THE GATES OF BEIJING: A China Story
Introduction to the novel: In which the narrator narrowly escapes getting caught in a brutal military crackdown thanks to a communist princess who leaks a state secret just in time to save him.
*THE GREAT SQUARE
Huamei. She was uncommonly serene that night, that night of all nights, when the going got rough, when the rules no longer applied. Indeed, she and I were never so close, nor so divided, as during that searing historical moment when the world around us started to tremble, seethe, and crack at the seams.
On what turned out to be the penultimate day of the doomed demonstrations, it was as if everything was still good, and anything was possible, and then: Wham! Bang! Kaboom!
Nothing was good, and everything impossible.
The crackdown was brutal, bloody and unforgivable.
I’m talking about Tiananmen, of course, that jubilant, up-lifting and unforgettable juncture in the spring of 1989 in which the dream of a new China unveiled itself to the world, raw and unadorned, full of joy and hope. For a fleeting, intoxicating, transcendent moment, it looked like peace had a chance.
The protests possessed, or were possessed by, a blanket defiance that I had not seen before and have not seen since. The eruption of people power exposed a vulnerable side of the People’s Republic, but also a hidden fount of resilience. The mood was utopian, seductive and open to all takers.
It was a beautiful time, and not without a kind of mass romance. I associate those days with Huamei, not that we saw each other much, for we had drifted apart by then, but because when the going was about to get rough, she took a risk to be there for me.
It was an intoxicating time, a time fueled by naive idealism and forbidden dreams. A time of organic mass action. It was borderline orgiastic, a feverish frenzy. Bristling with energy, unwieldy in magnitude, it was a wave, a wave that rose to unexpected heights, then crested and crashed. It was not meant to last. How could it?
Huamei and I attended, however tentatively at first, several of the ebullient student rallies in those heady days of early May. Everyone was out on the streets, egging on the plucky, rag-tag marchers.
Prudence demanded we cheer from the sidelines. After all, I was a foreigner and she was married into the communist elite, but if you shouted long enough and stood close enough to the throng and became enveloped by it, were you not in some sense a protester, too?
When workers and ordinary townspeople started to join in, the stakes rose and rote government warnings took an ominous turn. Huamei withdrew to the watchtower of the high communist command but we kept in touch by phone. Though she liked to remind me “everything is political” she wasn’t a particularly political person, not in person, not even after she married into a prominent political clan.
Those initially rhapsodic weeks of protest in which the stuff of history was being forged did not see us together more than a few times, but standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the crowd screaming and chanting and laughing and worrying reinvigorated old ties, provoking some dormant feelings we had been trying hard to hide.
And without really thinking about it, we joined in, following those already there, leading on others. We marched all the way to Tiananmen Square.
The fashion-conscious Huamei was not one to wear a headband, but she let her hair down and signaled quiet solidarity with the protesters by knotting her long black locks in a scarlet ribbon.
Then I got hitched up with a freshly-arrived British TV news crew in need of eyes and ears on the Square. It was supposed to be just for the Gorbachev visit, to serve as guide and translate on-the-spot interviews. When I told Huamei she begged me not to take the gig, not just because the pay was lousy but because it would cost us in other ways.
The injunctions against Chinese mixing with foreign journalists were real enough—journalists came under eagle-eyed scrutiny from the security services—but her real worry was word getting back to her hardcore communist in-laws.
The third day of June was overcast and gloomy. I spent the better part of the day slogging around the environs of the Square with a nervous news crew. It had been a difficult shoot, marked by scuffles with security guards and pro-government vigilantes, and the worrisome realization that troops, already amassed behind the Great Hall of the People, were very close by and itching to make a move.
When I got back to my hotel, the front desk told me I got a call from “Rose.” Huamei didn’t like to use her real name if she didn’t have to, as a rising member of the Communist elite, being secretive was part of the game. When I called her back she brusquely told me she had something to tell me but couldn’t tell me over the phone. I explained that I was stuck with the news crew for the rest of the evening.
“Can you meet me on the Square?”
Hesitant at first, she agreed to a rendezvous “under the picture of you-know-who.” She said she’d be there around nine.
