18 Laughing hyenas

After paying our respects to Premier Zhou Enlai, the Chinese political scene was hardly a priority for us. I would have difficult to try to learn more; even it had been, as we had little access to information. Still, the signs that things were fermenting behind the high walls of the Chinese government compound were there.

The most conspicuous sign was the increasing criticism to Deng Xiaoping. The phrase bu ken gaihui de zouzipai Deng Xiaoping ‘the unrepentant capitalist roader Deng Xiaoping’ was broadcast daily through campus loudspeaker system. No longer protected by Zhou, Deng was de facto outlawed.

Chinese politics had been affected tremendously by the passing away of Zhou Enlai.

. . . Zhou had also been instrumental in arranging Nixon’s seminal visit to China in 1972. The path to that visit had been laid by the equally important visit of the US Table Tennis team to China a year earlier. It had also been masterminded by Zhou, and the idea behind it (letting a harmless sport event pave the way for the real thing) had become known as the Ping Pong Diplomacy.

It had been under Zhou’s guidance that the People’s Republic of China had been recognized as the only China by the United Nations. And he had done all this, while his health was already deteriorating. He was the only sitting politician of that time who was genuinely liked by the overwhelming majority of the Chinese. . .

Zhou’s death left an empty spot in the hearts of the men in the street. It left an even bigger hole in the Chinese political scene. While Mao was hardly aware of himself, a fierce political struggle broke out in the highest political echelons. . .

The Qingming Festival, at which the Chinese honour their deceased ancestors, was approaching. Like most traditional Chinese holidays, Qingming was not celebrated during the Cultural Revolution. However, when Qingming 1976 approached, more and more Chinese started bringing flowers to Tian’anmen Square as a gift for their beloved prime minister.


. . . The main attraction on that square at the time (now it is Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum) was the Monument for the People’s Heroes. It commemorated the martyrs who had sacrificed their lives for the revolution. It was a spot where people used to bring flowers around Qingming Festival for several years. It was therefore the ideal place to pile up the offers for Zhou Enlai.

However, in 1967 the number of flowers and other small gifts, placed at the foot of obelisk-like structure was immense. And there was more, except for floral wreaths and photographs of Zhou Enlai, texts were also stuck to the monument.

There were exclamations like: ‘Premier Zhou, who is looking after your soul!’, which was a very overt hint that the current leaders of the country were not displaying sufficient attention to the commemoration of a hero like Zhou Enlai. . .

There were even more poems with clear political messages, all using the death and commemoration of Zhou Enlai as an excuse to complain about the remaining political leaders. The most famous line in those poems read:

‘I want to grieve, but hear ghosts screeching,

I want to cry, but jackals are laughing’.

The word ‘ghost’ was a reference to Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife who used to be likened with the ‘White Bone Spirit’, a demoness from a famous traditional novel Journey to the West She can take on any shape and usually tries to win the confidence of her victims by appearing like a pitiable or kind person. Once you lose guard, she grabs and eats you. . .

That most Chinese hated Jiang Qing was a public secret. You knew it, therefore there was no need to express it, as that could literally be lethal. The political leaders at first left the flowers and the writings untouched, probably hoping that it would gradually fade away. However, when it didn’t, and Qingming was approaching they apparently decided that the risk that the mourning for Zhou would evolve into an antigovernment movement was too big and let Public Security remove everything overnight. That proved a wrong bet.

. . . A growing crowd of people gathered on Tian’anmen Square in the morning of April 5 only to find their tokens of mourning for Zhou Enlai gone. The mood got grimmer with the increasing number of mourners. Hidden by the anonymity of their large number, several of them dared to start shouting anti-government slogans.


The police were not trained to deal with that type of behaviour. The only experience that Chinese police had with behavior that approached a riot had been during the first years of the Cultural Revolution. However, that had been a man-made riots, directed by a small group of people using the immaturity and ignorance of the teenagers and young adults who had been raised by their parents, teachers, and neighbors with the idea that they were the lucky generation tasting the sweet fruits of the revolution. . .

. . . Maybe it was the similarity between the organized riots of the Cultural Revolution and the spontaneous April 5 protests of 1976 that made the police hesitant to intervene. When the mayor of Beijing, Wu De, gave the signal to put a halt to the turmoil, the protesters outnumbered the police present at that moment, and attempts to disperse the crowd resulted in fighting. The mourners were no longer afraid. Several police officers were beaten and chose to retreat, while some protesters even set their cars afire.

This gave the authorities an excuse to launch a full attack on the protesters, using a special branch of Public Security equipped with armor and batons. Chinese attach great value to their lives and will not easily sacrifice themselves even for the best of causes. Most of the protesters fled home as quickly as possible, and only a few diehards persevered, most of whom were arrested. . .

I spent that day on the campus. We had learned about the wreaths and poems at Tian’anmen Square, and had been looking at them a couple of days earlier. We also sensed that this would not be allowed to continue for long, but lacked information about when the storm would burst. Ironically, we would not have learned so much about what was going on the square, if the School’s broadcasting system had not started to read Wu De’s speech. Still in hindsight, the decision by our School (and perhaps many other units in the capital) to broadcast the speech so quickly, may have been a silent signal to the people to join the protesters. It is a guess, but it is a possible scenario in Chinese culture. I recorded the message, which was read repeatedly, on my cassette recorder, but unfortunately that recording has gone lost long time ago.

The following day, I took the bus to Wangfujing Street, which included a ride on Bus 1 that covered the best part of Chang’an Avenue, the huge boulevard that crosses Tian’anmen Square. There were no vestiges of the riots left to see, but I vividly remember that the riots were still the main theme of the conversations on the bus.

. . . I was surprised to hear people speaking about the turmoil as if it were a daily routine. When the bus passed the Great Hall of the People, where some rioters had attempted to break a door, several people in the bus were pointing at that spot saying: ‘Look, that must be the door!’ They were not for or against the rioters; they were merely curious.

Again, those ordinary citizens who were doing their ordinary things had never been exposed to spontaneous riots as well, just like their compatriots working for Public Security. It was a completely new phenomenon for them. It probably fascinated them more than it scared them. . .

Later that month, we were taken back a long time in history with a visit to the Peking Man site at Zhoukoudian on Sunday, April 23, 1976.


. . . Zhoukoudian is an excavation site south of Beijing. It was my first visit to an excavation site in China. Indeed, it was my first visit to any excavation site period. We had seen our share of buildings from various periods of China’s long history in Beijing and the cities we visited during the winter holiday trip, but this site was seriously ancient.

However, there was not that much to see. The actual site was a big hole in the ground with a few openings pointed out to us as caves in which remains of primitive man had been discovered. A small museum had been built near the caves, in which some of the excavated fossils of Peking Man (or more probably, replicas) and some of the stoneware and other utensils made by these ancient people were exhibited. . .

That month ended with another national holiday.

. . . We Dutch are proud of our monarchy. Our sovereign in 1976 was a queen, Queen Juliana. While I am writing these lines, the current Queen Beatrix, has just abdicated on April 30, 2013. From that day, we have a king again.

On April 30, 1976, the Dutch, including the Dutch expatriates in all corners of the globe, were celebrating Queen’s Day, the birthday of Queen Juliana. She still only had four years to go, before her abdication, but we did not know that then. Juliana was the queen who looked like everybody’s mother. That was why you simply had to like her; even when you were a republican. . .

. . . the two of us, dressed as formally as we could with the few garments that we had brought from home. With such a small Dutch community in Beijing, every individual was more than welcome at the Queen’s Day party at the Beijing International Club. . .

The International Club was not a real club, but was more like a restaurant that foreigners could enter for lunch or dinner, but was closed to Chinese, except those invited by foreigners. It was like the nearby Friendship Store that sold luxury items to foreigners, as a token of friendship, but was strictly forbidden to locals.

. . . My diary does not tell me whom I met there, or what exciting conversation I had with whom. I guess it was not that exciting at all. The bonus you got during those functions was the opportunity to savor proper wine, and we made sure to get our fair share of it. . .

. . . it was a good dinner. Moreover, we had a full agenda. While this Dutch party was coming to an end, we were already eagerly awaiting the festivities of the following day, May Day.


If you like this story and would like to read all of it, you are invited to buy the book. Benelux citizens can order a copy, signed if needed, directly with the author. Others can order it at Amazon.


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