Tuesday, June 5, 2012

We Flee China

Guest Voice

Yesterday was June 4th, an unhappy but important anniversary in the history of democracy movements. George Jochnowitz, who was in China with his daughter in 1989, writes here about his experiences during the the Tiananmen Square Massacre and what is known in China as the June Fourth Incident, which brutally ended the six-week student protests. As Prof Jochnowitz writes: "My daughter Miriam and I had grown increasingly unhappy after the declaration of martial law on May 20th. Our hopes for the democracy movement had vanished. Our students were boycotting classes, so there was not much for us to do at Hebei University." Events from this narrative took place 23 years ago, but have not been forgotten. What started out as a million-strong student protest for freedom and democracy ended with a military crackdown to "clear the square."
by George Jochnowitz
"I made a special trip to Baoding just to warn you," said Gao Xuesheng (all the names in this account have been changed, except for members of my own family and public figures), who had been my student the previous time I had taught at Hebei University, in 1984. "Get out of the country. Leave China as soon as possible. Something terrible is going to happen."

"What sort of terrible thing?" I asked, feeling he must be right.

"Please don't ask me. Please don't ask me how I know. I came here because I'm your friend."

If Gao Xuesheng had been a native speaker of English his words would have sounded overly dramatic and perhaps unconvincing. In this case, speaking what was for him a foreign language made him more eloquent, and he was very persuasive indeed. "I have tickets for June 11th, just two weeks from now," I said. "Miriam and I will fly to Tokyo on the 11th and go from there to New York."

"Leave sooner if you can. Lots of people know what you've been saying and doing. When the police came to warn you and Miriam not to go on any more demonstrations, you said, 'The worst they can do is deport me.'"

"Did I tell you that?" I inquired, thinking my statement had been harmless enough.

"No you didn't. Don't ask me how I know. Get out while you can. Something awful will happen. I know what I'm talking about."

Gao Xuesheng was saying what I had been thinking: June 11th wasn't soon enough. My daughter Miriam and I had grown increasingly unhappy after the declaration of martial law on May 20th. Our hopes for the democracy movement had vanished. Our students were boycotting classes, so there was not much for us to do at Hebei University. Gao Xuesheng's words were alarming, but I was nervous anyway. Now I had an excuse to do something besides fret, and enough motivation to go through the effort of making a phone call.

I called our travel agent the next morning. Calling Beijing from Baoding, a mere hundred miles away, is much harder than it ought to be. China doesn't have enough telephone lines. There is no direct dialing from Baoding. Making a call involves going downstairs to the Foreign Affairs Office (which, despite its name, was only in charge of paying us "foreign experts" our salaries and attending to our needs) and asking Teacher Yang to place a call. Teacher Yang speaks no English, but my Chinese was good enough to give him the number and name of the person I wanted to call. Then I would fidget in the office, or at least within the building, until a line became available and the call could go through. This usually took about an hour.

Our travel agent said it was too late to cancel my cut-rate reservation. I told her to leave my Tokyo-to-New York flight unchanged, but to get Miriam and me on the earliest available plane from Beijing to Tokyo whatever the cost. She was able to reserve seats on a June 6th flight, and told me to pick up the tickets in her Beijing office on Friday the second. I did. I then went for my last look at Tiananmen Square.

The portable toilets on the east side of the square stank. The demonstrators, dirty and exhausted, had been both rained on and baked by the sun; they looked weak and helpless. I remembered how extraordinarily attractive the million demonstrators in Beijing had looked two or three weeks earlier. The government would certainly consider the statue of the Goddess of Democracy a provocation. "They're dead," I thought. "Why don't they escape while they still can?"

Saturday, back in Baoding, I ran across Nian Qingshi, a young teacher I hardly knew. We chatted, and I expressed surprise that a movement as overwhelmingly popular as the Democracy Movement had been could weaken so quickly.

"Don't you fear death?" he asked rhetorically.

I'm leaving China Tuesday," I replied, implicitly answering his question in the affirmative.

"There's a report about you and Miriam. You've been to demonstrations in Baoding and Beijing, and you've visited Fang Lizhi. The report says your behavior contrasts most unfavorably with that of the Japanese foreign experts."

It was no longer surprising to me that everyone knew everything about us. Being a foreign expert in Baoding means being a local celebrity. I knew enough about China to realize that going to see a demonstration or visiting a dissident would be considered provocative. I thanked Nian Qingshi for the information. Although the news gave me something further to worry about, I realized his telling me was a gesture of solidarity. He had learned something he wasn't supposed to know, and the wishes of those in authority were being subverted by revealing their secrets about me.

