"We Chinese are famous for our patience," said the demure young college student. "I do not think we will have the kind of worker demonstrations we read about in Poland."
Happenstance had brought us together -- in this case, the thirsty desire of so many language students to practice their speech with a native speaker.
She would prefer her name not to be used, so I will just call her Miss Xia. Miss Xia knows that Chairman Hua Guofeng has ceased functioning as party chairman. Her source: the Voice of America, to which she and her classmates tune in every morning at 7 o'clock.
"Do you think Chairman Hua should resign?" I asked. She refused to answer directly. "What we want more than anything else is stability," she said.
Her answers are not a judgment on Mr. Hua, Mao Tse-tung's anointed successor as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. Rather it seemed to reflect a widespread feeling on the part of ordinary citizens that whatever leadership changes take place in China, they be predictable and well prepared, not abrupt and coup-like as has happened all too frequently in the past.
The one experience that no one wants to repeat is the sheer terror of the 10 years of the so-called Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when the "gang of four," led by Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) held sway. The gang is now on trial and Miss Xia , for one, thinks that Jiang Qing should receive the death sentence, although she would not mind if it were not carried out.
"'Dadao [overthrow] so and so,' I used to hear her shout on the radio, over and over again," she recalls. "And whoever she named was then in fact overthrown."
The typical Peking courtyard is a square enclosed by sloping tile-roofed one-story houses on all four sides. When Miss Xia was a child, 11 families lived in her courtyard, three per house on three sides and two per house on the fourth. The courtyard was spacious enough for her and her neighbors to romp around in.
"Today," she says, "the children have all grown up, but many of them have no other housing to go to."
So families have built lean-tos out into the courtyard, bit by bit, until now there is no space for anyone to play. Today 15 families share the space 11 occupied in the early 1960s. The toilet shared by courtyard families was pulled down as unsanitary in 1965. Since then courtyard folk, young and old, can only use public toilets constructed in the street outside. None of the houses have inside plumbing.
When Miss Xia speaks of wanting stability, she knows whereof she speaks. One of her early childhood memories is of seeing young Red Guards forcing a neighbor to kneel in the courtyard and beating him up.
The next thing she knew another neighbor committed suicide by throwing himself in the river, leaving a wife and four children. He had been a policeman for a few months under the precommunist municipal government of Peking and feared receiving the same treatment as the other neighbor.
"That neighbor's oldest daughter married and left the courtyard," she recalls. When the second daughter graduated from high school, soon after her father had killed himself, all her classmates were supposed to volunteer to go to the remote countryside. She didn't want to go, but for a solid month teachers and schoolmates came to her house to persuade her to go. They went to her mother's workplace too, to get the mother to persuade the daughter. Finally she agreed to go.
Four years later, pleading illness, she slipped back to Peking. But it took another four years to regularize her status so that she could receive rice and cloth rations and find a job.
When the time came for this girl's younger brother to "volunteer," he flatly refused, despite all the struggle meetings he was subjected to. He gained something for this stubbornness for he was eventually assigned to a farm not very far from Peking. This year, after his father was posthumously rehabilitated, he, too, was able to return to his home.
Since then the mother, two daughters, and son have all lived in one room. The son is 26 and wants to get married, but he works in a small factory that lacks funds to build housing for its workers. So he must wait.
In contrast, one of Miss Xia's neighbors, a construction worker, told her in confidence that he had helped to build an artificial lake somewhere in Peking's suburbs around which high cadres had built their villas and where they go boating and swimming in the summer. Miss Xia is resigned rather than indignant.
"Yes," she sighs, "we Chinese are a patient people. Perhaps too patient."