Hunan province is known for two things - hot pepper and
revolution. People from Hunan sometimes even jokingly relate the
two - the fiery tempers that result from eating pepper at every
meal provide a useful spark for revolution. The fact that most of
the leaders of the communist revolution - from Mao Zedong to Liu
Shaoqi to Hu Yaobang - were Hunanese is something that most
people are very proud of, regardless of individual political
beliefs. But revolution, unlike hot pepper, is not necessarily to
the taste of all Hunanese.
The capital of Hunan, Changsha, is conveniently divided by the Xiang River - the bustling commercial area is to the east, the pastoral university district to the west. Interestingly, the river also serves as a political marker. 'Across the river' (the university district) was the locus of most of the sporadic expressions of political dissent. The school where I taught, Hunan Medical University (formerly Hunan Medical College), had the misfortune of being one of the few universities that was located on 'this side' of the river. The students on 'this side' had a dubious reputation that they 'didn't make trouble' ( naobuqilai ).
During the Democracy Wall Movement of 1979-80 and the elections of 1980, the eastern bank had remained relatively quiet, while across the river events were taking place that would make international headlines. In the 1980 elections, Liang Heng, a student at Hunan Teachers' College who was married to an American teacher, Judith Shapiro, ran for people's deputy to the National People's Congress on a non-Marxist platform. A radical friend of his, Tao Sen, also ran on a platform calling for political reforms. After the university officials 'arranged' the election so that it would be impossible for either of these two popular candidates to win, students at Hunan Teachers' College and the neighbouring Hunan University and South Central Industrial University marched the several miles from their campuses, across the bridge, down May First Road - the main east-west axis of the city - to the provincial Party headquarters, where they staged a sit-in and hunger strike to protest against university and government interference in the election. (1)
Most people could understand why the students at the other major university on the eastern bank of the Xiang River, the National Defence Technology University, were reluctant to become involved - the punishment for political activity would be much more severe than what would most likely be meted out to 'civilian' student protestors. But the apathetic students at Hunan Medical University (HMU) were a disappointment to their counterparts across the river.
Hunan Medical University was not politically active, my students explained, because medical students were 'bookworms' ( of course, this characterization never included the speaker; everyone else was a bookworm). With so much schoolwork they did not have time to think about politics, let alone plan and organize protests, and besides, it was the 'nature' of medical students not to get involved in politics. Generally, they said, it was students of philosophy, literature, and history who tended to be politically active, not science and medical students.
During my two years at HMU, from 1987 to 1989, an occasional wall poster appeared outside the cafeteria, protesting about the quality of the food and the high prices in the cafeteria. Food prices had doubled, the food had steadily worsened, and many students complained that the financial burden on their parents was becoming too great. The wall poster would usually disappear within an hour, but everyone would hear about it. Moved by the rebel's words and courage, the students would inevitably express support, even awe, for the mystery poster-writer.
Most of my time was spent with a group of undergraduates, the English Medical Class (EMC). This is an elite program consisting of about thirty students each year who devote their first year to intensive English, and then go on to study their medical courses in both English and Chinese in the second through sixth years. Students come to HMU from all over the country in the hope of achieving a place in this class. Those who don't are often quite bitter; no one wants to spend five years in Changsha when they could be spent in Beijing, Nanjing, or some other less 'backward' city, as students from the major cities liked to describe Changsha.
The initial idea behind the establishment of the class was to train a cadre of English-speaking doctors who would be sent to China's best hospitals to learn advanced techniques from visiting foreign doctors; however, the class has come to be seen as something quite different - the 'prepare-to-study-in-America class'.
The students in the English Medical Class were not the only ones who were affected by chuguo re , or the 'going abroad craze'. Everyone had some kind of scheme or dream to leave China: a non-English-speaking factory worker with whom I often played tennis asked me one day if I thought he was good enough to get a coaching position in America. Even the manager of a popular getihu restaurant, who was doing very well financially, hoped to open a restaurant in America. And if going abroad seemed out of the question, people focused their attention on the next best thing - Hainan Island, located in the South China Sea. 'The Hainan craze' was a corollary to the 'going abroad craze'; underlying both was the shared assumption that 'running away was the best strategy'. Only a future not in China proper was a bright one.
'Nothing can be done...'
Workers, intellectuals and entrepreneurs used similar language to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo in China. Life was described as too constrained and repressed. With so many restrictions and limitations, my factory worker friends explained, Chinese could not develop their personal abilities and talents. There was always something or someone getting in the way.
The most popular topics of conversation were China's problems; inflation, corruption, and 'the back door' were perceived as completely out of control. Crime was getting worse, and the police were ineffective. 'The social climate is bad', people said, and China was becoming increasingly luan , or disorderly. The list went on. These conversations would inevitably end with the same expression of defeat - ' mei you banfa ' - 'it's hopeless, there's nothing I can do about it'.
