June 3, 2009, Trento, Italy
I’d been living in Beijing for almost six months on the fifth anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square Massacre.
Our area of Beijing, between People’s University and Peking University (referred to as Ren-da and Bei-da, their Chinese names), had become tense and restrictive in the weeks and days before the anniversary. Then one morning in early May, after waiting along Haidian Road with my children for their bus to the International School, I was pushed away from the gate of Ren-da University, where we lived.
“I live here–” I began to say.
“ID, ID,” the guard demanded. There were new uniformed and rifled guards outside the gate. I’d never needed such a thing as my ID to get in before. But, from then until after the anniversary of the massacre on June Fourth, I would.
A brilliant Chinese professor who visited our apartment often and delighted in showing us the city would not even say the word ‘Tiananmen’ on campus.
“We are told to refer to it as the Event of June Fourth,” she said.
She’d studied in the United States and Paris, but when I asked her about her hesitation she shrugged.
“It’s not so much of a restriction. And there are many listeners here,” she said.
Sometime in May, the Ren-da English Corner–a time early each Friday evening when Chinese students gathered at a small fountain on Ren-da campus to practice their English–was cancelled. Our children always enjoyed this free-for-all: a first-grader, second-grader, and fifth-grader (who spoke good Mandarin) the center of attention among the adult students, especially as the weather improved. Now gatherings of more than five persons were not allowed.
At least it was okay for our family to be outside together, we joked.
Young men in white T-shirts roamed the campus. They were police.
On June Fourth, I took my two sons to Tiananmen Square on our way to their first visit to the Forbidden City.
Wen Ye (Ye, her first name, pronounced Yuh), a friend of mine from Bei-da University, was with us.
We got out of the taxi and crossed under Chang’an Boulevard, Boulevard of Eternal Peace, six lanes running east-to-west in front of the Tiananmen Square Gate entrance to the Forbidden City.
I explained to my sons: “Tiananmen, in Chinese, means the Gate of Heavenly Peace.” The older had studied Chinese, for a year before we came to China, with a Chinese student who’d lived with us in the States.
We emerged from under Chang’an Boulevard onto the far northern edge of the imposing Tiananmen Square. There were a few people on the Square, mostly single or in couples.
I got out my camera. Within moments, single men who’d seemed to be lounging were running toward us shouting. They all wore white T-shirts, like the ubiquitous young men on Ren-da campus. What did they think two women and two blonde children were going to do?
We stood still, and they formed a half-circle around us.
“Bu dwei chi. Sorry,” we all said.
We went back through the tunnel toward the Forbidden City. I knew there were stairs just inside the ticket office that led to an outdoor overlook above the entrance. The four of us climbed the stairs, up the inside of the Gate, and looked out over Tiananmen Square from a balcony halfway up, the place Mao where always stood. Below us hung the massive portrait of Mao that looks out over the Square.
Ye had never been there, either. She was from Harbin. She was twenty-one and already a graduate student in Intercultural Relations. She spoke perfect English and wanted, she said, to become a journalist, to start a newspaper.
Our group of four stood above Tiananmen Square looking east and west down the vast Chang-an Boulevard. A man stood nearby, black-haired, perhaps in his thirties, not Chinese.
“Where are you from?” he asked in English.
“The U.S.,” one of my sons said.
“I’m from the Philippines,” he said.
“We lived there, in Manila. I was born there,” the other son said.
“Do you know what happened here?”
He told us his story.
“I was working as a cameraman with Agence France Presse during those days, five years ago,” he said. As he told the story of May 4 to June 4, 1989, he pointed to places on Tiananmen Square, to where art students made a white Goddess of Democracy, then to the west down the seemingly-endless Chang’an Boulevard, describing how the tanks had come.
I took his picture with the Square in the background.
“I was with a French news reporter out there earlier this morning,” he said then. “He was supposed to do a story from the Square. The police grabbed my camera, took it, roughed up the reporter. Now he’s back at his hotel trying to get our Chinese driver out of police custody. I came here,” he said, “blended in with the tourists.”
I’d met Ye through another American professor, who knew of her love of literature and mine.
In mid-February, I’d ridden a bike up to Bei-da University campus to meet with her. Like at Ren-da University, visitors had to show a photo ID to get through the Bei-da campus gates. Even almost five years after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Chinese officials didn’t want journalists asking the more activist Bei-da students about it. Ye and I met at the professor’s on-campus apartment.
Within a few weeks she’d found the artists’ village somewhere north of Bei-da University near the ruins of a palace called Yuan Ming Yuan where, in a set of deserted mud-brick buildings, a group of painters had settled. The New York Times Magazine had done a feature on the place just before we left the U.S., and I’d asked Ye to help me locate it. In one picture, Happiness, a sea of young men with identical faces and white T-shirts and wide fake smiles stand in formation like the terra cotta figures discovered in Xian. And where they stand is clearly in front of Tiananmen Square Gate.
The next week Ye and I were pushing our bikes through muddy streets lined with hovels. She found the gate. Each house had a wooden gate, a small courtyard for cooking, and one dark room. The young man we met had crates for furniture. He gave us tea. The room was cold.
He hoped I was a Hong Kong art dealer. He had no more money to buy paint or stretched canvases. The one work he showed us was made from his empty paint tubes, rolled and bent and glued onto a wooden artist’s pallet. From across the room it looked like a color bas-relief sculpture. He was pleased when we asked, but said he would not sell it.
He took us to meet his friends. At one house, the whole place was empty except for the art, larger-than-life pictures stacked against a wall. Under fluorescent lighting, I saw the same legions of false-smiling figures standing in front of the Tiananmen Square Gate.
