Saturday, July 25, 2009

Pre Tiananmen in Nanjing

We went down into the street as the Armed Police from Anhui Province and the Army arrived. The whole atmosphere of the city was very tense at that time. Students were not organized for a military occupation. And so even though thousands came out into the streets, it was night. And the police and the army with their trucks and tanks had occupied key positions around the city and blocked intersections. I walked down to the Drum Tower (Gulou) and watched the military maneuvers as the soldiers were ordered out of the trucks and around the intersections. There were no newsmen around because of the news blackout. And because it was night and because both the plain clothes security forces were predominant, a flash from a camera was surely to be answered at that time by someone being surrounded and their camera confiscated. As I said earlier, I'd left my trusty Nikon in my room because I was out of 35 mm film and knew of no place to buy the film that night. I talked with students and they were at that moment confused and somewhat disoriented by this iron fist response from the government. I was told that the students had marched on all of the major campuses of universities and schools in Nanjing that day and evening, looking for African students, destroying dorm rooms, stereos, furniture. The students believed that the government had put the African students on a train and transported them out of town, either to Zhenjiang or to Shanghai. But the main thing was the Africans were safe in the protection of the government. Thousands of students had occupied the main train station. They told me that with the press black out, they were trying to paint large character signs on the sides of train cars so that their message, their revolt and rebellion against corruption could be carried to all parts of China, even without newspapers. Some of them told me that during the Cultural Revolution this had been done when communications broke down. Messages were painted on the sides of railway cars. But now the soldiers were preventing the painting from being done. Still the story persisted that a guard at Nanjing University had been stabbed to death by African students. It was a story without basis but it persisted. It was like so many rumors in China, it had taken on a life of its own, a reality of its own, an importance of its own. There was no evidence. But in China evidence is not required when a crime is believed to have happened. As Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland, "Sentence first, evidence later." And so with police lights illuminating the Gulou and the police and soldiers in control, I returned to my room. I thought at the time of trying to get the news of what as happening, out of Nanjing. I went to the Jinling Hotel which had a teletype. That was impossible to use. The government had shut it down. Back at Nanjing University in my building there was also a wire service, but there the American authorities, absolutely petrified by the idea of defying the authorities, had also refused to allow the system to be used. We were really in a press blackout. The one exception was, of course, the telephones. Nick Kristof called several times and spoke with me and others but always in a short time the line was dead and finally it did not work at all. The CNN crew also came to our facilities and they were wandering up and down the halls with their crew, trying to get a handle on things and to figure out exactly what was happenning, where the soldiers were, how many there were, if arrests were made, if shots were fired, if a university guard had actually been stabbed and killed. Factoids were everywhere but actual evidence was hard to find.