Nian Qingshi and Gao Xuesheng both seemed to know that Miriam and I were considered trouble makers. The thought entered my head that we wouldn't be allowed to leave China, but I decided that was extremely unlikely. I had no trouble falling asleep that night. An hour or two later, however, I was awakened by the sound of shouting under our windows. I had often heard the sounds of midnight demonstrations during the preceding six weeks, but this was very loud and didn't go away. Miriam went downstairs and learned that all the pro-democracy big-character posters on campus had just been torn down.

These hand-written posters, which had been put up by the more politically active students starting in late April, had changed the nature of life at Hebei University. Crowds gathered in front of the bulletin boards and walls and copied down the posters' messages in their notebooks. But now, Mr. Zhou, the Communist Party Secretary of Hebei University, had given the order to remove them, and so the students were demonstrating under his windows, which happened to be adjacent to our windows, since the foreign experts and the university administrators lived in the same building - the best on campus.

The noise prevented me from sleeping, but I was happy. The students were wonderful - China's hope. I did not know, the students did not know - perhaps even Mr. Zhou did not know - that hundreds and perhaps thousands of unarmed citizens were being killed by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) on the streets leading into Tiananmen Square. In retrospect, I surmise that Mr. Zhou was unaware that he was carrying out an order deliberately timed to coincide with the PLA invasion of Beijing.

When dawn came, I decided to stroll around campus before breakfast. There was no reason for anyone to be awake so early, but I noticed a young woman walking around carrying a portable radio. 6:30 A.M. was usually when the Voice of America's English-language programs came in clearest, and so I assumed she was listening to VOA. The whole campus had been hooked on VOA for weeks. I walked over to hear what the latest headlines were. That was how I learned about the Tiananmen massacre.

The fact that Gao Xuesheng had told me something terrible would happen, the fact that I had looked at the demonstrators in the square two days earlier and thought them doomed, did not lessen the shock. As I entered my building, a call was coming through from Carol, my wife, in New York. She thought Miriam and I might have been in Beijing over the weekend, as we so frequently were. I assured her we were safe in Baoding where there had been no violence.

It was Sunday morning, but the Foreign Affairs Office was open, no doubt because Miriam and I were scheduled to leave Baoding the following day. Preparations had been made to give Miriam and me a farewell banquet in the evening, to accompany us to Beijing on Monday and help us with our luggage, and to help us get our 2,500 yuan ($700) deposit back. We had been forced to leave the deposit on my laptop computer when we landed in Shanghai in February. Apparently the customs official was afraid I would sell it and not pay duty.

The director of the Foreign Affairs Office is called African Wang, which distinguishes him from Tall Wang, who, like African Wang, is a member of the faculty of the Foreign Language Department. African Wang got his nickname in junior high school, when he played a role in a minstrel show. After making a few phone calls, African Wang learned that there was no rail service to Beijing, and that the roads were closed to all but military traffic. While we sat in his office wondering what to do next, a call came through from a young faculty member who had eyewitnessed the massacre a few blocks west of Tiananmen Square. After hearing the awful things our colleague had seen, African Wang asked him whether one could drive through the streets of Beijing.

"Zoubuliao" (can't get through) said African Wang, repeating what had been told to him over the phone. It was a word I would hear many times in the next few days. I decided to call the American Embassy to ask for their advice. The official I spoke to was sure that one of the university chauffeurs would know the local roads and could get us to the airport by going around Beijing. I thanked him and hung up before I realized that he hadn't asked for my name and phone number. It would have been nice for the Embassy to know we existed, but calling back was just too time consuming.

African Wang said he would get us a police permit to enable us to cross the army barricades on the roads to Beijing and speak to the university garage about getting us a car and a driver. I went upstairs to give Miriam the latest news, but she told me her news first: "Meiyou dianle, meiyou shuile," (The electricity and water have gone off). Miriam and I ordinarily spoke to each other in English, of course, but the news that there was not water or electricity was something we had been told in Chinese much more frequently than we had ever heard it in English. The words just came more spontaneously in Chinese. It was normal for there not to be electricity on Sunday, but we usually were warned a day or so before the water went off so we could stock up.

Under normal circumstances, we would have been annoyed not to have water to flush the toilet, but we were grieving for China and wondering how —and if —we would get to the airport. We decided to continue packing. African Wang invited us to lunch at his house. He had been unable to persuade a chauffeur to drive us to the airport. He and the president of the university spent the next few hours on the phone nagging a driver to take us.

"Here we are in a totalitarian country, and they can't even find us a driver," said Miriam.

There was nothing to do but wait. At four there was a knock at the door. It was my student Huo Tou. Whoever said that all Chinese students are diligent? Huo Tou came late to class, if he came at all. He was late again; he had said he would come at 2:30. He waved a bottle of wine in the air and said, "I have good news. Ayatollah Khomeini is dead. There is hope for China."

