“I think the government was ... a bit harsh,” said Jin, a plump computer consultant with a wispy mustache. The window of our “hard-sleep” train compartment was raised. I pursed my lips in tacit response to Jin’s remark and looked past him and the fluttering white lace curtain. Outside, verdant summits towered above a flat, watery expanse of rice paddies. “Moreover,” continued Jin, pausing to take a slow drag on his cigarette, “the students were reasonable in their demands.”
“The students were arrogant,” interjected Professor Hu, a lanky, bird-like man. “The regime showed restraint, and in return, the students gloated over a ‘victory’! The government had to resort to force. How else could they reestablish credibility?”
Jin lifted his brows as though to say “perhaps,” then blew smoke out of his mouth.
During my two-and-a-half-month visit last summer, I discussed Tiananmen only when others raised the subject, which happened perhaps two dozen times. A few testimonials were delivered with bravado. Most were conveyed in normal but perhaps slightly self-conscious tones, and only one was whispered. About half of the people I spoke with still believed in their government; the rest were disillusioned. A few seemed strangely detached, even indifferent, a few were clearly impassioned.
By contrast, during my visit in 1988 everybody seemed impassioned. What had happened in the interim to bring about this complacency? How had Tiananmen receded so quickly into the past?
When Jin lost interest in the debate and Professor Hu regained his equanimity, we cut open a watermelon. Its crisp, juicy slices quenched our thirst, and the conversation turned to a new topic, American cigarettes.
“Life has become untenable, unbearable!” insisted a middle-aged engineer shortly before the new year that would usher in Tiananmen Spring.
“It might have been better had the Japanese won the war,” conjectured a People’s Liberation Army veteran and long-standing Party member. “We Chinese are finished as a race, and the government’s incompetence will ruin us.”
A few years ago, one almost couldn’t engage in a conversation without triggering a tirade. During my eight-month stay, I heard scores, if not hundreds, of angry declarations. The state was to blame, but the crime wasn’t tyranny. It was economic mismanagement. Nobody urged “democracy,” and only students responded favorably when I mentioned it. The word on everyone’s lips was inflation. Prices were rising at about 35 percent a year and at more than 100 percent for some commodities.
Workers relied on work-unit subsidies for meat, fish, fruit, cooking oil, and other modest luxuries. Cagey bureaucrats and state managers offered rare goods and services to those in their favor for a price. Desperate people crawled through the “back door” for such things as television sets, university placement, and surgery. Some young parents nurtured manipulative traits in their children so that they would one day be able to work the system.
I found anger and greed everywhere. Unemployed young men with time on their hands tried to dress like the toughs they saw in Western movies and picked fights with strangers at the slightest provocation. Shopping was a risky business, as a random bump in a crowded market could lead to blows. On trains and long-distance buses, merchant bands battled each other for possession of the goods they transported, and innocent passengers sometimes fell victim to bottles and knives.
For university students, graduation meant state-assigned jobs at near-subsistence wages. Entry-level positions more often than not provided trivial duties and idleness rather than challenge. There was no shortage of senior cadres prone to jealousy, and young mavericks were humbled through such devices as assignment to decrepit work-unit apartments, poor school placement for their children, and blocked opportunities for personal promotion, further education, and travel.
State employment amounted to a type of indentured servitude that could never be revoked and only rarely shifted. One could apply to management for transfer, but for a realistic chance of success you would probably need good connections or well-placed cash bribes and “gifts.” Alternatively, a rival work unit could bid for you by offering to pay a price for possession of your passport and work certificate, without which you would have no rights to either urban residence or state employment. In April 1989, the students demonstrated in the name of “democracy,” but they actually rallied for the sake of professional emancipation. The workers gathered beneath the students’ banners for the sake of their livelihoods.
“On the morning after the massacre,” confided a friend, “I saw I column of 40 tanks stalled on the highway. They were all burning. Someone told me that the soldiers had set fire to their own tanks.”
The regime had tolerated the occupation of Tiananmen Square for weeks, partly because it wasn’t certain that the army could be trusted. After all, inflation had trivialized the meager army pay, and it was only natural to expect soldiers from urban backgrounds to sympathize with the workers. They would join these ranks upon the end of enlistment. Beyond purely military concerns, widespread urban protest had exacerbated a division in the top government leadership. The struggle for predominance must have had a paralyzing effect. Be that as it may, when the humiliation became more than China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, could bear, the troops were sent in.