There was a belief that China, and the 'system', which included both politics and culture, were too intractable to be changed. Although most people did acknowledge that their standard of living had improved under Deng's economic reforms, and that life was better than it had been a decade earlier, they thought that the reforms were merely a palliative. It was precisely this sense of mei you banfa - the inability of individuals to influence their environment and a hopelessness about the possibility of real change in China - that fuelled the 'going abroad craze'.
My students complained about more concrete things as well. Like Western university students, they were excited about the prospect of leaving home and living more independently. But they found when they got to HMU that it was, in the words of one student, 'more like a prison than a university'.
The rules - there was a book of them which they were tested on during their first month at school - were intrusive and all-encompassing. First- and second-year students, for example, were not allowed to have boyfriends or girlfriends, and third-year students had to 'register' if they were involved with someone. If a male student and female student were alone in a room the door had to be left open. Music could only be played at specific times. Even if students didn't have a class in the morning (a rare occurrence) they could not remain in the dorm. Students were not allowed to go to sleep before a certain time at night, and there were even restrictions concerning when they could sit on their beds.
Not surprisingly, my students felt that college life was too regimented and boring. Everyone complained about 'the three-point line', the line which circumscribed their existence to the dormitory, the cafeteria, and the classroom. But perhaps even more important than their disillusionment with college life was the growing perception, especially among post-graduate students, that life as an intellectual was perhaps something no longer worth aspiring to. According to one post-graduate, 'learning is useless in China today'. Both the post-graduates and under-graduates often recited a saying that was popular during 1988-89, 'the more learning you have, the poorer you will be; the less learning you have, the richer you'll be'.
Money, or rather the lack of it, was a popular topic of conversation amongst the post-graduates. The Masters students received 60 yuan a month from the government, the PhD students, 70 yuan (4 yuan = US$1.00). They claimed that people who went into business for themselves, as getihu , could earn 10 or even 100 times that sum. A saying circulated on campus: 'Those who hold scalpels earn much less than those who hold a haircutter's scissors'. Students felt that the wrong people were benefitting from the economic reforms; the truly talented were losing out to the uneducated wheeler-dealers. A PhD student summed up a popular sentiment when he said, 'The money is going to the lowlife in China'.
The one consolation for intellectuals - status - was also disappearing. Graduate students were no longer envied, but instead were derided for their poverty and chided for their stupidity in choosing to go to graduate school. A few students were even talking seriously about quitting school, to apply their brains and talents to the glorious pursuit of getting rich. One under-graduate lamented the choice he had made. 'Money is everything', he wrote. 'The purpose of entering university is to secure a comfortable life in the future. Doing business is an easy way to realize this aim. Why didn't I choose that way?'
Of the eighty or so Masters students I taught, only about eight were women. Most of these women, as well as the undergraduates, felt that the economic reforms, rather than aiding women, were hindering their progress. With more decision-making control being exercised by individual work units, there was greater opportunity for discrimination. It was widely believed that few work units would hire a woman when they could hire a man - women had conflicting loyalties; they would not be able to devote themselves to their job when they also had to take care of a family, and maternity leave was costly.
The unmarried post-graduate women faced another major hurdle - finding a husband. A popular platitude on campus was 'The more education a woman has, the more difficult it is to find a husband'. One Masters student was seen as something of a hero by his male peers for having married a factory worker. 'You're smart', his friends told him. 'She'll listen to you and won't give you any trouble'. Marrying an intellectual woman, on the other hand, was seen by many men as being a ticket to a lifetime of tension and anxiety.
'There is something we can do!'
Spring 1989 came late to Hunan Medical University. While the students across the river had organized demonstrations for 22 April, 26 April and 4 May, HMU was conspicuously absent from the ranks of protestors. The student demonstration on the afternoon and evening of 22 April became famous nationally for unfortunate reasons. It had been poorly managed and consequently was 'infiltrated' by groups of unemployed youth who used the opportunity to wreak havoc on the city. According to Changsha Wanbao (The Changsha Evening News) of 26 April, between 6 and 7 pm crowds of tens of thousands of people began to become unruly. Shop windows were smashed and stores were looted; in the end a total of 38 stores, including the food stalls at the train station, suffered serious damage. One popular activity among the 'youths' that night had been to commandeer trucks and drive at top speeds up and down May First Road singing 'The East is Red'. The riot lasted until about 1 am, when nine trucks full of People's Armed Police arrived on the scene.
