Personal History: A June Deserter

In the run-up to last’s week’s 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, the following essay quietly circulated in the Chinese blogosphere, written by an anonymous author calling himself Deserter. Via, translated by CDT’s Paulina Hartono:

It was in June of that year. I was working at one of the three big media corporations in America. That was an eventful spring. At the beginning of the year, the former president George Bush visited China, and then a former CCP leader passed away … Finally, by the time one evening in early June came around, that eventful spring was marked by an exclamation point, and then an even bigger question mark.

At the time, I was still a Chinese citizen. The next morning, I hastened to find my boss: It was a worrisome situation [in Beijing], I could not stay. I wanted to resign, to get out, to leave.

I didn’t imagine that my boss was also looking for me. He said that our Australian cameraman and his English recording assistant were in the Beijing Hotel, and they had just filmed some extremely important material. My boss told me that I should personally go and get the material, rather than send my 20 broadcasting school interns. This, to me, was a dilemma. I had originally wanted to resign, but now was sent on assignment, and clearly an important one at that: Before this, I had never been personally sent to go pick something up from a place.

I was young and easily excitable at that time. The [media] company was really good to me: In 1980s China, they paid $200 USD in cash a day. I kept thinking to myself that it wouldn’t be right to drop the ball on them now, so I just promised to go. However, I immediately regretted it after because my boss said, “I’ve heard that it’s safe out there.” But I could tell from the way he spoke that he shouldn’t have said that. It was obviously not that safe out there.

I went from work at the Palace Hotel and walked over to the Beijing Hotel. It was past 10 in the morning, but there was no one in the streets. Occasionally, I would hear the clear, crisp sound of firecrackers around me. At the corners of Chang’An, I would see some Beijing residents beating their chests and stomping their feet, swearing under their breath. One elderly resident was supported on both sides by several youth, and immediately took off for Peking Union Medical College Hospital. It was said that one side of his mouth had been struck by a bullet that came out the other side. The old man had his head down, his body was leaning to one side. The man was undeniably suffering.

Once I had arrived at the entrance to the Beijing Hotel, I only saw one row of closed glass doors. There was only one half-open door in the middle, letting just one person at a time enter sideways. Flanking the sides, inside and out, were at least a dozen plain-clothed people performing some duties.

I braced myself and approached them.

I had put a new, unsealed videotape into my backpack as an exchange for the material I wanted to pick up. As I faced these fellow citizens of mine carrying out their duties, I tried my utmost to calm down, telling myself that I had nothing on me, and that this tape had nothing on it, either.

I kept thinking and went through their pat-down, finally walking into the hall. However, I felt as if many eyes kept staring at me from behind. But I got into the elevator, saw the elevator’s doors close, and finally, no one called for me to stop.

When I had reached the 14th floor, I found our filming group’s room, and knocked on the door. I heard some rustling for a while, and then the door was finally opened after a long wait. Turns out the two foreigners thought I had come to arrest them, so they brought their camera equipment from the balcony and hid it under the bed. After that, they even changed their pajamas and looked just like a gay couple. It was pretty funny! As soon as they recognized me, they let out a sigh and immediately put the equipment back on the balcony. The cameraman put my tape in the machine and the recording assistant delivered the tape I had come to get.

I rode the elevator down and walked to the front. This time, the tape I had in my backpack had content on it. There was a backlight as I was approaching the entrance, and though I thought that people’s shadows were shifting in and out the door, no one was moving. It was clear that they were staring at me as I moved towards them. Those steps I took were the heaviest and longest steps of my life.

Once I reached the entrance, I could finally make out their faces. I could feel a silent pressure, an … anger. But they did not obstruct my way, and instead let me pass.

I quickly left the Beijing Hotel for the Palace Hotel. As soon as I arrived, the editor took the recording and began to make a copy of it. I intended to get out of the way; I did not want to know what was on the tape. By doing so, I could remain utterly ignorant and deny any responsibility. Of course, this was my subjective preference, or perhaps self-deception.

Just as I was considering speaking to my boss about the resignation situation, my boss again sent me with the tape, this time to the airport, to “release the carrier pigeon.” I did not pull back; I had to go to the airport. I still reassured myself that I had no idea what the tape’s contents were.

“Release the carrier pigeon” is American television jargon meaning that one has to go to an airport or some location to hand over material to a passenger who looks reliable, give him/her some remuneration, and trust him/her to carry it to the intended flight destination. In the past, this was an old, common method of satellite broadcasting. However, at this time, Beijing’s satellite delivery had already been cut off, so this was now the only recourse.

