The China behind the Olympic glitter

When Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, the Olympic basketball coach, attended the ceremonial opening of the strength and conditioning facility at the U.S. training center at Beijing Normal University, he told USA Today, “We've been treated with the greatest amount of respect and friendliness.”

A couple of days later, the Observer's Scott Fowler reported that 22 U.S. teams were training at BNU. Of the school he wrote, “It seemed, well, normal. If you're a Chinese family and you've got a kid who's not too extraordinary but not too bad, it'd be an ideal place to send him to college.”

In 1989, when we were there as teachers of English, BNU was far from normal. It was a center of leadership in the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square that ended in a military crackdown that left hundreds – perhaps thousands – dead.

During the demonstration classes at BNU stopped. The students and faculty started daily marches to the Square, singing as they walked. They locked their arms so that no spies could join their party.

The demonstrators called for freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and an end to government corruption. Nonviolence was the rule. The atmosphere was happy and hopeful. One Western student at BNU said, “It's like Woodstock!”

After martial law was imposed and the hunger strike in the Square began, things changed. Ambulances taking weakened hunger-strikers to hospitals wailed through the day and night.

One day 11 BNU students took gasoline to the Square and vowed to burn themselves to death when the first hunger-striker died. The stakes had suddenly gone way up.

News came that the soldiers of the 27th Army were going to come through the BNU main gate and clean out the campus with bayonets.

Every Chinese soldier takes a vow to do two things: love the people and obey orders. Soldiers in the 27th would obey the latter.

We walked to the gate and watched. The chains of students, with arms locked, swayed as they waited. The soldiers did not come that day.

Friday, June 3, I took a snapshot of my wife, Siri, and three friends in front of the Goddess of Liberty erected by the demonstrators in the Square. All were smiling. We thought the demonstrations would soon be over.

The next day we tried to get into the Square but a policeman waved our university van away – too many people already there.

The massacre came that night.

Charlotte media telephoned us for news. I said, “Call back in three or four hours and I'll have the story.”

English news people and interpreters in the Square lived at BNU. At breakfast there were many eyewitness accounts: “One Chinese worker handed me this bloody bullet and said, ‘Tell the world.'” There in the BNU dining hall he held the bullet in the palm of his hand.

A British newsman said, “They used flamethrowers.” Another said, “There were a row of BNU students sitting on the ground singing, arms locked. An armored vehicle headed toward them. They kept on singing. The vehicle rolled over them all.”

Sunday afternoon a student appeared at our apartment. He had a long-standing appointment with me to meet to go over an essay he had drafted. We were amazed to see him.

I asked him, “Why haven't you left? All the other students have fled. The army is expected.”

He answered, “I want to write a good paper before I die.”

In 1995 we took 19 college students to study at Capital Normal University, another school in Beijing. One day we biked to BNU. The main gate, where in 1989 the students waited for the 27th Army bayonets, was gone. A garden had been planted in its stead.

A Davidson student studying in Beijing in 1998 had a Chinese roommate who denied that the Tiananmen Square massacre had taken place. He probably cited the old belief that in China gates are havens of safety, particularly those facing south like the gate into the Forbidden City.

That gate looks out on Tiananmen Square, which, translated, means “The Gate of Heavenly Peace.”