A Prayer For Chen
“They’ve sent in the tanks.”
I was sitting on a bus, waiting to reach my stop at the local movie theater, when I heard the woman’s voice. I was an old hand at bus travel by then, and my first instinct was to ignore her—I was a few days away from taking my LSATs, and the movie I was heading for was designed to take my mind off the stress of a test that would help determine a good deal of my future. The sheer outrage and horror in her voice was what dissuaded me from my first reaction—I knew that something terrible had happened. I listened, and my worst fears as to what it could be were quickly realized: on June 4, 1989, the government of the People’s Republic of China lost patience with the massive, peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations in historic Tiananmen Square and sent countless soldiers and tanks in to crush it. Many hundreds of the demonstrators—mostly college students—were slaughtered by troops firing indiscriminately as a horrified world looked on. The PRC had slain far more of its own citizens in atrocities of the past, but never before had it so openly and unapologetically shown its most brutal side to the world. As the words and pictures passed in front of my eyes over the next few days, I found myself thinking often of a young man at whose side I had walked across that very square five years before.
I graduated from Glendale High School in mid-June 1984—six weeks shy of my eighteenth birthday. A good portion of the graduating class were heading on a trip to Hawaii, but I had made other plans, thanks to the generosity of my maternal grandparents, and to a relatively recent promotion their son had received. My Uncle Clarke works in advertising, and his firm had offered him a job not long before that had required him to relocate to Hong Kong. He quickly found that he loved the place, and what had been possibly a short-term assignment became an indefinite one. My grandmother had decided to visit him in late June 1984, and my grandfather had generously offered to pay my airfare for the trip—which was to include side-trips to Macau and the PRC, at a time when the United Kingdom and the PRC had recently concluded negotiations to return Hong Kong to the Chinese when the Brits’ 99-year lease on the colony was set to expire in June of 1997. It promised to be an interesting time to visit that part of the world, and I was looking forward to it immensely.
We arrived without incident, and Hong Kong proved to be a fascinating place to explore, as did Macau. My passport went missing the morning we were scheduled to depart for the PRC, but my uncle proved quite adept at pulling strings with both the US consulate and the Hong Kong customs authorities (though he made me pay for it with some epic glares), and I managed to make the flight on time with my grandmother. After a bumpy flight, we landed on the mainland and were greeted by two Chinese men—a short, squat man in his early fifties who was quite friendly but clearly spoke little or no English, and a man about my height (6’2”) and in his early twenties, who spoke English more fluently than a good portion of my high school class. He introduced himself as Chen, and explained that he was to be our guide, and that the other man (whose name has been lost to me over the years) would be our driver.
We all got into a tiny car, and spent the next couple of days driving up to Beijing, stopping at various sites along the way and staying in medium sized towns. Over that time, my grandmother and I got to know this young man rather well. He was a recent college graduate, and had been recently been assigned as a tour guide by the government. My grandmother expressed surprise that someone who spoke English as well as Chen would be assigned as a tour guide, rather than as an English teacher—particularly since the Chinese government was at that time conducting a massive campaign to teach many of their people the English language. Chen did not take offense, but he replied proudly that the state had chosen his career for him and that it was his duty to perform it well. Nonetheless, I noted what I believed to be a wistful look on his face, and I got the impression he would have been rather more happy if the government had decided as my grandmother would have had them do.
Chen and I talked less than he did with my grandmother—the new sights were often rather overwhelming to me, and it has long been a survival instinct of mine to simply be quiet and listen when I’m in such a state. However, sports soon proved to be an excellent communications medium for us—a Chinese high jumper had recently set the world record, which was a topic of special interest to me given that my maternal grandfather had been a prime candidate for the 1940 US Olympic team in that event before those Games were cancelled due to WWII--and the 1984 Summer Olympics were to start in Los Angeles approximately one month later. We spoke of that, and of the Soviet-led boycott of those Games—which gave him an opening to remind me that they and the Soviets were not exactly on best terms any more.
After five days, we exchanged farewells and my grandmother and I flew back to Hong Kong, where we spent a few more days before heading back to the States. It had been a memorable trip, and I had enjoyed myself quite a bit. My grandmother kept in touch with Chen for the next few years, but though I responded politely when my grandmother told me what she had heard from him, I’m fairly certain I almost never thought of him otherwise. He had been a nice man who had done a good job showing us around his country, and that had been all. I was pleased to hear that he was apparently doing well, but other than that he was off my radar screen.
That changed, as I watched the occasional news clips and read the magazine articles with the horrific pictures accompanying them. The teenagers who had bravely held up their signs and built the mock Statue of Liberty in the ancient square were abstractions—Chen was someone I had known, however briefly, and he was somewhere within the borders of the PRC. I had no idea what might have happened to him.
