Monday, April 27, 2009

Book Excerpt: April 27 Demonstration

The following is an excerpt from my book Standoff at Tiananmen, chapter 6, on the perhaps most glorious day of the entire 1989 student movement:

The next morning, an anxious Ma Shaofang went over to People's University to observe how the march was coming together. Before he even reached that campus, he heard loudspeakers announcing that the planned demonstration had been canceled by Beijing Students Autonomous Federation. At the front gate, a few hundred students were still gathering together with flags and banners. They were as confused as he was.

People's University was located a few blocks south of Peking and Tsinghua universities, on the way downtown. The plan was for students at People's University to wait for and join in the contingent when they came down the street. Now they were not sure if anyone would ever come. Many impatient students got on the roofs to watch northward. They only saw empty streets.

It was about midnight the night before, just after Ma Shaofang and Wang Dan reached their decision to keep on with the march, that Zhou Yongjun finally cracked under intense pressure of a day-long isolated persuasion. At the end, he simply had no answer to the question, repeatedly asked by his handlers, "would you be willing to be personally responsible for the safety of thousands of students?" At about the same time, Wuer Kaixi also capitulated under a similar circumstance. A hand-written message was rushed from Beijing Normal University to the University of Political Science and Law. On it, Wuer Kaixi suggested that Zhou Yongjun cancel the march.

Zhou Yongjun was still grabbing for his last straw. He insisted that he had no authority to overturn a decision made by Beijing Students Autonomous Federation. His handlers were not interested in technicalities. "Just write a message," they demanded. Zhou Yongjun relented. He wrote up a simple sentence canceling the march, signed his own name, and stamped with the official seal of the organization which had been hastily made during that same day. What he did not know was that his action immediately set off an operation of military efficiency. Phone calls were made to the city government which in turn notified all colleges to be on standby and assist a certain vehicle with an urgent message. Therefore, student leaders in all campuses were able to receive Zhou Yongjun's decree before daybreak. Wuer Kaixi was even chauffeured to Peking University to tell leaders there that everything would be fine as long as they remained inside the campus.

The big iron gate at the southern entrance of Peking University was once again shut down. Guards were diligently checking everyone's identification card before allowing them to pass through a side door. Loudspeakers mounted on surrounding buildings were repeating stern warnings for marching out of the campus.

At The Triangle, Shen Tong's own loudspeakers countered with a repeated reading of their Seven-Point Petition. Slowly, a few hundred students lined up in formation to march toward the gate. Wang Dan and Shen Tong were at the front, each with a megaphone on hand. A giant red flag followed right behind them, on which were four big, black characters: Peking University. Two white banners flanked the red flag on each side. They read "Support the Correct Leadership of the Chinese Communist Party" and "Support the Socialism," respectively.

They walked slowly toward the south gate, hoping to pick up more students along the way. But it was still a small contingent of a couple thousand when they slowly exited the campus through the side door. It was a quarter to nine in the morning. The tentative march halted as soon as it was out of the gate. Wang Dan and Shen Tong found their route blocked by a human barrier. But it was not the police or soldiers as they had expected. It was a thick line of reporters aiming their cameras right in their faces. They also heard loud applause and cheers erupting behind the reporters. People were getting on their bicycles and fanning out. They shouted excitedly that "Peking University has come out!" "Peking University has come out!"

Only Wang Dan, Shen Tong, and a handful of their Preparatory Committee members knew that this march of theirs was supposed to be only a symbolic one.

Peking University's Preparatory Committee had adopted a relatively independent stance in regard to Beijing Students Autonomous Federation. From the very beginning, they had doubts about that organization's legitimacy. During an earlier meeting of their own, Wang Dan and Feng Congde voted for the demonstration. But the other three standing committee members including Shen Tong voted against it. On his own initiative, Shen Tong had reached an initial agreement with the school authority. If students did not march out of the campus, they could start a formal dialogue with the school president. Shen Tong saw it as a prelude for bigger things and thought it a worthwhile bargain. Based on the vote, a decision not to participate in the march was adopted.

