|IMPRESSIONS OF CHINA|
We were really excited when we got an invitation to attend a Physics Symposium at Beijing in China organised by the China Centre for Advanced Science and Technology, because unlike the West, China was unknown territory in several ways. A visit to China would give us a chance to see old wonders like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City as well as talk to people about their more recent history like the Cultural Revolution. As the date for our departure, 26 June 1989 drew nearer, we realised that we may even be privileged enough to witness history in the making, as accounts of the pro-democracy student demonstrations at Tianenmen Square hit the headlines everyday. While we were wondering whether our Symposium would be cancelled and whether Beijing was safe to visit, we received a telex from the Organisers that there was no law and order problem in Beijing and that the Symposium would go on as scheduled.
When we reached Beijing on the 26th, we learnt that the martial law imposed on the city was a complete failure since the army had not even entered the city. It appeared that the students had the full support of the citizens in the city as well as in the outlying farms. When martial law was declared and the 38th army was ordered to clear the Square, farmers in the outlying areas spontaneously put up barricades to prevent the army from marching into the city. They talked to the soldiers and convinced them of the legitimacy of the students' demands. Hence, at least the first effort of the hardliners to confront the students appeared to have ended in a stalemate with the army camping on the outskirts of the city and the students camping in the Square, with perfectly amicable and friendly encounters between the two groups. We found that all the faculty members unanimously supported the students inspite of enormous differences in their backgrounds. For instance, one of the faculty members had been a victim of the Cultural Revolution and had even had experience of manual labour, whereas another one had had good contacts with Chairman Mao and hence no trouble at all during the revolution. However, both of them had similar feelings against the present Government and strongly supported the students.
The Symposium had about seventy Chinese participants from all over the country, one third of whom were students, and nine were lecturers from abroad. During our visit, we had conversations with several of them about general academic life in China as well as about the circumstances leading to the protest at the Square. The reasons for the student-led protests appeared to be economic as well as political. On the surface, Beijing was a fairly prosperous city and consumer goods were freely available in the shops. The maintenance of roads and other public utilities was as good as in the West. There were several private cars on the roads, though the most popular mode of transportation appeared to be the bicycle. We did not see any motorised two-wheelers in Beijing, though we did see a few in the city of Datong. Traffic was well maintained in Beijing with completely separated lanes for bicycles and cars. Identical looking multi-storeyed buildings with identical looking apartments were not particularly aesthetically appealing, but we gathered from the local people that the housing problem in Beijing was essentially solved by giving everyone employed there tiny, identical apartments. However, despite the appearance of a free market, we were told that the purchasing power of the average citizen was not very high. We found that the average salaries in Beijing ranged from a 100 yuans (the local unit of currency, approximately equal to 5 rupees) to 200 yuans per month. The cost of living appeared to be about half of that in Bombay, so that equivalent salaries would be Rs.1000/-to Rs.2000/- per month. Also, unlike in India, the salaries did not vary much between professional and non-professional classes. The retirement age ranged from 50 to 55 for women and 60 to 65 for men depending on the kind of job. Even after retirement, the salary was continued, though with no further increment. Moreover, often, sons or daughters of retirees were entitled to jobs in the same office or company. For academicians in particular, the salaries ranged from 120 yuans for lecturers to 200 yuans for professors. The retirement age was 55 and 65 for women and men respectively upto the associate professor level. A professor however could get extensions upto the age of 70. Though our contact was purely with academic people from the cities, we learnt from them that there was no absolute poverty in the sense of starvation anywhere in the country, even though the countryside in general was poorer than the cities.
The myth that socialism is conducive to feminism certainly explodes in a country like China, where women get inferior treatment such as being forced to retire early, even in academic circles. From the 70 Chinese participants at the Symposium only 2 were women, one a student and the other a faculty member. The local faculty could not think of a single woman professor in the University. All 3 secretaries at the Symposium, however, were women. The academic community appeared fairly indifferent to the problem. One of the men thought that women liked to retire early. Unfortunately, we did not get a chance to talk to the women participants. Moreover, since most conversations tended to focus on the crisis in Tianenmen Square, an in-depth discussion of their social lives was not really possible.
The major economic issue appeared to be rampant corruption among Government officials. Firstly, there were two kinds of currency being used in the country. One was FEC or foreign exchange certificate which could be converted to outside currency like dollars and the other was RMB which could not be converted to any foreign money. Officially, one yuan of FEC was equivalent to one yuan of RMB, But on the black market it was worth twice as much. Furthermore, certain kinds of goods (mostly imported) could only be bought with FEC. This two-tier currency system was obviously open to misuse by anyone with access to foreign exchange and this happened to be mostly high-up Government officials and their cronies. The second point mentioned by the students had to do with import licenses. Specifically, they mentioned corruption and improprieties in the handling of import licenses for foreign cars where again undue advantages accrued to friends and relatives of Government officials.
