Yesterday, historians and political experts debated on television the meaning of the tragic events in Tiananmen Square exactly thirty years ago, and their echo in the China we know today. I only half listened to the commentary, focused as I was on the familiar pictures from so long ago – the hope, the optimism, the fear, the horror, the mass of people running for their lives. We still don’t know what exactly happened in Tienanmen Square or how many people died, but those of us who had at least some tiny, albeit peripheral stake in the events of June 4, 1989, remember the helplessness we felt. Here’s my own story of that day.
The protests began when students gathered in the square to mourn the death of a reformer communist party leader and quickly grew to calls for government accountability, a freer press, and freedom of speech. By the time [Qin] Dahe returned to Beijing for his farewells and final preparation for the [1989-90 International Trans-Antarctica] expedition, workers had joined the students in Tiananmen, and western television screens broadcast images of a mosaic of black heads—over a million people filled the square at the protests’ height—dark faces with watchful eyes, pushing toward the cameras. Each day the tension grew. Each day the stories of bravery and defiance mounted. I wondered if Dahe had managed to get to Lanzhou to see [his wife] Qinke or if I would catch a glimpse of him on the screen, fighting his way to or from the square. Finally, just as we began to think the Chinese people might have succeeded in a bid for change, the tanks moved in slow motion through the streets. June 4, 1989.
Dahe made it to Lanzhou we were told, but no word came from him directly. Was the student revolution paralyzing that city too? Was his family in danger? Would he want to come on the expedition after all, leaving his family for seven months in the midst of political turmoil? Would he want to bring them out of China? He had only three weeks before he was due to make the hot, miserable two-day train ride across China and the subsequent long flight to Minnesota. We struggled with his office in Beijing to sort out how to get his visa from the closed U.S. Embassy, but of Dahe, they could tell us nothing.
More days passed. Finally, I decided to send a telex directly to his university lab to reassure Dahe that we were expecting him and to convey, at least subtly, that if he wanted to get his family out of China we would help. Not knowing just how things were, and how he might be treated for having meddling western friends, I chose my words carefully: “We are anxious for news of your safety and welfare. Please confirm with us the status of your plans. If it seems wiser to travel now, we can immediately extend an official invitation for an earlier date than originally planned. Please advise if members of your family will be traveling to the United States with you.”
Although no answer came from Lanzhou, we received confirmation from Beijing that Dahe was on his way. Again I looked for him at the airport, but nearly passed him by. I didn’t recognize him. He had lost thirty pounds since I had seen him a month before. His face was drawn and his smile fleeting. He looked from me to the ground and back again, eyebrows arched.
“I received your telex,” he said. “Unfortun . . . (ately), too busy to answer. My wife,” he continued haltingly, “had a very bad acci. .(dent).” On June 4, as the world stopped to watch the tanks break the back of the demonstrations in Beijing, we assumed that personal affairs came lurching to a halt in all of China. But on that very day, Dahe and Qinke lived a very private horror that comes merely from the daily hazards of Chinese life. As in every Chinese city, in lieu of cars and an alternative to bursting, belching buses, bicycles in Lanzhou carried commuters like Qinke to their work and back again. They carried, too, all manner of cargo—a bouquet of geese to market, building materials, crates of cigarettes, pounds of hot peppers, shovels, construction rubble, toilet paper, each staggering two-wheeled makeshift transport piled high enough to topple. There were few motorized vehicles—mostly trucks and the limousines of anonymous bureaucrats—but those that made their way through the soft whispering sea of bicycles were careless and impatient. As she crossed an intersection on that particular day, Qinke’s bicycle was hit at full speed by an army jeep that careened around the corner. Like the bloody students we saw spilling from bicycle carts as they were taken to hospitals from Tiananmen Square, Qinke was carried on a bicycle to her own hospital in Lanzhou, and left to mend a broken back.
The outside world ceased to exist. Dahe slept beside her in the grim hall. He was there to hold her hand and feed her soup. He was there to badger the doctors into repairing the damage and assessing her chances of walking again. There was little hope. Determined to stay behind should she be paralyzed, Dahe sat by her bed, smoking endlessly, watching the hours tick away. Beyond the tiny dark window, Antarctica began to recede from view.
From the airport, I took him to dinner for some quiet time to finish the story of how, only hours before he gave up hope, the prognosis came back more positive. She was doomed to a long hospital stay, but Qinke began to move a little below the waist. There was hope that she would regain her functions. In one single day, Dahe threw his few belongings together, arranged housing for his son and kissed his family goodbye, off on the greatest adventure of his life, off without truly understanding that before he would see them again he would have to ski nearly four thousand miles along the spine of tall mountains where blizzards meet to dance.
Dahe sucked his pasta with true gusto as I gave him more bad news. I explained the dilemma we faced concerning western reaction to the crackdown at Tiananmen Square. From within and without our own circle, pressure mounted to refuse help from the Chinese government. By our accepting an officially selected Chinese team member, would we be telling the Chinese people that nobody cared? We struggled to thread the needle—express our independence from Chinese exploitation but keep Dahe on the expedition. We did not want to endanger his status at home, or that of his shattered family, whatever we decided to do. It was my job to explain our predicament and learn what he would consider safe and acceptable.
He shook his head slowly. “I cannot believe you were so worried about me. How could you think I would be in such crazy demonstra . . . (tions)? I was too busy to bother with these things. Lanzhou is very far from Beijing. My life is very far from students. I am surprised Westerners knew about these demonstra . . . (tions). I am surprised you take seriously.”
I leaned over the table to try to catch his eye. “How can we not take them seriously when the streets are filled with hundreds of thousands of people defying the government—your government?” I asked.
He didn’t look up. “The students are stupid!They do not understand that the best way for change is to wait for old men to die!”
“But the students are the ones who died,” I countered. “For us watching, it was a tragedy.”
Slowly, he shook his head. “I don’t believe students died. But if they did, it’s not so tragedy. People die in China every day.”
I let it sit for a moment, knowing now that he was not thinking of Tiananmen, but of his own wife and family. “Dahe, if we ask you to join the rest of the team in signing the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, would this be safe for you to do?”
His head jerked up. “I would have to telex to Beijing. I would say now if you ask me to sign something, I go home tomorrow. Very dangerous. My wife is in the hospital. I cannot do anything without permis . . . (sion). I cannot do anything against my government.”
We never made a statement after all, never signed any declaration. We decided to let the expedition speak for itself and hope that in seven months, Dahe would return to a homeland healing from its wretched open wound.
-- From Think South: How We Got Six Men and Forty Dogs Across Antarctica, Cathy de Moll, Minnesota Historical Press, 2015