Mao’s portrait was more anachronistic novelty than an object of veneration, but it was a useful landmark in a vast plaza awash with people. It hung over the north-south axis that ran through the heart of the Square. It also happened to be walking distance, about halfway between where we were making our separate beds at the time. Huamei lived in a lakeside villa inside Zhongnanhai, while I was shacking up in the state-run Beijing Hotel, a designated foreign habitat popular with journalists on account of its central location.
Despite the widening gyre of chaos unleashed as tens of thousands of People’s Liberation Army troops closed in on the protesters, Huamei kept her word to meet me there that night, right at the top of the Square. The big red gate was a natural focal point, the front entrance of the old palace, the traditional center of the realm, the ground zero of China. To meet at such a place at such a time was a kind of high communion.
The geomancy was good, but luck was running out.
Counting down to the hour of our rendezvous, I busied myself lining up shots and deciphering chatter for the TV news crew. It wasn’t entirely for optical reasons that I had them set up the tripod in front of the arched marble pathway that bridged the ceremonial stream in front of the great gate, though the optics were good, with both Mao and the newly-erected Goddess in plain view.
The liminal location next to the marble-lined moat gave me a place to step back from the pandemonium without abandoning my charges altogether. I explained to them I was going to talk to a political informant, and would not be far away.
As the hour neared nine, the Square was aglow with amber radiating from the streetlamps that towered above the plaza. The overall mood was subdued. The fifty-acre public ground was still seething with spirited resistance in certain corners, humming with defiant voices and coordinated echoes of spirited discontent, but it was not seeing the defiant numbers it had before.
Everywhere I turned to look, a blur of bodies going this way and that, but no sign of her.
Then out of nowhere, she called my name.
Startled, I turned around to find her hovering behind me like an apparition. I had been looking in the direction I expected to see her coming from, but she had somehow circled round and snuck up on me from behind, as silent as a ninja.
Her pretty face was imbued with that girlish blush of hers, self-possessed as always, at once sharp-eyed and aloof. She was dressed down, draped in dark, loose-fitting clothing from head to toe. The black leather jacket, which I’d never seen on her before, added to the spectral effect. Her self-effacing stealth was betrayed only by the bold ruby red of her lipstick and the shiny red polish of her nails. Lips pursed tightly, alert eyes dancing, inquisitive and alive, I sensed she was bursting with things to confess and confide, yet something in the way she held my gaze told me to hold off on the questions.
We kept our pent-up feelings pent up, and the exchange of words to a minimum.
When I look back on it, I don’t think it mattered that we hardly said anything at all. We were bound by something much bigger than words. A wash of transcendental energy coursed between us and through us and around us.
Over her shoulder loomed the big red rostrum bedecked with a time-worn slogan.
PEOPLE OF THE WORLD UNITE!
The air was filled with the jingle of bicycle bells and broken snatches of spirited song, passing cries of distress and foreboding whispers. Already there were tumultuous shouts about a clash farther down the road, and the persistent wee-oh wee-oh wail of rescue sirens rang on the periphery. The mood was at once intensely communal, as befitting a mass vigil, and startlingly lonely, as if the tidal surge was in retreat, ready to leave us beached on a deserted corner of the Square.
“I can’t see you,” she said, gritting her teeth.
“What? Hello?” I waved in response. “Here I am!”
“Stop it! What I mean…
“I think I know what you mean..
Another drawn-out silence. A moment out of time, a fragile, fleeting, merciful stopping of the clock shortly before the unstoppable assault that would bring things crashing down on all sides. Quietly braced for what I already had reason to believe would be a bad night, her presence served to reassure even if she had come to tell me we couldn’t see each other anymore.
“So, this is it?”
The loudspeakers crackled with government warnings, while a chorus of defiant song erupted from a small group of student marchers on the far side of the Square. Closer by, the faint sound of Beethoven’s Ninth was playing on someone’s cassette recorder.
“Is this it?”
“So, ah, like, it’s over?”
Still no response.
I was not unaccustomed to her unpredictable silences, but time was short.
“I am not talking about you and me.”
“It is a bad night.”
