Deserters in June

It was June of a different year. I was working in Beijing for one of the big three U.S. media companies. That was an eventful spring. In the beginning of the year, President Bush visited China. Then came the death of a former Chinese Communist leader[1]… One night in June, the eventful spring was given a large exclamation mark, and an even larger question mark.

I was then still a Chinese citizen. The next morning, I hastened to my boss. Now a dangerous place, I couldn’t stay there anymore. I wanted to resign, and leave.

Unexpectedly, my boss was also looking for me. In Beijing Hotel, one of our Australian cameraman and his British sound assistant had just recorded something very important. My boss asked me to personally go and get the material, rather than send one of the some 20 college interns working under me. This gave me a dilemma. I came to resign, but now I was given a mission, apparently a very important mission—to that day, I had never had to personally go somewhere to send or retrieve something.

I was young then, and was easily excited. Besides, the company had treated me well. In China, in 1980s, they paid me $200 (US) a day, in cash. I thought it over a few times, and felt that I couldn’t drop the ball at this moment of need. So I agreed. Right after giving my words, however, I began to regret it, when my boss said, “They say it’s fairly safe outside.” From his tone, I could hear that his words might as well not have been said. Apparently it was not so safe outside.

From our office in the Palace Hotel, I walked to the Beijing Hotel. It was after 10:00 AM, but there were few pedestrians. Occasionally, you could hear crispy sounds like firecrackers coming from all directions. In the corner of Long Street[2], I saw some Beijing residents beating their chests, stamping their feet, and whispering curses. A few young people helped an old man hobble forward, towards Union Hospital. I was told that a bullet entered his mouth from side and exited the other. The old man’s head bowed down, body leaning forward, he was apparently in excruciating pain.

At Beijing Hotel’s entrance, I saw that the row of glass doors were all shut, except for one in the middle, which was half open, barely enough to allow a person to pass by sideways. By the door, both outside and inside, stood at least a dozen people dressed in civilian clothes, on some assignment.

I bit my tongue, and went towards them.

In my backpack was a newly unsealed videotape. I meant to swap it with the tape that had been recorded. Facing these fellow countrymen on assignment, I tried to calm myself by telling myself that I had nothing on me, even less on this tape.

While thus thinking, I had passed them by, and was in the lobby. I felt the multitude of eyes on my back. But I walked into the elevator, watched the elevator doors close, and still nobody called me to stop. On the 14th floor, I found our camera crew’s room, and knocked on the door. There was some rustling noise inside, and the door was opened after a long time. It turned out these two foreigners thought someone came to arrest them, so they removed the camera from the balcony, hid it under the bed, and put on pajamas. They looked laughably like a pair of homosexual men[3]. Seeing it was me, someone they knew, they were relieved, and immediately set up the camera on the balcony again. The cameraman put the tape I brought into the camera, while the sound engineer put the tape I came for in my hands.

I took the elevator down and walked towards the front. This time the tape in my bag had content. When I walked to the front door I was walking towards light, and could only see that inside and outside the door, there were silhouettes of people, motionless, obviously watching my move towards them. Those dozens of steps were the weightiest, longest steps I made in my life.

When I reached the door, I could finally see the faces of those people. I felt that a silent pressure, a… wrath. But, they still did not stop me, and let me walk out.

From Beijing Hotel I walked briskly back to Palace Hotel. Immediately upon arrival, our editor made a copy of the videotape I brought back. When they were making the copy, I intentionally stayed away; I did not want to know what was in it. Thus, if there were problems, I could plead ignorance. Of course, this was just my own wishful thinking, or self-deception.

I was on the verge of mentioning the resignation business to my boss, when he asked me to take a copy the videotape to the airport, and to “fly the pigeon.” Resignedly I went to the airport. I comforted myself again with my ignorance of the content on the tape.

“Fly the pigeon” is a jargon of American television industry, meaning that one brings material to an airport or some like place, looks for a reliable passenger, gives him/her some compensation, and asks him/her to bring the material to where the flight goes. This is an ancient practice, before satellite transmission became popular. However, at this time the satellite transmissions in Beijing had long been cut off, so we had to return to this method.