We went back a few weeks later, and this time the young man did not ask us in. He would not show us around. The “police,” security wearing the white T-shirts, had been there after we’d left that first time, asking who we were, what we talked about. Were we journalists, they wanted to know.
When she came to our house the first time for dinner, Ye complained about the constant government harassment of young intellectuals. Sometimes, she and a few other students from Ren-da were turned away from the front desk of our “Foreign Experts Building” by the security officer, whenever we invited them to dinner. Even the youngest desk people could be bullies. Ye and the other students weren’t even allowed to use the desk phone to call and cancel. At first they were embarrassed to tell us and simply said they couldn’t make it. But students who visited us or came to our parties and who were members of The Party had no trouble getting in.
Ye wanted more than anything to go to the United States to study journalism. She’d written a paper on the earliest allegations of organ-harvesting after executions of political prisoners in Beijing. She tried to visit one of the Tiananmen mothers, a professor who lived on the Ren-da campus, but was turned away by guards posted there.
Several times Ye said she felt there was no one she could talk to safely besides foreigners. “There are spies, you know, students who take payment and report us.”
I believed her. “You should be careful what you say in our apartment,” I said.
I believed Ye because the young Chinese woman who’d lived with our family–who was taking care of our house and pets while we were in China–had asked us not to tell anyone in the U.S. or China the story she told us about her family in Shanghai and their history. “Every Chinese knows there are Chinese government agents here in school at the university,” she said, “students who watch you and find out about you and report it.”
Ye learned more of the history of the Cultural Revolution from a book I loaned her, Jonathan Spence’s In Search of Modern China.
“The only thing my father or grandfather will say about those times,” Ye said, “was that mainly it was the best people who died or were broken–those who showed compassion and tried to help others, to speak out against the government or to speak up on behalf of their friends or neighbors or colleagues. Many were the educated and those who had traveled outside the country. Since those days,” she said, “my grandfather says there are only a few left who will risk sacrificing themselves for nothing. Even in our dorms,” she said after she’d shown me her room at Bei-da, which she shared with about nine other women, “no one ’sticks their neck out.’”
We sat in the poorly-lit room with its five sets of narrow bunk beds and clothing stored in trunks or boxes.
“If we try to get better rooms, even better food, others laugh and say, just think of yourself and your own family’s good. That’s why I have to get out, study somewhere else–people close their hearts, they will do anything to survive and come out on top. They already have.”
After I left the country in late June of 1994, Wen Ye and I kept in touch. She met a professor from Pennsylvania who helped her with graduate school applications. She changed her name, Americanized it to Bella Ye Wen. At one point we talked by phone–it was clear her letters were not getting to me. She said she would try mailing them off-campus.
Finally, in July, she wrote to say she’d received a full scholarship to work for a PhD at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. Her visa application was going slowly.
“One day I’ll publish my own newspaper,” she announced.
We agreed she would visit my family over Christmas break. September came–I waited to hear more from her.
After Labor Day, the American professor who’d introduced me to Ye called me. Ye had been found dead, drowned, in her apartment complex swimming pool just across the street from USC’s entrance in South Central LA. No one acknowledged having witnessed it.
“She was so bright, so savvy,” he said. “What do you think would make her swim alone?”
“Did she know how to swim?” I asked.
“She’s from Harbin, on the coast. People swim. Do you think it could have been purposeful? The school, USC, is asking me.” He’d written letters for her to the dean.
“You mean, would she kill herself?” I was incredulous.
“Maybe she got here and was just overwhelmed,” he said.
“She thought about coming here for years.”
“Then what else would we think happened to her?” he said.
I understood what he was suggesting.
“They send security people who pose as students,” he continued. “They are students. The dean said she’d already made a powerful impression on the other students.”
I remembered more details from the Chinese student who’d lived with us for three years, who reminded us not to tell anyone–not to repeat anything about her that she told us. She did not trust a few of the other Chinese students who watched and reported on the rest.
On the Gate above Tiananmen Square that June 4, 1994, Ye spoke to the Filipino photojournalist alone for a few minutes. She told him she wanted to be a journalist. He gave her his card and the card of his boss at Agence France.
“Call us when you’re ready, see what we can do to help,” he said.
She was thrilled. She helped him get a taxi and stood along Chang’an Boulevard so he could leave the Gate area quickly, without being seen. He was grateful. He wasn’t sure who might still be waiting for him. He wasn’t a “Western” journalist.
There was no autopsy for Wen Ye. The Chinese government and USC flew her parents from Harbin. They’d never traveled before. She was an only child, of course. I wrote something that was read at her funeral, at the United University Chapel on the USC campus, on September 13, 1995.
Several years ago I saw a report on PBS about current college students in Beijing who, when asked by Western reporters about the Tiananmen incident, said they hadn’t heard of it. They were shown the iconic photograph of the young man who walked up to the line of tanks coming up Chang’an Boulevard and stood in front of the first tank. The students couldn’t identify what was happening. I read this week in the International Herald Tribune here in Italy that many students know of the “incident” thanks to the Internet, but consider it “just a blip” in China’s history. Meanwhile, the internet, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs there are shut down as we wait for the anniversary to come and go.
I knew that Yuan Ming Yuan Village was bulldozed not long after we left the country. Recently one of the paintings like those I’d seen there was shown in the New York Times, auctioned at Sotheby’s for an astronomical sum.
Ye turned twenty-three on July 4, 1995, about eight weeks before she died. Now, on the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, she would be thirty-seven.
The fearless, the compassionate, those who speak out for others in China–what courage it takes. What fortitude. In the memory of all silenced students and activists, we remember you today.