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The Gate of Heavenly Peace



Wang Dan told me about the hunger strike, and I immediately signed up. Then we tried to persuade the leaders of the Independent Student Unions, but some of them were firmly opposed to a strike. I think they have a tendency toward opportunism.


As is so often the case, democratic procedures were getting in the way of political action.

Unable to achieve a consensus within the Independent Student Unions, the people in favor of a hunger strike bypassed the new organization and made personal appeals to the students.


On the evening of May 12th, Chai Ling and I addressed the students. She did most of the talking. She said that the government was forcing us to put our lives on the line.

She was crying emotionally. This got everyone really stirred up.


I said, "We are staging a hunger strike in order to reveal the true face of the government and the true face of the people. We want to see whether the Chinese have any conscience, whether there is any hope for China."

I said, "We are prepared to face death for the sake of true life. The oath written by our lives will brighten the skies of our country."


At noon on May 13, the hunger strikers shared a last ceremonial meal.

The strikers wanted the government to repeal the April 26th editorial, and hold televised talks with the students.

That morning, the government had met one of these demands: they'd agreed to talks with the Dialogue Group.

But by the time this news reached the universities, the hunger strikers had already set out for Tiananmen Square.

Their declaration, born of a tradition of romantic communist rhetoric, was both heroic and deeply emotional. It even included some lines from Mao's youth: "This country is our country, this people our people: If we don't speak out, who will? If we don't take action, who will?".

"At the height of youthful happiness and beauty," the hunger strikers proclaimed, "we must resolutely leave everything behind us."

"Mother China, witness now the actions of your sons and daughters. Can you remain indifferent as hunger devours our youth and death approaches?"


WANG DAN leads call and response

We will not give up!
Until we reach our goal!

CHAI LING gives speech to hunger strikers

We've had a hard night. In the pre-dawn hours everyone was cold and hungry, but we made it through. We may have to endure many more nights like this. I hope we will all persist to the end.


Are we determined?




Thank you. You are such good comrades-in-arms!


The hunger strike could not have come at a worse time for the government.

That week a historic meeting, years in preparation, was to take place: the President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, was coming to China.

A grand welcoming ceremony was scheduled to take place in Tiananmen Square -- which was filled, at the moment, with thousands of students.


On May 15th, the government planned to welcome Gorbachev at Tiananmen Square. Everyone knew that the Square would have to be cleared.

So the students thought that if they staged a hunger strike there, the government would definitely respond by May 15. I heard many students talk like this.


On the afternoon of May 14 -- less than twenty-four hours before Gorbachev's arrival -- the government began talks with the Dialogue Group. The main official representative was Yan Mingfu, a leading reformist minister. Some students who had initiated the hunger strike were also present. Wuer Kaixi was one of them.


The biggest victory of the whole movement was that our hunger strike forced the government to the negotiating table. We demanded a live television broadcast, but the government agreed only to a pre-recorded broadcast. So we made a concession on this point. We felt that a pre-recorded broadcast was in itself a hard-won achievement.


But the hunger strikers who were waiting at the Square did not hear the promised broadcast.


Live Broadcast!
Live Broadcast!


Suspicious that they had been sold out, many of them rushed to the hall where the talks were being held and disrupted the session.


So the talks were wrecked by the students themselves. I felt that May 14th was a big setback for the student movement. After this, the students missed many more opportunities by repeating the same mistakes.


It was the eve of Gorbachev's arrival, and talks between the students and the government had broken down.


When we speak of the government we're talking about two kinds of people: the reformers who were in power at the time and the hard-liners who opposed them. Reform was in a very precarious situation and came under constant attack. The reformers hoped for social stability, so that they could continue their difficult work. The hard-liners had been using all kinds of underhanded tactics to get Deng Xiaoping to turn against the reformers. But they hadn't seen much success. So they wanted to create a massive crisis in order to get rid of the reformers, as they had Hu Yaobang.



The twelve most famous writers and scholars of China are coming to present their emergency appeal at the Square!


I was worried that reform would be derailed. If that happened, then all that grand sloganizing about democracy, about abolishing dictatorship, and so on, would simply be a lot of hot air.

DAI QING, speaking to hunger strikers on Square

We oppose the use of violence against the hunger strikers on any pretext. Anyone who resorts to violence will go down in history as a criminal.


The twelve scholars, journalists, and critics were well known supporters of liberal reform in China and widely-respected. They all praised the students, but called on them to change their tactics.

DAI QING, speaking on Square continued

Avoid actions which will hurt our friends and please our enemies. Let the Sino-Soviet summit proceed smoothly. We plead with you to continue in the rational spirit which has characterized the movement so far. If the government makes a concession, then we propose that the students temporarily leave the Square.


