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Escape from China

The Long Journey From Tiananmen to Freedom

About The Book

Who can forget the images, telecast worldwide, of brave Chinese students facing down tanks in Tiananmen Square as they took on their Communist government? After a two-week standoff in 1989, military forces suppressed the revolt, killing many students and issuing arrest warrants for top student leaders, including Zhang Boli. After two years as a fugitive, Zhang -- the only leader to elude capture -- knew that he must bid his beloved country, as well as his wife and baby daughter, farewell. Traveling across the frozen terrain of the former Soviet Union, where peasants rescued him, and through the deserted lands of China's precarious borders, Zhang had only his extraordinary will to propel him toward freedom. As told in Escape from China -- a work of great historical resonance -- his story will renew your faith in the human spirit.




June 4, 1989. In the predawn darkness we were forced to evacuate Tiananmen Square. Negotiations with the army were completed. The terms we agreed upon were simple: we should leave before daybreak. A peaceful conclusion to the occupation of this largest of public gathering places in all of China seemed within reach. Helmeted soldiers allowed us to pass through the narrow corridor at the southeast side of the square, all the while pointing their bayonets, as if we were prisoners of war. Army commanders had promised to give the demonstrators an opportunity to disperse. The process, time-consuming because the crowd was huge, seemed under way.

"Fascist!" a female student cursed furiously. Immediately, several soldiers rushed at her and beat her down with the butts of their rifles. Her male comrades hurried to help her back into the march. And thus commenced the last phase of a major confrontation between nonviolent demonstrators led by university students and the armed forces of the People's Republic of China. On the one side, words: speeches, pamphlets, poems, petitions, the weapons of persuasion. On the other side, dictatorial power: guns, bullets, and tanks, the weapons of destruction.

For more than fifty days, student idealists, naive but brave, had done all that they could to persuade their government by peaceful means to redress their grievances. A small group at first, their numbers had grown to the hundreds and then to the thousands. Now, amplified by ordinary citizens, they had grown to the tens of thousands. At times, more than a hundred thousand. A great dramatic spectacle, seen on television screens around the world, had reached its climax.

And now an elite battalion of soldiers was moving to crush the Democracy Movement by brute force. As the day progressed, these soldiers, seemingly devoid of humanity, were to march against their own fellow citizens and employ lethal force.

As soon as we began moving away from the square, the air was filled with the roar of tanks speeding ahead. I looked back and saw the statue of the Goddess of Democracy being torn down. Rows of tents, so geometrically ordered, were being crushed by the tanks' treads, the canvas sheets sometimes flying into the air like snowflakes driven by the wind. We marched and looked back through tears of anguish. The square we had occupied for fourteen days after the government had declared martial law was now an army's playground for the enjoyment of brutal games. In addition to our fears and rage, we felt a profound sense of humiliation. All of our noble words, our passionate deeds, our bravery in the face of enormous odds were being mocked; we had entered a realm of madness and were at the mercy of men -- the soldiers and their leaders -- who were utterly without humanity.

Arriving at Liubu Avenue, we found that West Changan Street was still filled with the acrid nitric acid smoke of small arms and artillery fire. Here and there, military vehicles, buses, and tanks burned furiously. Destruction and horror everywhere. I turned on my pocket radio. The Central People's Radio was broadcasting an editorial of the Liberation Army Daily News, defining the nature of our democracy movement as "counter-revolutionary upheaval." A movement that had endured for over fifty days, designed to provide an example of direct democracy at work, was dismissed as merely a crazy grab for power. The radio announcers lied to the world. Chaos, anarchy, destruction of revolutionary ideals: these were said to be our goals. They accused the student protestors of conspiring to overthrow the government. Not only the government but socialism itself: all that the workers, soldiers, and peasants had sought to achieve.

West Changan Street was stained red. A man who had been beaten was covered with blood and was spitting bloody foam onto the street. Chai Ling, her face contorted with horror, cried, "He's still alive!"

I asked my schoolmates to take the man to the hospital's emergency room on a tricycle, but he died before they could get there.

Singing "The Internationale," we marched like a slow and boiling river that flowed toward Beijing University. Behind us we heard the thunder of tanks and the explosion of tear gas bombs. My tears flowed freely; I had no mask. It was so unbearable! Students rushing up behind us said that the tanks had crushed eleven students to death.

