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Life and Death in Beijing
Beijing Coma Art 600 pixels.jpg

In the Washington Post, I wrote a review of Ma Jian's "Beijing Coma."  The editorial b&w art accompanied the hard copy piece.

Below, an unpublished, unedited piece--I tried to set things down before my memory became fuzzy.

From Guilin of slow flowing viridian rivers, and strange rock formations, I flew back to Beijing, coated with centuries of stranger, yellow politics. It was minutes past midnight on June 3, 1989. Mr. Zhang, my driver, babble excitedly in his familiar nasal tones:

"The people have parked factory trucks and buses across intersections," he said, his smiling bespectacled eyes beaming at me from the rear view mirror. "They've lifted lane dividers across the roads. At other places, they've formed human barricades against the PLA soldiers coming in from the east.

"Premier Li Peng called marshal law into effect on April 19, but we still come and go as we please. The students on hunger strike are not only supported by intellectuals and workers, but party members, peasants, journalists, also old granddads, housewives and their small children. Grandmothers come out from alleys to scold soldiers who try to enter the city: ‘We are people and you are people! Why do you have no feelings?'"

Mr. Zhang inched the car along the northern perimeter, visibility possible in Tiananmen Square past midnight for the streetlights, and the scattered outdoor illumination in the square itself. At the heart of the plaza, the ground was thick with compost-like litter from the millions who have trod it in the three weeks of demonstrations, and the encamped hunger strikers under their tents. The Goddess of Democracy, a looming white statue, created by art students of the Central Academy, raised her beacon toward the ever beatific portrait of Mao Zedong on Tiananmen Gate. In the northwest corner of the Square, where the nascent Independent Labor Federation was encamped, jokes blared over the loudspeakers at the expense of the septuagenarian and octogenarian autocrats with their gray heads dyed greasy, pitchy black.

Once "home," I slept away the exhaustion of travel, oblivious to the loudspeaker that blared the national anthem outside my window every morning. My residence and office was in an apartment at the Beijing Foreign Languages Normal College at Baiduizi where I had been working since January for a Boston-based company, which brought American college kids to study the Chinese language. In the late afternoon, I received a call from a former student, recently returned to New York.

"Are you all right? I heard about the violence on American television," she said, her voice breathy and sharp.

"It's peaceful here," I replied, puzzled by the anxiety in her voice. I revived myself with a cold shower, and the evening breeze enlivened my spirit as I pedaled north on a soft evening along Third Ring Road to see my friend, Dede Huang at the Shangri-La in the northwestern corner of the city. The newly built hotel had been the headquarters for CBS News, set up days before to the visit of Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev on May 15.

Dede's child-like face, under a clean bob, looked ashen with exhaustion. The first words she said to me sounded like, "Fasten your seatbelt, it's going to be a bumpy night," the famous movie line out of the mouth of Bette Davis. A CBS reporter and a camera man, who had gone to the square, were missing. The film footages that came steadily in that long night of June 3-4 seemed illusory: the orange glow of burning military trucks, armored personnel carrier; bloody T-shirts as if painted with mad artists' brushes, troops of helmeted soldiers with guns, jogging past burning buses; citizens throwing rocks. It seemed like Buddhist scrolls, come to life: demons punishing humans in the deepest levels of smoky hell. The dead and wounded were speeded atop handcarts and pedicabs to overwhelmed hospitals by bystanders.

At one point in the night, Dede nudged me and said softly, "Fang Lizhi and Li Shuxian are here. Stay close in case, they need you to translate." Astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, China's top dissident, and his wife stood staring at the patterns on the cobalt blue hotel carpet. Fang Lizhi was foremost on Deng Xiaoping's enemy list. Was this short, bespectacled, middle-aged man with chipmunk cheeks and short, sausage fingers "one of the ambitious handful who were trying to subvert the People's Republic of China"? I had met the astrophysicist the past winter in a crowded basement bookstore salon, attended by intellectuals, students and foreign journalists. Fang had spoken quietly,, wearing his characteristic Buddha-like smile. His admirers beamed back at him as if they were standing under shady trees before Siddhartha at Benares.