Feng Congde, on the other hand, was very concerned about this decision. He sensed that students, fueled by the People's Daily editorial, would probably march out one way or another. If the leaders chose to stand in the way, they would simply lose whatever credibility they possessed. So he engineered a general meeting of department representatives and overturned the standing committee's decision by a majority vote. That was how Wang Dan was able to readily agree with Ma Shaofang to persist with the march.

Zhou Yongjun's cancellation message and Wuer Kaixi's personal visit before dawn had much less of an impact at Peking University than on other campuses. If anything, the leaders here saw an opportunity to demonstrate their own independence from Beijing Students Autonomous Federation. But now they were keenly aware that, if they did indeed march, they could be alone in the city, which was not a promising prospect. Shen Tong once again pushed for a more conservative approach. After much discussion, they reached a compromise for a symbolic march of only a few miles. As soon as they reached the Third Ring Road, just before entering the city, they would turn back. As long as they had marched outside of the campus, they figured, they would already have fulfilled the purpose of challenging the People's Daily editorial.

Even with that decision made, Shen Tong was nevertheless worried that Wang Dan and Feng Congde could get carried away during the march. They made Wang Dan promise that he would not deviate from this plan no matter what happened and asked Feng Congde to remain on campus for logistical support, effectively taking him out of the scene. Feng Congde, ever the team player, agreed without a second thought.

Soon after exiting their campus, the Peking University march found a similarly sized troop from Tsinghua University catching up on them. Joining together, they headed south toward People's University. It was right then that they spotted the very first police line. There were only a few hundred unarmed policemen blocking the way with their arms linked tightly together. As planned, the students stopped and sat down on the road. The student leaders at the forefront engaged the police in a heated but civil negotiation for ten minutes. Neither side was yielding.

This time it was the spectators who lost their patience first. Surrounding the student formation, these young city residents also outnumbered the meager police line. Taking matters into their own hands, they rushed forward and inserted themselves between the students and police. With a thunderous chant, "Get Away! Get Away," they surged forward. The police line was no match for such forces and gave way easily.

Students marched on. Their numbers started to swell. More and more students were rushing out of both Peking and Tsinghua universities to catch up with the march. Student marshals linked up their arms on the side in haste, both to keep their troop in formation and to prevent the excited residents from mixing into their rank. Although they had joined into the protest by clearing the way for the march, residents were still not accepted by the students. The "purity" of the movement was too important to give up.

Students at People's University had received the news from messengers on bicycles minutes after Peking University students exited their campus. The exciting news spread across the campus and a march formation was quickly formed at their front gate. As students on the roof spotted the approaching flags, they decided not to wait. Instead, they marched out and headed south on their own, ahead of the thousands from Peking and Tsinghua universities. No longer at the forefront of the march, Shen Tong found himself the only person still thinking about turning around. He knew that their compromise had been hopelessly lost. He marched on, alongside of Wang Dan, toward downtown. Far ahead of them, the red flags of People's University were leading the way.

When the news of Peking University coming out of its campus reached the University of Political Science and Law, students there were having a standoff of their own. They were not facing police either. A row of old professors led by the school president lined across the gate and begged for students not to proceed with their march. With tears running down his face, the school president repeated hopelessly, "If you go out today, there will be bloodshed. I will be personally culpable to you, to our school, and to your parents."

His plea was falling on deaf ears. Almost in his face was a huge banner held up high by a few students. It declared, "Defend the Honor of the Constitution to Death!" The character "death" was overlaid with red ink as if blood was dripping from it. With their adrenaline boiling, it was easy for the students to brush aside the sincere advice from their president and professors.

As they marched out, a gigantic wooden board, carried by a dozen people, elegantly glided in the middle of the formation. On it, printed in neat calligraphy, were some of the most significant articles from the Constitution of the People's Republic of China pertaining to the rights of citizens to free expression and assembly. The board was the handy work of Chen Xiaoping and Wu Renhua with monetary support from Chen Ziming. Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao had also spent the previous day on campus. They reviewed slogans and plans for the march behind the scenes.

