Reflections on the Tiananmen tragedy, 30 Years Later

Photo by Paulo Marcelo Martins on

(I am very happy to host a guest blogger today, Bill Clark, my husband and companion on a journey for nearly 40 years.)

In the Spring of 1989 my wife Julie and I and our 2 small children were living in Northwest China. We lived in a small city, Guldja or Ili, 64 kilometers from the USSR border. I taught English at a regional teacher’s college.  That semester I taught an evening class open to the community which met two nights a week. In May the students were consistently showing up 15-20 minute late for class. When I pressed them on it, they said they were watching the live evening news broadcast from Beijing which, because of the time difference, started at 5:00 pm local time. They explained that at that time every evening the latest news was available from the students camping out in Tien An Men square. Sometimes as a teacher you have to know when to go with the flow. I am glad I went with the flow on that issue.

The entire nation, including our small provincial town, was transfixed by the events happening among the students and young people in Beijing. Beijing’s elite educational institutes collect the best and brightest students from all over the country including from among the several hundred families who lived on our Teacher’s College campus. The demonstrations were personal for our neighbors.  There was a profound hope in the atmosphere of our school that the reforms the students were expressing would be for the good of the nation.

When the violence began on June 4th everyone was at first shocked and then devastated. A death pall fell on our campus. Families wanted news of their loved ones and whether they were safe. Little known to most Westerners, there were similar student demonstrations at regional centers around the country. One family we were close to had a graduate student in Chengdu. The PLA opened fire on those students as well and our friend narrowly escaped with his life. He reported multiple casualties all around him. One grandmother told us she could not eat for days because of the grief she felt for those young people. Many people became deeply depressed.

The official explanation began soon after. Our college’s top communist party member called the foreign teachers into a meeting to give us the official explanation. Rather than being recognized as the patriots, : “the students were out of line and acted up  (xuesheng nau shr) and were justly punished.” One colleague said he literally felt sick as the lies we were told did not square with even the limited information we had access to.

Some foreign teachers broke their contract and left early. We did not want to do that but neither did we want to stay during the summer break. We worked out an arrangement with the school to teach accelerated classes and leave for the USA two weeks early and return in the fall with another year to teach. It was with conflicted emotions that we left as many of our local friends would have liked to have left China then, but that was not an option for them at that time. We returned in the fall of 1989 to a very different China.

Bill Clark

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