Previous chapter:
Next chapter:

This transcript is being provided for reference purposes only.
It may not be reproduced without prior written permission from the .
© 1995, Long Bow Group Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Major funding for this program was provided by The National Endowment for the Humanities,
The Ford Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation.
Produced in association with the Independent Television Service (ITVS).

The Gate of Heavenly Peace


Petitioning the government is common enough in every country. It doesn't necessarily result in death -- except, of course, in China.

Lu Xun, 1926


On May 28, 1989, a student leader named Chai Ling requested an interview with an American journalist.

Tiananmen Square was then occupied by students for weeks. Martial law had been declared. No one knew what might happen.

The interview was recorded with a home video camera.

CHAI LING - Student

These may be my last words. Because the situation is becoming very grim. My name is Chai Ling. I am 23 years old. Oddly enough, my birthday is on April 15, the day Hu Yaobang died.


Hu Yaobang had been the General Secretary of the Party and Deng Xiaoping's chosen successor.

Public mourning for Hu would last for a week, and would become the ground from which all the demonstrations of 1989 would grow.


In many ways the movement is not very mature. An opportunity presented itself accidentally. No one knew Hu Yaobang was going to die when he did.

This movement is a great manifestation of the natural democratic instincts of the students and the people, a spontaneous expression of the people's own interests. I've come into contact with people from all walks of life. They feel they have no security. Many have gone overseas. I feel this country is finished! It's going to die!


Hu Yaobang had been removed from power two years before his death. He had been accused of leaning toward bourgeois liberalism.

No one protested openly when Hu was purged. But now people claimed him as a champion of enlightened rule.

Mourning for him became a cover for protest against those still in power -- or as it was said at the time: "The men who should drop dead are still alive; yet the man who should be alive is dead."


In Chinese culture, there's a phenomenon I'd call the cult of the dead. After death, all the man's flaws are forgotten and his memory is enshrined in a halo of glory. Then people use the dead man to vent their anger and express their hopes


It was clear to me that people weren't simply concerned with one man's death. Hu Yaobang's death made it possible for a crowd to gather in a public place, and gave them something to discuss. And that led to discussions of all kinds of other issues. Most of the talk was about our own lives.


My parents kept saying, "In the past although wages were low, it was easy to raise you three children. How come these days, even with you holding a job, we're always short of money?"


Deng Xiaoping's reforms, which had been so popular, were disappointing a lot of people by the end of the 80's.

Workers could no longer count on life-long employment, the iron rice bowl, and the socialist safety net of medical benefits and pensions was being dismantled.


Factories had trouble paying their workers, so they kicked out a bunch of people. But they didn't use the word "fire." They called it "re-prioritizing the work force." All these things came with reform.


Everyone knows what happened in the early stages of capitalism. The competition was savage, and there was no protection for the weak. In the quest for profits there was a total disregard for the impact on the society and the environment. This is exactly what's happening in China right now.

We're in a transitionary period. The reforms are necessary, but workers have to protect their own interests.


To get rich was glorious, said the government, but those who got rich were mostly people in power and insiders who had always done well.

Only government and industry cadres could work the turnover: buying goods at fixed government prices and selling them on the free market at a big profit.

More than anything else, workers complained of corruption.


The officials take and take, damn it. So why can't we take? How come when we take, we're called criminals and when you take, you're not?



People needed to vent their anger, but they were worried because so many had been persecuted in the past just for speaking out.

In a crowd, they felt it was safe to let off steam. Often someone would rant and rave and then quickly disappear back into the crowd.

But I felt that the reason for a lot of my suffering was that hardly anyone took responsibility for what they said or did. I thought I should try to set an example. So I told people my name whenever I spoke, to show that I was prepared to take the consequences for what I said. I wanted to indicate to people that to change a society you had to start with yourself.


Students and intellectuals had been among the strongest supporters of the reforms. Yet after a decade of economic growth, they enjoyed few of the benefits.


There's a saying in Beijing: "You're as poor as a professor, and as dumb as a Ph.D." This was really true. No matter how hard you worked, you couldn't get anywhere.


There is something really wrong with the reforms. Those in power have benefited from them, not the people. Although there is superficial economic prosperity, the masses and intellectuals have been deprived of any hope or initiative.



Comrade Hu Yaobang passed away. He was an incorruptible official. He had no overseas bank accounts. His children did not climb to high positions because he was the head of the Communist Party. Yesterday we talked here about minzhu, democracy. What is minzhu? Min means "the people." Zhu means "to be in charge." We want to be in charge!


The Communist Party had always defined minzhu, democracy in just this way: the people, in charge.

But if real democracy was to be implemented, how were the people to take charge?


China is so huge, and communications are so bad, even if you were to call national elections tomorrow, how would people know whom to vote for?

Conditions weren't ripe for a sudden leap to that stage of democracy. But people did know whom they wanted to elect in their local communities. So, open elections were already possible at the village level. When this form of democracy became more routine, we could introduce broader elections on the county level and then higher and higher up.

