ON THE OVERNIGHT SHANGHAI-TO-BEIJING TRAIN — The first thing one noticed about the students traveling eagerly to Beijing early Sunday was how sure they were that they would not be punished for opposing the government.
"We have been promised by our teachers that the army would do nothing to harm us if we remained peaceful," said Chai Chishan, an engineering scholar from the prestigious Qinghua University in Beijing.
"We are not afraid of the soldiers," added Wang Binghai, a classmate who studies nuclear engineering.
The students had not heard. They knew nothing of the army assault on Tian An Man Square and other parts of the capital. They knew nothing of the tanks, the armored personnel carriers or the machine guns. Nor of the slaughter--the seemingly random shooting of men, women and children alike.
Rejoining the Movement
All they knew was that they were on their way to Beijing to rejoin the student movement they had left a week ago. Chai and Wang had gone to Shanghai to whip up support among provincial college students.
Campaigns run by such students had their effect; all the universities and other institutes of higher learning in Shanghai were closed and trains were filled with recruits coming to Beijing.
For weeks, thousands of students had been traveling from as far away as Canton in the south and Manchuria in the northeast to get a firsthand look at the turmoil, and to take part despite orders by the government to stay away.
"I read a wallposter and decided it was time to come," said Wing Wei, a student of international law at Shanghai Institute of Politics and Economics.
Thermos Bottles, Knapsacks
Wing and two classmates came with at least a dozen other students in car seven of the nonstop overnight train that had departed Shanghai at 4:02 p.m. Saturday. They traveled with only little thermos bottles and knapsacks in hand.
"I hope to spend the night in Tian An Men Square," said an English literature major who called himself Ben. "I want to see what it's like. We cannot trust what our government tells us."
"Our government is a gangster government," said Wing Wei.
"Our government tells lies," chimed in another student, Zhi Jen, from the East China Institute of Chemical Technology.
"We want a free press!" Wang called out.
"We want the English and American system of law!" yelled another student.
The outcry was beginning to attract curious, silent stares from other passengers in the crowded car. The students quieted down, passing time by watching the countryside go by. In the south, the soybean harvest was under way. In the north, wheat was ripening.
Sometimes the students played bridge, sometimes they sipped tea or slept. When they talked, however, the chatter always returned to politics.
Wang wondered whether the students had not gone too far by calling for Li Peng, the hard-line premier, to step down.
"Some of us think we should ask for something less, something we can agree on. Perhaps just to enforce constitutional rights," he said.
"But," argued Chai Chishan, "we asked for very little at the beginning. We only wanted a meeting and an open press. Li Peng refused."
"Li Peng is incompetent," said a student from the Shanghai Foreign Languages School.
"IN-competent," he repeated, with excessive elocution.
Reminded that in China's recent past, such talk meant jail, the youth seemed uncomprehending. "It is not dangerous to dream," Wing Wei interjected.
Curiously, of all the things the youths needed to fear, the people they were most afraid of were their parents. Not a one had told their father and mother they were going to Beijing.
"My father would whip me good if he knew," said Zhi Jen.
"I said that, with school on strike, I wanted to see China. My parents even gave me money!" boasted the foreign language student.
Fears Mother's Wrath
"I am more afraid of my mother than the soldiers," joked Ben.
The train approached Beijing early Sunday morning. The loudspeaker system in the car played cha cha cha music, alternating with Chinese pop.
The train crossed over a main boulevard. Something was burning at a distant intersection. The students looked at the passing image in silence.
The piped-in music stopped, and a recorded announcement welcomed passengers to Beijing and listed famous sites, including Tian An Men Square.
"Tian An Men is the center of national life," the bouncy announcement said. "It is there where the Forbidden City is located, as well as Mao Tse-tung's tomb, the Great Hall of the People and the National History Museum."
"Tian An Men--that's where I'm off to," said Zhi Jen. Others said they were going to Beijing University and other campuses to search for friends.
The train arrived with a screech, and the students grabbed their knapsacks, joining the throng heading for the exits. Outside, there were no buses or taxis. Flatbed bicycle cart operators offered rides for $10 to points just a mile away.
"What's the meaning of this?" asked Wang, using a common Beijing expression.
"They have killed the people," responded a ragged cart man.
The gathering students said nothing, and counted up their money to see how far it would take them in a city and situation they had never imagined.