The night China shut the door to democracy was not the last of it.
Teachers might occasionally tell their students who have questions, “The door is always open.” As a new English teacher at a small college in South China, I quickly learned that was the norm.
Night after night, a steady stream of students came knocking on my door—as they did with other foreign teachers—to practice their English and engage in some free-wheeling discussion.
Sitting in my living room on campus, with tea and moon cakes on the coffee table, we learned about one another’s cultures and societies. Some of those lessons were quite practical: according to Chinese custom, for example, I had to offer something three times–tea or desert or a beer or what have you—before a guest would accept it.
But in spite of any culturally-conditioned reserve my students displayed, there was an openness on their part that is remarkable in light of what would transpire in June of 1989. I remember one student sitting on my couch, for example, ranting about the evils of communism.
It was the Beijing Spring, and flowers were blooming all over the place.
After the death of liberal reformer Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party general secretary, a student movement sprung up in the capital of the People’s Republic, hundreds of miles to the north. Soon, students all over China were inspired by the actions of their peers protesting, hunger-striking and camping out in Tiananmen Square, and every major city was seeing student marches through the streets, calling for democracy and an end to government corruption.
Remember, this was long before Twitter—and it was happening in a country where the media were state-controlled.
Out of curiosity, I walked alongside a huge parade of students one day whose route passed by the front of our college. It was a long march into the center of our large city, but the students had an infection hope and joy and enthusiasm, and as the demonstration passed by other campuses, more and more young people joined in. Older people stopped doing what they were doing and waved and smiled and shouted encouraging words.
But eventually, the rulers in Beijing had enough, and on the night of June 3-4, 1989, hundreds of young demonstrators who refused to leave Tiananmen Square were mowed down by Army gunfire or crushed by tanks, as the sublime portrait of Mao Zedong watched over all.
In the days and weeks following, students lived in fear and kept a low profile. My colleagues talked about burning essays their students had written so authorities wouldn’t find evidence of support for the pro-democracy movement. The semester came to an end early, and foreign teachers went back to their countries for summer vacation.
When I returned to China two years later, there was a definite change in atmosphere. Students no longer came knocking on the doors of foreign teachers. Open conversations and debates were few and far between.
As the world marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, I’m reminded of other young people who knocked on my door at some point during the year. With them too there was an openness, though it was an openness only with me.
It was a young married couple. After some minutes of nervous chit-chat, the husband confided that he and his wife were Christian—probably Catholic. My memory now is cloudy as to just what their situation was, but in short they were trying to discern what to do when a couple who want to live a faithful Christian marriage find themselves up against a government policy that limits their family size. They were anguished, and for some reason they were seeking spiritual counsel from me. Perhaps they saw me on the one or two occasions I ventured out to the “official” Catholic church in town. Though I’m a cradle Catholic, at that point in my life, I was not very attuned to issues such as these, and I didn’t know what to tell them.