Saturday, April 4, 2009

Historical Events: April Fifth Movement

The year 1976 was a pivotal year in the history of modern China. The decade-old Cultural Revolution had not yet officially ended but largely faded away. Within that year, top leaders of the first-generation communist revolutionaries, including Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, would pass away. A devastating earthquake would shake a large city and cause hundreds of thousands deaths. Mao Zedong's own death in the fall was followed by the ouster of his closest allies in a palace coup that would eventually pave the way for the resurrection of Deng Xiaoping.

The harbinger of things to come for that year occurred days after the new year's day. On January 8, the beloved premier Zhou Enlai succumbed to cancer. Fearing for growing dissent, the government downplayed the memorial activities that winter. People, who had come to see Zhou Enlai as a kinder and gentler alternative to Chairman Mao Zedong himself, were left unsatisfied.

April 4, 1976 was the Qingming festival, the Chinese equivalent of memorial day. Spontaneously, Beijing residents came to Tiananmen Square in thousands to lay wreathes and flowers at the base of the Monument to People's Heroes. Banners, posters, and poems were dedicated to the late premier who had died three months ago. Many of them expressed anger and dissatisfaction to the governing regime.

The next day, April 5, people returned to the Square and found all their dedications cleaned away. Angry crowd grew into a massive protest. Tens of thousands of them milled around the Square in bursts of demonstrations. In a couple of occasions, they threatened to storm the Great Hall of People but did not actually carry it out. While a few of their representatives were engaged in a fruitless negotiation with the authorities, mobs overturned a few government vehicles in the Square and set a small building on fire.

That night, tens of thousands police and workers militia armed with clubs and belts rushed into the Square and forcefully cleared the scene. Numerous injuries, but no deaths, were reported. In the ensuring aftermath, the authorities stripped Deng Xiaoping, who had briefly returned to power under Zhou Enlai's protection, all his titles and blamed him as the conspirator behind the movement. Activists identified from the crowd were jailed for "counter-revolutionary" crimes. It was not until more than two years later, after Deng Xiaoping regained power again, that the verdict of the event was overturned. The jailed activists were then hailed as heroes.

Chen Ziming was one of those young activists on the scene but he escaped capture by chance. He was in Beijing at the time during a furlough from his forced stay in a labor camp, where he was sent after expressing dissenting opinions in personal correspondences. He returned to the labor camp after the movement was suppressed. Even though his pictures were showcased in newspapers in the ensuring manhunt, nobody bothered to check those who had already been detained.

Wang Juntao was not as lucky. He was only seventeen years old and in high school at the time. But he led his class into the Square to join the movement and posted two of his own poems. He was put in jail for more than a year. Later, as a national hero, Wang Juntao was anointed as a potential future leader and received much of public fame. But he quickly abandoned them by plunging into even more dissident activities.

The still younger Shen Tong also experienced this movement first hand when his father took him to the Square to read the poems. He was too young, however, to actually comprehend what was going on.

The April Fifth Movement, although brief, laid a solid ground for the expression the public sentiment supporting the reform ideas of Deng Xiaoping. It would only take the death of Mao Zedong half a year later to open the door.

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