Politically, many of the protestors were communists themselves. The students estimated that roughly 40 percent were actually party members, who were dissatisfied with the leadership. Chairman Mao was still held in high respect, at least by the students. They blamed people around him for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. None of the older people who had suffered in the Cultural Revolution made any derogatory statements about him either, though we wondered what they really felt. Maybe, it was still dangerous to be openly critical of Chairman Mao even though neither the students nor the faculty appeared to have any qualms about criticising Premier Li Peng or the present Government. They felt that opening up economically to the West should go hand in hand with certain political freedoms as well. Specifically, they wanted freedom of press and freedom to remove corrupt Government officials.
Besides the conversations with students and faculty, there were things that we could see for ourselves. When we went sightseeing to the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall, we saw several soldiers who had also come to see the sights. The soldiers were for the most part very young (18-22).There certainly appeared to be no apparent tension between the citizens and soldiers. On 27th May, at around 7.00 p.m., we visited Tianenmen Square. It was a huge and extremely crowded Square with probably more than one lakh people gathered there. The People's Hall was at one side of the Square and the gates leading to the Forbidden City with a large portrait of Chairman Mao was on another side. Inside the Square, the students had put up a fence and set up camps inside. Only genuine students or academicians with a University identity card were allowed inside the fence. There were students from Universities all over the country, many of whom had set up camp with a few tents and their University flag. In contrast to the rest of Beijing which was scrupulously clean, the Square was littered with plastic bags, paper, cans and broken glass. With temperatures in Beijing ranging from over 35 degrees in the day to 15 degrees at night and the lack of sanitation, camping in the Square could hardly have been very comfortable. We gathered that many of the local students would take turns to stay there so that others could go back to the hostels. The whole group seemed extremely well organised and disciplined. They had a loudspeaker in the centre, where some of them were making speeches and raising slogans. Our local guides told us that they were explaining their demands to the citizens and raising slogans against the Government. They appeared quite willing to talk to foreigners, since some of them knew a little English. One of our group was from the Soviet Union, whom the students seemed particularly happy to meet. We had the impression that they felt that he was a liberated comrade who had reached the goal they were striving to reach. The point that the students had the full support of the citizens was amply clear, since besides the approximately 3000 to 5000 students living in the Square, around one lakh citizens had flocked to the Square to show their support and solidarity with the students. We heard from our hosts that many of the citizens living near the Square were actually providing food for the students.
After walking around the Square for a couple of hours, we went down to the subway to cross the road. The walls were plastered with cartoons, which we were told were anti Government. There were also newspapers from Hong Kong stuck on the walls and crowds gathered around reading them. It appeared that nobody believed anything printed in the local newspapers, which were completely Government controlled. What amazed us was that in the whole area, we saw neither policemen nor military men except for two military personnel guarding the Chinese flag in the Square, who were always there even during normal times. Our hosts told us that the area was so well policed by the students themselves, that three persons who had defiled the portrait of Mao the week before, had been actually caught by the students, who proved that they were not students and handed them over to the police. Our impression when we left the Square was that of a peaceful well organised student-led demonstration with the full support of the local people.
After our visit to the Square, the Symposium as well as other sightseeing trips continued as scheduled. We heard rumours that the students were planning to call off the demonstration as public support was slowly dwindling and for sanitary reasons. Later, we heard that they planned to continue till the 20th of June, when the meeting of the People's Congress (the Chinese Parliament) was due to end. Normally the Congress was just a rubber stamp, but there was a small hope that under the circumstances, it could choose to assert itself. On the 28th of May, one of the local faculty told us that Mr. Deng had come out strongly against the demonstrators on television. A clear indication that not just academicians were involved in the protests came that evening, when some of the faculty translated a conversation between the waitresses at our hotel. They were telling each other that Mr. Deng had lost his head. Some of the faculty were concerned that the TV statement meant that the hardliners were winning the power struggle. One of them felt that this may be a good time for the students to back down and start again after the old leadership had died out. However,we heard nothing further in the next few days and when we left for Datong city on the night of 2nd June, nothing untoward was expected to happen. As we left for the station, all we saw were large Friday night crowds moving towards the Square.