The piece of film which captured the act of the slender and probably young Chinese man as he walked in front of a column of tanks and forced it to stop until friends coaxed him away remains one of the most stunning memories of the last twenty years: breathtaking in terms of courage, heartbreaking in terms of the futility it represented, as the tanks rolled on once the young man was gone. The film was, of course, taken from a long distance—as far as could be told at the time, the brave soul could have been any of a hundred million young Chinese men. I knew that it almost certainly wasn’t Chen, but the thought that it possibly could have been him haunted me somewhat. Also troubling me was that he also could have been one of those who viewed the protestors as trouble-makers who needed to be dealt with: a few days of interaction five years before was simply not enough to go on to decide whether he had been on the side of the angels in this matter or not.
The protestors fought back somewhat before being crushed—I remember feeling a moment of dark joy when I heard reports of soldiers being dragged out of tanks by enraged protestors and torn to pieces, and the memory shames me now—most of those soldiers were as much captives of the state which ordered them to annihilate the protestors as were the protestors themselves. My anger quickly focused with totality on the government of the People’s Republic of China, and I waited for an indication that my government would do the right thing and make them pay for what they had done. I was quickly disappointed.
I had voted for George H.W. Bush reluctantly in 1988—he seemed a poor successor for Ronald Reagan, and I had doubts about his dedication to certain elements of the Republican agenda that I approved of (the economic ones). However, the thought of Michael Dukakis as President put a chill down my spine, and I didn’t cop out when early news made it clear that Bush wouldn’t need California to win—I cast my vote for him with my teeth gritted, but with a hope that he’d do a good job.
The Chinese had a substantial number of students in the United States in 1989—many of whom had been openly supportive of the demonstrations as they were going on. It was obvious to anyone with a functioning brain that those students would be at risk if they chose to return, and it would have been poetic justice indeed if a good portion of the best and brightest youth of the People’s Republic of China had decided to pursue other options for their future in response to a speech from the President of the United States offering them asylum. The nation—in a bipartisan rage over the images from Beijing—would have supported him overwhelmingly.
Unfortunately, Mr. Bush was self-admittedly not a man of vision, and his Administration quickly made it clear that no such offer was forthcoming. I knew at the time that even if such an offer was made, many would not have accepted it—the thugs in Beijing could always use the hostages the students had left behind in their family homes to exert pressure to force their return. Nonetheless—the offer should have been made, and this country would have been far the richer for receiving the ones who accepted.
I—among many others—seethed at this idiocy, and when Brent Scowcroft made a high level visit to Beijing mere months after the last of the blood was washed from the square, I had had enough. I approved of many of the individual actions of Mr. Bush after 1989—his judicial appointments, his handling of the Gulf War (until he abandoned the Shiites to their fate after the cease-fire)—but thereafter I held the man himself in utter contempt. I briefly considered voting for Ross Perot—until he revealed himself as being a few hearts short of a flush—and was heartened by the strong anti-Chinese rhetoric of Mr. Clinton. I decided that while I could not bring myself to vote for him, it probably would not be so bad if he was elected. I cast a blank ballot for President that year (after rejecting a whimsical impulse to write in Barry Goldwater—who had appropriate contempt for the Chinese government). Unfortunately--as with many of his other promises--Clinton’s rhetoric about the Chinese proved false, and he quickly resumed his predecessor’s practice of kissing their posteriors.
Fifteen years have passed since I heard that woman on the bus, and much has changed. The Chinese took over Hong Kong in 1997 without incident, and have largely let it remain the cash cow it has always been, with only subtle signs they are tightening up the freedoms that have made it a financial dynamo. Time will tell whether this is newfound wisdom from the Butchers of Beijing and their successors, or simply the experience of the frog who fails to note the water he is sitting in has slowly been heated to boiling until it is too late. My uncle—who still resides in Hong Kong--met a wonderful woman from South Korea a few years after I visited him, and they now have two sons on the verge of adolescence. My grandmother has retired and remains sharp-witted and charming in her mid-eighties, aside from an inexplicable affection for one William Jefferson Clinton. My grandfather passed on in 1993, after a long and fascinating life. As for me—I’m older and wiser than I was when I heard the tragic news in 1989, and I’ve learned to ponder matters more deeply before making important decisions in a moment of righteous outrage. Sometimes, though, when I see a rare shot of smiling faces in Iraq amidst the negative coverage, or I see a story about the upcoming Olympics, or just for no reason I can discern--I stop and think of a sea of smiling faces in an ancient square, remember an earnest conversation about the finer points of high jumping. . .and I whisper a prayer for Chen.