I Witnessed Tiananmen Square and the Global Backlash. Coronavirus Makes Me Fear for China Even More | Opinion

When the Tiananmen Square protests started in 1989, I worked for a Japanese company. It was planning to build its first assembly plant in China. My Japanese boss sent me to the square, not far from where I lived in my grandmother's apartment, to take photos for headquarters in Tokyo to analyze for evidence of turning tides. One particular slogan made my boss very nervous: "Down with the bureaucratic profiteers."

Most foreign investors dealt with Chinese officials under the table. The strong anti-corruption sentiment made my boss worry if the company should continue with its new assembly plant. I watched the protests unfold with a conflicted conscience. On one hand, I felt for the students because I'd been one of them. On the other, I was an employee of a foreign company, and my job depended on the success of that new plant.

On the night of June 3, the army was ordered to march from the outskirts of Beijing to Tiananmen Square. I stood out in the street with a group of neighbors, anxiously staring in the direction of the square and listening for gunshots. Around midnight, we saw about 30 wounded people rushed to the nearby Beijing Children's Hospital. A week later, I went to the hospital with a friend to check on someone who had been shot in the street. We didn't find him, but we saw a notice posted on the wall. It was a list of the dead.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of people died in the massacre, after the government ordered the military to fire on the unarmed crowds.

The violence horrified my colleagues and me. But we also worried that the world would close its doors to China. For a week after, we sat in our office as China took a number of serious blows. The U.S. and seven European countries imposed trade sanctions on China. Then the World Bank and countless other creditors froze China's lines of credit. And we couldn't do anything about it.

One of my Chinese neighbors hated me for working for foreigners. After the massacre, he came up and asked me in a fake sympathetic tone, "How are you going to make a living when all the foreigners are gone?" That neighbor supported the students, as many Chinese citizens did at the time, but he wasn't necessarily a supporter of foreign trade. Many Chinese citizens believed that a market economy and foreign trade were to blame for corruption. Faking confidence, I told him: "My boss won't leave China."

And indeed, my boss stayed. Things took a surprising turn when the Chinese government suddenly began fawning over the Japanese company I worked for. The assembly plant project moved forward. China's economy took off. At the turn of the 21st century, China finally caught up with globalization, though its political systems hadn't changed much. However, globalization enabled Chinese citizens to choose to leave their birth country, and that's exactly what I did. My family moved to Canada when my daughter was 6.

When I was 6, China was preparing for President Richard Nixon's historic visit in 1972. I was living in an apartment on Nixon's possible route, and the kids in our neighborhood were coached on what to say in case we encountered his entourage. When I heard that the president of the U.S. was named Nixon, I was surprised. I had thought it was still Truman. Harry Truman held the office during the Korean War, which was the last time the average Chinese received news about the United States. The idea that a country could change heads of state every few years totally blew my mind.

Looking back, I witnessed the progression of a nation as it gradually opened its doors to the world. For the past four decades, China's reciprocal relationship with the world has hung by a thread, and the Tiananmen Square protests is one very big knot in it. Luckily, the world eventually decided to accept China after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

But will China still be lucky when the world is under the shadow of the coronavirus?

In the past year, I've been disappointed again and again by China's tendency to careen backwards toward the isolation of the 1970s. Right after the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre last year came the Hong Kong protests. The world was reminded of China's totalitarianism once again. And before the Hong Kong protests had fully settled down, the COVID-19 pandemic began. The outbreak has sickened millions, killed over 300,000 and upended almost everyone's life.

I feel ashamed for being from a country that's caused so much trouble. More important, I wonder if the world regrets opening its doors to China.

On the other hand, Chinese people are increasingly distrustful of Western societies. I have friends living in China whose children study at American or Canadian colleges. After the COVID-19 outbreak, they competed fiercely for the few available plane tickets for their children to fly back home. If they failed to secure one, they lamented like their children had been abandoned in a war zone.

I told them that the United States and Canada were safer than China, but they didn't believe me. They worried that their children would become victims of hate crimes. They argued that the Western countries must put their own citizens first when they had limited resources. They also questioned why the U.S. and Canada weren't enforcing strict lockdowns like China was. They claimed that they would never have realized how efficient a totalitarian state was had it not been for the pandemic. I doubt they'll send their children back to school in the new year.

All signs point to China and the world mutually closing their doors to each other, and that's what I hate to see.

Tiananmen Square
A policeman direct the traffic of buses carrying the delegates leaving Tiananmen Square at the end of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference on May 27 in Beijing. Andrea Verdelli/Getty

I can't imagine that China will choose to go through another reform and opening in another 40 years. I don't want to see a future in which the idea of a country changing heads of state is unimaginable to another Chinese kid. I call on Chinese leaders' honesty, transparency and accountability in investigating the origin of the virus. I call on Chinese propaganda system to stop muddying the waters with rumors and false accusations.

Through writing my memoir Inconvenient Memories, I found answers to my children's questions about why I left China. I decided to leave because I didn't like the way the government ran things there. But China isn't hopeless. It has hope as long as it maintains a positive relationship with the rest of the world.

I now have the same uneasy feeling as I did after the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square. I feel that once again China's fate is hanging by a thread. However, I hope the Chinese leaders will make the right choices. As a member of the Chinese diaspora, it means the world to me that China acts like a responsible global citizen. I will be proud of it when it does.

Born and raised in Beijing, Anna Wang received her B.A. from Peking University and is a full-time writer. She has published nine books in Chinese, including two short story collections, one essay collection, four novels and two translations. Her most recent book is Inconvenient Memories, her debut book written in English. She resides in California.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.