After the Chinese government cracked down on student protests that rocked the country 25 years ago, Holly Houston knew she had to return to the United States, as much for her students’ safety as for hers.
The former Spokane television journalist also had to figure out ways to help some of those students follow her.
“They knew they wouldn’t have futures there,” Houston said recently.
Now a semi-retired marketing and media relations expert living in Hayden, Houston was a television journalist for KHQ in 1988 when she jumped at the chance to be a visiting professor at a Shanghai university.
China was not as open to Westerners as it now is, and the university had strict rules against foreign professors fraternizing with students. Houston and her students broke those rules; she traveled around the country with them and they visited her in the home that came with the teaching position. She’s writing a book about her experiences and that period in China, “Eating the Glowworm,” which she hopes to have out in the next year.
One of the first things Houston said she noticed after arriving in China was how apathetic the students were about their studies. They were concerned with corruption in government and business and unhappy with their prospects for future jobs. Getting into college was very rigorous, and only top students made it, she said. But it wasn’t a path to success. Once they graduated, they could be “sold to the highest bidder” for work unrelated to their studies.
“People could make more money selling things on the street than a person going to college,” she said.
Many Americans viewed the student protests in spring 1989 as a push for Western-style democracy, Houston said. But they were really about trying to force the government to a purer form of socialism or communism and ending corruption. They started peacefully in May, but when the government declared martial law, the students declared a hunger strike. That brought more students and average citizens into the streets in support, and Houston sometimes accompanied her students to demonstrations.
She recalled a benefit concert for the hunger strikers by the Shanghai Symphony the night the People’s Liberation Army refused to fire on the Beijing strikers. News reached the audience during intermission, and the symphony changed the program to end the night with the Chinese national anthem and the “Communist Internationale.” The happy crowd flowed into the streets to discuss the protests.
The protesters thought they had won, but the government brought in troops from the outer provinces, and on June 4 soldiers supported by tanks moved into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing protesters. The death toll estimates ranged from several hundred to thousands and the crackdown spread through the country.
“Tens of thousands of people were being rounded up,” Houston said. “It got very scary. We have no idea how many people really suffered.”
By then, she was supposed to be out of China because the school year was over. But in May Houston had broken her collarbone when a bicyclist ran into her. In a cast, she spent most of her time in her apartment. Her students insisted on visiting and bringing food, even though that was forbidden and security police had moved in next door, probably to monitor the comings and goings.
“It got to the point that I had to leave because it was too much pressure for them,” she said.
She left later in June, but wanted to help some of her journalism students come to the United States, too, to continue their studies. For the first three, it was relatively easy because then-President George H.W. Bush gave students fleeing China special status.
For several others who came a short time later, rules changed and immigration was more difficult because they couldn’t get passports and the university held back their transcripts, which they needed to enroll in graduate school. “They had to get the transcripts illegally,” she said.
Houston describes the struggles of the students to leave China and come to America in the last third of her book, giving them pseudonyms because even 25 years after the protests they worry about repercussions for relatives still in China.
Once the students got to the United States – or in the case of one, Canada – they got partial scholarships, worked their way through school with sometimes menial jobs and earned advanced degrees.
They became citizens, worked to bring family members over. One became a professor, another a lawyer, two became high school teachers and another started a successful import-export company. When they had children, they often named Houston as godmother, a role she relishes.
This weekend, she’ll attend the high school graduation of one goddaughter in Seattle, who is set to attend UCLA in the fall. It’s difficult to explain to that American teen what her mother, now a successful lawyer, went through 25 years ago before and after coming to the United States, Houston said.