Every year on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, I reflect on the limits of freedom, and upon how my life would have been different if the student protest had never occurred.
In the spring of 1989, I was, like almost everyone else in the world, glued to my television set, watching the astonishing events unfolding in a large public square in the heart of Beijing called Tiananmen. I had a personal interest in China, for I was about to embark on a new career as a college teacher in Xinjiang Province. But after June 4, my Canadian sponsor phoned to tell me that, due to political uncertainty in China, the contract had been cancelled. Broke and disheartened, I moved into my mother’s basement and found work as a costumed interpreter in a museum run by Parks Canada.
But as the proverb goes: when one door shuts, another always opens. As it happened, my supervisor at the museum was on maternity leave, and the supervisor from Bethune House, a museum in Gravenhurst, Ontario, which celebrated the controversial life of the Canadian surgeon, Dr. Norman Bethune, had been asked to fill in temporarily. One day, this acting superintendent walked into the lunchroom with a fax in his hand and asked, half-jokingly, if anyone would like to go to China and teach English. “It seems that the Bethune International Peace Hospital in Shijiazhuang is looking for an English language instructor—some CIDA project. Anyone interested?” So it came to pass that in a few weeks I found myself in Shijiazhaung, the capital of Hebei Province, located some 280 kilometres south of Beijing, standing in front of a class of doctors and nurses, teaching conversational English.
Before the Second World War, Shijiazhuang had been a small village—indeed, one translation of the name is “ten family village”—but the building of the railway had changed its fortunes, and the village became a busy town. During the war, the Japanese decided to garrison the town, causing it to grow yet again. After the declaration of the People’s Republic, Shijiazhuang grew into an important industrial centre and a stronghold of the Communist Party, with a large army presence. The teaching hospital, which Dr. Bethune had started during the war, found its final home here when peace came, as did his remains which are buried in the Martyrs’ Cemetery near the centre of the city.
Bethune was a champion of socialized medicine, even before there was such a thing in Canada. He served on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War and died while providing front-line medical assistance to the Communist Eighth Route Army in northern China during the war with the Japanese. Chairman Mao extolled Bethune’s virtues in a famous essay, “In Memory of Norman Bethune,” which generations of Chinese schoolchildren were forced to study in their political education classes. But if Bethune is a hero in modern China, he is often forgotten in his own country.
When I arrived in Shijiazhuang, several months after the events in Tiananmen Square, it was a city of almost one million people, a bleak colourless place of concrete and brick, so polluted that the rivers looked like black ink, and the cyclists, who dominated the roadways in their grey, green or navy peasant uniforms, wore white surgical masks to guard their lungs against the smog. In the seven months I lived there, I saw only one day with blue sky.
I was hired to teach English to army medical personnel. The Canadian International Development Agency was providing the funds to send these Chinese doctors, nurses, and technicians to Canada for specialized medical training. They had been selected because each of them had had some English language training in the past. My job was to get their spoken English up to snuff, so that CIDA’s money would not be wasted once they arrived in Canada.
The China I experienced was not like China today. This was old-style communist China—perhaps more so, because recent events in Tiananmen Square had prompted a conservative backlash. Foreigners were only permitted to stay in government-approved accommodations. The hospital, because it had an international connection with Bethune, often had foreign guests, so it had a special hostel within the walled grounds for foreign visitors with its own segregated dining room where I had to eat all my meals. My movements were very restricted. I was not allowed to visit Chinese homes without permission from the local police bureau. There were no private telephones or private cars. All news sources were vetted by government censors, and there were certainly no Internet connections.
Shijiazhuang, as I’ve noted, was an army town and I was working in an army hospital. Some of the troops sent to Tiananmen Square had come from bases located in the city. The entire first-year class from Beijing University had been re-located to an army training college on the outskirts of Shijiazhuang, so that officials could keep their eyes on the students and mold their political loyalties. I did not expect that anyone would want to talk about recent events in Tiananmen Square, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Everyone wanted to talk about it—but in private, not in my class. They came to my room one at a time, and in the privacy of my room, over cups of tea, they spilled their guts in a cathartic purge. I found out later that the manageress of the hostel kept a careful record of all my visitors, and that those who were deemed to come too often were taken aside and rebuked. One young army doctor admitted to having sympathy with the students, even to having visited them in Tiananmen Square, and was terrified lest someone find out. One nurse told me that her younger brother had travelled to Beijing to join the students and was now hiding out in the countryside with relatives until it was safe to come home. But I was surprised to find that, while most of my pupils were sympathetic to the Beijing students, they felt the government was right to step in and put an end to their protest. One young doctor, about my own age, was particularly eloquent.
