Monday, April 28, 2008

NYT Archive 1989: A Glorious Day of Protest

The demonstration on April 27, 1989, was one of the most remarkable events during the 1989 movement. The mood on the streets was quite nicely reflected on New York Times' report on April 28, 1989:
More than 150,000 demonstrators openly defied official warnings and a concentration of troops today to march for 14 hours through the capital, repeatedly and effortlessly puncturing lines of policemen and soldiers sent to stop them, in one of the biggest displays of dissatisfaction in 40 years of Communist rule.
The student-organized demonstration in support of democracy and against corruption was a stunning humiliation for the Government, which responded this evening by agreeing conditionally to the students' demand for discussions with officials.
Most worrying for the authorities was the fact that crowds of cheering workers lined the entire route and hailed the core of student marchers almost as a liberating army. Workers vigorously applauded the students, waved encouragement from office windows, and frequently sent them food and drinks to show support.

On at least three occasions thousands of workers surrounded hundreds of soldiers and and prevented them from approaching student marchers.
Workers sometimes pushed aside police blockades even before the students drew near, and the marchers in the four-mile-long parade were easily outnumbered by supporters who walked and bicycled along with them for at least part of the way.
Beijing residents said the security forces, including army troops called in from surrounding areas, had made their greatest show of force in recent memory, but it was dwarfed by the sea of demonstrators.
Including the onlookers who waved and cheered as the parade went by, perhaps half a million people took part one way or another, often climbing trees and lampposts when there was no ground to stand on.
The threatening People's Daily editorial a day earlier was meant to put an end of all the unrest but it failed miserably. Understandably, NYT missed on the background stories of how difficult this march did come about. Under tremendous pressure, the young leader of the newly formed Beijing Students Autonomous Federation had indeed called off the march in the 11-th hour. But students came out anyway, from all campuses. At the gates of some campuses, school officials and professors had tried to stop them with tears and genuine compassion, fearing for their students' lives. Beida's contingent was supposed to only have a symbolic march that day. But once the procession was out of campus, nobody could have prevented it from becoming the biggest protest march to date.

NYT did have several sharp observations:

For the first time, the pro-democracy movement, which in the past has been overwhelmingly limited to students and intellectuals, seemed to draw fervent support from others. The students encouraged this not only by pressing their previous demands, like freedom of the press and more money for education, but also by raising populist themes like official corruption and inflation.

Aside from some shoving, there was no violence. Indeed, students once rescued soldiers sent to block their march. Several truckloads of troops were surrounded by angry mobs, who allowed them to leave only when persuaded to do so by students waving their university identification badges.
To many workers, the students seemed to represent not a focused, alternative agenda, but simply a cry of discontent that struck a deep chord.
''They represent people's thinking, the sense that we the people are in control,'' said one of the marchers, Lin Yulin, a 52-year-old worker wearing a Mao Zedong button as a sign of his discontent. ''The leaders cover everything up. People don't know anything, and we are no longer the masters. That's why there is this uprising.''


The Government appeared dumbfounded by the size of the day's demonstration, and the television news did not mention it tonight. The official New China News Agency mentioned it briefly and suggested its effect only indirectly when reporting that it had caused ''huge traffic tie-ups'' affecting 300,000 people.
In an accompanying article, Sheryl WuDunn elaborated more on the confusion in students' demand, which centered the abstract concept of "democracy":
''I don't know exactly what democracy is,'' said a 22-year-old physics student from Tianjin University. ''But we need more of it.''
What emerges from interviews with several dozen students over the last few days is the feeling that democracy is as much a moral issue as a political one: that it would bring about a cleansing of the corruption that many people believe has become customary for Government officials in China.

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