The problem with these intellectuals was that they were playing the wrong role. They were acting as mediators between the students and the government. We made the government agree to face-to-face negotiations. This was unprecedented in the last forty years and this was accomplished by us, the students, acting as an independent political force. And then when we invited the intellectuals to join us, they came to the Square and addressed us as "children."

SU XIAOKANG addresses students on Square

We should have patience! We should be rational! We have to educate the government! Can we be rational?




Good! If the government makes a concession, will we be able to respond rationally?




That's all I have to say.


The message that we got from them is this: "You people have gone too far! You have to listen to your mommy and daddy, listen to your government." Well, all I have to say is, what have you done to give you the right to criticize us?


The 12 scholars had made an accurate assessment of the situation and they were well-intentioned. They knew this stalemate would harm the students' cause. But all the students had put so much into the hunger strike, how could the government simply ignore us? If we left, it would have been like encouraging a bully. Emotionally we couldn't accept that. You can tell me all you want about what a rational person should do, but I say, excuse me, I can't be that rational because I'm not facing a rational opponent.


We failed completely. At the time, I felt that we intellectuals were caught between a totally irrational government and totally irrational students. What could we do?


Although most students were unimpressed by the intellectuals' attempts at mediation, some shared their belief that Gorbachev's visit would help the cause of reform in China. As a last-minute compromise, Wuer Kaixi led the call to make room for the official welcoming ceremony for the Soviet leader.

WUER KAIXI, speaking on Square

Our demands are reasonable. But if we forget patriotism, we will be hurting our own cause.

We should make a gesture. I'm not saying we should quit, but we should move aside! I'm now speaking only on my own behalf. I'm Wuer Kaixi. I'm pleading with you. Don't lose sight of the big picture. I'm begging you!


We really were not willing. We decided not to move. Because--well, I'll quote the words of a foreign reporter. He said, "You're already on a hunger strike. What more can they ask of you?"


On the night of the 14th, everybody was waiting for the clearing of the Square. Everyone was restless. "Why aren't they coming, why aren't they coming?" On the morning of the 15th, I phoned a friend. We both felt that the situation was very grim. If the government ignored the students on May 15, they would be put into a very awkward position. What were they going to do, stay on a hunger strike forever?


"If the government can simply stand by and watch while the students' lives slowly waste away like this, we will have to take even more drastic measures. We will set ourselves on fire. If the government is callous enough to see these children starve to death, then I will be the first to die." I said this over the loudspeakers. I said I was willing to be the commander-in-chief - I don't remember my exact words - I said the only criterion for a person to join the hunger strike leadership was a willingness to be the first to die, so that other students could live on.



The government chose to cancel the grand ceremony planned for Tiananmen Square. Gorbachev got only a quick welcome at the airport.

The first visit to China by a Soviet head of state since 1959 had been upstaged by the students.

Gorbachev met with Party leaders like Zhao Ziyang, who looked to the Soviet Union as an example of political reform; and with others, like Premier Li Peng, who were wary of everything Gorbachev represented.

Both groups in the Chinese government needed the backing of Deng Xiaoping, who was in charge of the military, and thus held the real reins of power.

By now the hunger strikers had been in the Square for two days and their numbers were increasing constantly. Still there was no official response.

As time dragged on, sympathy for the students and anger at the government grew.


I couldn't even convince my own students to leave. The female students cried whenever I spoke to them. In the morning sun, the students looked so young, with only sheets of newspapers between themselves and the bare ground. It was really a touching sight. They were putting their young lives on the line, sitting there stubbornly. But the government was ignoring them. I was moved. So I decided to stay on the Square to help them run errands.


We workers and ordinary people had been looking on. Then, when the students started the hunger strike, using their own lives to awaken the whole nation, people felt their responsibilities, and they rose up too.


On May 16, while Gorbachev continued his discussions with the Chinese leadership, 300,000 people marched in the streets of Beijing.

On the 17th and again on the 18th, that number rose to one million people.


I went to the Square every day after May 15th, because a lot of students from my university were taking part in the hunger strike. I went there to help them with logistics, and run errands. I also took part in the picket line to ensure that the ambulances could move freely.


The students had been on their hunger strike for nearly a week, but still the government paid no attention to them. We said, what bastards! Any son of a bitch would have acted better than Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng.


Moderate government leaders tried to defuse the mounting crisis with whatever concessions they could make. The official media was allowed to report sympathetically on the hunger strike. Emergency medical teams were sent in to ensure the health of the hunger strikers.

Actions like these suggested that the party line was shifting, and nobody wanted to be left on the wrong side.

