Phebe Ham

Age: 58

Interviewed August 15, 1990

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer

Education in China, Part 2

-- China
-- Student Education

Return to China following Tiananmen Square uprising, as university teacher of English in Shandong Province - September 1989-June 1990.

When I went back last year, I flew from San Francisco to Beijing, and in Beijing, there were still soldiers with rifles standing at attention on bridges and on various street corners. That was the outward sign of the repression that had set in after Tiananmen Square. But when I got back to my college in Jinan, I found that all my students, and in fact, all students all over China were undergoing intensive political indoctrination to learn the truth of June 3 and 4, 1989. They not only had to attend lectures every day, this went on for two or three or four weeks depending a little bit on the situation, but then they had to write long reports giving a detailed account of what they had been doing that spring, not only of their own doings but of other people that they had been with. Of course, these reports can easily be cross-checked. They were encouraged to report on anything they had seen, who had put up posters, who had marched, who had organized, all kinds of details. So that's not very good. It is rather terrifying because, of course, many of the students had demonstrated, and of course, no one knows how many, but thousands of students are in prison now for doing just those same things. No one knows where they are or what is happening to them, but you can easily surmise that they are undergoing torture probably in many cases, horrible living conditions, eight or ten in one small cage. The situation is really very serious, but of course, China wants everyone to forget that.

The government has its own version of course. The soldiers were brave and patriotic and love their country, and the students were counter-revolutionaries who are trying to destabilize the country or take over the government; very clear as to who was good and who was bad. No room for debate on that score.

In the spring of '89 for weeks actually, every time I went out there were marches in the street. There were lots of them all the time, and of course, I was part of them or walked along beside the students on many occasions, and of course, I was seen and the police were photographing or filming these demonstrations. It wasn't very obvious at the time that they were but they certainly were. Later on when all these students were having their indoctrinations some of the films were shown. I think that was to show that "look we have films so you be sure you say that you marched because we can find out if you did or not," so the films were a good way of intimidating people, and of course, because I was so frequently around I was in the films. It was probably the only part my students liked; they really loved seeing me, and I had my camera around my neck. The secret police certainly knew that I was there. As a matter of fact, there were not many other foreigners who did that. Most of them stayed in their universities, but I'm a little too independent and I just went out with everybody else for weeks.

I've been there in that city so long that really many people do know that I have worked very hard and devoted myself to helping these students improve their English, so that people are aware of that and I'm sure many people approve of that. Certainly there wasn't enough disapproval to keep me from coming back, so back I went. This September is the start of my seventh year.

The government said 23 students were killed at Tiananmen Square. Well, there were hundreds of students killed and also hundreds of ordinary people, Beijingers, were killed. The numbers are not clear and may never be, but Amnesty International thinks around 1500 or 2000. That was on those few days; since then I'm sure many more have died in prison. There were a lot of executions so that number doesn't include all the executions that took place after Tiananmen Square.

Music and announcements start to be broadcast at 6:00 in the morning. Everyone is meant to go out and do their morning exercises, so that's the start of the day. Of course, in winter it is cold and dark at that time, but nevertheless, morning exercises are a must. Some of my students, college students, have as many as 32 or even 34 classroom hours a week. Compared to an American college that is just unthinkable. Then they have a tremendous amount of lessons to prepare, homework, so they are in the classroom or studying just all day, and then in the dormitories, the lights go out about 11:00. But I would like to say when I say dormitories, they are nothing like what American dormitories are. These are rooms with eight students in them, one or two light bulbs, double bunks, so you can just walk down the middle, and no heat or minimal heat and no hot water. No plumbing really, outhouses or some very primitive ways for disposal of human waste. The dormitories are dirty, the stench when you go into them is overpowering. I got used to it, I just walk in but it's very bad. There are no lights on the stairs, no lights in the halls. The dormitories are just terrible. I think there is probably enough food, but the food is bad, and if they don't get there to the cafeteria early enough, there's almost nothing left.

Intellectuals don't have a high place in society. Intellectuals are tolerated. China knows they need to advance, they know they need these people, but they don't like them. The average life span of a professor is something like 10 years less than the average person in China because there is tremendous stress connected with the job, the extremely poor living conditions and the low pay. Factory workers are better off; higher pay in many cases, better conditions and no stress. So these poor professors labor all their life for, it seems, almost nothing. They are the poorest paid intellectuals in the world. If they write a book or develop some invention, they are not ever given much credit for it. It's not considered useful. Of course, they are extremely necessary but it's not really admitted that they are.