Pu Zhiqiang, who at six feet and three inches was taller than most, was waving the school flag at the forefront of the formation. He noticed that students in the nearby College of Posts and Telecommunications were still confined within its campus. He led the march in a detour over to that campus and drew in more students with the momentum of his troops. Soon, they found the contingent from the College of Aviation merging into their formation. They headed toward Beijing Normal University.

At Beijing College of Chinese Medicine, students were particularly angry that their school had just been singled out by People's Daily, which praised them as the only college in the city not boycotting classes. With their campus gates locked, students scaled the walls to join the march.

Over thirty colleges of various sizes covered in a wide area of the northwestern suburb of Beijing. In many smaller colleges, students were more confused than ever. Their only news came from runners on bicycles who were crisscrossing the area with different and often conflicting reports of what was happening. Without strong organizations, these students chose to sit along streets and wait. They were more than ready to join in as soon as any marching troops arrived nearby. This same scene repeated again and again in many intersections, like numerous streams merging into a roaring river. A flash flood was fast developing.

At Xizhimen intersection, or Gate of Straight West, on the northwest corner of the Second Ring Road, two main rivers of students merged. Students led by Peking, Tshinghua, and People's universities from the west met up with those led by the University of Political Science and Law and Beijing Normal University from the east. Expressions of joy appeared on students' faces for the first time as they spotted friends all around. As they proceeded along the perimeter of the city, they had become much better organized. Banners and flags indicated each school in succession. The main troop marched in the middle of the street in a formation of about a dozen people across. Each block of the formation was led by a couple of students with whistles and megaphones. They repeatedly led their block in shouting slogans in unison. On each side was a picket line, linking hand in hand, to make sure nobody could get into the formation. As the procession advanced in a random pattern of stop and go, the students on the picket lines had to alternate in standing still and running like crazy to keep their lines from breaking up. When it did, however, students in the march immediately stepped in to fill the gap.

There were also occasional non-students in the march. At the front of the Tsinghua University block, several old professors marched with a particular display of dignity. Their silver hair danced in the sunshine as they proudly held up a sign: "[We have been] kneeling for too long, [now we] stand up and walk a little." The sign was referring both to the students' kneeling petition and the sufferings these professors had endured under the decades of communist rule.

There were many police barriers along the way. At each major intersection, police forces, still unarmed, stubbornly stood across the street. They linked their arms together in extremely tight formation, sometimes as deep as a dozen rows. To spectators, this looked familiar. In many movies and television broadcasts of the people's army rushing to help in flood disasters, they had seen soldiers jumping into surging water and linking their arms in the same way to block the torrent with their bodies so that breached dams could be repaired behind them. On this day, however, they were facing a flood of a different kind.

As students marched on, they were able to talk police lines into relenting on some occasions. At other places, they sat down and rested. City residents, who had been following along the students, swirled in. From all sides, they pushed and shoved police lines into oblivion. The police did not put up a serious fight either. As their lines were broken up, many smiled with a sense of relief. Some saluted the students as they streamed by. Others flashed V-for-victory signs discreetly. Just like that, the march pushed through six major blockades to reach the main boulevard ringing the city, the Second Ring Road. It had been a glorious, non-violent day for everybody.

The Chinese phrase "You Xing" was used for either a protest march or a celebration parade depending on its context. For generations who grew up in communist China, this was a very familiar activity. In the heyday of the Cultural Revolution, large-scale "You Xing" became a frequent affair, held all over the country whenever the central government felt the need to celebrate the publication of a new quotation from Mao Zedong or to protest against "bad elements" both international and domestic. As such, a "You Xing" could be organized and staged within the matter of minutes, typically with flags, banners, slogans, drums, firecrackers, cymbals, and gongs. For kids, "Let's go You Xing" was one of the most exciting rallying cries.

As the students turned the corner at the northwest of the city onto the Second Ring Road, their "You Xing" transformed from a protest march into a celebration parade completely. On the night before, with rumors of a military crackdown stirring, hundreds of them had written up their wills in anticipation of bloodshed. When they marched out of their campuses, ignoring teary pleas from their professors and even parents, they were solemn, apprehensive, but determined. All that anxiety, however, evaporated as soon as they saw what was ahead of them.

