Thursday, May 1, 2008

NYT Archive 1989: Emerging Student Leaders

In a report titled "In China, Protest Proves Easier Than Organization", New York Times' Nicholas Kristof illustrates the risk of being leaders in the fledging student movement on May 1, 1989:
When thousands of cheering and banner-waving Qinghua University students left campus last week to join an enormous demonstration that crumpled police lines and forced the Government to agree to a discussion, they forgot one thing: their leaders.
Fearful of reprisals, Qinghua's student leaders had already resigned and declared that they would not take part. Only after the demonstrators marched down the street and attracted an enormous outpouring of popular enthusiasm did the leaders slink after the crowd and take up positions at the rear of the march.
The incident reflected the spontaneous, almost accidental nature of the students' pro-democracy movement, which is already hailed by many Chinese as having earned a major place in history by taking on the Government against all odds.
But progresses were clearly being made:
Without money, telephones, photocopiers or permission, the student movement in less than two weeks has succeeded in establishing a loose network of universities in Beijing and the nearby city of Tianjin, and it is trying to establish links with other universities. An inter-university committee has been established and its decisions seem to be generally respected by most of the city's students.
But in what may be a sign of the difficulties of creating their own leadership, Beijing University students today postponed an election intended to select a new group of student leaders. They said the election needed better planning and would be held soon.
Students there have already set up their own loudspeaker system to broadcast news and they are talking about starting a newspaper.

The "inter-university committee" referred above had to be Liu Gang's Beijing Students Autonomous Federation, which was gradually taking shape and gaining legitimacy among the students in more than a dozen schools in Beijing.

The "loudspeaker system" in Beida was the handy work of Shen Tong and his friends, which eventually developed into a full-fledged media center. The loudspeaders were in use throughout the movement, and quite remarkably, for several days after the massacre. It was one of the main sources of information, as well as communication depot, of the movement centered in Beida.

Also for the first time, Wang Dan was identified by name as the "best-known leader" in NYT:
When Wang Dan, a 20-year-old Beijing University history student who is the movement's best-known leader, was asked the other day what he planned to do after graduation, he laughed humorlessly. ''My graduation itself is enough of a question mark,'' he said.
''But I believe that even if I am arrested and so unable to participate, there will be more and more people after me,'' added Mr. Wang, who appears to have been singled out by the Communist Party for attack in anonymous wall posters.

Of course, Wang Dan never managed to get even close to graduation from Beida. After the massacre, he went through hiding, jail, release, and jail again, and eventually in exile. He did finally graduate, from Harvard University instead. Currently, he is fighting for his citizenship rights.

One of the reasons that younger students such as Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi became the most visible leaders of this movement was explained by an anonymous interviewee in the NYT story:
One of the consequences of this nervousness is that the student leaders are often relatively young and inexperienced. The natural leaders, those who are older and more respected among their peers, are apprehensive of being in the forefront of the movement. Some older students, including young teachers and graduate students, try quietly to advise the young leaders, but tensions are inevitable.
''Those who walk in the front row of the demonstration and get caught are not the most important leaders,'' said a third-year student who is playing a behind-the-scenes role at Beijing University. ''They are young people in their first or second year. They are 17 or 18. For them it's not so bad. But those in their third or fourth year are more careful.''
Students are reluctant not just to lead, but also to be led, causing further problems. The fractiousness and accusations have already split the movement, and unless a single president emerges the divisions are likely to get worse. Some leaders accuse each other of excessive ambition, or even of being Government plants.

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