To stand, in early May, atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which guards the entrance to the Forbidden City, and look across the vast crowd of people jammed into Tiananmen Square was to have a historically new sense of what Mao called “the broad masses.” It was to this ancient gate that Mao himself came on October 1, 1949, almost forty years before, to greet the adoring “broad masses” upon the defeat of the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek and the founding of “new China.” Just the day before, in a declaration for the first plenary session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, he had proclaimed that
we are holding this session at a time when the Chinese people have triumphed over their enemies, changed the face of their country and founded the People’s Republic of China. We the 475 million Chinese people have now stood up, and the future of our nation is infinitely bright.
It was to be a new beginning, which for many Chinese promised the hope of delivering their country from the warfare, corruption, economic ruin, and seemingly endless and humiliating failures that had plagued every aspect of its history for so long. Through the selfless devotion of its people to socialism and country, Mao promised that China would be uplifted from its status as the “poor man of Asia.” He went on in his declaration to proclaim defiantly that his new government would
organize the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people in political, military, economic, cultural, and other organizations and put an end to the disorganized state characterizing the old China, so that the great collective strength of the masses may be tapped both to support the People’s Government and the People’s Liberation Army and to build a new China, independent, democratic, peaceful, unified, prosperous, and strong.
This past May, Mao’s dreams for China seemed far away indeed. Not only had most of the main principles of his revolution been annulled by reformers, but now Tiananmen Square was filled with hundreds of thousands of dissident free thinkers deriding the very party Mao had helped found and challenging the very notion of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Moreover, instead of marching in lock step from a single direction with resolute socialist smiles as they had done in the past, people now were spilling spontaneously down the Avenue of Eternal Peace from both east and west, where, with flying banners extolling bourgeois democracy; they converged chaotically like two turbulent rivers, and in the confluence of the square became a roaring crowd that swirled and eddied in changing configurations. Even in back alleys and surrounding neighborhoods of the city one could hear their clamor reverberating like the roar from a faraway cataract. The only place I had ever heard a sound like the one that rose from the vast square below me was in a crowded football stadium in America.
This historic upheaval started in mid-April with the death of former Party chief Hu Yaobang, who had been accused of being too liberal in his treatment of intellectuals and students, and was unceremoniously dismissed by Deng Xiaoping in January 1987 shortly after demonstrations for democracy—relatively mild ones involving perhaps 50,000 people—had last shaken China. This time a group of students from several schools of higher education in Beijing, particularly Beijing University and Beijing Normal University, seized on Hu’s death as a symbolic moment to vent their long pent-up dissatisfaction with the slowness of political reform and the lack of freedom of expression in China, and the endemic corruption that has riddled the Party and government. When they marched on Tiananmen Square to mark Hu’s passing, they were joined by about 20,000 other young people. If nothing further had happened, this one demonstration alone against the Deng regime would have been a historic event.
But the students did not stop here. After several more protest demonstrations in the square, the new student movement faced its first direct challenge from the government. On April 27 it was attacked in the official Party paper, the People’s Daily, in an editorial that called the protests an “organized conspiracy to sow chaos” led by “people with ulterior motives,” whose purpose was “to poison minds, create national turmoil, and sabotage the nation’s political stability.” In response some 150,000 angry students defied government prohibitions and marched again. After several tense moments, they succeeded in peacefully breaking through police lines and triumphantly reached Tiananmen Square once more. But what was so striking about this march was that all along their route from the Haidian section of Beijing, for the first time the students were greeted by on-lookers who not only cheered them but gave them free food and drink. Never had the capital seen such bold support for political opposition. A Chinese journalist told an American reporter, “It was the first time in history that ordinary Chinese people won such a great victory. The date will live in history.”
On May 4 there was another march, again of more than 100,000 students, and from then on, Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heartland of the capital and the country, became a nonstop theater of dissent. The next important act began on May 13, when, in anticipation of Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit two days later, one thousand students entered the square to go on a hunger strike. The large crowds that immediately began gathering to support them would have been beyond the imaginings of Mao, who built the one-hundred-acre square for rituals of loyalty, not discord. They wore three-piece suits and neckties, headbands and acid-washed jeans, T-shirts inscribed with the words “Science and Democracy,” short skirts and funny hats, and they created an almost festive atmosphere in the square in spite of the seriousness of the fasting students’ cause. The crowds seemed to become more intense as they carried on discussions and made speeches, and each day the number of people grew larger, and it included more and more diverse groups until, by the third week in May, they became one of the largest and most representative bodies of urban Chinese society ever assembled in one place.
The students’ immediate demands were at this point quite simple. They wanted direct talks with high-ranking leaders, the right to establish an independent student union, and the retraction of the editorial in the People’s Daily of April 27 denouncing them for “conspiracy” and “sabotage.”
Indeed, talking to these student protesters at the time, one had little sense of them as revolutionaries bent on deposing the government or Party, or even of their having unappeasable resentments toward the leadership. What was most noticeable about them was not their iconoclasm but their yearning to be listened to and taken seriously by the government and leaders they were criticizing. Their demand that the Party retract its hard-line editorial reflected the prevailing sentiment among many students: far from wishing to be seen as unpatriotic troublemakers, they just wanted the government to acknowledge that they too were constructive citizens, albeit critical ones, with something to contribute. The Western reporters visiting the square, more familiar with hostile student protesters elsewhere who view their governments and police as unalterable enemies, were often startled and even sometimes touched by the sense of self-sacrifice, and by the sweet and almost naive moderation they found among these Chinese students, many of whom had even earnestly made out their wills in case the government reacted violently.
Had Deng Xiaoping, Premier Li Peng, and the other top leaders been able to compromise even by acknowledging the editorial in the People’s Daily as a mistake, there would have been an immediate outpouring of good will from the students, and it is not unlikely that the gesture would have headed off the precipitous events that followed. But the editorial had, according to reliable reports, been written by Deng Xiaoping himself, who, in spite of his lack of official titles, remained China’s behind-the-scenes supreme leader; therefore, according to the still prevailing convention of Communist leadership, it could not be reversed.
Deng and Premier Li and their allies were not only preoccupied with Gorbachev’s visit, they were unaccustomed to redressing grievances articulated with such forcefulness from people at the bottom. Zhao Ziyang, the more liberal General Secretary of the Chinese Communist party, and some of his supporters, took a more conciliatory line than Deng and Li Peng, and even urged that talks with student leaders take place. Even though Zhao had in recent months been attempting to reassure the Politburo of his loyalty to the Party by taking an increasingly intolerant view of political dissent himself, he was still viewed by hardliners with great suspicion for advocating that Chinese economic and political reform move at a quicker pace.
Deadlocked at the top, the leadership was simply unable to respond to the events taking place outside the Great Hall of the People and to student demands. And so, with each passing day, the crowd in Tiananmen Square grew, until by Wednesday, May 17, five days after the fasting students had arrived, more than a million people gathered there. At this point Li Peng finally agreed to speak with representatives of the hunger strikers in the Great Hall of the People. But when he actually met with the de fac-to student leaders—who included two brazen and unrepentant twenty-year-olds, Wuer Kaixi, from Beijing Normal University, and Wang Dan, from Beijing University—during a bizarre nationally televised “dialogue” on May 18, he very quickly became intransigent. Refusing even to make reference to the demands of the protesters, Li lectured the fasting students, several of whom had come directly from the hospital clad in pajamas and were breathing through oxygen tubes, saying, “We have to defend socialism…. I don’t care whether you are happy to listen to this or not.”
Li and Deng and most of the other Party leaders seemed incapable of understanding that the students, by articulating their own grievances, had touched a nerve of disaffection with the current government that ran through almost all of Chinese society. Being the first to protest publicly, the students had inadvertently become representatives of the as yet unarticulated sentiments of other groups as well. Intellectuals were frustrated by the slow pace of political reform, by restrictions on what they could publish, and by their dismally low salaries. Workers on fixed incomes were angry at the way their buying power had been reduced by inflation, which had been running at well over 30 percent. Students in China were fed up with squalid living conditions, dull curriculums, and the government’s refusal to make adequate investments in education. And students returning from abroad were dispirited to find that the older cadres often had all too little use for them or their skills and were more interested in protecting their positions and saving face than in modernizing and developing China.
Young people were angry at being assigned to dead-end jobs or being without jobs at all. Engineers, doctors, economists, teachers, and other professionals who still worked for the state were distressed that their counterparts in private enterprises earned ten, sometimes twenty times more than they did. And virtually everybody one talked to was fed up with the rampant corruption and nepotism that had invaded all branches of government and the lack of possibilities for advancement for people who lacked “connections.”