We spent the 3rd of June sightseeing in Datong. In general, Datong corresponded more to our expectation of a Chinese city than Beijing. Many people were dressed in the drab blue and gray uniforms of the Chinese worker in contrast to Beijing where purely Westernised clothing was worn. The general economic level of the city also appeared to be lower with older, narrower streets, though a lot of reconstruction work was taking place in the older part of the city. Datong was basically a coal-mining town, so cooking was being done on coal stoves in the older parts. The city also had a large percentage of muslims. Our hosts told us that muslim minorities were originally suppressed and economically backward. But now, we gathered, it was advantageous to be a muslim because of reservation of seats in the Universites. In general , Universities held fairly tough entrance examinations because they could accomodate only 15 percent of the population. Officially, merit was the only criterion for selection, but here again, it was not unusual to find cases of nepotism and corruption. Our visit to Datong was scheduled primarily to see caves (along the lines of Ellora) with enormous statues of Buddha, originally built around the 13th century, but restored by later dynasties. It was interesting to see that they had precisely the same stories of the birth and life of Buddha that we have, without any distortion, despite the enormous distance the story had travelled. In relation to later events, the only noteworthy item was that our visit to Hanging Temple, which was located in a military area was cancelled, though permission had been obtained earlier. We later heard that the 27th army which actually attacked Beijing had been moved from Datong that very day. After our tour, just before leaving for the railway station, at about 10.00 p.m., we heard rumours at the hotel that all citizens in Beijing had been asked to stay indoors.
We reached Beijing at 7.00 a.m. on 4th morning. Our first clue that something was wrong was when we discovered that the bus that was supposed to have picked us up had not arrived at the station. Moreover, there were no vehicles, buses, taxis or private cars to be seen on the streets. Our local guides from the Symposium asked the 30 of us to stay in the foreigners' waiting room (which, incidentally, was much better furnished than the general waiting area) and went to look for vehicles to take us back to the hotel. Handicapped by our lack of knowledge of Chinese, we had no way of finding out what was wrong. A van for 15 people was arranged around half past eight. The group that was left behind including us finally left by another van at 10.00 a.m. When we went out onto the streets, we realised that something major had occured. Thousands of people were out on the streets talking and gesticulating. People on bicycles appeared to be carrying news from one group to another. We avoided Tianenmen Square, but at the first crossroad we saw a barricade of cars and buses mangled and destroyed, and a burnt bus. At other places near the Square, we saw burning army trucks and mangled bicycles. Altogether, we saw 6-7 burning vehicles and several other destroyed ones. Once we hit the main road leading north away from the Square, we saw a group of 20-25 students stop a police car on the next lane and drag the driver out of it. They moved aside and let us pass and then started breaking the police van and overturning it. A few metres ahead, there was an army truck which had apparently just been set on fire. A few hundred metres along the road, we came across a large convoy of army trucks (25-30 vehicles) standing on an East-West overbridge with soldiers standing around, just watching. We passed under them and headed further north for our hotel at the outskirts of the city. This ended our personal encounter with violence and military in the city except for brief glimpses of barricades and military men on 6th morning, on our way to the airport. Our impression that day was that the atmosphere in the city was calm and deliberate with no hysteria. The retaliatory acts of violence by the students were specific against the military and police, and did not degenerate into general rioting even though the students and the citizens appeared angry. Our guides had told us that under no circumstances were we to jeopardise security by taking photos, and being physicists and not journalists (to excuse our cowardice) we complied.
The rest of the information that we got about that fateful Saturday night was through reports from eyewitnesses. Our first piece of news came from the driver of the bus which was supposed to have picked us up. At 6.00 a.m.,he was heading towards the station, when he witnessed the shooting down of 3 students. He took them to the hospital, where fortunately all 3 survived. He came back to the hotel with the bullets and blood all over the bus. At about noon, another student returned to the hotel after having been at the Square all night and having walked back 20 kms. since he could find no conveyance. His description of the events that night were graphic, though, as expected in times of crisis, rather confused. He later told us that he was an activist at his University in Southern China. He was near the Square at about 10.00 p.m., when he saw tanks and men with machine guns approaching the Square. Citizens and students who tried to talk to them were told "Don't talk to us. We have our orders." After reaching the Square, he said that they gave the people half an hour to clear the Square. But the students, instead of running away, started approaching the military men to talk to them. However, anyone who came within range was mercilessly shot down. They then started moving the tanks into the Square crushing people. By 5.00 a.m., the Square had been cleared and the military had moved in. But even after that, they continued to shoot at students running away. In many cases, they followed them into nearby streets and shot into windows of houses, at people in balconies and generally went on a rampage of killing. Further information was brought back by students who went to the Square on the 4th morning, students who had been to the Universities to meet friends who had been at the Square and some faculty members who lived near the Square and had gone home for the weekend. All of them agreed as to the general manner in which the Square had been cleared except that the general impression appeared to be that no warning at all was given before the tanks rolled in. The shooting into streets and windows was corroborated by one of the faculty who said that shots had been fired into his courtyard. One of them saw machine gun marks in the subway at shoulder height and blood on the floor, which made it clear that they were shooting to kill. The students who went there the next morning stayed about a kilometre away from the Square. It appeared that a large crowd had rushed there in the morning despite the danger, since many people were anxious about family and friends in the Square. But no one at all was allowed in the Square. The people could smell burning bodies and they suspected that the wounded as well as dead were being cremated. Several more people were killed at this stage. It appeared that there were several waves where people would rush to the Square and would be sent back by bursts of firing as soon as they got within range. Undaunted by the danger, 20,000-30,000 people had collected near the Square by the afternoon. They claimed that the youngest killed was 3 years old and the oldest 78. One of them saw a mother carrying a nine year old child in her arms crying `This is the gangster the army has killed '. This was in reference to the official news which said that the army had cleared the Square of thugs and gangsters. The students also retaliated violently against any isolated soldier. One of the foreigners saw a soldier hanging from a bus. None of the people who had been at the scene of the massacre were in any position to estimate numbers. The Red Cross estimate that we heard on the BBC news was that 3000 people had been killed. The students agreed with the estimate, though they warned that it could be even more.