His face was deeply stamped in my memory, having been asked by a friend in February to deliver a photo of Fang to an Agence France-Presse photographer, so the man would be able to pick Fang out at a banquet held in honor of President George H. W. Bush during his China visit, soon after his election to office. The photographer insisted I carry the black and white glossy for him as we walked into the hotel, where the banquet was in full swing. He was too much afraid to carry it himself, lest he be detained by Chinese authorities; I was too naïve to realize the danger in which he had placed me. The Bush administration wanted to make a strong statement of support for the emerging voices of democracy, but Fang was harassed by the Chinese government that night and was conspicuously absent.

Once again, Fang Lizhi was standing before me. He and his wife did not exchange words, but stood a few feet apart, solitary islands of desperation. I was not able to meet their eyes, for they were cast steadily downward; but were I able to see into their eyes, they would certainly have flashed despair. What possible words could I have said to assuage them? If I opened my mouth, my words would have fluttered away like moths. The same, faint Buddha-like smile played on Fang's face, but I knew he had to be scared, and desperate for options.

In the time of imperial China, his "subversion" of the Middle Kingdom would have brought the punishment of "huo mie jiu zu," which carried not only a death sentence to himself, but called for the execution of his entire tribe, from grandfather, father, down to sons, grandsons, his wife's kith and kin, and not even sparing the teacher who had encouraged his intellect. Fang Lizhi was naked to the brutality of the despots, who would no doubt bring the full weight of their vengeance upon his clan.

At the moment the couple's future rested upon the benevolence and vigilance of foreigners, who may or may not be able or willing to protect them. Shortly, they disappeared, unnoticed, from the Shangri-La Hotel, ultimately to find safe haven at the American Embassy on June 5, where they would be protected by the new ambassador, James Lilley, for thirteen months, finally to be released to the United States after tough negotiation with the Chinese government.

As my Chinese is unaccented, I was asked by Dede to make calls to the Beijing hospitals and get the body count. I dialed half a dozen hospitals in succession; the loud, outraged, voices on the other end, did not hesitate to provide information. The numbers quickly totaled over one hundred. Later in the night, hospital staff would stop divulging the casualty numbers: the government had clamped down.

From the front door of the Shangri-La, I could hear the report of guns, shot after shot of scattered volley, to the southeast. This wasn't the way things were supposed to turn out. Democracy Spring was to end peacefully. "The students will go home; it's summer vacation," I remembered Mr. Zhang's, my driver's, words, uttered less than twenty-four hours ago, reverberate in my head. Just catty corner from the Shangri-La Hotel stood the squat, white Buddhist stupa in the northwest corner of the Academy of Traditional Chinese Painting, I had studied under Deng Lin. I wanted to talk to my teacher. I wanted to beg her to tell her father: "Stop the killing. Murder will not stabilize the country!"

June 4th dawned, and the Shangri-La Hotel was a pristine isle of Western luxury, where foreign tourists in Hawaiian shirts with their shiny, pink faces, fresh from their morning showers, chattered excitedly over pastries and coffee about the Chinese calamity they had stumbled into. I was too frightened to bicycle home, so I asked a Portuguese friend to drive me back to my apartment.. I was faint from lack of sleep, and the blackened smoldering carcass of a truck on Fuxingmenwai Street, where only recently, the forsythias had bloomed, added to the lurid quality of the day. At the office, I tried to convince my American colleagues that we should start thinking about leaving China..

I called the embassy in the late afternoon of June 6, and my friend, Robert Williams, a political officer, came in a van to pick us up. I stayed in Robert's apartment in the Jianguomenwai diplomatic compound that night, which had a lofty view straight down on the intersection of Chang'an Avenue and the Second Ring Road. (The very next day, this compound would be sprayed with bullets, top to bottom, to scare any foreign observers). From Robert's balcony, under the cover of darkness, we watched soldiers emerge from parked PLA tanks and shoot at ghostly, crouched figures, scrambling across the Second Ring Road from the west to east, like so many mice. It was rumored that civil war was imminent as the tanks were pointed away from the center of the city in a direction, where the 28th and 38th army was presumed to be in revolt against the hard-liners who had ordered the crackdown.

I left Beijing on the day of June 7. The only available flight was first class on the Chinese CAAC Airline to Hong Kong. It was incomprehensible to find myself served delicate shrimp hors d' oeuvres by well-groomed Chinese flight attendants, while the city lay smoldering and its citizens stunned, and weeping. I sat behind a covey of cheery, robust orange-draped monks from Southeast Asia, greasy-skinned from over-feeding. I smuggled out rolls of film that depicted the carnage and atrocities on the night of June 3-4, taken by a Chinese friend who was a professional photographer. I was asked to show the pictures to anyone willing to see the proof of murder, against the sanitized official version of history that was already being cranked out by the Communist Party.

Hong Kong was seething with anger, churning in outrage. Fear ran deep, for the British colony was scheduled to be turned over to China on July 1, 1997, a mere eight years away, and those who did not have the connection and the money to emigrate to America, Canada, Australia, or elsewhere, feared that bloody reprisals, like the Tiananmen Massacre they had seen on television, would be awaiting them in the not-too-distant future. Taxi antennas were tied with strips of black cloth to signify mourning. Men and women wore black arm bands, and tens of thousands held candlelight vigils to grieve for the dead in Beijing. I went to the Foreign Press Club to hear the Manchurian, Liu Binyan, China's most important investigative journalist, who had been in the United States as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard since 1988. He had not been allowed to return to China during Democracy Spring and watched the events unfold from Hong Kong.

Now that dealings had turned cruel in China, my colleague, Anne Ofstedal, and I were asked by our bosses to find an alternative campus in Hong Kong. When Hong Kong could not offer us anything, we flew to Taiwan, the island of my birth, where the bones of my maternal grandparents lay buried in the city of Taidong. My childhood memories were infused with the color of azaleas, the Sleeping Dragon Range of Beitou, the spark of the fireflies over rice paddies and-oppression.. It was my first time back since leaving at the age of five, twenty-four years ago. My family had left it a police state, but in the summer of 1989, my heart thrilled to see the flowing Republic of China flag-overjoyed to see the white sun against a blue sky, surround by a field of red. A quarter century after our departure, Taiwan had an elected parliament and would be holding her first presidential election within the decade. On the lush quiet of a college campus, a replica of the Beijing Goddess of Democracy was raised to express solidarity with mainland students. Seeing Taiwanese students diligently studying beneath flowering trees on sun-dappled campus lawns, I felt infinitely sad for their counterparts on the mainland who could not afford this luxury of peace and stability to enrich their emotional and intellectual lives.

So, too, Taiwan could not offer an alternate campus. At that juncture, I considered my personal options, and came to a tough decision: I would return to Beijing. The civil war that was rumored did not materialize. I wanted to return to China and press my fingers to the pulse of the Middle Kingdom in the aftermath of the violence.

I flew back to Beijing, via Hong Kong, on June 22. Beijing Airport, under renovation, was nearly deserted, except for two files of petite, dark men, giggling and curious, pointing at our group, of mostly round-eyed Caucasians. They looked to be from Southeast Asia--Cambodia was my guess--and seemed in transit to another land. None had a single piece of luggage, just the cobalt blue pajama-like uniforms they wore. Were they slave labor in transit to rich Arab oil producing countries? It made me shiver to imagine the palpable chains shackling them together. They seemed like animals to slaughter. My mind flashed back to my junior year abroad in college, when backpacking through Europe, I had seen dark men from North Africa, their bare bemired torsos, shiny with sweat, like members of chain gangs, digging trenches for sewage pipes in Paris. They raised their faces to stare at me, standing at street level. It gave me the same kind of queasy feeling, meeting their eyes, for they, seemed like galley slaves of ancient Rome.
Those of us debarking in Bejing from the Hong Kong flight were among the first returning foreigners. More than thirty-five hundred Americans had been evacuated from China. As we waited for our suitcases to come down the conveyor at the baggage claim, huge blocks of jagged concrete came rumbling, tumbling down the ramp and trembled to a stop at our feet. I laughed, but no one else smiled at the absurdity of our situation.

I was foolish to return with a set of developed film taken by my photographer friend of the June 3-4 carnage. I held my breath for a long, still moment, my heart stuttered, as my bag was riffled by airport guards in green uniform; but the photos passed undetected. It was punishable under marshal law for foreigners to shoot photographs of demonstrations; what I had in my bag were far worse: a man on a hospital bed with a hole, the diameter of a pancake, and inches deep, at the base of his neck; a young woman whose head was oozing blood through bandages, curled up on a metal bed frame used as a gurney, transported by frantic running men; the charred corpse of a soldier; the PLA storming the steps to the Monument to the People's Heroes on the morning of June 4th.

A man I had once dated, an attaché of the Chilean Embassy, who had remained in Beijing during my absence, asked to borrow the pictures. His ambassador did not believe a massacre had taken place! Rafael wanted to show the photos as proof. It was hardly a surprise that this Augustus Pinochet appointee would side with the accounts of the Chinese butchers, rather than trust international press.

On one occasion, half a year earlier, while Rafael and I were driving through the Beijing streets, we heard the wail of sirens approaching us from behind, making way for the entourage of Cambodia's Prince Sihanook. "Hey, that siren is clearing the way for you and me," I said with a wink. Rafael smiled, and then said in a tone of utmost gravity: "If you stick around with me, it will be for us when I am ambassador." His words irritated me, but I kept silent: the ambassadorship of a repressive, patriarchal South American regime was hardly an enticement for me to "stick around." I had escaped bound feet by a mere generation; I had left abuse and stalking. I had already learned enough about slavery.

On my return to China, I was fired by my bosses in Boston for telling the truth: Beijing is dangerous; do not bring college students. Many of the young people I had shepherded had spent their days and nights carousing, going to dives, run by somewhat shadowy proprietors, or buying hashish from the Uigur Muslims, a Turkic minority from Western China. It seemed one of the first words the students learned was "pi-jiu"--beer. Capitalism's appetite could not be tamed: Boston replaced dissident me with a fresh recruit, and American students arrived in two weeks.

The campus was in a section of Beijing, called Baiduizi, loosely translated, "white pile of bones"-no doubt it had once been a burial ground. It rained heavily and at length in those eerie July days, as if heaven, too, was weeping for shame. Outside my window was a whispering, weedless track field, which the American students had dubbed, "Gobi Desert." At dusk the inhabitants of the surrounding dormitories seemed to respond to a silent beckoning and come float around this track field. An American student spoke about the concept of "sacred place." This prosaic piece of real estate, seemed certainly one such sacred place. Some walked alone, others in pairs, arms enfolding one another; children ran noiselessly; some sat alone on the concrete dais, not moving for hours in the light rain. A few pushed bicycles around the track in the pale, blue mist. There was a sickness in the slowness of movement. These people glided like ghosts of the dead, unwilling or unable to make a clean break from their earthly haunts.

Not long ago, the people were colorful. They were moving with determination, their footsteps planted solidly on the earth. Now they have returned to their listless gait of old, each step barely glancing the surface of the ground. Each soul in deep, blanketed conversation with himself.

But even in better times, when the Chinese students were at play, they moved differently, less vigorously, less boisterously. When the American students arrived in January, the entire field became bright and warm by their very presence. I remembered how they moved, how their laughter reverberated. They were intense points of color in motion on this field, now filled with the laments of spirits.
How long, I wondered, could I stay in China? I was afraid to walk alone. I was afraid of the sudden, swift blow that will leave me bruised, bloody and broken on the ground.

I found work at the American Embassy, Commerce Section, where I would soon meet Prescott Bush, President George Walker Bush's brother, at one time, Chairman of the U.S.-China Chamber of Commerce. Liberals and conservatives in the American government called for sanctions beyond arms sales, but the Bush family had close personal ties to China. George H. W. Bush served as the unofficial American ambassador to China before the normalization of relations in 1979. He believed that keeping the windows open would be best for China's pro-democracy effort. I moonlighted at the United Press International, translating the Chinese evening news, sleeping adjacent to the clacketing-clacking wire, fighting mosquitoes, nightmares and insomnia.