Li Lu suddenly said: "Wait a minute! We should go back! It's not right to just abandon the square!" Chai Ling and Feng Congde said nothing to show what they were feeling. Most of us opposed the idea of returning to the square. It was entirely unrealistic and we knew that. We would be met by overwhelming force and violence. The government would show no mercy. Nearly a hundred tanks and more than a hundred thousand soldiers guarded Tiananmen. If we returned it would be to die. To me it seemed that saving our lives, perhaps to fight again soon, should be the highest principle at this moment. Our responsibility was to bring as many students as possible safely back to the university.

Mo Xuan, our picket leader, said, "You guys are the commanders. I will lead the march wherever you say!" So Chai Ling, Feng Congde, and I continued our way at the head of the throng, leading students back to the university. Li Lu and Mo Xuan turned part of the march back toward the square. Not many students followed, and those who did soon returned to follow us. We all hated to leave the square after so many days but this was what we had to do.

Arriving at a big hotel near the zoo, we saw a huge banner hanging from an upper floor. It said: "Insist on the Four Fundamental Principles. Oppose bourgeois liberalization. Take a clear-cut stand against upheaval. Firmly suppress the counter-revolutionary turmoil." We ran angrily into the hotel and tore the banners to shreds. Then we sat down to catch our breath. I had shouted so much into the bullhorn that my voice was hoarse. Now I was very tired and wanted to rest. But this was impossible.


We finally reached Beijing University at noon.

On both sides of the street from Zhongguancun to the university were crowds awaiting our return -- among them teachers, students, and parents. A fifty-year-old female teacher asked me: "Where is my daughter? Did she return with you?" I stood silent with my tears flowing. Emotion was adding to the flood produced by tear gas. The entrance and the buildings around were crowded with people. Students sat down, packed like sardines with their schoolmates and teachers. I took the bullhorn from a fellow beside me and made one last speech before fleeing Beijing.

I said, "My dear school, my dear teachers and schoolfellows, we are back. We were ruthlessly driven out of Tiananmen Square by savage soldiers with tanks, rifles, and tear gas bombs. But many of our schoolmates remain forever in the square and on East and West Changan Street. When they left this world, a world they loved so much, they didn't know that those who killed them were 'the most lovely ones,' as soldiers were called by our national leaders."

I continued. "Chai Ling, Li Lu, Feng Congde, and I, as the leaders, persisted to the end in the square. We tried our best not to lose face for Beida and her students."

Weeping arose from inside and out. I spoke my last words. "Now, the fatuous old dictator has finally torn off his mask and shown his grim face. He ordered the army to shoot us! He had the tanks run over students and defenseless residents of Beijing! The soldiers didn't even stop for old people and little children. They killed indiscriminately. They arrested people to create red terror and rule by violence. And yet they label us as 'ruffians'! As 'traitors'! 'Counter-revolutionaries.' Dear schoolmates and teachers, our leaders have lost their minds. Soon they will arrest and try to kill us. They will implement a totally relentless political persecution in every part of China. Many who are loyal, high-minded citizens, including distinguished intellectuals, will be beaten, put on trial, arrested, thrown into prison, perhaps even killed. However, we are not afraid. For the truth is with us, the people are with us, the world is with us, and I believe the day will come when the light of democracy and freedom shines over all of China! On that day, if I am still alive, I shall return. I shall return here where our movement began to pay tribute to our dear school, and to my brave teachers and schoolmates. Good-bye, Beida! Good-bye!"

Suddenly a voice cried out from the crowd: "Zhang Boli! Aren't you a Communist?" It sounded strange and sarcastic.

I responded, "Yes, I am a Communist, but since the Party commanded its army to shoot the people, I have sworn to withdraw from the Party and to struggle to the end. I can no longer belong to a party that has lost all rationality and humanity!"

Applause came from everywhere like a rainstorm. I heard people shouting: Yes! Withdraw from the Party! Withdraw from this autocratic, murderous, old man's Party!

We went into the university surrounded by thousands. The picket team organized by the Beijing University Preparatory Committee immediately locked the gate, preparing for the last struggle against the troops who would soon arrive. I went to the twenty-eighth floor.

At this moment, a student of the Writers' Class came and found me; my wife, Li Yan, had arrived. How amazing! I was completely surprised. How could she have come to Beida now?