Even on 4th evening, the official TV news continued to make the ridiculous statement that rumours of a massacre at Tianenmen Square were false, although they claimed that the Square had been cleared of thugs and bandits, and that several soldiers had been wounded. We heard an interesting variant of the official version from an influential person close to the authorities. Their claim was that the skirmish actually started when a soldier killed three people in an accident. An angry mob killed him and that escalated into rioting between students and soldiers in the Square. The army attempted to quell the riot with teargas and rubber bullets and nobody knows at what stage they actually started using real bullets. None of us gave much credence to this version, since the use of teargas and rubber bullets was totally unsubstantiated by the eyewitnesses. Moreover, the attack on the students could hardly have been unpremeditated when the authorites had explicitly moved in a new army from Datong. It was the variation in the different levels of official news that was interesting to see. We heard that there were some dissentors even among the newsreaders. An English newsreader deviated from the text and said that there had been bloodshed. A Chinese newsreader wore black and cried even as he was saying that there had been no massacre. We alternated between listening to the the BBC news and listening to the students. Besides discussion of events at the Square, the major fear voiced that evening, was that the army would enter Beijing and Tsing Hua Universities whose students had played a major role in the pro-democracy movement.
We arose on 5th morning to find that 4th night had been fairly peaceful and that the Universities were still safe. On the personal side, we heard that we were to be flown out to Hong Kong the next morning, thanks to an influential professor who had managed to arrange tickets for all the foreign participants at the Symposium. We then heard about the subtleties of the different armies being used and rumours of power struggles within the party. The 38th army stationed around Beijing was in some sense a local army, with many of the soldiers having families in Beijing. Also, many of the soldiers being city-bred were more amenable to pro-democracy arguments. The 27th army which actually carried out the massacre, on the other hand, was more provincial. We heard that those soldiers had been deliberately kept away from any news about the Square and were only told that the Square had to be cleared of thugs and undesirable elements. The use of the 27th army may even have had political undertones, because we heard that this army was headed by a nephew of President Yang. Furthermore, once the leaders decided to use violence, they could not afford to go slow, because of the fear that the students and the citizens would convert this army as well. Everybody realised that the use of violence at this juncture was indicative of power struggles at very high levels in the party. Rumours flew around that Deng was ill and senile and someone had used him to give deathbed orders so that he could be used as a scapegoat after his death. The truth will probably be known only when the present crisis is over.
Many of the academicians and students also feared a severe repression of the intellectuals if the hardliners won the battle. Even the participants in the Symposium expected to have to make statements when they went back to their home institutions, which could be at worst non-commital. They expected severe repercussions for known student leaders. These expectations certainly seem to have been borne out by the news on the 10th of June that student leaders have been arrested. At the very least, they did not expect any known pro-democracy supporter to be able to leave the country. At worst, it could be the Cultural Revolution all over again.
We left for the airport early on 6th morning. We avoided going through the city, but even at the outskirts, we were diverted by barricades that were being constructed by the people. A slight note of incongruity was struck by a lone jogger on the streets at 6.00 a.m., but it served as a reminder that the regular routine of life goes on, despite national or even international traumas. The airport was chaotic with all the foreigners trying to get on to the first available flight out of the country. Their task was made considerably harder by the fact that many airlines had cancelled their flights. Thanks to our confirmed tickets, we had no trouble getting out of the country. But even as we left, we thought of the uncertainties ahead for the scientists we had left behind. During the Symposium, one of the students had lamented to us that there were no genuine Chinese physicists, only Chinese-American physicists. However, genuine Chinese politicians have invented a time-machine that physicists all over the world could not. In just a few hours in the early morning of the 4th of June, the politicians set back the Chinese clock by at least 50 years.