The Beijing Capital Airport was brimming with people, with everyone there foreign and frantically wanting to leave Beijing. Aside from the large number of people, there was another thing that made my hair stand on end: in the airport’s large hall, there were countless people lined up and moving through the crowds, but none of them were speaking; their faces were solemn. Now, compared to the usual clamor and chaos, there was quiet — the atmosphere was unexpectedly frozen, and eerie. From time to time, someone would softly speak, but oddly, would be cautious about it. It was as if they didn’t want others to hear what was said.

I was in a line with people heading for Hong Kong and found an American businessman-looking type, not quite 40-years-old. I got the copy in my bag ready with the $100 USD cash I intended to give to him. I explained that I was from the such and such American TV corporation, and then asked if he would be our carrier pigeon, told him that I hoped he would tell me his name, that I would have to return to the office to send a fax to Hong Kong so that when he landed, he could hand the tape over to our people there waiting for him … At the time, 1997 [Hong Kong’s return to China] was still far off, so naturally, Hong Kong’s satellite broadcasting system had not been cut off.

That American looked at me, and then looked at the tape I held in my hand. Then, he nodded his head, with almost no expression registering on his face. I jotted down his name. Robert. Robert told me something absolutely unforgettable. However, please allow me to recount [his words] a little further on.

When I left the airport, I had some suspicions and felt as if someone was following me from behind. My primary comfort was still that I was completely ignorant about the contents of that tape.

After getting back to the office, I did not dare to delay — I immediately went to look for my boss and told him that I was completely finished with the assignment, and that I was sorry that I was a deserter. At this point, I had no choice but to resign. My boss seemed to finally understand that he and I were not the same; I held a Chinese passport. After some consideration, he said that he understood, gave me my pay, and let me go.

Some time passed since that incident, and I was very slowly beginning to forget. Until one day, I saw a picture, one that became the 20th century’s most compelling image.

My memory was revived.

On June 5th of 1989, a little past 10 AM, a bare-fisted young man in a white shirt stood erect in front of a tank motorcade and faced death, unafraid. A group comprising us and a few other foreign news agencies were at the top of the Beijing Hotel, which was at the side of Chang’An where he had obstructed the tanks. We were able to take some shots of his image.

A few minutes later, before I had even been able to voice my resignation, I was directed by my boss to personally go over to the Beijing Hotel and retrieve the tape. After I had retrieved it, I was again sent with extreme urgency to the airport to “release the carrier pigeon” …

Judging from the time, location, and level of importance, I — this deserter — then totally unwilling in the circumstances and perpetually attempting to comfort myself with “I don’t know what the contents of this tape are,” was unaware that I was sending the entire world, within its first moments, images of the last man in a generation of Chinese who would ever assent to becoming a deserter.

Here, I want to say a few words: it was not that I did not get any help and support from others in this process. Today, I recall that scene and want to technically thank [those at] the Beijing Hotel entrance, those plain-clothed fellow citizens performing their duties. Given their positioning, their grasp of information, and technology available, it is absolutely impossible that they did not know there was a video crew taping on the 14th floor. To say that they did not know I was riding up to the 14th floor to receive the tape is even more unlikely. However, as I said, they did watch me; their eyes were full of anger. I, someone who wholeheartedly felt like deserting, regarded their anger as being directed towards me. But I overlooked something. These people, after work, were also regular Beijing folk. Surely, bullets would not avoid their family, friends, and neighbors just because of their day jobs. Today, I understand one thing, and can say why they let me pass through the entrance and why they willingly let me leave. It’s because whether they acted as individuals or a collective, the decision they made was not without dangerous consequences. They let the world see the images of this awe-inspiring, righteous fellow citizen and his courage.

Lastly, let me tell you what the American Robert said at the airport.

“I feel so, so guilty and ashamed. At the time when the Chinese people most need my help, I can’t do anything but choose to flee, and more than that, flee from this privilege. I can’t take this money. Although I don’t know what’s on this tape, rest assured, I will do my utmost to protect it and send it to where it needs to go. It’s my small individual effort for China.”

Today, as I remember those words, my first regret is that Robert and I were deserters. Perhaps, on our path of flight, we would have never learned what we unknowingly did for the world.


Image source: New York Times blog.

tank man


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