Chai Ling said: "Go and see her! There is nothing else to do but escape." I replied with a classical Chinese aphorism: " 'As long as the green mountains are saved, there is always firewood.' Take care of yourselves," I said, "you and Feng Congde."

"You too," she said. "If there is really no way out, try the coast."

"I cannot leave the country right now," I said. "I have to take Li Yan out of Beijing first."

We held each other's hands tightly. Chai Ling was trembling. We knew that perhaps we would never see each other again.


My dorm room, 3011 on the forty-seventh floor, was packed with people. Several girls were weeping. As I entered, they rushed to me. I was touched by their friendship and warmth. I reported the evacuation of the square in very simple words.

Li Yan burst in, and my fellows instantly gave way to her. We looked quietly at each other. An intimate moment in the midst of a crowd. Li Yan had worn the pretty dress I bought for her in Guangdong before we got married; a green band shaped her hair. Since school started this semester I had not gone home to visit her and our daughter, Little Snow. She had written me a letter: "Beginning May First (International Labor Day) we are on holiday. I will take Little Snow and stay with you in Beida for a few days." By that time, I had already plunged into the student movement and was launching a newspaper, the News Herald, but I still looked forward to her visit with Little Snow. When I called the leading cadre of the department where my wife worked, I learned that Little Snow was in the hospital. How I wished I could see them! Little Snow had so many medical problems. She had been hospitalized many times since birth. However, during such momentous disputes with the government how could I leave? And now, my wife had left our child at home and dashed to Beijing under heavy fire.

Li Yan threw herself into my arms and embraced me urgently. Caressing her shoulder, running my hands through her soft hair, I could feel her body trembling.

All my friends wept. They knew that this meeting could also be a farewell, our last moments together.

I said, "Li Yan, my dear wife, do you blame me?"

She shook her head.

"Dear Li Yan," I said, "you shouldn't run the risk of coming to Beijing."

She shook her head vigorously.

I wiped the tears on her face and asked softly, "How is Little Snow? Is she all right?"

Her face brightened. "Little Snow can say 'papa' now."

My heart had been pierced. I was having trouble holding back my own tears. My daughter could say "papa" already, so soon! When I left home for school, she was happily crawling; now, after only a few months, she could call for Papa. Would I ever hear that voice?

A well-known woman writer rushed into my room and shouted to stop the weeping. "We must be calm! This is no time to be immersed in love or sorrow! The tanks and troops are closing in. They'll soon be here and we'll be under siege. You better pack up your things and follow me."

"Not so fast." I said. "Are they so ruthless that they will spare no one?"

"Don't be silly!" the writer replied. "They will arrest all leaders and others besides. What? You think you'd rather be executed like the national hero Tan Sitong? Hurry up! Follow me! And this girl too." She pointed at Li Yan, whose hands still clung to my neck. "She is not a girl," I corrected her. "She is my wife."

"Fine," she said decisively. "Let's go!"

Everyone urged Li Yan and me to leave. One could hear rifle fire in the distance. Helicopters were wheeling in the air above Beida, reconnoitering the campus.

"Come on!" the woman writer pressed me with a sense of urgency. "We won't get out of here if we don't leave now!" Li Yan and I took our bicycles and followed the writer's car off the campus through the old west gate.

We rode through many streets and lanes. Our friend kept looking back at us fearfully, making certain we were not being followed. Soon she got out of her car in front of the huge door of a courtyard and rang the bell.

A young woman opened the door slightly. Seeing us through the crack, she immediately let us into the courtyard.

The writer introduced us. "This is my blood sister, you will be safe here!" Pointing at me, she said, "This is Zhang Boli, a writer, also one of the student leaders."

The young woman answered me with a bashful smile and then led me into the living room. She introduced her husband, Mr. Gong.

The man was gracious and hospitable, greeting us with smiles. He motioned for us to rest and went to the kitchen with his wife.

In a short while, they set the table with several appetizing dishes and offered beer. I felt no appetite but drank the beer. Mr. Gong said that he would like to go to the many hospitals of Beijing to find out the number of dead and injured. His wife and the writer also wanted to observe the situation in Beida. Mrs. Gong brought me some clean underwear and said, "Take a bath and then sleep. Don't go anywhere for a couple of days, you're likely to get shot." I nodded with gratitude.

They left, and the small courtyard standing alone among the houses became unusually quiet. It was a hot day. The fan in the living room made rhythmic humming and buzzing sounds.

