The Film

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



Few students were ready simply to go back to class.

But what should they do next?

The triumph of April 27 would be the last moment in which all parties working for change were united.

The euphoria soon began to fade and disagreements over tactics developed.


What a student movement represents is a call for social justice. There are times when we have no choice but to take to the streets to express our ideas, vent our anger, and show our determination to change things. April 27th was such a time. The students did a great job, and the government was forced to change its usual behavior. But our ultimate goal is to change the entire system. This cannot be accomplished by students staying in the streets.


The students demanded that the government grant legal status to their new organization, the Coalition of Independent Student Unions, and talk with them as equals.

They wanted duihua , dialogue.


One of the most important demands raised by the students was for the government to have a dialogue with them. Where did the idea of dialogue come from? Actually, Zhao Ziyang was the first to promote it.

He said government leaders should engage in dialogue with ordinary people. The Party hard-liners opposed this from the start: "It's absurd!" they said. "The Party and the People are one family, how can a family negotiate with itself? You're trying to imitate the West!"

They wouldn't even let us use the word duihua .


Duihua , dialogue, was a key part of the reformers' strategy to open up the political system. It was aimed at making officials at all levels more responsive to popular opinion.

The head of the Party, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, was a leading advocate of these reforms. At the 1987 Party Congress, Zhao was finally able to get the principle of dialogue adopted as official policy.

But to have the entrenched party bureaucracy to behave in new ways was another matter.

On April 29, the government held a meeting with representatives of the official student union of Beijing. Only a few of the new activists managed to get in.

Yuan Mu was the government spokesman. His was not the new, more open face that Zhao Ziyang wanted. He spoke with the voice of standard Party authoritarianism.

And he did most of the talking.

The Independent Student Union called this meeting a fraud.

Surrounded by the media, the student leaders made the rounds of government offices to present their conditions for further talks.


Reporters, please don't create chaos. Please be considerate.


At one government bureau, a group from the countryside was trying to get their grievances heard.

Grassroots democracy hadn't reached their village. So they were doing what they'd always done: kneeling before the offices of the central government, to beg for official intervention in their local problems.

They were having little luck getting anyone to listen.

The students said that unless the government accepted their preconditions for dialogue, they would march again.



Their petition says right here, "We absolutely refuse to allow the existing student unions to organize dialogue with the government." Instead, they insist that the so-called Coalition of Independent Student Unions, which was formed during the demonstrations without any legal procedures, should be the group which organizes the talks.


Some student activists were trying to institute elections.

And they were getting support on campus.

LI WEI, chairing election meeting

Since the government keeps stressing the issue of legality, we should elect a legitimate body to represent us in talks with the government.


Through elections on many campuses, a Student Dialogue Group was formed.

The students now changed their tactics. Rather than demanding official recognition as a precondition for dialogue, they were willing to talk right away, and they wanted to talk about their constitutional rights.

XIANG XIAOJI - Coordinator of Dialogue Group

The aim of dialogue was not to solve everything at once. We wanted to establish some ground rules, open up some channels for communication, so that whenever problems arose, there'd be ways of resolving them. We wanted to lay some foundations for the future; we wanted to make a good start.

What we were hoping for was gradual progress, reform, not cataclysmic change, not revolution. Because, honestly, in 1989 the situation wasn't so bad that people felt they needed a revolution.


A new path seemed to be opening up, a path leading away from the confrontational politics that had dominated China for decades. The path China had, long ago, failed to take.



On May 4 China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the demonstrations of 1919, when patriotic students had first protested against an unresponsive government.

There were two celebrations on that day: the government-sponsored commemorations at the monument...



and a mass student march from the university district to Tiananmen Square.

The students sang a patriotic song from the 1930's.


Today we are blossoming,
Tomorrow we will be pillars of society.
Today we are singing together,
Tomorrow we will rise in a powerful wave
to defend our country.
Fellow students, be strong,
Shoulder the fate of our nation.


In official Communist Party history, the student protests of 1919 were but a prelude to the Party's revolutionary makeover of China.