The communist party is about 50 million people out of more than a billion. Ten percent of those are illiterate and another 40% have barely finished elementary school, so half the party is uneducated. They say they want to change that but actually it's questionable.

I have a number of friends who are professors but they are never consulted about anything. Every factory has a party secretary, every university has a party secretary. They know about communism and they know how to enforce it, but they don't know about academic things usually, and when they are in the factories, they don't know about production, and yet of the two, the factory director or the college professor, the party secretary's word is carried out. So a professor has very little satisfaction in life, I think.

My closest friend, who is an older professor, is extremely discouraged. So discouraged that we really don't discuss the situation. It's more tactful not to bring it up because it's too upsetting. I think there are quite a few people like him. So when I go to see him now, I just try to talk about something that has nothing to do with politics.

Not one of the students who graduated in July of this year is even allowed to apply for study abroad for six years. Of the students who graduated this year, only a small fraction can go to graduate school in China. They can only go if they have done the politically correct thing over the last year, particularly over the last year. So that means the graduate school will have these people who have always paid attention to the party, which means little imagination and much more stress on obedience, so what kind of scholars are they going to make. They want the ones who are not independent spirits, and that's the ones they will get.

All students in my English majors classes, scientific English classes, wanted to continue their English, wanted to become negotiators in factories, wanted to be translators. But, very few of them will now. They may be given pointless, useless jobs,and of course, probably would not go to graduate school because all of my good students marched. These were peaceful marches but that is trouble for them.

Some of the very intelligent students are certainly the most depressed or you might say the people who can't forget are the most depressed. I think a lot of the Chinese just learn to forget things somehow because it's easier. It's a kind of self defense, if you just try to forget what happened. But those who can't forget have a very hard, very hard time in life and there's not much help for them. I can't help them because I know too what happened maybe in greater detail than they, and you can't brush it aside or say it's different now because it isn't different now. The Chinese leaders like to talk about stability, that means the outward appearance. So now the outward appearance in China is stable, but it isn't underneath and, of course, there will inevitably be more trouble.

The leadership has changed, but in a way, you can say there's no change because the ideas don't change. Those people who may be slightly liberal don't last very long; the hardliners last. There is the Central Committee, party secretary and Li Peng, the prime minister. That hasn't changed, there has always been a Central Committee. The individuals change in that Central Committee, but the policies don't change or they change slightly to more open or less open, but now they are certainly a very repressive group. They are very unpopular but again people really don't talk about them very much. They don't like them at all. They will make sarcastic remarks about them sometimes which is sort of funny. Jiang Zemin who is a party secretary is called The Vase, and I asked why he was called that and one of my students said, "Well, he looks nice but he's empty." He's not very intelligent. He's always smiling so he's called the vase.

Deng Xiaoping had a number of proteges because Hu Yaobang was his protege and Zhao Ziyang was his protege and now one's dead and one's in disgrace. So Li Peng is the present protege, but when Deng Xiaoping dies, it's at least quite likely that Li Peng will fall from power. He's not at all popular. I never heard anyone say they like Li Peng, maybe only Deng Xiaoping likes him, that might be all he has to support him.

For the anniversary of Tiananmen Square, all demonstrations were banned entirely. That was made clear; there could be no demonstrations. Although martial law had been lifted a couple of months before that, all the soldiers were brought in force during June 3 and 4. Beijing University was really surrounded by soldiers, so there were really no demonstrations in the streets, but the students at Beijing did have a demonstration within the college campus which was very risky. I don't know what happened to some of those students, but before it began, they threw bottles out the window. Deng Xiaoping, the ping part of his name means bottle, so they were smashing bottles, and then apparently they all came out of their dormitories, I think it was at 11:40 at night, which was the moment the tanks had roared into Tiananmen Square the year before. They went to a central point on the campus, and I was told, the first person who got up to talk was taken away. Not being there, I don't know the other details. Everywhere else it was strictly not allowed to do that.