Capital Airport was packed with people, all foreigners trying to leave Beijing in haste. Although crowded, it was a little creepy: in the huge terminal, with masses of people in queues, squeezing by and looking for places to go, most of them were silent, anxious, and grave. Compared with the usual noisy bustle of life here, this time the air actually felt a kind of creepy—silence. Occasionally someone whispered, but with such caution, as if afraid to be heard by the interlocutor.

In the line for a flight to Hong Kong, I found a businessman-looking American, about 40 years old. I took the videotape from my bag, and handed it to him, along with a $100 bill. I explained that I was with this American television company, and requested him to be our messenger pigeon. I asked for his name, so that I could go back to the office and fax it to Hong Kong, so that when he got off the plane he could immediately hand the tape over to our people waiting for him there… It was several years before 1997[4], Hong Kong’s satellite transmission system naturally had not been cut off.

That American looked at me and the tape in turn. Then he nodded his head expressionlessly. I jotted down his name. Robert. Robert said a few words to me, which I would never forget. But let me retell them later.

When I left the airport, perhaps it was all in my head, I constantly felt someone was following me. My sole consolation was, of the content on the tape, I knew nothing.

Back in the city, in our office, I no longer dared any further delay. I found my boss, told him I completed the final mission; but at the same time, regrettably I was a deserter, and had to resign at this time. It dawned on my boss that I was different from him, in that I held a Chinese passport. He thought for a moment, said that he understood, gave me my salary, and let me take flight.

How many years have passed. This matter slowly faded in my mind. Until one day, I saw a picture, one called by some as a best illustration of the dauntless human spirit in the 20th century. My memory is activated.

In the year of I9B9[5], at 10:00 AM on June 5, an unarmed Chinese young man in a white shirt stood in front of a roaring row of tanks, staring down death. Several foreign news agencies, including ours, from upper floors of Beijing Hotel near the Long Street where he blocked the tanks, took in those images.

A few minutes later, before I was able to tell my boss I wanted to resign, he told me to go personally to Beijing Hotel to retrieve a videotape. After taking it back, and he urgently sent me to the airport to “fly the pigeon”…

From the time, place, and the importance my boss gave it, I the deserter, with no knowledge of the case, repeating “I do not know the contents of the tape” to comfort myself, inadvertently passed to the world the images of the last person in China to desert.

I would like to say here that I was not without help and support. Thinking back, I would like to especially thank those at the entrance of Beijing Hotel, in plainclothes, on their assignment. From where they were, and the intelligence they had, and the technology in their disposal, it was impossible that they did not know that our camera crew was on the 14th floor, that I was going to the 14th floor, and that I took back the tape. As I said, they looked at me with eyes filled with anger. When all I was thinking was to desert, I thought their anger was directed at me. However, I missed one point. These people, after work, were but ordinary people of Beijing. Bullets would not shy away from their relatives, friends, or neighbors, just because of what they do during the day. Today, I have only one explanation why let me get into the door that admitted one person at a time, and then let me out again. That is, they made an individual or collective decision, not without danger to themselves, to let the world see the image of that morally upright countryman of theirs, and the halo over his head.

Finally, let me tell you what Robert told me at Capital Airport: “I am very, very sorry that when China needs help the most, but I cannot do anything for her. I can only choose to escape, and I have the privilege to escape. This money I cannot take. Although I do not know what is on this videotape, please be assured that I will do my best to protect it, and deliver it to where it should go. This little bit I do for the Chinese people.”

When I write down this remembrance, my only regret is that between Robert and me, the two deserters, one will probably never know what we did for the world, intentionally or unintentionally, on our way to desert.


[Original was published on the Internet, in Chinese, anonymously. It was dated June 2, 2011.]

[1] Published online in China, the original Chinese text used a lot of vague references. Here the person meant is Hu Yaobang, ex-Chairman of the CCP.

[2] The main thoroughfare in front of Tiananmen is the Street of Eternal Peace. Dropping one character, it became the Long Street. See the previous footnote.

[3] Homosexuality was then illegal in China.

[4] 1997 is the year when Hong Kong was transferred to Chinese sovereignty.

[5] An intentional “misspelling” of the year 1989.

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