Residents of Beijing had come out in millions. They lined sidewalks and crowded onto overpasses. They were out there with their own banners, shouting their own slogans, laughing and cheering as if they were welcoming a liberating army. As students passed under the overpasses, loaves of bread, bottles of water, and packets of popsicles rained down on them. At one intersection, the text of a giant billboard advertising traffic safety was altered to wish the students "get back home safely." By now, the student procession had stretched over six miles in length. It was a steady current that seemed to have no end.

Residents were also rewarded by the presence of a myriad of new banners in the march which addressed issues closer to home: inflation, graft, corruption, bureaucracy, etc. Students were no longer just making abstract and empty cries for freedom and democracy. They were, as it seemed to residents, voicing the concerns of common people.

It was at Chang'an Avenue when the advancing students caught sight of regular army troops. Military trucks could be seen along the wide boulevard, carrying soldiers toward Tiananmen Square. Some of the soldiers were carrying automatic assault rifles. On the street itself, unarmed soldiers were forming ever bigger human barriers just as the policemen had tried before. Students were no longer afraid. They had come to realize that, on this day, nothing could stop them. They were also aware that the possibility of a violent confrontation had already diminished.

The march slowed down and finally came to a halt in front of a wall of soldiers. The number of soldiers here was so overwhelming that the students were not sure if they could push through this time. Yet they saw the faces in front of them and knew the young soldiers were much more anxious and afraid than they were. Happily and mischievously, students sang familiar army songs and shouted "The People Love the Army! The Army Loves the People!"

Around them, spectators were in action again. They slammed their fists onto traffic signs, fences, and anything that could make noise and launched into a rhythmic chant: "Go Away! Go Away!" It was deafening. As the masses converged into the soldiers from all directions, the human barrier melted away.

Far ahead of the march, however, Tiananmen Square resembled a war zone. Thousands of soldiers had assembled there and appeared ready to defend this historic landmark from an invasion. Wreaths and flowers at the Monument to People's Heroes had been cleared after the funeral. There were no tourists or even residents. The air was tense as the students approached from the west. Soldiers and policemen flooded toward the north edge where they would make a last stand blocking the march into the Square.

The disciplined student marshals appeared first. They came in advance of the main troop and set up their own picket lines just in front of the wall of soldiers. With their guidance and under the intense stares of curious soldiers, the main troop of students marched on along Chang'an Avenue to the east. They marched past Tiananmen and bypassed the Square altogether, leaving the soldiers in a state of complete amazement and relief.

Just five short years earlier, during that National Day celebration in 1984, college students had paraded under Tiananmen waving the endearing "Hello Xiaoping" banner. As a high school student in Beijing, Shen Tong was dressed as a Taiwanese national and paraded in a dance formation for that celebration. This time around, Shen Tong and his fellow students were marching on their own. As they passed Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, its reviewing stand high above was ghostly empty. There were no leaders up there waving at them in larger-than-life poses.

It was already getting dark when they reached the Jianguomen intersection east of Tiananmen, Wang Dan ran up the overpass himself to get a full view of his troops. In the twilight, it was a scene that would be burnt into his memory for the rest of his life. From Jianguomen, the Gate of Founding the Nation, the entire Chang'an Avenue extended into the far horizon. For as far as he could see, the boulevard was filled with people. It was a sea of flags and banners. It was as joyous and glorious as anything his young mind could have ever imagined.

Jianguomen was the eastern end of Chang'an Avenue near the Beijing Railway Station. For the numerous "You Xing" organized by the government, this was the assembling spot. Millions and millions of people had gathered here and either marched or paraded, in strict formations and with fancy floats, down Chang'an Avenue toward Tiananmen Square and beyond. Today, the new generation of students were marching in the opposite direction, literally, with nothing but their sincerity and enthusiasm.

And what a force this was. It took the entire student procession an hour and forty-five minutes to pass through Tiananmen Square. An estimated two hundred thousand marched with more than a million citizens cheering and supporting them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great work.