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What Tiananmen crushed in me

As an American student in China, I saw idealism bloom – then get trampled.

By Trevor Corson / June 12, 2008



New York

I was born in the final year of the 1960s, too late to identify with that decade of rebellion, idealism, and change. I grew up in an orderly American suburb and spent my teen years at a comfortable prep school, doing my homework and following the rules of the Reagan era. But the '60s had left their mark. When I received a scholarship to study in China for a year after graduating high school, my open-minded parents and politically liberal teachers encouraged me to go.None of us realized I was on a collision course with history that would end in Tiananmen Square. In the two short years I would spend in China, I would witness one of the most dramatic, pivotal, and – for some unfortunate citizens – deadly moments in China's emergence as a modern nation. Though I had missed out on the student radicalism of the '60s in America, I was soon to see an even more intense flowering of student idealism – and a far more brutal response from the government.

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When I arrived in Beijing in 1987, I moved into a dorm for foreigners on a college campus. Communist authorities didn't want us mingling with the Chinese students, but we did anyway, and it felt deliciously subversive. I'd studied the language in high school, and I made Chinese friends quickly. They were studying at one of China's most elite schools, yet they lived crammed eight to a bleak cell, with metal bunks stacked against the walls and a single naked light bulb overhead. The hallways felt like mine shafts, and the bare concrete bathrooms had no hot water.

I'd sit with them on their bunks, the air reeking of coal dust and unwashed hair, and we'd nibble sunflower seeds and sip tea. We'd swap stories about our two countries and philosophize about the differences between socialism and capitalism. The Chinese students would grow animated, voicing opinions on everything from the films "Love Story" and "Rambo" to American-style democratic ideals. They were frustrated by the harsh limitations of life in China, but also buoyant and hopeful about the future. Often someone would play guitar and sing.

I loved the hardscrabble, bohemian atmosphere, the sense of intellectual ferment, and the idealism in the air. I spoke English less and less, and identified more and more with Chinese campus life, so I decided to stay in Beijing another year.

During my second spring, in 1989, the debates in the dorms grew urgent. The Chinese students committed their ideas to paper, painting bold words in black ink on colored posters. They pasted their manifestos on campus walls across the city.

Soon the students were marching in the streets and waving banners. They occupied Tiananmen Square, singing and dancing in a Chinese version of Woodstock, but also forming political committees and conducting hunger strikes. The whole city came to a standstill, and across the country citizens demonstrated in solidarity. An entire nation was about to bloom.

I strolled the perimeter of Tiananmen Square, looking in. I assumed that I ought to join the demonstrations. Wasn't this what American campuses had been like in the 1960s? Shouldn't I participate in history? But something held me back. Maybe it was my Reagan-era upbringing. Maybe it was the realization that this was the Chinese students' rebellion, not mine.

One night in early June, the city echoed with shots from automatic weapons. Over the next few days guns blazed across Beijing, and columns of smoke billowed into the sky as the Army crushed the demonstrations. With tanks patrolling the streets, I was evacuated out of the country, along with most other foreigners.

That fall, I tried to restart my college years as a freshman at an American university. But I couldn't let go of Beijing. I found myself shocked at the wealth and comfort on display in America and appalled at the social stability that my classmates took for granted. I heaped criticism on them, destroying my chances of joining campus life in my own country. In a way, I'd finally achieved a youthful rebellion that was entirely my own. It left me feeling bitter, isolated, and confused.

Nearly two decades have passed, and I've come to terms with a lot since then. But there's still almost no one with whom I can share memories of the most formative and dramatic events of my life. Meanwhile, China's headlong rush to development and wealth has obliterated the Beijing I once knew, including much of my old campus. Most Chinese have buried the memory of Tiananmen. It's almost as if those heady days never happened.

Today I feel glad for Beijing, host for this summer's Olympics. I understand the pride that young Chinese feel in their country's impressive progress.

At the same time, I try to imagine what America would be like today if our government had crushed the student movements of the 1960s and obliterated them from history. As I reflect on what the death of idealism has cost me personally, I wonder what it could have cost an entire nation.

Trevor Corson is the author of two books, "The Secret Life of Lobsters" and "The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi from Samurai to Supermarket." He writes frequently on East Asia.