But in fact many of the leading voices of the May 4th era spoke not for revolution but for democratic reform. After their days of street protest, many students went back to school, took up various professions and continued to work for social change.

Those who saw no hope for reform joined the Communist Party to fight for an ideal society. Over the decades, the voices championing gradual change were either stifled by conservative power-holders or drowned out by cries for revolution.

By marching into Tiananmen Square, the students of 1989 were saying to the Party: We are the true inheritors of the democratic legacy of the May 4th Movement.

But the May 4th spirit they were most familiar with was the one the Party had taught them.


In the value system of the Communist Party, revolution is placed at the top. So comrades are called revolutionary comrades, couples revolutionary couples, and families revolutionary families. Everything is revolutionary. Reform is not a good word in Communist vocabulary.

What we were trying to do was to introduce the idea of incremental change to the people of China. We were trying to tell them that reform was not a bad thing, and that revolution often failed to deliver its promise.


Once again, the government had not suppressed the march. In fact, the leaders at the top were deeply divided on how to deal with the protesters.

On the very day of the May 4th anniversary, Party Secretary General Zhao Ziyang made a speech that departed surprisingly from the hard-line April 26th editorial. In a nationally televised meeting with foreign bankers, Zhao told his audience that there was no serious turmoil in China.

Duihua , dialogue, Zhao said, was the solution to the present tension.

The students now debated: should they go back to class and show support for this conciliatory attitude?

Or did Zhao Ziyang's remarks indicate deep rifts in the central government that must be exploited by pushing harder, going farther?

Many students went back to class.


On May 8th, several leaders of the independent student union of my university came to see me. They complained about the students who had returned to class, and said they wanted to blockade the classrooms.

I said: "I thought you were demanding democracy. A basic principle of democracy is the right of individual choice. If you deprive others of their choice, how is that different from the way the communist party has always deprived you of your choice?" It had not even occurred to them that there was a problem.

They couldn't come up with any good arguments in response, but they still felt uncomfortable. They said, "Then how can we get anything done?" In China everything has always been handled this way: only by preventing others from doing what they want can you accomplish what you want.


The movement at Beijing University also reached a low point. More and more students returned to class. A lot of energy was wasted debating whether we should go back to class or not. I felt increasingly frustrated.


At that time I thought we should resume classes, because I felt a stalemate like this wouldn't necessarily get us anywhere. And the students were pretty tired.


On May 10th, Wang Dan gave an interview to a Canadian television reporter.

WANG DAN, interview by Canadian TV - May 10, 1989

I think that the student movement should move on to a new stage. No more large-scale, intense street action, no more boycotting classes. Instead, we need down-to-earth work to build democracy on campus: the legalization of student organizations, independent student newspapers and radio stations. This work might not look all that grand or glamorous, but it's extremely important.


And yet, over the heads of the prominent student leaders still hung the People's Daily editorial of April 26, the shadow of dongluan. That threat cut off any impulse toward moderation.

CHAI LING leads chanting before the office of the People's Daily

People's Daily!
Full of nonsense!
Lying to the people!
Where's your conscience?
You may think you're safe!
But your time will come!
When the time is here!
The people will have their day!


Once we were chatting. I said, "How many years do political offenders get?" Someone said it used to be three years, then it was increased to five years, then seven and then seventeen years. I felt very sad. If I got seventeen years, I'd be forty by the time I got out. I really didn't want that to happen.


On May 11th, six of us discussed the situation. We had placed a lot of hope on talks with the government. But they kept putting it off. We feared that the movement would run out of momentum. Then the government would have been able to arrest the student leaders one by one and disband the independent unions.

So it was necessary to escalate the movement, to use more radical methods and apply more pressure to force the government to concede to our demands. Since demonstrations and sit-down strikes no longer bothered the government we felt the next step should be a hunger strike.

Next chapter: HUNGER STRIKE

Previous chapter: APRIL 27

Table of Contents

Home | Film/Media | Tour | Themes | Chronology | Readings/Links | Site Map | Chinese
Frontline | ITVS | Center for Asian American Media | PBS

© Long Bow Group, Inc . All Rights Reserved.