I had arrived in Beijing on 7 May. The protesters, exhausted
by several weeks of marches from the university campuses in
Haidian, the northwest outer suburb of the city, had just begun
to stage 'bicycle marches'. Holding their school banners and
slogans aloft, they circled Beijing on the inner and outer
ringroads. These bicycle parades seemed innovative at first, but
they soon tired commuters and anyone else trying to get around
the city on business. Repeatedly in the weeks to come, the
student protesters would turn to ever new tactics to keep the
Late in the evening of 8 May, I had a chance to talk at length
with Hou Dejian, the Taiwan-born singer/songwriter, and Liu
Xiaobo, an acerbic literary critic, writer of philosophy and
admirer of Nietzsche. During the massacre of 4 June, these two
men would attempt to lead the thousands of young people who were
gathered in Tiananmen Square, and would negotiate their
last-minute departure. But on that evening of 8 May, as Hou
ferried us to his favourite Mongolian hotpot restaurant in his
pajett red Mercedes, their attitudes revealed little of their
future involvement in the movement. Liu Xiaobo had rushed back to
Beijing from New York to get involved with the demonstrations and
he told me he was spending much of his time working on a public
opinion survey related to the student movement. Hou Dejian was
dismissive of the student agitation and thought it would lead to
no good. Liu Xiaobo was hardly more hopeful, but his close
involvement with the students made him less cynical.
At a writers' demonstration on Wednesday 10 May, the main demonstrators were from the Beijing University writers' program. The writers had draped ribbons across their chests like contestants in a beauty pageant and had written on them their names and most famous works. Su Xiaokang wore one with 'River Elegy' marked on it, and Lao Gui wore an advertisement for his novel Bloody Sunset . The novelist Zheng Yi had 'Old Well' written on his sash. It was not just the writers who resorted to self-advertisement. Student leaders wrote their names boldly on their shirts and were ferried around the square and to other venues by bodyguards.
There were strong hierarchical aspects to the demonstrations as well. Some of the writers had vied for pride of place at the head of the procession as though they were natural leaders: as if their presence added weight and importance to the occasion. Similarly the students from different universities had jockeyed for position as leaders in the mass marches into the city. Beijing University was particularly unpopular with students from other institutions for the air of superiority its student leaders displayed.
One Chinese observer of the 27 April demonstration had watched the disciplined students leading the procession, and noted also a group of ill-kempt young people dressed in the casual garb of Beijing's arty bohemians bringing up the rear. They did not march in columns or hold any placards with quotations from the Chinese Constitution on them; nor did they chant the set slogans of the other demonstrators or sing the 'proper' songs (such as 'The Internationale'). Instead they joined in loose formation, singing pop songs. They were students from the Beijing Film Academy and the Central Art Academy. The organizers remonstrated with them, telling them that if they wanted to participate they had to line up, chant the right slogans and sing the right songs. Uniformity was required of these disorderly elements if they were to be allowed to participate in the 'army of democracy' marching to Tiananmen Square.
On Saturday, 13 May, the first night of the hunger strike, one
could only see the dark camp of students at the foot of the
Monument to the People's Heroes. A large banner reading 'hunger
) had been strung between the flagpoles. The weather was warm and
crowds were already gathering to visit the latest 'sight' (
) on the itinerary of the Protest Movement tourist. An essential
element of the popular interest in the protests was the chance to
, or to 'enjoy a spectacle'. That particular predilection of
Beijing people had generally been left unsatisfied since the
grand parade was held for the thirty-fifth anniversary of the
People's Republic in 1984.
On Sunday 14 May, the People's Daily reported that Zhao Ziyang had met with some workers in the Great Hall of the People the previous day. The front page article included indirect quotations from Zhao to the effect that no patriotic Chinese should do anything to interfere with the Gorbachev visit or to embarrass the Chinese government. Zhao is reported as having said, '... it doesn't matter who it is, be they students or other citizens, if they interfere with this international meeting because of dissatisfaction with their own unit or internal problems... it will be entirely unreasonable, and they will find no sympathy or support from others'. (1) The thrust of Zhao's comments was obviously directed at the students, as well as the workers, whom the government hoped would not support the hunger strikers. This was, at least, how many people interpreted the news that day, and the reactions I heard among Chinese friends were of mild anger and dismissive of Zhao's ploy. It should be remembered that Zhao Ziyang, whose image was transmogrified and beatified by subsequent developments, was perceived by many at this time as personifying the nepotism and corruption against which people were protesting.
By late in the day, a story was being spread that towards the end of Zhao's meeting with the workers someone had shouted out that the state should sell off its Mercedes Benzes to pay the national debt. This became a slogan written on banners in the demonstrations that were to follow ( mai Benchi, huan guozhai ).
I spent most of the evening on the square or at Zhang Langlang's courtyard house near Tiananmen. Zhang Langlang, the son of a Yan'an period artist, is an essayist who writes for the Hong Kong press, in particular The Nineties Monthly , a journal repeatedly attacked by the Chinese authorities. During the movement, this conveniently placed courtyard became a way station for government negotiators heading for the square, student leaders, intellectual organizers, Hong Kong activists, Chinese and Western correspondents, and casual observers. (2) It was an ideal spot to spend time after a stroll out to the square, and those present, regardless of the hour, day or night, would exchange the latest gossip as they drank tea and nibbled on biscuits. After the massacre, Langlang wrote that Li Ximing, Beijing's Party secretary, had officially dubbed the house as having been a 'black stronghold' ( hei judian ) during the protest movement. (3)
The evening of 14 May was a fretful one. Gorbachev was arriving in the capital the following day and the Ministry of Public Security had announced that the square would be closed to the public for the Soviet leader's arrival. Many believed that the square would have to be cleared before then.
