On June 4, 1989 I had just gotten back from traveling in China when the government killed the students in Tiananmen Square. I spent the next few days glued to CNN watching what enfolded; shocked since four days earlier I was there, in Tiananmen Square.
The question I had then that I still have today is, What happened in the other cities? Back in 1989 I was touring China with my mother. We started our trip at the beginning of May in Shanghai. I was told that the building across the street from our hotel was a sports stadium. There were a number of people in front of that building dressed in white carrying banners. When we asked our tour guide what was going on, she told us it was a sports rally for a local team. I remember thinking, those are the strangest sports fans I’d ever seen.
As our trip progressed and we visited more cities, it became apparent that these people with banners were more than sports fans. About a week into our trip CNN started covering the student protest story. This was the first time we learned that the people with signs were part of a country wide uprising. The first large protests we saw were in the city center of Suzhou. As our trip continued and we visited more cities, we found each progressively filled with citizens marching in solidarity with the students. By the time we got to Xian there were tens of thousands of people marching in solidarity. Also, by the time we got to Xian all western broadcasts were blocked. I remember watching Chinese TV, not understanding a word they said. What I saw were a few young men being interviewed. These young men were having a hard time remaining conscious during the interview. A local Chinese person told me that the young people were protest leaders in Beijing. They were being sleep deprived. To this day I have no idea if that assessment was accurate.
In Xian our hotel was at the top of a large traffic circle, which was the center of the protests. Since we no longer had access to any western news I went outside, found people who spoke English, and asked what was going on. There were copies of hand written sheets of paper pasted up on walls. Asking around, a man who spoke English politely told me it was underground news describing what was going on in Beijing. Another English speaker asked me what I thought of their students. When I replied, “They’re amazing” he smiled and said, "we all are so proud of our students."
Someone else explained that the students were demonstrating for freedom. What I learned from the people in the street was their definition of freedom and democracy was different than how those words are used in America. At that time in China each street had a representative who reported to an area representative, who reported to a town representative, this chain of representatives went all the way to the top. If someone on a street needed a job, wanted to go to school, wanted to change jobs or had any other basic life choice they had to go to their street representative and ask for a favor. That the street representative had a lot of power over their lives and corruption was rampant. I learned that people wanted an ability to make life choices, what schools to apply to, what jobs to apply to, and ability to leave a job and go to a different job without asking their street representative. I was told the students were trying to change the system, so that the people had more control over their daily lives.
Every evening we were in Xian I could look outside of our hotel window and see tens of thousands of people walking down the street in solidarity. This went on for hours. This was not a small group of people walking in a circle, it was tens of thousands of people who joined in the protest. Whole families were part of it, dads pedaling a bike, moms balancing on the back and a child balancing on the handlebars. They were joined by large groups of people carrying a company banner singing their company song.
When we finally got to Beijing, the protests and the energy was amazing. The streets down town were impassable by bus. We got out of our tour bus about ten blocks away and walked to Tiananmen Square. The atmosphere was casual, lots of people with banners, whole families out showing their solidarity.
Also in Beijing we visited the parents of a friend of my mothers. His father spoke English and told us how worried they were for the students; that the Chinese government does not like instability. He kept on saying this will end in disaster. Looking back, it was the first sign of troubles to come.