Local party leaders and managers started permitting their workers to go to Tiananmen to show support for the students.

Organized contingents started showing up carrying the banners of their workplaces.

To participate now was beginning to look not only right, but safe.

The spectacle was overwhelming, and highly photogenic.

The foreign press, in Beijing to cover the Sino-Soviet summit, walked into the biggest international media story ever reported out of China.


What a place, what a time, what a story! It's Friday morning here and this is Tiananmen Square. Today it's the people's square, all right. More than a million Chinese demanding democracy and freedom, and proclaiming the new revolution.


Unbelievable! We all came here to cover a summit, and we walked into a revolution.


It's a great feeling to get the attention of tens of thousands of people. Before the movement, the students had been very depressed. All of a sudden they were at center stage. People needed them. They felt a heroic sense of being able to change history. This feeling was a boost to their egos and whet their appetites for more.


There's never been a generation like ours, one that mocked the state, mocked the government, mocked the leaders. And there's never been a generation that has seen that the outside world is so beautiful.



Cui Jian is China's most famous singer. His song, "Nothing to My Name," expresses our feelings. Does our generation have anything?

We don't have the goals our parents had. We don't have the fanatical idealism our older brothers and sisters once had.

So what do we want?

Nike shoes. Lots of free time to take our girlfriends to a bar. The freedom to discuss an issue with someone. And to get a little respect from society.


In this process there was something so pure, so unforgettable. There were also things that I couldn't accept, even things I found repulsive. But they were all mixed together. And this is history. History is this kind of process. There's no way to sort things out neatly.

For example, during the hunger strike some students were actually eating. They felt that the hunger strike was only a means to an end. "Our aim is to put pressure on the government, so why should we make real sacrifices?" One student was outraged, "You people are manipulating the public". He said, "Once you turn your sacrifice into a hoax, you lose your moral integrity." So he wrote in blood, "I want to use my blood to defend the purity of the hunger strike." I was very moved. This kind of gesture might not have any significant political impact, but to me it showed a deep sense of decency, something that had become very rare in China.


During the days of mounting protest, reformist officials faced a predicament: they didn't have the power to make the concessions the students demanded; yet they knew if they couldn't get the students to leave the Square, hard-liners were more than willing to use force. And the army had already been mobilized.

Furthermore, since the breakdown of the May 14 talks, it was no longer clear who really represented the students. The only way to communicate with the protesters was to appeal directly to the crowds in the Square.

On May 16th, accompanied by student leader Wang Dan, the reformist official Yan Mingfu made such an attempt.


He was on the verge of tears. He asked the students to give the Party reformers more time. He even went out on a limb to tell us that the problem of the April 26th editorial would definitely be solved, but it would take time. He was very sincere.

He said that the Central Committee had guaranteed the student activists wouldn't be persecuted. He said, "If you don't believe me, you can take me hostage."

Then I said, "I hope everyone will consider this proposal carefully."

But the atmosphere was so highly emotional, it was impossible for either of us to continue. So Yan Mingfu left.


Only hours after Yan Mingfu's appearance in the Square, a letter from Zhao Ziyang, writing on behalf of the Central Committee, was broadcast. In essence, it contradicted the April 26 editorial.

But the strike continued.

The following day, Premier Li Peng summoned a group of student leaders to the Great Hall of the People for a televised meeting. Some hunger strikers came straight from their hospital beds.



The students are very concerned with two issues. We fully understand. As the Prime Minister and a communist, I do not conceal my views. But I won't talk about them today. Endless quibbling over these two issues now is inappropriate and unreasonable.


We're not the ones quibbling. It shouldn't be necessary for me to repeat what I said at the start of this meeting. But you leaders just don't get it. I'll tell you one more time. The problem isn't convincing those of us in this room. The problem is how to get the students to leave the Square. The conditions they've laid down must be met. I've made this very clear. There is only one possibility, and this is an objective fact. If but one hunger striker chooses to stay in the Square, we cannot guarantee that the thousands of others will leave.


In the predawn hours of May 19, a worn and haggard Zhao Ziyang appeared suddenly on Tiananmen Square. Zhao had lost out to the hard-liners in the party.

On the verge of tears, he said to the students: "We have come too late. We deserve your criticism."

Zhao then disappeared from public view.


When the reformers were still in power - that is to say before Zhao Ziyang was removed, he was the most powerful person next to Deng Xiaoping. The students didn't accept any of Zhao Ziyang's compromises. They didn't want to cooperate with him in any way. Once he was defeated it was the hard-liners' turn to show how they deal with things.

Next chapter: MARTIAL LAW

Previous chapter: MAY 4

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