Sunday, April 20, 2008

NYT Archive 1989: From Tiananmen To Xinhuamen

One of the interesting aspects of the 1989 movement following Hu Yaobang's death is that the spontaneous memorial activities became a pro-democracy protest almost from the very beginning. The phenomenon itself is quite understandable, given that Hu had been purged two years ago for being lenient to the then student pro-democracy movement. There was a wide perception that Hu took the fall for the students and now, with his passing, it should be the students' turn to seek justice for him.

But the rate of the escalation is still quite amazing. On the same day Wang Dan and his friends formulated a seven-point demand, hundreds of students already staged a sit-in on the stairs of the Great Hall of People, inside of which Wang Dan was trying to hand in the demands as a petition. This sit-in only received a very brief mention in April 19, 1989's edition of New York Times:

All day on Tuesday, students and onlookers gathered in the square to mourn Mr. Hu and to campaign for democracy. Several hundred students staged a sit-in in front of the Great Hall of the People, at one end of the square, demanding that officials come out and receive their demands.
In retrospect, this is a bit unfortunate, since the sit-in, organized and led by Li Jinjin (李进进), a Beida graduate student, was one of remarkably orderly and well-organized action in the early phase of the movement.

It was easy to overlook this sit-in, however, as a more dramatic and radical development was already showing:
More than 10,000 people took over Beijing's central square on Tuesday night in a rally for democracy. Several thousand students then marched to the Communist Party headquarters, where those in the front of the crowd tried to force their way in to see the nation's leaders.
For several hours early today, the students engaged in a shoving match with startled guards who were blocking the entrance to the walled Zhongnanhai compound, where most of China's leaders live and work.
While the sit-in crowd at the Great Hall of People maintained a peaceful posture, this crowd at Xinhuamen, the front gate of the Zhongnanhai compound, was distinctly more confrontational:

''Long live freedom! Long live democracy!'' the crowd shouted. ''Down with the bureaucracy!'' Two hunger strikers dozed in a central place of honor, and a sign announced that the strikers would not leave until the students' demands for democracy were met.
It was not clear how serious those two hunger strikers were. There were multiple mentions of them in various memoirs, but none included their names and intentions. In any case, this confrontation did not last long that night:
The defiance ended at 4:30 A.M., when at least 1,000 police officers arrived to clear the area. The number of students had dwindled by then to 1,000, and they left quietly. No students were publicly arrested, and the police seemed to be trying to use as little force as possible.
As they dispersed the students this morning, the police used loudspeakers to advise them that recent actions honoring Mr. Hu had been abnormal and that those acts would no longer be allowed.
As noted in the NYT report, protest at Zhongnanhai was extremely unusual. It perhaps signaled, as early at that time, that this movement would become something nobody had seen before, or since.

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