"The Baoding psychic has predicted that Deng Xiaoping will die on September 14th," I told him. The psychic was a 20-year-old man who had never been wrong, according to local report.

"Let's drink a toast to the death of aged tyrants," said Huo Tou with great emotion. We clinked glasses. "Ganbei" (bottoms up). "Did you hear a demonstration leaving campus about two hours ago?" continued Huo Tou. "Did you hear what they were chanting? "Da dao Gongchan Dang!" (Down with the Communist Party).

"Really? I can't believe it!"

"Really," said Huo Tou in a mixture of delight and rage. "Yesterday no one would have said it or even wanted to say it. The Party has lost everyone's respect. It's about time."

At 6:30, Miriam and I went to our farewell banquet. It could not have been more inappropriate. The food was delicious, but no one was hungry. President Zhao gave us our going-away presents. She told us the driver would pick us up at 9 o'clock the next morning. African Wang would have our police pass, and we would be accompanied by Teacher Yang of the Foreign Affairs Office and Li Qiangwen, a graduate student who would be our translator if we needed one.

That night, Miriam and I went out for a yogurt. We saw a huge crowd in front of the library. People had just gathered to talk and cry. Lots of students were away, and nobody knew who had gone to Tiananmen and who had simply gone home. The atmosphere was like a house of mourning.

Monday at nine the chauffeur was nowhere to be found. We waited in front of our building together with the friends who had come to see us off. "Remember the psychic—September 14th," said one friend. "Kill them. Hang them," muttered another under her breath. Finally at eleven, the car and driver showed up. Teacher Yang, Li Qiangwen, Miriam and I got into the car. As we drove off, a voice called after us, "When you come back to Baoding, China will be free!" I couldn't hold back the tears.

There was almost no traffic on the Beijing Highway. It normally takes four hours to go by car from Baoding to Beijing, almost twice as long as by train, because you are always getting caught behind a cart drawn by a draft animal. But on June 5th, the donkeys and mules were having a day off. The wheat fields had begun to turn from green to yellow; harvest time was approaching. We stopped for lunch at an Islamic restaurant along the road and then proceeded smoothly until we reached the army road block. Teacher Yang stepped out and showed the soldiers our police permit.

They were not interested. "Permit or no permit, nobody can go through here."

"Zoubuliao," said the driver. "Let's go back to Baoding."

Teacher Yang is a Party member and a good Communist. So were the soldiers, no doubt. They had been studying Marx all their lives and knew there was no motivation except for money. "They've already paid for their airplane reservations," said Teacher Yang.

That was an irrefutable argument. The soldiers looked at our tickets and then waved us through.

Soon we reached a toll bridge. "And where might you be going?" asked the toll collector.

"Beijing," we answered.

"Ha, ha. They're going to Beijing," said the toll collector.

The driver didn't say zoubuliao, but his facial expression indicated he was thinking it.

We entered Beijing from the south. The airport is northeast of the city, and we turned right (east) at San Huan Lu (Third Ring Road), trying to avoid downtown. The road turned north in its circular path through the city. Before long, we saw a few burnt army trucks - the paint was blistered, discolored, or gone; the metal misshapen by the heat of the fire; the upholstery and tires just ashes. Then we saw a whole row of them, in a straight line. Many were still smoldering. After a while, Miriam began to count them. She counted over thirty; we estimate there were about twenty before she started to count. What had happened to the soldiers? Why were they in a row? Had there been bloodshed? How can unarmed civilians burn fifty army trucks?

There apparently had been some kind of major battle in southeastern Beijing. We were not on any direct route to Tiananmen Square. The fact that some trucks were still smoldering suggested they had been set fire after the massacre. Had the soldiers just abandoned their trucks and run away? I have no answers.

We continued north until we saw that the street was blocked by busses, some of the burnt and without tires, parked perpendicular across the road. We made a U-turn and tried another street. More busses. We stopped a passerby, who said that the local residents had blocked the streets to prevent the army from moving through the city. "How do we get to the airport?" we asked.

"Zoubuliao", he answered.

We were near Jianguomen, a part of the city I knew. A few days later the bridge over the highway at Jianguomen would be the site of a ceremony in memory of a soldier who had been killed there by angry citizens. We were not far from the American Embassy and decided to go there to see if they could be of help. A lot of activity was going on; a convoy was about to leave in order to evacuate Americans from the Haidian area, where Beijing University and most of the city's other institutions of higher learning are located. One consular official told us the Embassy was understaffed and underequipped; Haidian was a potential trouble spot and Americans there had to be gotten out quickly; we had our own transportation and could get to the airport by ourselves. Another official gave us a map and some general instructions on how to leave.