Li Yan prepared the water for a bath and called me.

I removed my dirty, reeking clothing. Li Yan picked up the shower nozzle and rinsed me thoroughly. Then she began lathering my body with soap. Suddenly I realized that she was leaning on my back. Her hands caressed it ceaselessly and she was weeping.

During the two years of our marriage we had come to know each other intimately. I knew her faults and her virtues well. As we stood there in the bathroom, I took her hands to my chest and held them. Then I told her, "Li Yan, if I am captured, it's all right to remarry someone, a well-behaved man. The Chinese Communists will not rest until they have silenced me."

"No," she said quietly. "I will definitely not do that."

I tried hard to maintain my composure. But the thought of leaving my wife and of not seeing my child was overwhelming. Not for the first time I thought about the harsh reality. The Liberation Army was arresting and murdering people everywhere in Beijing. I was clear about what cruelty they were reserving for me.

After the bath, I put on clean clothes and asked Li Yan how much money she had with her. "Only a few hundred yuan," she replied. She took out five hundred and gave it to me, but I refused the money. Feng Congde had given me four thousand yuan for my escape, which I kept at a friend's house in the Dongcheng District, east of Tiananmen. This money, added to a thousand yuan that I had kept for myself, would be enough for me to flee Beijing. All such funds came from donations we had received, and which had then been divided equally among the leaders who were most at risk.

In the evening, the writer and her sister and brother-in-law returned. Mr. Gong told me that he had seen over a hundred corpses in Fuxing Hospital. How awful! Until that moment I had no idea how great the carnage was. About ten of the dead were graduate students. The injured were of course more numerous, how many he could not say. The street in front of the hospital was stained red, the grisly result of drippings from ambulances.

We all burst into tears. It was all so unbearably tragic.

We began to focus on my situation. Mr. Gong suggested that I move to Guangzhou and wait for a chance to leave the country. Mrs. Gong said that I could seek asylum from the embassy of the United States or from some other country. I disagreed, saying, "That will create an excuse for authorities to say that our movement has had illicit relations with foreign countries. People will be disappointed in us and suspect us of treason. No, I'll remain in China for at least six months or a year, until people understand that our situation is so difficult that we must escape." The woman writer had a similar idea, which was to get out of Beijing first. To do otherwise was to risk one's life pointlessly. The Liberation Army was killing people everywhere in the city. Troops under martial law could execute "the rebels" without trying them and at any time they pleased.

But how could I get out of Beijing? The train stations, not to mention the airport, would be closely guarded. In the end I decided that the safest way to flee was on bicycle.


Night fell and the sky filled with misty rain. Wearing raincoats, Li Yan and I got on our bicycles and said good-bye to the Gongs. We rode toward the Dongcheng District. I was going to my friend's home to get my money and would then ride to Tong County. And from there on to Tianjin.

Passing through the north district of Taipingzhuang, I saw military vehicles lining the street. Crowds of people surrounded the vehicles, some of which were on fire, but the soldiers acted as if they saw nothing. These places were not yet under the control of the Liberation Army; they were still in the hands of the people. In front of the Beijing Studio I saw one of my good friends, a film director, who was speaking to the massed crowd. I didn't greet him but passed by with my head held low.

Three hours later, we arrived at the home of my friend in Balizhuang. I knocked on the door but nobody answered, so I opened the door with my own key. The house was in disorder. I turned on the light and opened the drawer in which I kept my emergency escape funds. But there was nothing in the drawer except a note written by another friend. The beautiful handwriting jumped out at me.

"Old Wang: The contract has been changed; now I have to leave. Concerning your goods, I'm taking them with me. Tomorrow I will be back. Please wait till I return."

So it was certain that no one would be here today. The tenants seemed to have been away for many days. I wondered what terrible things could have happened to them and it worried me. I couldn't fall asleep, so I went to the refrigerator and opened a beer. We had bought it before starting the hunger strike. Li Yan was tired and lay down to rest, but the deafening roar of the tanks and the sound of the machine guns woke her. Frightened, she threw herself into my arms and whimpered, "No! No! I will not let you go!"

I held her tightly, saying, "Don't be afraid, my dear, I didn't leave. Am I not here by your side?"

Her embrace was amazingly strong, her body firm but yielding. Like firewood burning through our souls, desire consumed us and erased the horrors of the day. Not since our wedding night had we given ourselves so completely to passion. Perhaps we already foresaw that this was to be our last night as husband and wife.

