The Demonstrations of 1989 Part I

What is the Basis of Democracy?

During April before the student demonstrations became widespread a student with his political teacher came to visit me.  I had never heard of a political teacher calling on a foreign teacher, so I was on alert.  But the teacher didn’t delay.  What did I think about democracy in China?

Democracy is based on a belief in God, I responded, and assumes a willingness of citizens to obey a system of laws primarily resting on the Ten Commandments, which give order to society.  The Chinese system is based on an absolute ruler who is above his own laws.  Apparently Chinese think democracy is when everybody is equal – equally above law.  Thus, murder, theft, moral dishonesty and graft become a way of life.  The Chinese political teacher looked shocked.

There are some absolutes by which all men should order their lives, I continued.  The Ten Commandments forbid murder, lying, theft, and immorality among other things.  The Bible also elevates the worth of an individual and urges that individuals have consideration for those around them.  For that reason, absolute freedom does not exist.  Absolute freedom is license and results in chaos for a society.

To illustrate the contrast in attitudes toward respect for law and other people, I told about my first taxi ride from the Beijing airport into the city when I first arrived in China.  The driver drove at a high rate of speed, honking wildly at bicyclists.  When he entered a major intersection against a red light, he honked furiously and didn’t even slow down.  In a major American city late at night no motorist would risk life and property to run a red light without at least slowing down to see if there was traffic approaching.  My listeners nodded their heads with understanding.

The teacher looked surprised when I showed no interest in castigating Chinese leaders; but I insisted that the ancient feudal system was merely being perpetuated using an updated vocabulary.  Still, I was pleased at the relatively curious attitude this young man displayed, considering his students and some of mine were listening.

After my guests left I paced the floor in prayer for them and the deteriorating political and social conditions in China.  I couldn’t help but think of the condition of my own country, her great foundation of democracy eroding and falling away in chunks as people seek self-indulgence in gross immorality and the accompanying lies and violence necessary to perpetuate such a life-style.

Holy Spirit Arranged Meeting

The demonstrations of 1989 had begun sporadically in April and the foreign teachers were worried that the government would lay the blame on the foreign element, which was us, so we were all looking for some way to escape that charge.  Without prior planning more than a dozen teachers converged on Qing Dao, a beautiful seaside resort town in Shandong Province.  We saw each other at the huge markets or at the train or bus stations and passed the word to get a room at a particular local university.  We were awed that we should all just happen to meet at the same place at the same time, considering how difficult it was to get train tickets in advance from so many different cities in China.  It was a wonderful time of fellowship – in our number there was even a respected American retreat speaker fluent in Mandarin who spent time counseling with us as needed.

One sunny afternoon several of us ladies went to Zhongshan Park.  Wandering into the trees away from the constant noise and coal smoke, we spread out our jackets to lie down and take a nap in last fall’s leaves.  Then, one by one, we returned to our various universities.


As time progressed I was coming to love and understand my students and was making some enduring friendships.  When the demonstrations began I was concerned that too many lessons were being missed.  Then absences increased and more students joined the marches.  Sometimes streets would be blocked and one would intend to go shopping only to come upon an unexpected parade.  The participants were friendly and the onlookers were also, but uneasily I knew that this type of action could not go on indefinitely.  Meantime, my students had set up planning rallies and I attended, uninvited, to listen to their plans.  At first they were anxious at my presence, but then they began to accept me as I came, listened and left quietly.

Students were divided into shifts, some going to Tiananmen for three days, others marching in their local area three days, then resting three days.  A student borrowed my camera and shot a roll of film in the Square, giving me reprints.  There were banners with slogans using humorous word plays.  For example, Deng Xiao Ping can be rephrased “little bottle,” not a complimentary phrase.  I really enjoyed their keen wit.

When the gate to the foreign teachers’ compound was closed, ostensibly to protect us, students called on the phone to ask me to meet them at the gate.  They passed photos, notices and other information through the bars.  Among them was a memorial picture of a dead student with a daisy on her chest.

Eventually, the government shut down trains and buses to keep students out of Beijing, but they continued to come and go by hitch hiking.  They began to carry information into the villages to explain to the peasants what they were doing because the government had mandated a news blackout.  The peasants then cooperated in sympathy with the students by work slowdowns and stoppages.

Feeding the Weary

I was concerned that my students would decide to fast in the Square.  Their idea of fasting was total abstinence from both food and drink, so fasters died within a couple of days in the heat on the hot concrete tiles.  Their normal daily nutrition was quite inadequate, so fasting was more than the body could tolerate and many students died in spite of city doctors’ heroic efforts to save them.

Days turned to weeks with students out on the streets, not getting anything to eat at lunch or supper, so I began to buy stewed chickens and bouza, a vegetable-filled bun, which I carried to the dorms at night after students returned from the day’s protests.  Initially the gate keepers wanted to know what was in the heavy bags I carried, but when they realized what I was doing they “minded their own business,” letting me pass even to the boys’ dorm rooms.  My own students were sharing the food I brought with others, so I stayed and waited on them to eat so they couldn’t share.  They refused to eat, so I took the food with me and offered it to others of my classes.  When they understood that I wasn’t able to feed the entire dorm, they wearily accepted the food.  This was expensive for me but I wanted to express love and concern in a concrete way.  Such opportunities are seldom presented outside the classroom.

You Don’t Understand Us

One of my female students wasn’t healthy enough to endure the marches day after day and often she would faint, her classmates bringing her back to the dorm for the rest of that day.  When I found out about this I was angry and scolded her for her poor judgment.

“I will give my life for my country,” she declared.

“And what good is a dead body?” I demanded in exasperation.

She paused and then shot back, “Oh, you just don’t understand us Chinese!”

So I left the dorm determined to write her a letter explaining my understanding of her philosophy compared to the Christian value of life.

Daoism and Buddhism see human life as no better than animal life, just more highly evolved.  There is the “hope” of reincarnation for those who die nobly, who then have the opportunity to come back in a higher life form.  My letter was long and included a hand-printed copy of Psalm 139.

“Where shall I go from your spirit?

Or where shall I flee from your presence?

If I ascend up into heaven,

You are there;

If I make my bed in hell,

You are there.

If I take the wings of the morning,

And dwell in the most distant parts of the sea,

Even there shall your hand lead me,

And your right hand shall hold me.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,”

Even the night shall be light about me.

The darkness hides not from You.

But the night shines as the day,

The darkness and the light are both alike to you….

I will praise you,

For I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

Marvelous are your works

And I know that very well.

How precious are your thoughts of me, O God,

How great is the sum of them!

If I should count them,

They are more than the sand…..”

This I took and tossed on her bed and left quickly.  I didn’t see her for more than a week until she came to my apartment and tearfully confessed that I did understand her ideas and that what I had written to her she would remember forever because it was so beautiful.


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