Wednesday, May 21, 2008

NYT Archive 1989: Residents Block Troops

With martial law declared in Beijing but troops blocked at the gates of the city, New York Times started much expanded coverage on May 21, 1989, under the collective headline "Upheaval in China". The leading story described how the troops were halted:

Huge throngs, possibly amounting to more than one million Chinese, took to the streets today to defy martial law and block troops from reaching the center of the capital, effectively delaying or preventing the planned crackdown on China's democracy movement.

Troops approaching Beijing on at least five major roads were halted or turned back by the largest crowds to have gathered so far in a month of almost continuous protests. Students and ordinary citizens erected roadblocks or lay in the path of army trucks, while others let the air out of their tires.

... ...

A few clashes were reported, but the confrontations seemed to be mostly peaceful. More troops were reported to be making their way toward Beijing, however, and it was not clear that the people could continue to keep the soldiers out. So far, the troops have not tried very hard to enter Beijing, and a more concerted effort backed by the use of tear gas would almost certainly succeed. But after a full day of confrontation, questions were increasingly raised about the army's readiness to quell the protests.
... ...

While proposals in the predawn hours for a general strike seem to have been little heeded, it was clear that even if workers did not call formal strikes, they did not do much work. Beijing residents today had other things to preoccupy them, like how to keep the army out.

As rumors spread about where troops might be arriving, citizens rushed by car, bicycle and foot to do their part to turn the troops back. The crowds were larger than those last Wednesday and Thursday that the official New China News Agency had estimated at more than one million.

Truck drivers drove their vehicles in front of military convoys to block their way, and ordinary citizens lay down on the ground in front of army trucks. Many seemed to remember these tactics from the Philippine military coup that ousted President Ferdinand E. Marcos. Television footage of the ''people power'' revolution of the Philippines was widely shown in China at the time and now workers delight in saying that people power will defeat Prime Minister Li.

The most serious of the scattered clashes reported today occurred on a road in western Beijing, according to students, who said about 150 police officers used cattle prods to beat about 45 students blocking military trucks.

Meanwhile, at the Tiananmen Square,

In Beijing, nearly 100,000 people seemed prepared this evening to wait all night in central Tiananmen Square to protect student protesters from attack by troops. Even though there was no evidence of hostile troops within miles, many waited expectantly with clothes over their faces for the clouds of tear gas they have been told to expect.

The readiness to help has taken other forms. The Government today cut off the water supply to Tiananmen Square, but as word spread that the water fountains and taps in the area were no longer working, private business people from all over the capital contributed their motorcycles to carry buckets of water to the students.

More descriptions of the actions by the brave residents can be read here. A series of other articles trying to put the "upheaval" into historical context, with reactions from the American and British governments. Oversea Chinese continued to rally in the US and Hong Kong.

Based on the early actions, most of the commentaries, as seen here, here, here, and here, carried an optimistic tone, believing that China may be opening a new chapter.

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