The night was punctuated by distant shooting. Our lingering fear and horror were palpable. We could not help exchanging these emotions, from me to her and back again. While we lay asleep, entwined, the door opened and my friend entered. What a relief, that we found each other still among the living. Although Li Yan and I were still in bed, he took me in his arms. We rejoiced that each of us had survived.

He told me that the woman of this house had been injured in the square. She had been beaten by soldiers and had fallen from her bicycle while trying to dodge the shooting. She had sustained a serious concussion, and her husband was with her in the hospital. Fortunately, the prognosis was favorable. My friend took out the money we had prepared in case it was needed for escape; I gave him half of it. He was going to pack things up, and would leave the city with a group of people.


It was afternoon. Li Yan and I got on our bicycles and left the couple's home. Everywhere military vehicles were surrounded by residents jamming the barricades. We passed through these roadblocks easily on our bicycles. Almost all the shops and hotels were closed. Beijing was like a city under siege on the verge of capitulating to the invaders. One could not imagine that these structures and streets, the great works of a mighty people, were ever again to be used for daily commerce.

We got on the road to Tong County by a roundabout route. No sooner had we done so than we heard the rumble of tanks rushing toward us. Their speed was frightening and the monstrous noise they made was deafening. Li Yan and I, with about ten other bicycle riders, tried to escape into an alley but it was too late.

The machine gun of the first tank started to fire. The bullets struck the corner of a house right above us. Broken bricks and tiles flew wildly in the air. I yelled out, "Everybody off your bicycle and hit the ground!"

We threw ourselves down, rolling and crawling in the gutter. Some of the faster riders managed to slip into the alley. The tanks continued firing. Their bullets flew over our heads with a loud rattling sound. A man who looked like a cadre yelled furiously at the tanks, "Fuck you, Communists! Are you trying to destroy the city?"

The tanks finally drove away. I helped my severely frightened wife up on her bicycle and we went on. After I had gone a few hundred meters, I found that Li Yan was not with me. I turned back to look for her, and saw that there were many troops nearby. Automatic assault rifles fired almost continuously. There was Li Yan pushing her bicycle and limping along to catch up.

"Are you injured?" I asked hastily.

She shook her head, "No, but the tire is flat."

I found that a bullet had punctured the wheel. I threw the bicycle down and let her sit behind me. But she said, "We'd better get another bicycle, it will be too tiring with one bicycle for two. It's a long way to go, isn't it?"

So we went back to the home of my old friends. They had a bicycle in their yard. My friend had come home, and I asked him about his wife. Fortunately she was recovering. He reprimanded me, "Why do you remain in Beijing? It's too dangerous, leave as soon as possible!"

I told him that I had come to get his bicycle. He said nothing but quickly unlocked the chain. "Take it," he said, "and remember to remain calm." Repeating the same Chinese saying I had said to Chai Ling -- "As long as the green mountains are saved, there is always firewood" -- he added, "Leave! I'll go back to school and tell the students to lay low -- and to quit the party!"

We filled the bicycle tires with air. I said good-bye to my old friend, and we set out quickly. Beijing, moaning painfully under the cacophony of guns and tanks, fell farther and farther behind.

Finally we reached the countryside. No tanks or military vehicles here, no dead bodies or congealing blood. I got off my bicycle and looked back at this great, glorious city a long while and tried to suppress my tears.

Standing silently by my side, Li Yan sighed in resignation. "Let's go" is all she said. I remounted, trying not to look back again.

Good-bye, Beijing. I will return someday.

Copyright © 1998 by Zhang Boli

About The Author

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (May 27, 2003)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743431613

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Raves and Reviews

Andrew J. Nathan Professor of Political Science,Columbia University, co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers An instant classic....Zhang Boli's searing memories are brought to life with a wealth of concrete detail....He loses all, and gains all -- a classic human quest told in fresh form.

Publishers Weekly Incisive, fast-paced....Zhang Boli presents his exploits modestly, but one is awed at every turn by his steely nerve andstreet savvy, and by the compassion that he liberally accords to humans, animals, and the land that gave him shelter.

Perry Link Professor of East Asian Studies, Princeton University, author of China's New Rulers This book should be required reading for those who accept uncritically Chinese government claims to represent 'China.' The little people in this saga, generous and quiet, are China, too.

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