That night was the first time I experienced the 'magnetic pull' of the square. Being in Beijing it was impossible to stay away from it. On that Sunday night there was both a real fear of what could happen if the authorities moved on the students yet an irresistible fascination with the unfolding drama and a desire to either witness it or even just be there. To establish one's own physical presence in the square, an area filled with uneasy milling crowds, became a driving emotion. The massive open area actually felt like the 'stage of history' ( lishide wutai ), an expression used so often in Party propaganda. It was a tantalizing and disturbing phenomenon that, I believe, existed in and around the square right up to the morning of 4 June. For those three weeks people would gather there at all hours of the day or night to express solidarity, or just watching and waiting, not wishing to miss anything but unsure of just what it was that they expected to happen. Even late at night, people would be attracted to the vast open space, filled now with hunger-strikers, screeching ambulances, pedlars, piles of garbage, and weary onlookers anxious for, yet fearful of government action.
The atmosphere on the square alternated between extreme tension, with wild doomsayers running about with the latest rumours, and a carnival feeling which the hint of government violence made all the more exciting. There were carts with portable flat hotplates at various points in and around the square and vendors were cooking and selling jianbing crêpes as an evening snack. Crowds tried to get a peek at the students on the hunger strike, and packed around demagogues who would emerge from the crowd, attract a group for a while, rail about this or that (the speeches I heard were uniformly uninspiring and vacuous) and then, losing the interest of their audience, find themselves sinking once more into the obscurity of the swirling crowd.
Orderly lines of soldiers were seated outside the Great Hall of the People. At times they were taunted by onlookers, but students would intercede and lead groups trying to get the soldiers to sing together with them ( hechang ), or would sing songs aimed against the soldiers ( duichang ). This was a technique familiar from the Cultural Revolution, when groups would sing alternately, trying to compete with the power of their voices.
The most common song was the dolorous 'The Internationale'. Student demonstrators said they liked this song because sung in chorus it resonated with majestic tragedy. One hunger-striker who later witnessed the massacre told me that he and his friends had even fantasized about standing in lines, arms linked and singing 'The Internationale' in peaceful protest against authoritarianism as they were gunned down by government forces. These heroic images, I was told by protesters in the square, were inspired in part by the bas-relief sculptures on the sides of the Monument to the People's Heroes which the strikers were facing as they sung, and in part influenced by films and novels about pre-1949 KMT oppression.
The Chinese anthem was also sung, but the most popular songs with 'the masses' (non-students) were 'We Workers are Powerful', a stirring and chauvinistic old favourite; 'The Guerillas' Song', later used, according to one friend, as the rallying cry of the worker's 'dare to die squad'; and even 'I Love Tiananmen in Beijing'. The Young Pioneer song known to most from their childhood with its line 'We know that we will be the masters in the future' was also a favourite, as was the tune of 'Frère Jacques', which was eventually given new lyrics after the declaration of martial law: 'Down with Li Peng, down with Li Peng, Deng Xiaoping, Deng Xiaoping. There's another hoodlum ( liumang ), there's another hoodlum, Yang Shangkun, Yang Shangkun'. (4)
Chinese friends suggested that these were the only songs everyone knew -when young people sang songs by the popular young singer Cui Jian few middle-aged or older people could join in. But this being a movement inspired by young people, nearly all of Cui's songs were sung by the hunger strikers and broadcast on the student public address system, as was the Taiwan songwriter Luo Dayou's 'Orphans of Asia' and Qi Qin's 'Probably in Winter'.
During the day of 14 May, I had heard that some intellectual leaders had met with Hu Qili, and we subsequently read a report of it in the People's Daily . (5) After this meeting with Hu Qili, Dai Qing, a well-known journalist and writer of controversial 'historical reportage', was adamant in conversation that the students should leave the square and not become pawns in an internal Party struggle. She was frantically trying a new tactic in her efforts to mediate ( woxuan ) (6) between the students and the government. Dai Qing is the adopted daughter of Marshal Ye Jianying and as such has always been a member of the Party elite. It is a position that has both allowed her a rare insight into the inner workings of the Party and equipped her with a self-confidence and understanding of China's political realities that made her 'historical reportage' on Chinese intellectuals and her journalism some of the most striking writing in the 1980s. (7) She was already convinced in mid-May that a disaster awaited the students and their supporters, and I presume that given her connections with the upper echelon of the Party she was privy to the fact that a declaration of martial law was being planned. (8)
On 15 May, I waited with friends in Jianguomen hoping to see
what would happen to Gorbachev's motorcade as it drove into
central Beijing from the airport. (9) As the previous evening had
passed without event, and with Gorbachev present in Beijing
people knew that it would now be safe to go to the square.
Throughout the morning students coming from the east marched past
us in ranks and were cheered by truckloads of protesters riding
to the square to support the hunger strikers. We ourselves set
off by taxi to catch the start of the first major protest march
of the intellectuals. Just to the east of the square the crowds
were so thick that there was just enough room for one lane of
traffic to move in either direction on the multi-laned road.