Those of us who were working for Zhao Ziyang pushed for this type of grassroots-level democratic election. Of course, the hard-line Communists immediately saw this as a threat to their power, so they were deadset against it.

As for the intellectuals, they said, "Grassroots democracy is not important. What we want to determine is the fate of China, not just the fate of a village, a county!" So we had trouble getting support.


Students dissatisfied with the status quo might have taken up the hard work of building democracy at the local level. Or they might have organized to demand redress of their own grievances as underpaid and undervalued intellectual workers.

But that's not what interested most students. They talked, as Chinese students have always talked, of saving China.


Hu Yaobang's death was caused by the mental stress resulting from his illegal removal from office. We thought commemorating one man was not going to help China. To ensure our nation's positive development, we had to start transforming the political system. We wanted to use this opportunity to put forth our political demands.

Around midnight on April 17, we set out from Beijing University. We carried a banner that read: "The Soul of China."

On the morning of the 18th, over a thousand students held a meeting in the Square.


Permit unofficial newspapers!
Guarantee freedom of association, and freedom of speech!
Raise the pay of intellectuals!


The students settled on seven demands, and wrote up a petition. They carried the petition to various government offices.

At Xinhuamen, the entrance to the old palace compound where China's top leaders live and work, the students waited for an answer.


The students surged towards the gate a number of times, so I went over to the big red columns. I called out to them, "I'm a worker. I've been a soldier myself, and I think what you're doing is very risky. This is the seat of the highest power in the nation. If you storm in, the government will have every reason to mow you down." I said, "To sacrifice yourselves like this is completely meaningless. We should use other methods to achieve our goals." I told people to stop pushing, to sit down and wait. Eventually the crowd settled down. There were no clashes that night. The next night I didn't go to Xinhuamen, but later I heard there'd been a bloody incident.

WUER KAIXI - Student

My friends! My friends! Move back!

Early this morning... Quiet! I'm an eyewitness to the April 20th atrocity which occurred early this morning. We were staging a sit-in, and we persisted until five this morning!

About one thousand police and soldiers brutally broke into our ranks. They savagely beat us up. They also beat up other citizens. They injured countless people! And they had their hands all over our women classmates!


Oppose suppression! Oppose violence! Down with dictatorship!


We are not a mob. We are civilized members of this society. I think everyone agrees that we must be orderly and disciplined in our actions. We are now coordinating with universities all over the city to boycott classes. We will not return to classes until we reach our goal.


To achieve concrete results, student activists felt they needed a new organization of their own.

Those who were willing to lead it were taking a great risk.


On the night of April 19th a new student union was formed at Beijing University. Seven people volunteered to be on the organizing committee. They became the leaders because they were courageous enough to step forward. There were no formal elections.

Later the committee made many efforts to organize elections. But because we constantly faced new crises, we couldn't do what we'd originally intended.


Organizing committees appeared on many Beijing campuses and, within days, formed a citywide coalition of independent student unions.

Before dawn on April 22, students gathered at Tiananmen for Hu Yaobang's official funeral.

The list of their grievances had lengthened. With every passing day, Hu and mourning in his name were acquiring greater significance.


Oppose violence!
Guarantee human rights!
Patriotism is not a crime!
Brutality is shameful!
We want free speech!
Abolish censorship!
Hu Yaobang lives on!


On April 22nd, a memorial ceremony for Hu Yaobang was held in the Great Hall of the People.

When I entered, I felt that the atmosphere was very grim. The ceremony seemed hurried, and after Party Secretary General Zhao Ziyang read the eulogy, all the leaders from the Central Committee rushed off.


Dialogue! Dialogue!


When I came out of the Great Hall of the People, I saw a huge crowd gathered in Tiananmen Square. I wanted to go over to them, but there were nine rows of police standing between us.


The students had brought their petition, and demanded that Li Peng, the prime minister, come out to accept it himself.


When we saw our classmates kneeling there holding the petition with raised arms, everyone cried. In it were our suggestions to the government, but we had to hand it in kneeling down. No one paid any attention. No one came forward to accept it.


We all saw those three students. We workers felt: "Premier, you should come out. You should accept the petition and answer their demands. Even if you don't agree, you should at least make some gesture." But the Premier just left. He completely ignored the students. Now how do you expect people to take that?


How could the government be so callous? Many of us who had just gathered inside the Great Hall had taken part in student movements when we were young. So why were we treating the students this way now?


During those early days of the student movement, we pleaded with the authorities, petitioned them like loyal subjects in traditional China. At first we made direct appeals, then we pleaded with tears and on bended knee. Yes, we were even willing to kneel down before them, like subjects petitioning the emperor. We had to beg them to come out and talk to us. But then again, it is fair to say that the government virtually crumbled under the weight of our knees.


What the students were opposing now were the very same things we had opposed in our youth. Why had we turned into a party which was against the people and the students? This wasn't the same Communist Party I had originally joined.

Previous chapter:
Next chapter: