June 4th 1989. I wonder if you remember where you were that day. I do. It had been a strange few weeks leading up to that day.
On April 15th I had been part of a small group going from Sheffield to London to welcome a delegation from Anshan in Liaoning province in north east China. Anshan and Sheffield were twin towns (sister cities), linked because of the steel and coal industries. I remember waiting outside Sheffield Town Hall with the woman in charge of the city’s relations with its twin towns, listening to sirens. A lot of sirens. We waited for the car that would take us down to London, and we asked ourselves what on earth could be going on that there would be so many emergency vehicles on the roads.
As we made our way down to London we listened to news reports and gradually learnt what had happened at Hillsborough. How so many Liverpool fans had been crushed to death in the stadium. By the time we reached the hotel that evening it was clear that something heartbreakingly awful had happened. There were 96 fatalities and the relatives of those victims are still waiting for the whole story and justice.
The next day we met the six people who had come from Anshan, and then began several days of surreal sight-seeing. I was the interpreter, but I was told not to mention what had happened in Sheffield. We were to tell them just before we got back to the city. We went to Windsor, to Eton, to Stratford-upon-Avon, and in the evenings we watched the news and carried the sadness in our hearts.
As we approached Sheffield I told them what had happened, and explained that the city was in mourning. We hoped they would understand if people seemed subdued. They listened carefully, then asked, ‘How many people did you say had died?’ ’96.’ ‘And they were from another city?’ ‘Yes, they were from Liverpool.’ ‘Only 96 people and not from your city, then . . . ‘ I remember feeling amazed at the cold-hearted calculations.
There was something else on the TV news every day. Something else we were not to mention to our Chinese guests. There were protestors in Tian An Men Square. They had gone there first to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, but like the protestors in Turkey today, it quickly became a bigger movement. The students wanted democracy, and they besieged the Great Hall of the People for weeks. President Gorbachev visited China during that time and could not enter the building from the square because of the on-going protests. It went on for about seven weeks, and then on the night of June 3rd/4th they sent in the soldiers. How many died that night? No one knows. Hundreds? Thousands?
I remember going to church on the 4th and someone asking me what was going on, they thought I might understand it since I had lived in China. After all the optimism, after the occupation of the square for weeks without violence it had all become terrifyingly bloody. I had no answers.
One year later I was living in China, teaching at Shenyang Teachers’ College. It was a strange time. I had gone back as much to improve my Chinese as to teach English, but with the exception of 2 brave young women it was difficult to find Chinese people willing to be friends. I asked if I could get a daily newspaper; I was told it would be arranged, but it never was. My students doubled as the censors of my mail, they knew my news from home before I did and weren’t afraid to tell me so. But quietly, I heard the personal stories of some of the students. How they had all been told to go home in May, do not go to Beijing, do not pass go, but really many had gone, showing their student cards and getting a free ride to the capital.
There had been a small pro-democracy movement on campus; the leader was being held somewhere. He was released and one day appeared at the back of my class, back against the wall, nervous, suffering from eczema, too anxious to talk much. I heard that he had been held for months in solitary confinement, with nothing to do. He had been alone with his thoughts for a very long time. As suddenly as he appeared, he was gone again. I don’t know where he went. He might have dropped out, just gone home to his parents. I hope that’s what happened.
On June 4th 1990, all classes were cancelled. Apparently not because it was the first anniversary of what had happened in Tian An Men Square, but on some pretext. It was a strange, quiet day, made stranger by the entire phone system in the college not working. The people who had told me they had been to Beijing the previous year had no desire to try the experiment again. One day around that time I was in the centre of Shenyang with one of my brave friends and an elderly lady noticed she was of college age and started speaking to her about the events of the previous spring. ‘Are you students going to do something again this year?’ she asked. Of course not.
June 4th, 1989. The Chinese students’ version of the Statue of Liberty held her flame aloft with both hands, I remember a student being interviewed and explaining that she needed more strength to hold up democracy in China. I remember watching the student leaders, in pyjamas, attached to drips, on hunger strike but meeting with the politicians, arguing their case. Their lost cause. In the years since, the leaders from those days have left China, a new generation of activists has emerged. So far, Chinese democracy has not. The economy is booming, but the gap between the urban rich and the poor in the countryside grows wider and wider. The Chinese people I know are hard-working, friendly, truly, you could not find a more loyal friend. They know who they are, they know the history they come from, and they are proud people. Like the people of other countries, they are not well-served by their leaders in many ways.
Twenty-four years ago there was a generation of students who were optimistic, or maybe naive, or both. They thought their leaders would listen, but in the end they didn’t.