Lines of police who were stationed along the road as though
waiting for the official motorcade were being swamped by crowds
there to 'welcome' the Soviet leader.
Our car was stopped by the mass of people near Tiananmen. Some asked where Gorbachev was and where we were going. Others started beating the bonnet, and the driver, becoming nervous, ordered us to wind up the windows as he edged forward through what was very quickly becoming a tight corridor of human bodies. Most people reacted to the rather odd situation with the usual mixture of curiosity and good humour; others appeared positively malevolent. The police made little effort to keep order and the lines of policemen did not move. They were unwilling to maintain order, whether by personal inclination or explicit orders from above was unclear. By the following day, though, it was obvious to even casual observers that the municipal government had ordered traffic police withdrawn from the centre of the city, in what seemed a deliberate effort to show that the demonstrators were bringing disorder to the city.
We got out of the car at Fuxingmen Overpass, where a number of friends had gathered to march in the intellectuals' demonstration. It was quite a shambles, and started late with much fussing over the order of marchers. A line of prominent figures took the lead. I walked alongside the procession, which moved forward under a banner reading 'The Intellectual Circles of China' ( Zhongguo zhishijie ). Some marchers wore their names on sashes across their clothes for easy identification. The Chinese press reported Yan Jiaqi, Bao Zunxin, Ke Yunlu (a 'reformist' novelist later detained by the police although reportedly released later) and Wang Luxiang (co-author of 'River Elegy') were leading the demonstration. (10) Apart from the famous names, a number of major cultural journals and organizations were represented, including editors from some of the most prestigious magazines in the city. For many, it became a game of spotting which organizations had fielded a group, who was participating from various units, and then craning to glimpse the most amusing banners. After the tension of the previous night and morning, the atmosphere yet again was like a carnival. Workers on the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Hall building site on the northeast corner of Fuxingmen waved and cheered as the march set out. Apart from the leaders, who were very stern-faced and solemn, those behind chatted and laughed, enjoying what looked like an organized spring outing.
This day, for the first time I noticed a banner reading 'Citizens Support Group' ( shimin shengyuantuan ), carried by a small group of rowdy youths who called on onlookers to join them as they paraded around the square. The next day one of the banners of such a group read: 'Knives and halberds won't penetrate us, nor electric batons shock us' ( daoqiang bu ru, diangun bu chu ), a modernized version of the Boxers' saying. (11) The use of the word 'civilians' ( shimin ) struck me because the students, both leaders and non-leaders, still referred to popular supporters as 'the masses' ( qunzhong ) or 'the common people' ( laobaixing ) until 20 May, after which the nomenclature swung in favour of that word 'civilians'. It is impossible to say whether this was a spontaneous development arising from a new perception of the residents of Beijing after they swamped the streets of the city to keep the army out, or if the change in terminology originated with the students' advisers.
It is noteworthy that the Chinese media, surprisingly objective in its reporting of the demonstrations until then, began to positively support the students. This 'press revolt' was so unified in its style and purpose as to bespeak manipulation from the very start. Subsequently, in his official report to the National People's Congress in late June, Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong identified Zhao Ziyang's comments to China's propaganda chiefs Hu Qili and Rui Xingwen on 6 May regarding media coverage of the demonstrations as crucial to the buildup of the protest movement. (12)
From Monday, 15 May, the media began to print petitions addressed both to the government and the students. This new wave of petitions - the first one having been set off by Fang Lizhi's January letter to Deng Xiaoping calling for an amnesty for political prisoners (13) - continued to swell for the rest of the week. During the hunger strike petitions appealing for dialogue, restraint, rationalism, calls in support of the students' demands and so on, were issued by groups, by work units and by just about anyone who was asked or who had the idea. Many people signed whatever appeals came their way; certain individuals I know in the cultural world took considerable pride in their high 'signature count'. Others occupied themselves with collecting signatures for appeals, the wording of which was carefully worked out so as to conform with the requirements of the moment, satisfy the students and outdo all the other petitions. Reading the published and circulated petitions day by day you could see this one-upmanship at work.
The hobby of collecting famous people's autographs had become fashionable in China during the late 1980s. Book-signings by writers had been popular, and film stars had been besieged by fans asking for autographs. In a similar vein, during the hunger-strike week and the first weeks of martial law students collected each others' signatures and those of foreigners. (14) Some didn't just ask for signatures, they became obsessed autograph hounds. In the past, I am told, people have discussed this phenomenon in China as an example of the 'affirmation of the individual' ( rende faxian ), something of a craze in 1980s' China, and it certainly had this vapid, self-affirming dimension to it. What surprised many Chinese, foreign observers and people sympathetic with the students was that when government leaders went to visit some of the hunger strikers in hospital on the morning of Thursday, 17 May, many of the students actually sat up and asked for Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng's autographs. Was this a form of insurance policy, or an example of the 'cult of the powerful'? Perhaps they only wanted to have proof that they had met with one of the leaders and saw a signature as a 'sign' of approval or at least recognition of their sacrifice.
