufactured (one person to change the manhole cover; seven to “audit”); elite schools and medical care for the children of the elite. Party officials demanding expenses-paid trips to the West as “supervision visits” before they signed a contract; the banquets; the Johnnie Walker; the forced abortions and lack of choice about anything such as subjects to study at school and subsequent careers – there is so much more – that I started to reassess my political beliefs. So much for Utopia.
I now despise the fact that we are so dependent on China for cheaply-made STUFF and that governments seem to fall over themselves to appease China’s petulance. Typing this on my MacBook, with an iPhone close by and any amount of Chinese-made things within my reach, I am aware how hypocritical this is, believe me. These experiences have made me suspicious of any idealism and pronouncements of the right way of governing a society. As with our own personal lives and families, we do what is necessary to get by.
I think that doing a degree in Chinese was one of the biggest mistakes in my life and I often regret not doing French, which I adored. On the other hand, however, it’s made me who I am. My year as a student in China forced me to rethink all my preconceptions and open my mind. I am a firm believer that everyone should have the opportunity of spending a year in an alien culture when young.
This post, then, is dedicated to all those who died on 4th June 1989; the political prisoners; the people put in prison for speaking up against the authorities; the casualties of foolish initiatives like the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution; all those who cannot speak freely without threat of intimidation or torture.