Martial Law After the Tiananmen Square Killings: Thoughts After 30 years

As a Canadian, living under martial law is unheard of. We simply do not have such situations that warrant martial law. After 30 years, I still have strong memories and impressions of living under martial law in Beijing, 30 years after the Tiananmen Square killings. Who wrote and rewrote what history is for others to debate. My impressions and memories remain intact, burned into my brain, forever.

The first impression of martial law is that there are guns and soldiers at every street corner. I felt always a little more uneasy while walking outside. When you do simple tasks such as walk around your campus, or go to the local shops, things you have done a million times before, you see soldiers in white gloves with AK47s, at the ready. I cross the street to be as far away from them as possible, but they are never far enough away. Unnerved, I was, and I was not alone. Local Chinese also felt the unease, but probably less so than I. “They will not bother you”, Chinese friends would tell me.

All universities in China are surrounded by a perimeter wall, with only a few entrances. These entrances have campus guards, who check your student ID. Most are young and friendly. Over time you get to know them, joke with them and they become your friends. After 2 years I was pretty familiar with all the guards, so most of the time I did not need to show my ID.

After martial law all these campus guards were replaced by army soldiers in white gloves and AK47s. They were unfriendly and gruff. I do recall one soldier not believing I was a foreigner and wanting to throw my campus ID in the garbage. I had to argue with him, in Chinese, that I was Canadian. Was my Chinese that good and that convincing? It really ticked me off at the time, but martial law persisted for many months. I soon got used to looking bored, presenting my ID and shutting my pie hole. The less you talk the faster the tormented process would go. Other Chinese students were simply resigned to the process, roboticaly going through the motions. I, too, joined their ranks.

Sometimes there was a very thorough check and the lines to get back onto campus were very long. There were Chinese students arguing with the soldiers to let them back on campus. Shouting matches ensued, students were upset, then eventually they were allowed back onto campus. After all, where else were they to go? When my turn came I spoke as little as possible, short and gruff answers, saying nothing more than the minimum. It was better this way, but this was not my way.

We had a lake in the middle of our campus, somewhat famous in the city. While the Chinese students had a 10:00pm curfew, when the dorm doors were locked, foreign students had none. Our doors were always open. On hot nights when we could not sleep, many of us would go for a walk together. Within our campus, with a tight army security perimeter, there was little risk of outsiders coming onto campus. We would walk around the lake and talk. Most nights we would see Chinese fishermen in wide brimmed sum hats, fishing on the banks of the little lake. It was the most absurd situation ever. Late at night, say 11:00pm, in the moonlight, on a heavily guarded university campus, were random fishermen with wide brimmed straw hats, fishing in a lake that had, as far as I could see, no fish?

We would call out and taunt them mercilessly, asking them if they had caught any fish, if they were cold, if they had too much sun exposure. They never did reply.

During and after the Tiananmen Square killings our campus gymnasium and track were unexpectedly closed down. It was very odd, because the weather was warm and the track and gym would have been a popular place to exercise. The gym and track had a high wall and its doors were locked. I asked my Chinese friends why, and as an answer took me to a different nearby university with a high building, where we could look down to our campus. Deep inside the gym and track area of my campus were Chinese army personnel, camped out with their tents. There was PLA within our actual campus! That was a shock!

These are memories that stay with me. I was not directly affected by martial law, meaning I was not stopped and searched by PLA soldiers in white gloves and AK47s at the ready, but the whole feeling of living under martial law was unnerving. I get flashbacks when just I hear the words. These, after 30 years, have not faded with time.

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