Apart from the signatures and appeals, with each passing day more organizations in the city sent representatives in batches into the square to make their support for the students heard. Each group, whether on foot, in trucks, buses or cars, would carry some identifying banner, its own 'signature', and its distinctive slogans. Like the floats in a parade, each one tried to be different. As groups passed there might be approving cries from the crowd or applause, the volume of the response reflecting the popularity of the unit and/or its slogans. Sometimes it was an expression of surprise. For example, when early in the week a delegation from the Central Party School marched into the square with its huge banner, which was set up high on the Monument to the People's Heroes, there was thunderous acclamation. Again, on the weekend following the declaration of martial law, when marchers representing central government ministries marched crying out the slogan 'Li Peng is a stupid XX!' ( Li Peng shabi! ), there was unrestrained delight.
Students had reportedly begun fainting from hunger and dehydration on the Sunday. By Monday this was becoming a central feature of life on the square. At first they were treated in tents in the square by volunteer medical teams, and then ambulances were organized to ship the students off to hospitals near the square.
The best slogan I came across this day was on a banner held up by an old intellectual: 'After kneeling for 32 years, it is time to stand up and get moving' ( guile sanshier nianle, qilai huodong huodong ). The reference was to the Hundred Flowers Movement of 1957. If you spoke to older people in the marches or on the sidelines, after expressing the usual concern for the students and their cause, they would often say they were there to show their opposition to an insensitive government ( wuqingde zhengfu ), much as some people of their generation had enthusiastically spoken out thirty years earlier.
On Tuesday, 16 May, having heard that the intellectuals of the capital would be publishing a proclamation at Beijing University in the afternoon, I went out there with a journalist friend. There was great confusion as to where the proclamation would be read. The time for it was changed, hardly anyone we met - Chinese or not - seemed to know what was going on, and we retired for a while to the apartment of the dissident scientists Fang Lizhi and Li Shuxian. Fang was busy working out the details of a libel suit he was preparing against He Dongchang, the head of the State Education Commission, who had claimed that Fang advocated the dissolution of China. (15) Both Fang and Li had been at pains to keep a distance from the student movement, and Li was outraged at the rumours being spread about her supposed connections with the Beijing University student leader Wang Dan. We then talked about the meeting between Deng Xiaoping and Gorbachev which had taken place that morning. Fang was of the opinion that the only way things could work out for the best would be if Deng told Gorbachev that this would be his last official act and that he would be retiring from politics entirely, after which he could go on a trip around the world or indulge in some other form of harmless diversion. No one present thought there was much chance of Deng making such a statement.
Later in the afternoon, at about 4, we returned to the university and found the official proclamation of the 'May 16 Declaration' taking place at the Sanjiaodi (triangular area at Beijing University, the locus of many poster campaigns). The novelist Zheng Yi and the literary critic and novelist Li Tuo were acting as masters of ceremonies, and Bao Zunxin (an historian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and co-editor of the 'Towards the Future' book series) was among a number of speakers. Bao was particularly hysterical in his presentation, which was supposed to represent the prominent reformist intellectuals Liu Zaifu, Yan Jiaqi and Li Zehou as well. A representative of the hunger-striking students, who had especially rushed back from the square, was also there. The declaration was written up like a dazibao and pasted on a dormitory entrance with a massive list of signatures appended to it. A call was issued for a massive city-wide demonstration the next day. The significance of choosing Beijing University, the symbolic and often real centre of intellectual ferment throughout the 20th century, for this official proclamation of the rebellion of the intellectuals was obvious, and people crowded around or were perched on every possible vantage point. Foreign television crews and journalists were given privileged access.
I returned to Langlang's courtyard and heard that Yan Mingfu, the spokesman for the 'reform' faction of the Party leadership, had been to see the students and had even tearfully offered himself up as a hostage if they didn't believe him when he said that dialogue would continue. By this time some student leaders, envoys of government offices, the intellectual groups and other disparate individuals would be appearing in the courtyard around the clock to rest, drink tea, chat and smoke. Langlang said they frequented this convenient 'pit stop' as it was close to the square, and he had been happy to extend hospitality to all parties. The student leaders I met there, all in their early twenties, were usually exhausted and always discussing new strategies. While at times they barely deigned to speak to other Chinese I was with, they perked up the moment a foreigner opened his or her mouth. Even as early as Tuesday, however, things were beyond the control of any individual or small group and much of the talk centred on the dilemma facing both the students and the government. The overwhelming support of the public had surprised everyone, making the situation all the more dangerous. We discussed the need, at least, for the students to publish details of the massive donations they were receiving and to do something about the deteriorating hygiene situation in the square - it was filthy and stank of urine and a concert of other odours, which wafted down Chang'an Avenue on the hot air. These problems were recognized, but dismissed as unimportant; the spirit of the 'movement' ( yundong ) was everything.
Back on the square, by the end of the day the sound of ambulance sirens formed a nearly constant clamour. While the Beijing municipal government subsequently claimed to have provided both medical personnel and ambulances for the treatment of the students, (16) according to a number of Chinese sources at the time, both forms of medical assistance were voluntary, and part of the rebellion against the government. The ambulance run added an eerie and frantic element to the protests. The students organized their own traffic control so as to keep corridors open for the ready access of the ambulances on the eastern side of the square and along Chang'an Avenue. So there was a thread of open space within the masses of milling people, through which ambulances rushed with sirens screaming and lights flashing, carrying stricken hunger strikers to and from the square in what was soon a twenty-four hour lifeline. Over the next few nights the oppressive heat, the shrill cry of the ambulances rushing throughout the city and the increasing fear that some of the students could die (with unpredictable consequences for public order and the government) made sleep virtually impossible. If you were awake, no matter what hour of the day or night, sooner or later you ended up walking to the square again and yet again.