Things were coming to a head, not just with me and her, but with everything. It’s not that I didn’t expect a crackdown, I was translating for a news crew, after all. Everyone knew the troops were poised to move in soon, and scuffles were expected, just like last night.
“The news crew, we didn’t come unprepared,” I countered. “We have bottles of water and bandanas in case they use tear gas.”
“Tear gas?” She looked at me. She looked through me. Her eyebrows arched gently, but shot through with utter disbelief.
“Well, whatever. I’m sure common sense and humanity will prevail, you know, in the end.”
Huamei bit her lip. “Do you really think so?”
She eyed me with a wistful mix of affection and pity, like a weary mother hesitant to educate an unsuspecting child in the harsh ways of the world.
“Nothing,” she said sadly, slowly shaking her head.
“But the people’s army would never go against the people!”
It’s a good line, isn’t it? I lamely echoed a slogan I’d picked up from a starry-eyed group of protesters, but what did I know?
A rough inrush of soldiers and a forceful sweep of the square was not unexpected, but there was no reason why the clearing out couldn’t be carried out hand-to-hand, man-to-man. There were more soldiers and fewer demonstrators than before, but everyone was empty-handed, weapons didn’t come into it. The protests, and the official response to date, was all about moderation. Even after martial law was declared, fourteen days and fourteen nights had gone by and nothing truly bad had happened.
“I think, maybe.”
“Maybe you don’t know China.”
“What? What do you mean?”
She then shot me a glance so withering I lost all will to argue. The adamantine look in her eyes shook me, and I quickly grasped the significance.
A storybook ending was out of the question.
We stood close enough to smell one another’s sweat, feel the heat of one another’s breath. Rooted to the spot, limbs trembling quietly, adrenaline racing, we were alone under the rostrum, if standing at a slight remove from a crowd of ten thousand can be considered alone. Not far away, an agitated multitude swirled beneath the faint figure of an alabaster goddess.
And then I realized we had company. Probably a minder, perhaps one of her people, maybe even a spy. There was a lady watching us; slight of build, middle-aged and inconspicuous-looking enough, a nagging presence that never really let up.
We were being watched by my people, too, the TV people from London. Standing by the tripod with the camera pointed at the Goddess of Democracy, the boys had begun to make clownish gestures and cat calls when they realized “my high level source” was a stylishly-dressed female.
A spirited singalong of the Internationale erupted on the northwest quadrant near the Great Hall. It brought back the mock heroic mood of better days. When the hunger strike was at its peak, the huddled masses swelled to a million strong. There was strength in numbers, and an underlying note of hope, but such numbers could not be sustained. A few minutes earlier I would have said the square was more than half full, but now I could see it was much too empty.
The night sky was overcast and indistinct, the atmosphere stifling and gray. Even the slightest hint of a draft brought relief on the wide open expanse. When the breeze blew lightly, lifting the loose, disheveled strands of her hair, I still wanted to believe that peace had a chance.
I studied her dreamy visage as futile hopes did battle with hidden despair. She had an uncanny knack for looking great, even under pressure, and on this night she looked indescribably beautiful.
“Is this the night?”
There was an obsidian glint to her gaze, a weight to her silence.
This was the night.
The played-out protesters still controlled the sanctum sanctorum at the Martyr’s Monument in the middle of the Square, but the army continued an unforgiving pincer movement, clawing in from the east and the west at once. Dueling visions of China’s future had reached such a frenzied pitch the impasse could not last much longer.
More and more people began to leave the square, as if picking up on the hopelessness of the moment. Stay or go? I was moved by the pluck and the plight of the young men and women who refused to leave, and impressed by the journalists in my care who told me it was their job to record what happened, come what may.
“I think it’s important to bear witness, you know, it’s important that we are here,” I rationalized to Huamei. “And there’s a tremendous feeling of community.”
“Go home!” she cried. Her tone was unexpectedly strident, the unblinking look in her eyes uncompromising.
“What! What do you mean?”
“Go home…Go back to your country.”
“I can’t believe you’re saying that!”
It didn’t sound like her. In all the time I knew her, she’d never said, “your country” to me, at least not since I chided her for it when she first arrived in “my country.”