I listen to Voice of America almost every day and I listen to the BBC. I get the overseas edition of The Christian Science Monitor and The Guardian Weekly from London so I get a lot of news. Sometimes I feel I really know more when I'm in China strangely enough than here, because The Globe and The New York Times aren't saying very much this summer, almost nothing. I think that if I were in China, I would know more. The VOA reporting has been very good, excellent, on all subjects, but very good on China too.

Every year I send books to China. I give lectures and raise money and use some of my own money too. This year two sacks of books are going back to China, so I now have a library with probably around 800 books, maybe more. American Literature, History, English Literature, Science, it's really quite a good library and the students come and use it a lot. There isn't any other library like that in Jinan. It's all in my apartment, and my university very nicely gave me an extra room, so I could have this library. So the students are there, its has tables down the middle and actually has good light, much better than their dormitories. It's really wonderful. And there's enough choice, I mean I may have two or three books by one author. I know the students so well that I can help them find books that I think they would like. Some students are excellent readers, some are good, and some haven't had so much English and not so good, but I can help a lot to find the books they like. That's nothing they have to do, that's no assignment, that's what they do because they want to. That's the best kind of learning, of course.

You know the Chinese government is always having this policy and that policy, so I decided I would have a vegetable policy. That means that I provide everything for the meal except the vegetables, the meat, eggs, noodles, rice, oil and all that. The students can come anytime and bring the vegetables and they do the cooking and then we all eat together. That's really been very nice this year. It's nice for me to have company when I eat, and it's nice for the students because they get a much better meal than they would in their dormitory, and of course, we can all talk English. So I hear a lot of what goes on and it's beneficial for everybody and healthy. Oh, and they do the clean up. The kitchen is always completely neat when they leave; I don't say that, they just do it.

The students have a certain grace about them and a certain good humor, even in the worst of times. They don't complain, rarely complain, which is wonderful. What's the use. They say, "Well, we don't complain about things that we can't do anything about," and so much of their life they can't do anything about, so they really don't complain.

A friend of mine sent me $100, which in China goes a long way. I don't like to use money like that for myself, so I have a fund which I call Adventure Capital, and this summer I gave three students each 140 yuan. Well, that would be more than their parents would make in a month. In Chinese terms that is a lot of money, and so one student went way off to Kumming, which is at least 1500 miles away, with his money and stopped in Chengdu which is in Sechuan, and talked to people and ate food he had never eaten before and had a wonderful time. Another student was planning to take a long bicycle trip for several weeks, however I heard from him just the other day that when he got home, his parents who are old, both over 60 and still working in the fields, really needed him to help, so he decided he must stay at home and help. So he's going to buy books and a small radio. He'll be able to get a small transistor radio to listen to VOA. And the third student wanted to buy books and music. But it's wonderful, I think to give them some opportunity for doing something that ordinarily they couldn't do. I'd like to do more of that when I go back this year. It isn't very much money. Hu Chang Hong who went to Kumming will always remember that.

Students never travel. They go home at vacation to their village and then back to college. Most of them have never been out of the province. Certainly, when they enter the university, none of them probably have been to Beijing. By the time they graduate, maybe a few have, but they just don't travel. I love it when they have ideas of their own and want to do something. I just feel that's good.

Hu Chang Hong had used all of his money; he had maybe 20 cents left and he was 1500 or 2000 miles away. He told me, and he's done this before, that if he rides the trains at night, that's a good thing to do as he's not so noticeable and also there is sympathy for students, he can ride without a ticket. I asked him what will you do if the conductor asks for a ticket, and he said "I just say I'm a student and I have no money." I suppose he did that and there is sympathy for the students so he was allowed to get home all those miles. I think that's nice because that shows something is stirring underneath the surface too. Because riding the train or even to board the train without a ticket is technically a crime. There is a little bit you can do in China but you just don't announce it. There is a little leeway for those who look for it. There is sympathy for the students apparently in Beijing too even among the policemen and the soldiers. Not all soldiers want to shoot students by any means.

One class that I'm very fond of will be graduating in July, and then my reason for being there is not quite so strong because I know that class very, very well. When they go, maybe I'll go too, but this year the restaurant will be open, the library will be open and we'll go on bike rides and we'll do a lot of things together.

Text mounted 29th September 2012. RCWH.