Despite the drama represented by the ambulances and frantic medical teams, people still sauntered to the square after dinner for a stroll. Although there was much drama at the base of the Monument to the People's Heroes, most people couldn't get anywhere near the hunger strikers, although curiosity led to crowds pressing up close to the cordoned area. They chatted with the student stewards, looked out for speech-makers, and at the first hint of excitement in another part of the square would rush off, trampling over broken bottles and the accumulated filth of the past few days. There were clutches of sleeping students all about the square and in the underground walkways to Tiananmen Gate. Small carts laden with bread and soft drinks were positioned all around the square, their owners generally selling their wares for a range of prices: students paid the normal amount, locals a higher one and foreigners the highest levy of all.
On Wednesday, 17 May, Zhao Ziyang issued a written statement
to the striking students on behalf of the Standing Committee of
the Politburo. The statement affirmed the patriotic intentions of
the students and promised there would be no reprisals (
jue buhui 'qiuhou suanzhang'
) against them. (17) Although Zhao called for an end to the
hunger strike, to my mind his statement only encouraged the
campaign of disobedience.
Speculation was rife among my friends as to the nature of the government's actions over the weeks since Hu Yaobang's death. Virtually every move by the authorities had served as a stimulus to further demonstrations. Dai Qing had commented early on when speaking to the hunger-striking students and pleading with them to quit the square, that the government was incapable of responding quickly and rationally to emergency situations and that excessive provocation was dangerous in that it would inevitably lead to over-reactions. As one of the few people openly involved in the movement who also understood the inner workings of the Party leaders, Dai's views proved more perceptive than any of the other intellectuals who offered the students advice.
There was constant talk among these politicized intellectuals of the split among the leaders and Zhao's desperate attempts to use the movement to save his own political career. One (possibly apocryphal) story current by the end of the week was that Zhao had spoken to Deng and declared he had the support of millions of people. Deng supposedly responded that he had the support of the army and Zhao therefore had nothing.
That morning I went to visit two Buddhist monasteries in the west of the city, passing by the quarry in Shijingshan which a fellow passenger said was used for executions. Our car was stopped there by police and identification papers had to be produced. They were scrutinized with great care, as were those of other vehicles at this unmarked check point. Although there was no sign of police in the centre of the city, vigilance in the suburbs had hardly slackened.
We returned to the outskirts of the city for lunch and then, our way being blocked by demonstrators at Muxudi, were forced to walk the seven kilometres into the city along Chang'an Avenue. It took about three hours, as the avenue was packed with demonstrators from all walks of life out to support the students. The papers later said that over a million people had joined in.
We noticed kindergarten children on the sides of the street at East Muxudi all flashing the V sign and squeaking 'Overthrow bureaucratic speculators!' ( Dadao guandao! ) and 'Support the students!' ( Shengyuan xuesheng! ), with their teachers standing by indulgently and prompting them when the chorus slackened. Middle-school students with their school banners (for use in sports carnivals) were also out in force, and groups of uniformed students from the public security and customs schools also appeared, much to the delight of onlookers and other demonstrators, who by Xidan formed a massive crowd that inched forward only very slowly.
After Zhao's statement to Gorbachev the day before and with the media giving such prominence to the demonstrations, it looked like most work units in Beijing had dispatched a contingent to march. These were not masses of anonymous demonstrators, but well-labelled groups acting in an orderly (although not regimented) fashion.
By now foreigners seemed, for once, to be treated with relative indifference. Although the foreign media enjoyed a privileged place in the whole process, others were treated by people in the street as equals. Smiles were exchanged and friendly greetings. In the fifteen years I had been travelling to Beijing, this was the first time that you could feel the city to be enjoying a period of spontaneous self-confidence and pride. Of course, foreigners were often stopped and asked to express wholehearted support for the students' cause (any disagreement was not well received) and repeatedly told 'The Chinese are really something, eh!' ( Zhongguoren zhen xing, dui budui? ). There was such an awareness of the need not to cause disturbances that people were overtly polite and restrained. Even the city's petty thieves got into the spirit of things, and pickpockets were said to have gone on strike out of sympathy for the students.
