Thursday, May 15, 2008

NYT Archive 1989: Hunger Strike Took The Center Stage

On May 15, 1989, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in Beijing. The welcoming ceremony had to be moved off the Tiananmen Square, as reported by New York Times that day,
Thousands of university students occupied Beijing's central square through the night, defying Government plans to seal off the area. They said they wanted to hold their own welcoming ceremony for Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, who arrived today for the first Chinese-Soviet summit meeting in 30 years.
Unable to seal off the square and embarrassed by the presence of the demonstrators, the Government canceled plans to hold the official welcoming ceremony there and moved it to the Beijing airport.

By then, the hunger strikers had been on the Square for two days. But the NYT still did not regard it as the prominent story of the day. It was mentioned in passing:
About 2,200 hunger strikers sat huddled in the center of the square, and more than 10,000 students from other universities spent the night crowded around to support them.
By this morning, the hunger strikers had drawn crowds of 80,000 or more, mostly supportive. Students from campuses all over the capital had marched to Tiananmen Square on Sunday to press demands for democracy and for a dialogue with the Government.
''Welcome, Mr. Gorbachev, the true reformer,'' read a banner that the students held aloft in a rebuke to China's own leadership.
Also in passing, NYT mentioned a dialog that happened a day earlier:

Senior Government officials, including the Minister of Education, Li Tieying, met with student leaders on Sunday, but students said the talks were disrupted when the Government said it was unable to meet student demands to broadcast the discussion live. On Sunday night, the television news carried a brief report on the dialogue.
That was actually a dialog led by Party official Yan Mingfu and the students' own Dialog Delegation. It was the most promising and dramatic, but yet unsuccessful, event during the 1989 movement.

The Gorbachev visit was billed as one of the most important diplomatic action of the nation, sealing the reconciliation of the two largest Communist nations. The students had hoped to use the occasion to voice their concerns by launching the hunger strike. They thought that the government had to resolve the issue, and therefore they could stop the hunger strike, before the welcoming ceremony.

Now that the government had essentially called their bluff, students had lost their biggest bargaining chip of the time. The hunger strike had to continue, with no end in sight:

Chen Subin, a 22-year-old student from Beijing University, said that he had not eaten since Saturday afternoon but that he would stay on the square indefinitely. ''I will stay as long as I can,'' said Mr. Chen.

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