Violence occurred throughout the city that night and was not limited to May First Road. One person died, and many were injured. A few hundred 'criminal elements' were arrested. The Hunan provincial government did not attempt to blame the students for the violence; and in their later demonstrations the students were extremely orderly and well-organized. The 'April 22 incident' was seen by all, including the government, as an aberration, a fluke, something that was best forgotten. It did not have the kind of impact or consequences on the city that the April 22 incident had in Xi'an. (See Joseph Esherick's chapter, ' Xi'an Spring ').
On 17 May after the hunger strike in Beijing had been underway for a few days, seven roommates from my English Medical Class decided to fast for one day as a sign of support for the Beijing students. They put up a poster outside their room at about 2 am, after a long debate about what they should write. The sign explained that they would fast for a day and that they were not encouraging other students to follow them. Although their poster was removed by 7 o'clock that morning, word spread quickly. Their classmates decided to fast in support of them, and friends in other classes fasted to support both the initial group of hunger strikers and their supporters. There was no sit-in, no class boycott, and no visible protest. It was a quiet act, and intensely personal. They felt a moral responsibility to do something; they felt they couldn't continue with 'business as usual' while students in Beijing were preparing to die for democracy and freedom. The same student who had written 'money is everything' a few months earlier was one of the seven hunger-strikers. 'We can't sit around and do nothing, it's too cold-blooded', he explained.
The personal protest of these seven students created an atmosphere of new possibility on campus, so that when the student union leaders announced over the loudspeaker that evening that HMU was going to participate in a city-wide demonstration, the students were ready to go. Posters were written within seconds of the announcement and hung from dormitory windows. About 1500 students, almost half the student body, donned their white medical coats and set off to join students from the eighteen other institutions of higher learning in Changsha who were planning to converge at the provincial government headquarters. The students at the National Defence Technology University, HMU's companions in political apathy, had to climb over the school wall in order to join the protest, because the front gate had been locked by school leaders who had received word of the demonstration.
At least 20,000 students marched that evening, many carrying posters with such slogans as 'Support the Beijing hunger-strikers', 'Long live democracy', and 'Down with bureaucracy and corruption'. More than 100,000 onlookers expressed their support by clapping and lighting firecrackers as the protestors marched by. (2)
One chant which was particularly appreciated by the crowds was an unexpectedly suitable quotation from Deng Xiaoping himself:
'A revolutionary political party does not fear the people's cries of protest; what it fears most is their silence.'
'Where is this quoted from?'
'Deng Xiaoping's Collected Works.'
'Third from the end.'
The evening of 17 May began what would be more than three
weeks of sit-ins, hunger strikes, demonstrations, class boycotts,
and workers' strikes. 'Business as usual' at Hunan Medical
University, and in the city itself, was basically disrupted for
this entire period. As soon as things looked like they would
return to 'normal', first after martial law, and then after the
Beijing massacre, the students went into the streets again, and
Some of the issues that students and young teachers had been concerned about before the outbreak of protests in mid-April - issues like inflation and particularly corruption - became important to the movement, while other concerns, such as the status of intellectuals and education, and the position of women, did not. These issues became subsumed under the larger, and in 'normal' times, taboo topics of freedom, democracy and the future of the country. A month before the demonstrations began one of my friends explained, 'Without the most basic human rights, how can we even begin to talk about women's rights?' Issues of particular concern to women were not seen as part of the movement for democracy, but rather as something to be addressed only after human rights were gained for all.
This period of protests was a time when everyone, both men and women, could express themselves as they never could before. I overheard two male post-graduates discussing one of their colleagues, a shy woman who never said a word in class - one of them had seen her making speeches downtown, bullhorn and all. There were many such stories; like the male students who didn't think that their female counterparts cared about 'large issues' but found themselves pleasantly surprised by the number of women who participated in the hunger strike and other 'bold' activities.
Women had the opportunity to act and speak in new and daring ways. Given the atmosphere of 'anything goes if it's for the cause', women were able to challenge certain sexist assumptions and transcend the boundaries of what was, for them, considered to be 'proper behaviour'. Like the men, they had found something to believe in.
With the declaration of martial law on 20 May and the final official designation of the movement as 'political turmoil', the stakes changed and the risks involved in participation became greater. Support for the students grew, and they came to be perceived as almost a type of Gandhian moral force - with their posters protesting against violence and insincerity, they represented 'good', while the government became the embodiment of evil. But many of the students at HMU were afraid of future repercussions. An official poster went up on 20 May stating that all political activity before martial law would be forgiven, but from 20 May onward there were to be no more posters, demonstrations, boycotts, rumour-spreading, etc. Although that poster was burned within a few hours, HMU began to lose its fervour.