“You are not Chinese!”
“Since when is…wait a minute! Wait. I have a right to bear witness, I have a right to be here. Foreigners can be at home in China, too.”
“This is not your home.”
“Yeah, but I mean, like, what about you?”
“I am home.” There was a grim obduracy to her voice.
“Things are not good.”
“Please! Be careful. You must go back to hotel by midnight. Promise?”
“Uh, ah, okay, I guess.”
“At one they will strike hard.”
“Strike? What, are they gonna do, get in a shoving match? Push people out of the square?”
Sirens wailed mournfully in the distance, filling in the silence between us.
“Open fire.” She spoke through clenched teeth.
A chill ran up and down my spine.
“It has been de-ci-ded,” she answered tersely.
“No. No way! Really?”
“I can say no more.”
Her delicate face seized up, as if tormented by guilt, as if she were guilty of revealing a state secret to a foreigner, and in a way she was.
There was a sudden pause in the background noise.
I’m not sure if I’m remembering it exactly right, perhaps I’ve confused subsequent dark dreams with real-life dread, but it was eerie, like an eclipse. A celestial event. A sudden darkening, a total cessation of activity. Everything got unearthly quiet, becalmed. All motion seemed to cease.
It was as if time itself had been swept aloft into the harrowing vortex of an impending storm, and in that deracinating updraft she and I had only one another to cling to. I felt closer to her than I thought possible to feel, afraid to let go.
She leaned in close, not quite touching, but close enough. She tugged lightly on my sleeve.
She gazed hard at the ground, as if looking for something.
“I will miss you.”
And with that she spun around and retreated. I watched her slink away in the direction of the fortress she called home, with her minder immediately following her, pattering a few feet behind.
I rejoined my crew. Despite some predictable jokes made at my expense, they followed my lead when I said in all seriousness we should break camp and move closer to the hotel. Rumors of clashes and murmurs of fear were now sweeping across the dispersed nodes of the protest like a chain reaction gone amuck. There were still clusters of people singing anthems, and a hardy group of protestors defiantly held their ground by the monument. Then some armored personnel carriers came rumbling onto the square and all hell broke loose. The boulevard was soon being ripped with tracer bullets and rifle shot.
We managed to stay one step ahead of the incoming troops that fateful evening, just barely. Huamei’s last-minute warning saved me and the crew from getting trapped in the killing zone. The army smashed their way into Tiananmen, with little mercy for anyone who got in their way, leaving a trail of bloodied bodies in their wake.
A calamity, a catastrophe, a massacre.
The crackdown took its cruel and irreversible course, running through those dark hours before dawn to well after dark on the fourth of June. On the fifth of June, after the student encampment on the square had been fully smashed, flattened and swept clean, the Goddess of Democracy toppled and the last pockets of street protest squelched, the cameraman in my crew captured the shot of a man standing in front of a line of tanks on the road below the Beijing Hotel. Other journalists holed up in our building got a better angle on it, but it was the same unmistakable shot. On that day, it was just one of many acts of singular defiance in the face of horror, but with time it took on an iconic aspect.
So, too, did the passage of time heighten my appreciation of Huamei’s late-night foray into the shadows of the great gate. Breaking ranks with her people to reveal the timetable for attack didn’t seem an extraordinary act of courage or commitment in the thick of things, there was so much else going on, and so many other things to worry about, but her warning made a difference.
In a more whimsical sense, her phantom-like appearance at a cataclysmic moment of need fueled my irrational belief that she really was my guardian angel. In the very least, her reaching out that night conspired to confirm her oft-repeated notion that we “had fate.” We might not be meant to be a couple but we were meant to be forever friends.
Egged on by the charming certainty with which she held such beliefs, there were times in our on-and-off dalliance I felt she might indeed be the reincarnation of an old soul I had always known, and would know ever more, linking up forward and backward across the eons forever.
I left Beijing in a deep fluster several days later, crushed by China’s orgy of self-destruction but also haunted by the likelihood that Huamei and I would not see one another again, at least not in this lifetime.
But at least we had what we had, and we’d always have that, or so I hoped.