On the morning of Thursday, 18 May, I went to the square with a friend to see the water strikers (hunger strikers who were refusing water as well as food). They had begun their water strike on Tuesday after Chai Ling and others had made a theatrical but half-hearted attempt at self-immolation. According to one of the water strikers, they were offended by Chai's hysteria and decided to go on their water strike instead. The Autonomous Students' Union did not agree to it, but the water strikers isolated themselves from the other students, setting up camp on Chang'an Avenue on the northern side of the Great Hall of the People. The twelve strikers were from the Central Drama Academy and the site of their strike certainly played on theatricality. (18)
They had initially joined the other hunger strikers on Saturday, having prepared for it by printing T-shirts in black and red with the name of their school, and 'China's 1989 Democracy Tide' on the top. (19) On the Tuesday, as they began their water strike, a large circle had been cordoned off by student stewards holding ropes as a flimsy barrier. At times the stewards were seated, but when the pressure of the crowds became too great they would stand, asking the crowds to keep their distance and politely shoving them on their way. By the time I got there the twelve water strikers were already in a parked bus (previously they had been lying on the ground but all the strikers had been transferred to buses when it began raining). The bus's siding recorded the details of the strike: the number of participants, the number of hours they had gone without food and the period they had been without water. It was like a score-board and the figures were constantly updated in black ink, adding to the drama of the scene. To the northern side of the bus, facing Chang'an Avenue and therefore on view to the majority of passing demonstrators, was a low table on which offerings of flowers were placed. Behind the bus was a triptich of banners. The left panel was a crudely painted white figure on a red background with its arms in the air and the word ' nahan ', or scream of frustration, the title of Lu Xun's first collection of fiction. In the centre the words 'save them' ( jiu ren ) was written in black on white, and on the right a sketch of a naked woman kneeling and crying to heaven was drawn in blue on a yellow banner. (20)
The scene resembled something of a charmed circle, or a grisly mandala, or even an altar. There was something mildly obscene and morbid about it all.
At the end of April students preparing to go off on demonstrations had written their last testaments. While there was no doubt that there was danger then, there was also a constant element of bravado and an unsettling eagerness for martyrdom. A favourite banner, touted by some young people on a bicycle cart that appeared every day, was spattered with red and read simply 'Fight to the death!' ( sike ! literally, 'crack open our heads and die!'). Ever since mention had been made of self-immolation at the beginning of the hunger strike, I had heard people talking about blood and death. (21)
The water strikers' declarations spoke of death with lines like: 'We use the strength of death to fight for life', and 'Death awaits the broadest, eternal response'. (22) Although they claimed they were too young to wish for death, the symbols of the protest became increasingly sanguine.
Some of the strikers even wrote oaths in blood, recalling unintentionally the way Chinese Buddhist monks once copied sutras in blood when pledges were made. It also recalled the May 4 Incident when students similarly wrote blood pledges; perhaps there was an element of conscious emulation of this in 1989. It was not long before placards with gruesome blood markings appeared. The lighting towers on either side of the square were occupied by students who hung red-spattered banners with the word 'sacrifice' ( canlie ) on them. (23) Others wore T-shirts patterned with red, possibly blood, and although the mudra of the movement was the 'V' for victory sign, the red and white headbands worn by the students bespoke rather of a suicidal kamikaze spirit. (Such headbands, incidentally, are not part of Chinese tradition; they were borrowed by the students from Japanese samurai movies and Japanese student demonstrations.) These young people who had pledged themselves to death for the sake of a cause were now caught up in a romantic assignation with death that was tied to honour and self-esteem. It was reminiscent of that 'splendid death' ( rippa na shi ) pursued by the Japanese shimpû pilots. (24)
To be sure, there was a constant fear that someone might die from the water strike, but I also sensed a gruesome desire to see real sacrifice for the cause. The appearance of the water strikers' altar only confirmed this. As the space was a circle it immediately encouraged a type of circumambulation. Crowds of observers and delegations edged their way around it. People often burst into tears as they moved past the young water strikers huddled in the seats of the bus, sometimes raising their heads or flashing a V sign. Every movement within the bus would result in anxious comments among the slowly flowing crowd, then shouts of 'We support you!' and so on, appeals for silence, more tears and then further cries of support. The stewards tried to keep people's voices subdued, thereby creating a solemn and at times funereal atmosphere around this island of sacrifice, an isolated quiet spot in what otherwise was a scene of constant commotion, drama and festivity along the avenue. Apart from two central traffic lanes that were kept open for ambulances transporting their cargoes of hunger strikers to and from the hospitals, the avenue was flooded with people.
Initially the twelve water strikers had refused all medical attention, but when they began fainting on the Wednesday, they were forced to have treatment either on the square or in the Beijing Municipal Emergency Clinic at Hepingmen. According to those I spoke to, they had gone into the strike in a tragic, virtually suicidal mood. The images of the death of heroes, the knights-errant of Jin Yong's martial arts novels, and self-sacrificing youth were uppermost in their minds. For one of them at least, it was a meaningful act of rebellion and freedom, a way of getting back at an insensitive and shameless government. The protest was particularly powerful in that it used the symbols and emotions created by years of government propaganda to oppose the government itself. (25) What made the strike even more unsettling was that both hunger strikers and water strikers would faint and then be revived ( qiangjiu ) by the medical teams with glucose and water injections, only to come back to the square to continue the strike.
Towards mid-day a friend and I came across a clutch of animated figures gathered at the entrance of the Workers' Cultural Palace on the northeast corner of Tiananmen. It was a confused meeting of intellectuals, although their leaders maintained an air of great self-importance. One of them told me quite earnestly that it was obvious that the Party leadership was impotent in the face of the mass protests, and they were discussing how to set up a provisional government. Since the workers were now coming out in mass support of the students, it was just a matter of time before the government collapsed out of sheer incompetence, he argued. Thus, he said, it was high time that the intellectuals take their rightful place at the head of the movement.
I had witnessed these people appear and disappear repeatedly over the previous days with the ebb and flow of the movement. (26) I suggested to this cocky literary critic that the present Chinese government was still quite intact behind the walls of Zhongnanhai, and it was a little presumptuous to assume it was incapable of dealing with the situation.
That afternoon on TV I saw Li Peng's meeting with student leaders in the Great Hall of the People . Wuer Kaixi's performance was remarkable. Li's bad temper was reflected in his tone of voice and his beating of the antimacassars of his chair with his pudgy hands. Yan Mingfu summed up the dialogue at the end when he admitted that it was merely a 'meeting with the leaders' ( jianmian ). It amused and infuriated the people I had contact with.
Late that night, Hou Dejian appeared in his Russian sedan. It was now too dangerous to drive onto the streets in his Mercedes Benz; the government had hidden their fleets presumably to prevent attacks on them by outraged demonstrators. We went off to the hotpot restaurant again. The owner, a self-made entrepreneur, was now extremely critical of the students. He said any government backlash would, in the end, hurt entrepreneurs more than anyone else. After all, he argued, the students might be punished, but the state had paid for their education and would use them one way or the other. Entrepreneurs, however, were expendable. Successful and wealthy entrepreneurs, he remarked, were too street-wise to get deeply involved in the protests. It was the small-time operators, the rowdies, who were most energetic in providing funds, food, water and support. They had been driven to desperation by government taxes and bureaucracy; their protest was a form of revenge.
After the meal we drove to the square at about 2 am. The place stank, and there were piles of filth, decaying food, plastic and glass containers and all types of rubbish everywhere, with students huddled asleep all around the monument. Parents who had come to the square with their children had let them freely urinate around the place, and after some days of this large parts of the plaza emanated a foul odour. At night, as the paving stones of the square cooled, the heat in the air built up like a malodorous layer at about head level. By now many of the students in the area were from outside Beijing, and their camps were identified by banners with the names of their universities, each with what looked like their own bit of 'turf' marked out.
Hou was recognized by students on the eastern flank of the monument and near the 'Maosoleum'. They wanted his signature and his verbal approval of the demonstrations. They all addressed him as 'Mr Hou'. He tried to be non-committal. In his comments to me he expressed despair of the whole business. The Chinese, he said, were like a great tribe of crabs thrown together in a bottle. Every move they made led to disorder and possibly self-inflicted injury. The only solution was if the crab population was markedly reduced. But that was impossible, so the confused struggle would go on. In the present situation an impasse had been reached, and since neither side would give in there inevitably would be an escalation of conflict and then brutal revenge. The stinking vista made his reflections seem all the more dispiriting.
On the afternoon of Friday 19 May, an Australian official had
met with Li Peng. Li had been quite agitated and talked about the
impossible traffic situation. This was reported in the evening
news. We heard that an important government announcement was
about to be made, and based on the general practice of the
Cultural Revolution thought it would be broadcast at 8 pm. We
tried to catch it at a friend's place but there was nothing but a
song and dance routine on the screen. I returned to the square.
It was about 10 pm and groups were scattered in and around the
square reading out a 'Six Point Announcement' that pro-Zhao
groups had just distributed as a Beijing University pamphlet. It
was about the fall of Zhao and the arrival of the army. At the
entrance to the Workers' Cultural Palace on the eastern side of
Tiananmen Gate, the announcement was being read out repeatedly by
people standing in the eastern reviewing stand. Large crowds were
standing listening. It was a grim scene. Many of the people
around me were crying as a speaker declared that the brutal
Tiananmen Incident of 1976 was about to be re-enacted.
Later that evening there was a TV broadcast of speeches by Li Peng and Yang Shangkun. At the square Li and Yang's speeches were repeated throughout the night on the government loudspeakers. At first they were hooted at, but soon they were ignored as people awaited the approach of the troops.
What was remarkable about these speeches was that the hunger-striking students had clearly called off their hunger strike shortly before Li Peng and Yang Shangkun's speeches were televised. The students' decision had already been announced on TV, thus pre-empting the government's own broadcast. Although there was a considerable delay in broadcasting their speeches that night, Li and Yang were unable to make any immediate response to the new situation: their speeches were directed at the 'turmoil' created by the hunger-strikers, while in fact there was now no hunger strike, and the possibility for dialogue and negotiation had presented itself once more. Now, through their threatening pronouncements of martial law, they had destroyed that possibility.
Early in the morning groups of motorcyclists - mostly small-time entrepreneurs - began constantly rushing east and west, reporting on troop movements in a language reminiscent of PLA movies. In fact, the language and style of student demonstrators in the following days were much influenced, I've been told, by Liang Bin's pre-Cultural Revolution novel, Armed Working Team Behind Enemy Lines ( Dihou wugongdui ), which is about guerrillas during the Anti-Japanese War. (27) For the next several days the 'Flying Tigers' ( Feihudui ), as they were to be dubbed, a pack of dozens of motorcycles, had the freedom of the streets and were welcomed throughout the city, both day and night. One story had it that they even went to Deng Xiaoping's residence in Di'anmen and tore around the place all night just to annoy him.
Early on the morning of 20 May we heard that troops had been isolated from all contact with civilians the day the hunger strike began, cut off from television and newspapers and given the People's Daily 26 April editorial to study. They had been told various stories why they were entering Beijing: to take part in a film, as a military exercise, to crush the turmoil.
At about 6 am we went with some journalists to see the troops stalled at Gongzhufen and Wukesong in the west. Students were standing by the army trucks reading long screeds about their movement and carrying out what could only be termed as 'ideological work' ( sixiang gongzuo ) on the troops. Watching the relentless presentation of the argument to the prone and exhausted soldiers (while the students had been tired out by weeks of demonstrations and the hunger strike, the soldiers had been travelling for days to reach the city) was like seeing a Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team of yester-year going to work. Considering that this was happening around the city with the support of tens of thousands of citizens, it was extremely moving. As we drove back toward the east, a number of army helicopters flew straight down Chang'an at quite a low altitude. The initial reaction was of shock and fear. By the time they came back, people were applauding and whistling. I spoke to one policeman later in the day who said it would have been great fun to get on a high-rise and shoot at them with his hand pistol; he figured he would have been able to down at least one.
Although for many people it had been a sleepless night, shortly after the announcement that martial law would go into effect at 10 am, and following another fly-over by helicopters, people flooded into the streets. The three government orders issued by Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong were being broadcast repeatedly in the square. One might have thought these were giving people ideas as how best to annoy the government even further. (28) In Order One, Article Three, for example, a ban was put on creating and spreading rumours, link-ups, lecturing, disseminating circulars and inciting public disorder. Immediately, students and other individuals began giving public lectures on street corners throughout the city, pamphlets on the state of affairs were produced with increased energy, delegations were sent to units including factories to call on public support for the students, and everywhere people were encouraging a campaign of public disobedience. The feeling in the Square was festive once more and it seemed that the citizenry had declared martial law on the government. There was a new sense of independence and relief after the tension of the night. The sites of the old gates of the city, torn down many years before, became the key points where crowds would gather to prevent the entry of the army, regaining their function as bastions in the defences of the city.
Out on the streets, foreign tourists were everywhere, taking happy-snaps of what appeared to be nothing less than a city-wide festival. It seems that the government had not made adequate provision to warn the thousands of foreign tourists that, according to Article Two of the Beijing People's Government Order Two, it was now illegal for foreigners to 'get involved ( jieru ) in the activities of Chinese citizens which contravene martial law'. This presumably meant it was illegal to observe and walk with the tens of thousands of demonstrators, listen to speeches, or talk to virtually anyone in the city. The ill-considered nature of these orders was obvious. If anything, they only encouraged civil disobedience and came as further proof to the demonstrators and their supporters that the government was incompetent, even impotent. The escalation of disobedience, while exciting to participants, meant that the government felt increasingly threatened, in turn resorting to increasingly clumsy measures in dealing with the city.
The most striking posters of the morning were just inside Jianguomen at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, an organization which had given succour to many of the intellectual supporters of the protest movement. One long banner on the fence of the academy called on the government to take responsibility for the situation and resign en masse. It also called for Wan Li to head a caretaker government and to call an emergency session of the National People's Congress.
That evening new rumours spread about the government taking action. Small posters were stuck on road signs and lamp-posts elucidating three points: 1) Beijing's jails had been emptied in preparation for mass arrests; 2) Government leaders had repeatedly said that they should be prepared to kill 200,000 people ( ershiwan ) so as to ensure twenty years ( ershinian ) of unity and stability; and 3) Orders had gone out to clear the square and clean up the streets at 4 am the following morning. The posters exhorted people to go to the square to keep the troops out. People surged into the streets and many stayed there till the early hours of the morning.
While the Chinese government had allowed the situation in the square to develop to the point at which it felt it had little choice but to impose martial law, the ineptitude of the government's timing on 19-20 May had revealed quite starkly what Dai Qing had talked about at the beginning of the hunger strike: the inability of the authorities to react effectively to crisis. Several friends with high-level connections told me that at no time was this more clear than on the evening of 19 May.
They related that the Party, government and army meeting of that evening was held in the western suburbs of Beijing, apparently at the Xijiao Guest House. By the time the meeting was over, and before the official broadcast, it was obvious to the leaders present that the army would not be able to reach their positions by the appointed time, or even to be able to clear the square by the morning of 20 May. In fact, it was reported that the leaders saw the troops stranded in the suburbs as they left the meeting, but decided after some delay to go ahead with the broadcast regardless. Compounding this, following the speeches, on the morning of 20 May martial law was declared according to the pre-arranged schedule, even though the enforcement troops were still not in place in the city and the square remained occupied by the demonstrators. By proceeding with this predetermined schedule despite the absurdity of the actual situation, Li and Yang made themselves a laughing-stock and incited public contempt and protest in the following days.
Throughout the next few days a pattern emerged among the protesters: mornings were spent asleep, followed by lunch, an afternoon turn around the square, and discussion among people in the streets. Then in the late afternoon a new series of rumours would spread: some government ministries, provinces or military regions were refusing to follow the government line, Wan Li was in rebellion, Deng Xiaoping was dying, Li Xiannian had forced Li Peng to resign, and so on. There would be consternated excitement at the news that this was the night the army would move on the city, and people would stream into the streets again. They were there to support the students, to protect the city, and just to be there.
The government's responses to the situation since the 26 April People's Daily editorial had at each turn only served to incite the demonstrators, leading each time to further over-reactions by the government and increased disobedience. This spiral of negative responses had, by late May, presented the government with an insoluble dilemma as to how to deal with the city. Within several more days, they would desperately be resorting to deliberate brutality to recover their power over the populace.