The next afternoon, late, by mid afternoon, another huge march took place. If anything this one was bigger than the first. The student marchers this time stopped ominously at the Hopkins Center adjacent to Nanjing University. They had heard, they said, that the Center was concealing and protecting African students. They demanded that these students be turned over to them. There were a few policemen and guards to bar the front door. It was again a very tense atmosphere. Looking out my window and then watching the demonstrations from the roof of the Center I sensed that it might easily become violent. I saw no soldiers around at that time. Finally, a commissar from the University, Mr. Wu Yingen, a man notorious for being a leader of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, stepped forward. He went out the front door to meet with the student leaders himself. It was, many believed at that time, a brave thing to do. Yingen was a very unlikeable little character. According to stories that circulated around the Center, as a student leader during the Cultural Revolution, he had been the leader of a gang of students who seized several professors, including one Wang Zhigang, and thrown them out a second story window. Now, what was ironic was that Wang Zhigang was the co-director of the Hopkins Center in Nanjing and Wu Yingen was the main party commissar overseeing everything. But Yingen was below Zhigang on the food chain, so Zhigang was his boss. In any case, Yingen was a terrific and seasoned liar. And he used this ability well that night. He told the students there were no African students inside. They demanded to come inside and look. He refused them. The conferred for perhaps half an hour and then suddenly turned away and marched again toward the governor's offices and compound. We all knew there were perhaps a dozen African students inside the Center hiding from the Chinese students. The Chinese students at the Center were not happy about this. But they did not betray their American classmates. One of the Chinese students' charges and complaint against the African students was that they openly smoked marijuana in their dorms on campuses in the city. Of course marijuana grew wild in and around Nanjing. It might have been the pot center of the universe, if someone wanted it to be. But the Chinese students charged at the time, wild as it seemed, that the Africans were using weed and other narcotics to seduce Chinese female students. Again, at the time, it was a salacious story and one that fit in with the uprising and the rebellion. The American officials and the American students insisted that this story was made up, that it never happened, and it was unfair and --who else but Americans could come up with this? -- it was racist. I remember the term being used at that time. So the official story was that this was a rumor and a vicious rumor, at that. I went down onto the 3rd and 4th floors to see some of the African students who were hiding out. They were generally partying with their American student friends. They had brought their pot with them. One group in one room and in the hallway outside, was nearly invisible because of the blue smoke as the students passed around a joint about the size of my forearm. An American student from California told me, through persistent coughing in the smoke, that it was well known that the Africans had the best dope in town. But for anyone else to find this out, particularly the media, would be really hurtful toward race relations. So best not to talk about it. I wondered how anyone walking up and down the halls could sign on to the myth, but they obviously did. See no evil was the operating rule of the American adminstrators.

I went outside to join the demonstrators. I walked and marched with them the half mile down Beijing Lu to the governor's offices. There was a lot of hostility in the air that night, a lot of tension. For the first time since I arrived in Nanjing, a woman from one of the buildings along the street spotted me and came out to me and spit on my feet and shouted in Mandarin, Foreign Devil! Apparently she thought the demonstrations were against all foreigners and she was enthusiastically in favor of that. Some of the Chinese students pushed her back and laughed at her (but no apologies) and we walked on. Again, the crowds converged on the government offices. A huge crowd.

And again there was a lot of shouting and fist waving. This time, it was sort of funny. Some of the students took off their slippers and shoes and threw them over the fence at the guards. The guards dodged them and then threw them back. This went on for some time. I kept thinking, what sort of Revolution is this when everyone is throwing shoes at everyone else?

Nothing much seemed to be happening and I stepped back through the crowd and went onto the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. I watched from this distance. Only then did I see what really chilled me. At the east end of the street, perhaps one block away, very very slowly I watched military trucks with soldiers with rifles out crossing the intersection and stopping to block the street. They stopped bumper to bumper. Some soldiers got out of the trucks and formed a line. Officers remained in the trucks above the soldiers and with a better view of the crowd. I thought to myself, "Jesus Christ, I am trapped here, with all of these people. There was no place to run if the shooting started." I felt real panic from being trapped. I stayed close to the buildings and made my way back toward the edge of the crowd and toward the soldiers. As I approached them they of course began watching me. The officer standing on the back of the truck at the intersection was wearing dark glasses even though it was night. I finally approached the soldiers who faced me and shifted on their feet, ready to do, I thought, anything. I looked up at the officer. I really was a his mercy. He looked at me for several seconds. Finally he raised his finger and waved it back and forth in the air, the way a parent might do to a child to scold them and tell them they had done wrong. After he was sure I saw his motion he said something and the soldiers parted and let me through. I remember that night the pounding of my heart. I was sure the soldiers could hear it. I hurried back down Beijing Lu toward my apartment and the center. I turned around to look back at the demonstration again and again, waiting to hear shots fired. There were, thank God, none. I was unsure what was going to happen, but I did conclude that this was not my fight and this was something I did not want to lose my life over. I went into my apartment. I retrieved my camera. I discovered one of the Americans had some 35 mm film and I "borrowed" it from him. I loaded my camera and went back out onto the street, despite the warnings not to do so. I found another American inside and told him to take his camera up on the roof and if I was attacked or anyone tried to take away my camera, that he should take pictures of that incident. I wanted something on the record. Anything.

More to follow

No comments: