In the summer of 1989 Melissa is in London, gripped by events in Tiananmen Square. They trigger memories of a time thirteen years earlier, when as a former hippie-turned-pseudo-Maoist, she obtained a scholarship to China.
Although 1976 is an eventful year (the Tangshan earthquake, Mao’s death and the campaign against the so-called Gang of Four), it is a disappointment to her and shatters her flimsy ideals. The foreign students are segregated from the Chinese; classes are rigid and dull. Even her roommate spouts only empty propaganda.
Melissa leaves for Hong Kong the following summer but returns a year later when it becomes clear that things are moving on the mainland. Now in 1978 change is palpable, and nowhere more so than in Peking’s Xidan intersection that November, where a poster-covered wall has been nicknamed Democracy Wall. Here Melissa meet a young activist called Jianguo and they start an illicit affair.
Ten years later she realizes that she must tell her photo-journalist boyfriend rather more than he knows about that time. As Melissa reminisces the tanks roll into Tiananmen Square.
Shortly afterwards, an old friend calls from Hong Kong to tell her that one of the Tiananmen escapees claims to be Jianguo’s younger brother. He is due to arrive in London on his way to the US, where he has been granted asylum. Melissa is intrigued and agrees to put him up. But can this young man really be who he claims to be?