Friday, July 24, 2009

The Nanjing Pre-Tiananmen Fight

I was in Nanjing at Christmas 1988. I was in my room on the 5th floor of my apartment building one afternoon -- the 23rd I think of December -- when I heard singing. Around 2PM. I stood and looked down and at first I saw nothing. It was a cool winter day. No snow yet on the ground. I sat down at my desk again but heard the singing and it was nearer. Again I stood and looked out the window. I saw to the right, coming down the street, a crowd. I could not at the moment see its size. But as it approached I would guess at least 5000 people. Carrying huge banners in Chinese. And all singing THE INTERNATIONAL. It was quite stunning. These were students from throughout Nanjing marching on the offices of the Governor of Jiangsu Province. I jumped up from my desk, put on my winter coat, and shouted to some other Americans, "Get your asses in gear and come downstairs. We are in the Middle of Dr. Zhivago." That is what it felt like. I had a 35mm Nikon at the time. It was loaded with 400 ASA film and ready to shoot. I ran outside, watched for a moment and jumped into the middle of the crowd and was swept along. The street we were on, if I remember, was Beijing Lu. And I think we were marching west. We went a few blocks, I was snapping photographs. Then everyone stopped. It was quiet for a moment and I had no idea what was going on. Was this the end of it. Everyone else seemed to know what wuld happen next. We stood, some whispering, some talking, looking around. Then, suddenly from the South I heard it: loud loud singing. The same song, The International. The street dipped down as it ran South. I stood with everyone else watching. It was one of the more dramatic moments in my life. At first about 1 mile away I saw the tops of the banners, bobbing up and down. I heard the singing. Finally the people appeared at the top of the hill and coming down toward us. More and more and more. Filling the streets and sidewalks. I would say another 5000 people. I asked one of the students standing next to me, Who is that? He said, Those are the Middle School Students of Nanjing. This was really nicely planned. Soon everyone was singing the same song. The two groups joined and proceeded up Beijing Lu toward the governor's offices. Some police appeared and were simply swept aside, as if by a huge tide of people, which this was. Knowing the crowd was coming, the governor had ordered the big iron gate in front of her offices shut. Police massed behind the gate. Students marched to the walls and the gate and everything stopped. There was a shouting match. Police ordered the students to disperse, and the students demanded the police open the gates. There was a lot of pushing and shoving through the iron gate I remember. It was quite dramatic. Soon my film was gone. Some students warned me not to develop it. They said that the police, the secret police, had a relationship with every film developing shop in Nanjing. And as soon as my film showed up, showing the faces of the demonstrators, they would seize the film. In time I forgot about that. About two hours passed of talking and shouting and shoving, and finally students warning, "We'll be back." There was also a lot of profanity. I was told that earlier in the day this huge crowd had descended on the student housing of Nanjing University, which was nearby my apartment. They had, they said, been looking for African students. They were enraged. They had broken into the African students dorms, broken down the doors, broken all the windows, trashed the dorms. I walked to the campus, past the guards who tried to bar my way, but without enthusiasm. I was out of film. I saw the dorms, broken windows, furniture thrown out the windows, curtains now flapping in the breezes. What had happened? I was told by students that on the previous night a group of African students had attempted to come to a student dance. The guards had prevented them from coming in because they refused to provide adequate identification. The rumor was that one of the guards had been stabbed and killed. But this was not true. This was merely a rumor. But it incited students from throughout the city who had long standing grievances, they said, with their government and with the African students in particular. I was told by several students, that the schooling for the Africans was free, they were given special dorms, special food, monetary allowances and special travel funds. This is, students said, because they were from influential families and countries in Africa. They were even given special academic help and graded separately from all other students. This was the story, that the students told. And so students saw themselves as marching against corruption and unfairness, that of their own government and that involving privelege for foreigners in China. Something many students insisted on that eventually came true. They told me, "Just wait till next spring. This is only the beginning. This is only the start."

A press blackout was ordered by the central and provincial governments. No journalists were allowed into Nanjing. I had met Nick Kristof at the Jianguo Hotel in Beijing on November 1st. His wife, Cheryl Wu Dun, was still in Taiwan, at the time. He was new in China, having just replaced Edward Gargan for the New York Times. We spent an evening talking in the hotel, which is within walking distance of the New York Times bureau office. I gave Nick my phone number in Nanjing. In the evening following the first demonstration he telephoned my room. We could tell that the phone lines were tapped. But we talked quickly. He wanted to know if I had pictures. I said I did. I said I just had the raw film. Here we had a misunderstanding. I thought he told me to make prints and send them to him. But he may have merely asked for the film rolls. In any case I misunderstood him and made a bad choice in the next days. He asked if I could Fed Ex them to him. Apparently Fed Ex was safe from searches at that time. He asked more more questions about the events of the day and I gave him answers. He could not get out of Nanjing. By coincidence however there was a CNN film crew in Nanjing, headed by John Pomfret, and I did meet them also the next night.

This was a big big story that according to the government was NOT happening. Unfortunately, as time passed, the efforts of the government to suppress what had happened worked. Neither Kristof or Pomfret or anyone else wrote about Nanjing when they wrote about Tiananmen. And yet all students knew what the prelude was.

That evening, there was a dusting of snow. I was working in my room, expecting to go out and watch student demonstrations the next day. Suddenly the entire building began to shake and shake like an earthquake. At first I thought it was an earthquake. I stood and looked down out the window again onto the streets. "Jesus Christ," I shouted, "We are really in the middle of Dr. Zhivago." The street was filled with soldiers, pouring into Nanjing. Truck after truck after truck, each with perhaps a dozen or more soldiers with an officer standing at the rear of the truck facing back. Some of these were the Anhui Armed Police --a large military force from a neighboring province, Anhui. The system of the government, as at Tiananmen, was not to call upon local soldiers to crush demonstrations and opposition. Soldiers from the distant provinces were brought into Beijing to crush the Tiananmen demonstrations. And soldiers from Anhui were brought in to crush the student demonstrations in Jiangsu province. But all the time the government insisted this was NOT happening.

What was making the building shake was tanks. Several of them grinding and rumbling down the street towards the center of town. I grabbed my camera-- realized I had no film -- and put it down and ran downstairs. The exits to my building were blocked by administrators. Nobody should go outside, they said. I waited for a bit. Finally I saw another professor. We decided to go out the back door and onto the street to see what was happening near the Gulou and the center of the city that night.

To be continued.


Liming said...

Do you know how long it takes to ship solders and tanks from Anhui province to Jiansu province? Everything was planned way ahead. The decision was made before the even was fully developed.

lde said...

They were moved by train. That means very fast.