Chinese dissident inspires students

November 07, 1996|By Beth Reinhard | Beth Reinhard,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

On the day after the United States exercised its right to vote, Chinese dissident Youming Che spoke movingly to a group of students about the extraordinary sacrifices he and others made in the hope of creating a democratic China.

Che's recollections of his years in a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution, the violent Tiananmen Square protest and his harrowing escape to the United States engrossed many of the 320 students yesterday at the St. Paul's School for Girls in Brooklandville.

Three times during his speech, Che, 39, a soft-spoken man in a plain navy suit who teaches Chinese studies at a private high school in Charlotte, N.C., paused to choke back tears.

"His life is like something out of a movie," said 11th-grader Tory Vince. "It's amazing what he went through."

Added 12th-grader Laura Sauter, "His speech was much more inspirational than reading a history book."

Che was the speaker for the school's annual Bready Lecture in honor of Mary Bready, a longtime French and art history teacher who also served as the head of St. Paul's Upper School and who retired in 1987.

Che was born in 1957, the same year the Communist government began to persecute intellectuals such as his parents, who worked at the People's University in Beijing.

His parents were forced to do physical labor as part of Mao Tse-tung's plan to transform China from an agricultural society to an industrial power. Millions of people starved to death.

During the political purges known as the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, guards beat Che's grandfather to death and detained his parents. Che was sent to a labor camp in the Jiangxi province for four years.

It was in the camp, Che said, that his intellectual curiosity blossomed despite physical hardships and only a meager bowl of rice each day. He read everything he could find, particularly anything in English.

"The more I read, the more I questioned," Che said. "If it was a classless society, then why wasn't everyone treated equally?"

He was released from the camps in 1973 and went to Beijing for high school and college. Outstanding test scores enabled him to pursue a master's degree in literature at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. He graduated in 1988 and returned to China to teach.

In the spring of 1989, students and workers gathered in Beijing to protest the repressive regime and hold hunger strikes. On June 3, 1989, Che was two miles from Tiananmen Square, trying to stop soldiers headed to the square to stamp out the protest. He remembered seeing a young man being shot in the forehead.

"It was a night of blood and terror," Che said. "It not only changed my life, but it shattered a dream of a whole generation."

After the Beijing protests were crushed, underground resisters helped Che get a passport and visa to the United States. He recalled his fear at the Chinese airport swarming with armed guards.

He was granted political asylum in the United States in 1991. He and his wife plan to become citizens.

"We will never bend to the government that crushed students with tanks," Che said. "Before this century is over, I will vote for the next president of the United States."

Pub Date: 11/07/96

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