Our driver got out of the car and sat on the sidewalk. "Zoubuliao," he said. The only place he would go was back to Baoding.

At that moment a car pulled up and several people got out. The man who had given us the map told us to speak to an American woman who had stepped out of the car. She had just come from the airport. She approached us and said,"Meiyou wenti" (No problem). She drew a zigzag line on our map and told us if we followed it, we would avoid all roadblocks. She went to our drive, sitting sullenly on the sidewalk, and said "meiyou wenti." She told him many times in Chinese that if we followed the route she had drawn, we would make it.

He tried hard not to groan and got back into the car. We made it to the vicinity of the airport without a wenti, although we passed lots of soldiers along the way. The next problem was getting a hotel room for the night. At the second hotel we went to, the manager said there was one room with two single beds.

Li Qiangwen, my graduate student, was serving as interpreter. "Tell the manager three of us can sleep on the floor," I said.

"It's against regulations," translated Li Qiangwen.

"Tell him this is a dangerous time. New roadblocks may be set up. If we spend the night in separate hotels, we may not be able to rejoin."

"What if an inspector comes?"

It seemed highly unlikely to me that hotel inspectors would be making their rounds in a city at war, but I felt this argument would cut no ice with the manager. "Tell him we'll pay for an extra room even if we all sleep in the same room," I tried.

Li Qiangwen and the manager had begun to raise their voices. The manager walked away; he certainly wouldn't help us if he got angry. Although his disagreement had been with me, he had been shouting at Li Qiangwen, not at me; he and I could still be civil. I wasn't sure my Chinese would be good enough, but I tried. "I know you want to help us," I began; "you've given my daughter and me a room. But if we're separated from our friends, we won't be able to get to the airport."

"Meiyou" (there isn't any), said the manager.

"Zemma ban?" (What's to be done?) I asked. Experience had taught me that was the best answer to meiyou.

The manager relented. "Come back in an hour. I'll see what I can arrange." Success! When I returned, he had found two vacant rooms.

The airport the next morning was filled with many very nervous people, as was to be expected. Miriam waited on one line to check our eight suitcases; I waited on another to pay the airport exit tax, only it wasn't a line - it was a crowd of tense people shoving. After an hour, I was no closer to the window. Our plane was scheduled to leave in ten minutes. One man seemed to be an experienced shover; he was going to get to the window first. "Buy two for me, please," I requested, giving him the right amount of money. "And three for me," said the woman in back of me. The man got five extra airport tax receipts for us, enabling us to catch our plane and subtracting three people from the shoving crowd instead of one.

Miriam had reached the head of the check-in line, which looked much more like a line. Then Li Qiangwen appeared. While we were dealing with our lines, he had gotten our 2,500 yuan deposit back. I had given up hope of seeing the money again. I still wasn't sure what we could do with it. The plane was about to leave, and Chinese money can be exchanged only in China (this was foreign exchange certificates; the other kind of Chinese money, renminbi, cannot be exchanged at all).

"Don't worry," said Li Qiangwen. There was just an announcement that your plane's departure has been delayed by half an hour."

We thanked Li Qiangwen and Teacher Yang and embraced them. They had voluntarily risked the dangers of traveling through Beijing in order to help us leave China. We told them to thank the driver, who had gone to the parking lot and was waiting in the car. He had feared for his life, which was not unreasonable, and he —like Li Qiangwen and Teacher Yang —was still facing a trip back to Baoding. We are indeed grateful for what these three men did for us.

We changed our 2,500 yuan into Japanese yen. It was late, but we were not the last people to board the plane; a Japanese family of three rushed on after us. "We're in the twentieth century," said Miriam with relief. She had hit the nail on the head. What's wrong with China's political system—what makes totalitarianism so frightening—is its rejection of free thought and therefore of science and modernity.

When we reached Carol on the phone to tell her we were safe in Japan, at 6 A.M. New York time, she answered at the first ring. It was clear she had been much more frightened than Miriam and I. We called Baoding the next day and were extremely relieved to learn that our driver, Li Qiangwen and Teacher Yang had returned safely. We had not planned to spend five days in Tokyo; it was the result of moving up the date of our flight from China. We were not in the right mood to savor the pleasures of visiting Japan because we just wanted to get home. And so we spent our first three days in Tokyo eating western food. Tokyo has the best pizza in the world.

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937.  He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.  His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects.  As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at george@jochnowitz.net.

Copyright ©2012. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This post can be found on George Jochnowitz.   It was originally published in n Outerbridge, Volume 25, 1994, and was reprinted in their retrospective anthology, Volume 28, 2001. It is republished here with the author's permission.


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