The fourth of July celebration at the American Embassy was attended by a group of less than two hundred Americans, which in past years ranged in the thousands with rock bands blaring Elvis and the Beatles, the Chinese guests wearing bemused smiles, observing the unorthodox dancing in the street. This year, it was not without laughter, but it was a subdued affair of hotdogs and quiet conversations. All dependents of the embassy personnel had been evacuated. I played volleyball with the Marines, who later raised the Stars and Stripes with utmost respect. As I stood with my hand over my heart, I felt a sharp sting in my eyes; I was acutely aware that of the two million Chinese who fled Communist China, my father was one, and by the trick of the stars, I was born in Taiwan, ultimately emigrating to America, and accorded all the rights the U.S. constitution guarantees. (I wanted to tattoo my passport on my body, lest I was assaulted by the armed Chinese soldiers, who stood in front of the embassy compounds. They enjoyed harassing me before allowing me entry. What if they didn't return my passport after perusing it?)

Later that summer, I was a dinner guest of Sally Lilley, the new ambassador's wife, at the embassy residence. I was entirely unaware that Fang Lizhi and his wife were hiding just to the back in the medical clinic. The Chinese staff, who served dinner were friendly to me, as I had befriended them when I worked for Bette Bao Lord in the summer of 1987 as her personal assistant. They were no doubt spies-every last one--and great care had to be taken so that they would not discover the hideout of Fang Lizhi. Chinese soldiers with their AK-47s stood ready outside the gates to apprehend him, should he be seen leaving one of the three separate Embassy compounds. There were also fears that PLA soldiers were preparing to storm the Embassy to apprehend him. At the Commerce Section, I was told we would lock ourselves in the walk-in safe, should we be attacked.

In the ensuing months, handsome, smiling PLA soldiers in crisp uniforms gave Beijing citizens free hair cuts on the sidewalks, trying to resurrect their image as a people's army, and attempting to regain the citizens' hearts and loyalty. Nightly news coverage was of the "thugs and hoodlums" apprehended or executed in spite of international appeals for clemency. The daily price of tomatoes ended the reportage. In those days, I saw books burned, stories destroyed. I saw artists and writers, beaten or numbed into silence. Great cultures tell life sustaining stories, but in China, big and small lies choked the air.

To swallow your voice, to keep stories buried deeply beneath layers and layers of silence is to live in a state of bondage. Stories are magic. Stories make us individuals. They make us free. They have power to create trouble for rulers, for a story is world upon itself: it has its own logic and cannot be ruled at all. That is why when a new emperor comes to the throne, books are burned and fresh versions of history are written to his liking.

By fall, I was suffering from depression and could not rouse myself out of bed in the mornings to go to work. On October 1, the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, I stayed in bed all day. When darkness came, I listened to the loud booms of fireworks exploding over Tiananmen Square, and the noise made me nauseous. It was time to go home. My body felt as stiff and burdensome as a concrete pillar. I struggled to pack my belongings and crawl aboard the plane that would take me home to California.

In the delicious tranquility of my parents' house, I awoke before dawn and sat cross-legged on the spacious living room floor, smiling upon the slowly swinging branches of the cypresses in the backyard, and looking up at the morning star at twilight, beaming down on the sleeping denizens of coastal California, I pondered on the impossibility of tanks grinding down the valley road.

The abuse I witnessed in China paralleled to my own personal narrative, but on a colossal scale; I understood the unintelligent, demonic thought-control, the thought-manipulation, the insidious violence, deeply, acutely. The mechanism of fear, whether applied to one human being by another or by a government to its people is one and the same.

Peace was mine, but only if I stayed indoors. My stalker had stolen the contents of my parents' trash bin, just days after the Tiananmen Massacre, looking for evidence that I had come home.

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Thank you for sharing this.

After reading this account, I was numbed for hours, speechless. I then spent several hours, talking until 4 or 5 in the morning with Gina about what happened, how it impacted you and your life, your bravery and your return home.

Even today, whilst working, I was in a daze and I imagine the only difference as time moves on will be that I will be able to better articulate my feelings about what you have shared.

I know one thing for certain, your account will stay with me for the rest of my life and I thank you for sharing this with everyone.