On my first backpacking trip to China I witnessed what can only be called a revolution – although an unsuccessful one – and it is certainly among the moments of my life that will forever stay with me.
I had only very little information about the situation in China before I went on my trip in spring of 1989, this being before the Internet, and the newspaper articles about demonstrations in Tiananmen Square were very light on details and it is in hindsight very obvious that the old China Hands in the press agencies were not paying too much attention to the unrest among the students at the time.
I was also preoccupied with the first part of the trip. Taking a train to Moscow and planning to take another one across the full width of the Soviet Union tends to focus one’s mind.
Once I arrived in China, the situation in Beijing had reached a stalemate and many of the students had left Beijing – as it later turned out temporarily – and during my time there I don’t remember seeing any indication of major trouble on the horizon.
This would change dramatically several weeks later in Shanghai. By the time I had made my way there the situation in Beijing had taken on a much more aggressive tone and thousands of students and others had again taken up station in Tiananmen Square. The demonstrations had found a new, fresh voice that resonated much more with the general population and for a few weeks around that time it looked like the basic demands of the students – an end to corruption and a more open government – would possibly even be considered by the old guard in the Chinese government.
There was a hopeful upswell of emotion sweeping through the country and during my first days in Shanghai, there were daily ever-growing marches of thousands and then tens of thousands of demonstrators. And these were not just students, but also workers from factories and hospitals, all marching together in support of the students in Tiananmen Square.
I very much remember a photo feature in the China Daily – the government-controlled English-language newspaper – with photos of soldiers and volunteers handing out drinking water and food to the students in Tiananmen Square. Clearly this was completely off-message, but there was no way to judge how deep the support for the students in the government actually was.
Then things went very strange very fast. On May 20th the hardliners in the Chinese government won the internal struggle and they decided that they could somehow suppress all of this churned up emotion the old fashioned way and declared martial law in Beijing. I was not there at the time, but from the reports from on the scene it sounds like this just validated the position of the demonstrators and essentially made the camp on Tiananmen Square a permanent fixture.
Now both the government and the students were stuck.
Shanghai was empty and eerily quiet during the morning after the announcement of Martial Law in Beijing. There were police barricades across the Bund and Nanjing Lu, but I had to cross them to pick up a boat ticket and the police officers were unexpectedly friendly and relaxed.
The atmosphere was surreal. A couple of US Navy ships had just arrived in Shanghai on the very first visit to the city since before the Communist takeover in the late 1940s and improbably this was the day that US Sailors in white uniforms were casually walking through the streets of the city.
And then in the late afternoon, another march began. It was immediately obvious that this would be the biggest one yet, and there must have been a hundred thousand people marching in support of the students. It was momentous, a never-ending stream of protesters snaking its way through downtown, zigzagging around the police barricades on the major roads, surrounded by at least the same number of onlookers, their cheering a roar through all of downtown.
For much of the march that day I was literally stuck in a huge throng of people on the sidewalk of the Garden Bridge at the north end of the Bund. The crowd was tightly packed on the sidewalk and movement was near impossible. At the north end of the Garden Bridge, near the Pujiang Hotel where I was staying, the road opened up with a cross street that was running along Suzhou Creek in front of the Pujiang Fandian and the Shanghai Mansions with the Soviet embassy directly at the corner next to the bridge.
This whole area was flooded with people and here there were also some foreigners mixed into the crowds from the two neighboring hotels. The US Navy ships had docked not far from there a few blocks south along the river and American sailors in white uniforms had walked up along the shore to get stuck here with no way forward since the bridge was impassable.
The scene was like something out of a movie. In 1989 this corner of Shanghai had still not seen any changes since colonial times and the classic buildings around the Garden Bridge – the Soviet (nee Russian) Embassy, the Pujiang Fandian (Astor House) and the Shanghai Mansions (Broadway Mansions) provided now the backdrop to a protest march by Chinese students and workers, surrounded and cheered on by locals, foreign tourists and a good number of US sailors in white uniforms. Nothing even close to this scene had been seen in Shanghai since the 1930s.
The marchers held colorful handmade banners high on wooden poles, waved flags and even brought their own ropes to carry along the sides of the march to segregate demonstrators from bystanders. The never-ending row of marchers came in segments, grouped by school or factory association. Many of the workers were immediately identifiable by their uniforms and often also by a sign or banner. The air resonated with the marchers chanting and the crowds cheering.
The local police was everywhere, but on this day – the day Martial Law had been declared in Beijing – they still seemed to have not received any orders to break up marches. I saw a group of policemen sit on the wall of the old park near the south end of the Garden Bridge, passively watching the march while eating ice cream. Others were directing traffic away from the demonstrations and there were at least two lines of police officers who blocked the marchers from continuing down along the Bund towards the building of the city administration and instead forced them into the downtown shopping district. But wherever I saw the demonstrators and the police interact it seemed to be cordial and relatively polite.
The demonstration in general was strangely festive and it seemed that nobody at the time took the situation as serious as it actually was. In retrospect it is not clear what everybody was actually thinking what would happen, but as somebody who was stuck in the crowd in Shanghai that day, all I can say is that people were drunk on a never-before experienced freedom to express their grievances and to see all around them that everybody else felt the same way. The Chinese people had finally found their voice and there was hope for a change. It was exciting and uncontrollable.
Here I’d like to quote myself from a few years back:
There were the banners, held high.
And the faces. Sweaty excitement in the faces of the young students, many of them looking like they were still in high school.
Bold, colorful characters put down with a heavy brush. White banners. Red characters, rippling in the wind.
The faces, so open, so happy with the sudden empowerment. Shouted slogans filling the air.
Crammed between other onlookers, shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people on the old Garden Bridge. Marching students ahead, coal barges on the water behind. The steel girders of the bridge digging into my back.
So much applause, people clapping in the rhythm of the marchers. Arms raised, fingers pointing at banners.
The infectious excitement of the crowd. Waves of emotion passing through us like the wind through trees. Laughter, shouts, chants picked up by group after group of marchers.
Students. Workers. Teachers. So many faces.
Happy, excited faces.
Even if only for a brief moment,
There are many memory fragments of this day, but the situation was so chaotic that it is hard to create a clear picture of what it was like. But here is one of the last things I remember about the march on this day:
I had gone upstairs in the Pujiang Hotel to watch the march from the windows of the dormitory where I was staying and it was already late in the day. Suddenly there appeared a model of the Statue of Liberty painted completely white, maybe three meters tall, being carried across the Garden Bridge on the shoulders of the marchers. It was a glorious moment as the statue appeared near the bridge, fully visible to everybody around, unexpected, immediately recognized by everybody, the sudden focal point for thousands of people. I’ll never forget the sight of Lady Liberty majestically floating on a sea of Chinese protestors past the Soviet Embassy.