Wednesday, April 30, 2008

NYT Archive 1989: A Dialogue with Officials

The glorious protest march on April 27, 1989, caught everybody by surprise, not the least the government. Even before the students got back to their campuses, words were spreading that the government had agreed to hold dialogs with students, a key demand of the protest. Even better, the dialog would be broadcast to the nation, another huge victory to the students.

But of course the government was not ready to capitulate completely either. Holding on the line that the many solidarity-style organizations formed in the last week or so were illegal, the government only allowed leaders from the official student unions as representatives in the dialog. As such, the dialog played out more like a press conference during which the State Council Spokesperson Yuan Mu (袁木) answered most soft-ball questions with the usual format answers. It was definitely not what the protesting students had expected.

Several of the new leaders of the independent organizations did get invited as individuals by their friends in the official unions. Some attended the session, others, like Wuer Kaixi, decided to boycott.

Nonetheless, the students showed that they were a force to be reckoned with. And even during this staged dialog, a couple of students, notably Xiang Xiaoji (项小吉) of the University of Political Sciences and Law, managed to post pointed questions that had embarrassed Yuan Mu et al on live television.

Sheryl WuDunn reported in New York Times on April 30, 1989, that
Television viewers were treated for nearly three hours tonight to the extraordinary sight of Government officials being interrogated by ordinary students, who raised sensitive questions about corruption, beatings, the deployment of troops and the isolation of the nation's top leaders.
In a clear sign of the influence that students have gained through their demonstrations, the Government conducted the informal talks with student leaders who had been condemned just days ago, and then broadcast the discussions on national television.
The Government's leading spokesman, Yuan Mu, also told the students that Prime Minister Li Peng thought China's student demonstrators have the same aims as the Communist Party and Government. Mr. Li's remarks appeared to be a turnabout from the Government's stern warning against the student protests.

''We called on Prime Minister Li Peng to come out,'' one angry student said in front of tens of millions of television viewers. ''Why can't the people's Prime Minister meet the people?'' The atmosphere of the meeting seemed more like that of a lively news conference than an informal talk, with frequent bitter exchanges and criticisms voiced by both sides. One student walked out of the meeting because he did not think there was fair representation on either side.

What was remarkable was not just that the meeting took place but that the Government televised nearly all of it, apparently as a concession to a student's demand. The official New China News Agency also gave a long, relatively balanced account of the event.
In the same issue of NYT, Nicholas Kristof provided a commentary of the significance of the April 27 protest:
One can only imagine the expressions on the faces of China's old revolutionary leaders as a cacophonous rendition of the Chinese national anthem wafted into the Zhongnanhai park where they live and work. ''The peoples of China are in their critical hour; everybody must roar his defiance; arise! arise! arise!'' tens of thousands of voices sang defiantly during a vast illegal march on Thursday. Despite all the old guard's sniping about how the young Chinese today care only about money, it seemed that they had inherited a penchant for revolutionary ideas, after all.
Some Chinese see the demonstration as a turning point, the first time that students and workers truly joined forces to express dissatisfaction, and the first time in the history of the People's Republic of China that the people - lowercase ''p'' - defeated the People's Armed Police and the People's Liberation Army. The glee was unforgettable, and everybody jostled for a place in history: the ice cream vendor who gave her cart of popsicles to the marchers, the businessmen who bought food and drinks for the students, and the young workers who blocked the army troops sent to stop the marchers.
The last two weeks of demonstrations have been an extraordinary humiliation for the Government, and especially for Deng Xiaoping, China's senior leader, who personally ordered the repression of the student movement. But more fundamentally, they suggest that the Government may be losing its grasp on what the emperors called ''the mandate of heaven.''

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