And it started to falter in the public eye. After the HMU contingent of hunger-strikers was persuaded by concerned parents and school leaders to leave the encampment in front of the provincial government headquarters, HMU students were forbidden to enter the 'inner circle' of the protest movement again. One student managed to get a school badge from one of the 'politically correct' schools across the river, so she stayed on, attending to people who needed medical assistance. The final blow was the announcement over the student-operated broadcast system in front of the government offices that one third-year class at HMU had broken the boycott and gone to class. This public humiliation was too much for the students at HMU and as a result that class was ostracized. Some of my students, once again, lamented the political apathy that seemed to come so easily to medical students. From 20 May until the massacre, moods shifted almost daily between despair and hope. Immediately following the declaration of martial law, students were very depressed; they felt that things were, once again, out of their hands. 'How can our government be so cruel?' one student asked, and not waiting for an answer, concluded, 'There's no hope for our country'.
But when the students went back out on the streets despite martial law, there was a renewed sense of possibility. The news from Beijing that people had successfully stopped the advancing troops was encouraging, and rumours that Deng had fled to Qingdao and that Wan Li was rushing home to convene an emergency session of the NPC in order to impeach Li Peng also gave people a glimmer of hope.
'There's really nothing we can do...'
However, after 4 June there was only despair. The feeling of 'there's nothing we can do' of the past few years now turned to 'there's really nothing we can do' - the earlier hopelessness of the Chinese people had been resoundingly confirmed by the government's actions. There was a recognition among participants and supporters of 'Changsha Spring' that they had tried but failed to change things, and that now only hopelessness remained.
Even though some groups of students became radicalized, and by blocking train tracks, major traffic intersections and factory gates were able to cause a shutdown of the city for the few days following the massacre, their actions came from anger and sheer desperation, rather than from a belief that they could effect any real change. Although daily life became extremely difficult during those days, the people of Changsha still expressed support for the students. They admired their courage, but felt that in the end anything the students did would be useless in the face of government tanks. Most people felt that the Changsha students were looking to become martyrs, in the hope that a local confrontation would lead factory workers to strike en masse. But as news circulated that troops were right outside the city, and after a call from Beijing student leaders telling the Changsha students to stop before there was bloodshed, the students withdrew from the streets, and called for a kong xiao , or 'empty school' movement.
At the time of writing, almost a year later, things are back to 'normal'. No one at HMU has been arrested, though some students and young teachers have faced punishment within the school and there were some arrests at the political hotbeds across the river - South Central Industrial University, Hunan University and Hunan Teachers' College. Once again, the sense of hopelessness is pervasive. The 1989 HMU graduates were all sent to the countryside, and there are rumours that the graduating class this year will meet the same fate. Efforts to go abroad have reached a new level of intensity and desperation, but with the tighter government regulations on who may go abroad and when, the students' chances are bleak. Even now some undergraduates are considering quitting school to apply to go abroad, thus circumventing the new five-year post-graduation work requirement. But even if these under-graduates are accepted by foreign universities as transfer students, they will have to pay the government a prohibitive 'training fee' for each year they have attended university in China. And one more blow came just recently when the central government decided to cancel the English Medical Class.
Also telling is the number of students who have turned to religion and to romance. Since the summer of 1989, many students have found sweethearts and a few have found Christianity. The crisis of belief that intensified after 4 June has created a spiritual and moral vacuum that the revival of Lei Feng simply cannot fill. Not only was this their first witnessing of unadulterated evil, but in their imposed self-criticisms the students were compelled to negate what to many of them was the most meaningful and honest experience of their lives. The sense of community and togetherness that was one of the hallmarks of the spring of 1989 is gone, and people once again live in their private worlds of quiet desperation. The students, understandably, do not want to face the reality that they are being forced to 'live within a lie', (3) and so in its place they seek escape, solace, or some kind of higher truth. The feeling in Changsha now is that the situation is so grim, sooner or later something has to give. Even the reluctant revolutionaries at Hunan Medical University are waiting for the day when they can go back into the streets. An eventual change in government is expected by all; the troubling question is, what then?
*Material used for this article, unless otherwise cited, is drawn from my own observations and experiences, which were recorded in journals that I kept during my two years in Changsha. For the period after my departure from China on 11 June I have relied on letters and personal interviews with visitors to Changsha. I would like to thank Jon Unger for his helpful comments on the manuscript. This article is dedicated to my students and friends in Changsha, without whose warmth and insights this article could not have been written.
1 For a more detailed account of the 1980 elections in Changsha, see Andrew Nathan, Chinese Democracy (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1985) pp. 209-19.
2 Changsha Wanbao , 18 May 1989.
3 Vaclav Havel's phrase, from 'The Power of the Powerless' in Living In Truth (Faber and Faber, London, 1986) p. 45.