February 04, 2023
A Secret Solidarity

The elderly lady asked for the stop near Tiananmen Square. Others on the train avoided looking at her. But I followed her.

By Roseann Lake

“Don’t talk to me when we’re on the square,” the woman instructed, as we got off the subway at Tiananmen East.

I didn’t know who she was; I just knew she was different. Unlike most elderly Chinese in Beijing, who move around like old tugboats and avoid the subway in favor of the bus, she was sharp.

Pointing at the red glowing subway map, she repeated Tiananmen changuang, until a man who looked to be in his early 30s quietly told her which stop would leave her closest Square.

Everyone else on the train gaped, as if she had asked for directions to Golgotha.

They pressed against the walls of the car to try to disassociate themselves from her. Yet they couldn’t take their eyes off of her.

“I want to take pictures,” she said to me in perfect English — yet another characteristic that distinguished her from the average Beijing septuagenarian. “And see. I haven’t been here since a month after it happened.”

She was talking about the massive pro-democracy protests of 1989, of course, and that June day when the tanks of the People’s Liberation Army rolled into the square and the military fired on the crowds, killing hundreds of people.

The subway station near Tiananmen was deserted. But, aware of the surrounding fleet of undercover police, we decided to walk apart. Soon we approached the first security check. I went ahead.

“Police security check,” said the officer, blocking my path. “Are you a reporter?”I said no, but he asked to see my passport. He checked the visa and my residence permit, then looked through my bag and removed a large notebook.

“Just my notebook,” I said, shrugging casually, but certain I was done for. Without opening it, he put it back in my bag.

At the second checkpoint my visa and residence permit were examined again.

“What’s your job?” the policeman asked.

“I’m an editor,” I responded, and he let me pass.

By the time I’d made it past all three checkpoints, I’d lost sight of my new friend. I meandered through the square, confused by its vast nothingness and amused by the odd gait of the Chinese military marching across it. Trained in a special way of marching, with their butts tucked under their hips, the soldiers are immediately recognizable, whether or not they’re in uniform.

I imagined the myriad plainclothes officers around here would be easy to pick out. Indeed, some were dressed in their Saturday night discotheque best, while others wore sleeveless basketball tees, evidently in an effort to casually blend in (paired with black lace-up military heels, the basketball tees were especially unconvincing).

I scanned the square, trying to seem inconspicuous, even though I was wearing a firetruck-red cotton dress. The woman’s hair, a bright and creamy white with hints of yellow, almost like sugar cane, made her easy to find. She wore large brown glasses and a loose white button-down shirt full of pockets — those big pockets you see on nurse’s uniforms. I could see her nimbly snapping photos and making great use of her pockets to hide her camera. She moved briskly around the square; at one point I even saw her rush toward a clan of marching soldiers to get their picture.

She coughed just a bit — a forced dry cough — when she wanted to take my picture. I would turn toward her, but never look directly at her, trying to mask our connection.

We walked back from the square to the subway together, still in secret tandem.

“We’re safe now,” she said, once we were both on the escalator headed underground. She looked at me with the relief of a little girl who had just made it back into her tree house without getting tagged.

“The police asked me if I knew you,” she said. “I just told them no.”

Having taken every measure to disguise our acquaintance, I was stunned that they had discovered us.

“They are very practiced at this type of observation,” she said. “They see everything.”

“People are scared to come today, because they know there will be much security,” she said. “But I had to come. Today is special.”

She said she’d been a journalist once. “The first time I came here was one month after it happened. I came alone, and there was hardly anyone on the square. But I could see that there were so many new bricks. I counted, over 100. They must not have been able to get rid of the blood.”

As we both boarded the subway, she asked for my mailing address so she could send me the pictures she’d taken of me. As I wrote it down, the entire car stared at us. A laowai, a foreigner, was speaking to a Chinese woman who looked like she could be the mother or grandmother of a Tiananmen victim. They knew that we were exchanging ideas and contact information. I was nervous until, in a subtle act of solidarity, a woman sitting in front of us offered her pen, after mine had stopped working.

The Chinese watch, but they don’t tattle.

“Are you going home now?” I asked as the woman, as we approached her stop. “Because I would like to talk more with you, maybe have tea?”

“I don’t think my daughter will like it,” she said. “I am staying with her, and she lives in a military compound.”

I didn’t insist.

“Nice to meet you,” she said, looking away from me as she exited the train. It was her undercover promise that we’d meet again.

Beijing-based Roseann Lake has reported from four continents in three languages.

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