Dance With Democracy

In Beijing in July 1989, our school term ended not with summer holidays but with a weeklong ideological education session. We were required to confess our actions and the actions of those close to us during the protests the month before.

Admit nothing, my parents said. Even though my sister, a medical student, had gone to Tiananmen Square to treat students on hunger strikes. Even though my mother had gone to listen to anti-government speeches after work, and one of my best friends, a boy in my high school class, had been hiding in a tree near the square on the night of the bloodshed.

By winter, our lives seemed to have returned to normal. In early December it was announced that, for the first time, boys and girls would be allowed to dance together at the school party on New Year’s Eve, and a classmate whose parents had been diplomats stationed in Europe organized dance practice after school. We girls blushed and giggled when we put our hands in our partners’ hands, and the boys, many of them shy and nervous, waltzed us around in an awkward manner that our classmate compared to laborers moving bags of cabbage.

One late afternoon while we were practicing, the boy who had been hiding in a tree near the square the night of June 4 rushed into the classroom and asked my partner if he could cut in. He looked upset, and as he spun me to a corner of the room, his hands felt feverish in mine. He told me that he had been summoned to the headmaster’s office where two policemen questioned him about his whereabouts on that night in June.

“What did you say?” I asked.

“Nothing. But they seem to know everything I told people.”

He had, on the Monday after the crackdown, told about 20 classmates what he had seen near the square. I had not gone to school that day. I was locked at home by my parents, and he had later cycled to our place and repeated what he had told the other classmates: he saw a boy shot in the chest, a young man crushed under a tank and a girl’s forehead pierced by a bullet.

One does not have to steal to feel like a thief, my mother used to tell my sister and me when we were growing up. There was no moral lesson in this. It was simply a fact of life and, when I danced with my friend that evening, I realized more than ever how helplessly true this wisdom was.

If this were a short story, my friend and I would hold each other tight in fear, and in rebellion against an ominous future. In a story, I could be the one to dance the last dance with him on New Year’s Eve to archaic Chinese lyrics set to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.” For years to come we would remain close because of what we had gone through together.

In reality, while we were waltzing in silent fear, my hands became cold in his, and even before the song ended I began to withdraw from his life. Until then I had been one of his closest friends; he had confessed to me his crushes, his troubled relationship with his parents, his love for his grandmother who had raised him, and his dream to start a printing business.

In the end our headmaster helped save him, begging for mercy for a 16-year-old boy and promising the authorities that he would educate this lost soul. After that winter, my friend and I drifted apart. Before I left for America in 1996, he visited me once. By then we were friendly strangers, which seemed to baffle him slightly as he joked about our teenage years.

Twenty years later, I still have no way of proving my innocence. When friends and neighbors are turned against one another by a situation beyond their control — a famine, a revolution, an oppressive regime — silent members of the community become complicit. One does not have to steal to feel like a thief. I could not explain to my friend that the moment he was summoned by the police, I, like the 20 classmates who spoke up, would never be freed from the guilt of betrayal.

Yiyun Li, the author of The Vagrants