“Free men are dangerous,” he told me.
“But why?” I asked. “Isn’t freedom a good thing?”
“No. Free men have no respect for law and order, or for customs and traditions. They just do whatever they want. It leads to anarchy and lawlessness.”
I realized that over each of my private conversations with my students hung the spectre of the Cultural Revolution. They were all old enough to remember it, and some had suffered during that period of national insanity. A few of the doctors had their educations interrupted by the Cultural Revolution and were forced to compress their training as a result. They felt cheated. A few of the older doctors had been sent to work as labourers on peasant communes as a form of political re-education. Everyone saw the most recent student protests in the light of events that had happened fifteen years before.
“But,” I argued, “the students during the Cultural Revolution were a tool used by Mao and the hardliners to quash reform and to put the revolution back on course.”
“You think that the students at Tiananmen were not also being used?” They shook their heads at my naivety. “There is a power struggle going on in China today, Mr. Ken. Those in favour of reform were encouraging the students, watching to see what the Old Guard would do. They got their answer, and it was the students who suffered.”
“Besides,” some argued, “when the students say ‘reform,’ it doesn’t mean what you think it means. They are angry about government corruption, especially the cronyism that favours the children of important Party members. The privileged get the best educations, the best jobs, and the best postings, while the rest live and study in cramped dormitories and must go where they are sent once they graduate, often to poorly paid jobs in backward areas.”
Conversations like this naturally led to questions of fate and freedom of choice. My students were fatalists to a man. “We have no freedom of choice, Mr. Ken. Our lives are planned for us by the Party.” Some of the nurses confided to me that their husbands had been chosen for them by their parents. Even in this, they had no choice. One of my best friends was a gynaecologist. When he was enrolled in army medical school, one of the senior cadres had assigned the incoming class their future roles. This officer had lined up the candidates and walked down the row, saying, “You will be a surgeon, you will be an obstetrician, you will be an oncologist, you will be a coroner...”
“When he got to me,” my friend said, “he told me that I would be a gynaecologist. I wanted to be a paediatrician.”
When I asked him what he did all day, he said, “Abortions. About ten or twelve a day.” In a country with a policy of one child per family, his skills were in constant demand.
I realized that I was lucky to be born in Canada, a country where we often take our personal freedom and our affluent lifestyle for granted. When my class asked if I thought that China would ever be able to match the high standard of living found in the West, I paused for a moment, thinking of their circumscribed lives, their crowded living conditions, their lack of resources, and sadly concluded, “No.”
Thirty-two years have passed, and each year, on the anniversary of Tiananmen, I pause and wonder how much, if anything, has changed. My younger brother, who is teaching in China today, tells me that the younger generation, those who were just children at the time of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, are not interested in politics—“it bores them”—but only in their careers and in the accumulation of wealth. They are less idealistic and more practical than the preceding generations. But if the promise of a Western-style consumer paradise doesn’t pan out, will they run to the barricades like their aunts and uncles? I wonder.
Yet if our freedom is less perfect than we suppose, we are still faced with choices. Norman Bethune could have stayed in his comfortable Montreal practice, but instead he chose the dangerous journey to wartime China and death. The students in Tiananmen Square could have chosen complacency, but instead they chose to speak out against entrenched corruption. And on June 5, 1989, one man wearing a white dress shirt and carrying a small duffel strode down the middle of Changan Avenue, raised his hand and halted a column of tanks, if only for a minute. “There is a tide in the affairs of men,” argues Brutus in Julius Caesar, “which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.” Brutus made a choice. History tells us that it was the wrong choice, but that doesn’t alter the fact that a choice had to be made. Given the opportunity, I still had to choose to go to China. It is a decision I will never regret.