Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Book Excerpt: Ending the Hunger Strike

The following excerpt is from my book Standoff at Tiananmen, chapter 10, describing how the hunger strike finally came to an end.

The Hunger Strike Headquarters had expanded to include Feng Congde and Zhang Boli as deputies. It had also become obvious that the commander-in-chief rarely made any decisions of significance herself. Chai Ling delegated it entirely to her trusted deputy Li Lu. Whenever needed, however, she made passionate and inspiring speeches that kept everybody together. In this morning, an audio tape of Zhao Ziyang's speech during his bizarre visit was broadcast over the loudspeakers on top of their bus. A feeling of desperation slowly sank in. The dark shadow of death or permanent body damage was on the horizon.

Rumors were rampant. At Xinhuamen in the afternoon, Wu Renhua was pulled aside by a middle-aged bureaucrat who called his name. Wu Renhua and his fellow teachers and students from the University of Political Science and Law had camped out there for days since they broke off from the main hunger strike camp, effectively shutting down this main entry to Zhongnanhai. The man revealed his identity in confidence and told Wu Renhua that Zhao Ziyang had already been deposed and martial law was imminent in Beijing. Wu Renhua immediately dispatched a trusted student marshal to the Square with this information.

Meanwhile, Zhang Boli was talking with Li Lu when two intellectuals came in for him with urgent news. They literally dragged him across Chang'an Avenue to the Working People's Cultural Palace, a park bordering Tiananmen on the east. There, they told him that martial law would be declared by midnight and it was imperative for the students to call off the hunger strike. There was still hope, they urged, that if the hunger strike was called off, the martial law troops would lose their justification to enter the city.

Zhang Boli had no quarrel with calling off the hunger strike. But it was not his decision to make. So he rushed back and talked to Li Lu first and then found Chai Ling. To Zhang Boli's greatest surprise, both of them agreed instantly to stop the hunger strike. A general meeting of the student parliament was immediately called and commenced in an empty bus. Student marshals were ordered to establish a tight picket line around it. They were ordered not to allow anyone to interrupt this meeting, especially Wuer Kaixi if he showed up.

Inside the bus, the meeting was uncharacteristically brief and smooth. The rumor of looming martial law was not revealed. Chai Ling and Li Lu proposed a decision to stop the hunger strike entirely on humanitarian grounds. With their endorsement and the life-threatening danger, there was not much resistance among the previously aggressive representatives. With 173 of them voting for stopping the hunger strike, 28 against, and 7 abstaining, the decision was made.

Just then, Wuer Kaixi angrily burst onto the bus, followed by doctors and nurses holding intravenous bottles that were attached to him. He had been fighting the student marshals who at the end were no match for his fame and determination. Wuer Kaixi was not at all pleased at being excluded even though he was neither a member of the Headquarters nor a representative from his school. Wuer Kaixi had his way though. As the supreme leader in his Beijing Normal University, he dismissed the representative from his school on the spot and assumed the role himself, notwithstanding the fact that the meeting had already adjourned with a decision made. The new representative Wuer Kaixi insisted on reopening the session with a claim that he had critical information to present. It was then that Wuer Kaixi finally bothered to inquire what the decision was. Upon being told of the end of hunger strike, he raised his hand and meekly said "I agree."

Wuer Kaixi had felt the urge to see Yan Mingfu one more time that afternoon. He sneaked into the United Front Department in an ambulance with his girlfriend Liu Yan. After much cajoling, Yan Mingfu came out to meet him and give him the news of the impending martial law. Sensing the gravity of this development, Wuer Kaixi dispatched Liu Yan to get as many hunger strike leaders at the United Front Department as possible. They would have to talk it over with Yan Mingfu.

Ma Shaofang and Cheng Zhen showed up first. They were immediately overwhelmed by the news. They cried and swore to give up water or set themselves on fire in protest. Yan Mingfu, being the father-figure he was, managed to calm them down. Eventually, Wang Dan, Xiang Xiaoji, Shen Tong, and a few others arrived. Only the leaders in the Hunger Strike Headquarters were missing. Nevertheless, they had a quick meeting and reached a decision to call off the hunger strike.

Yan Mingfu was greatly relieved. He had his office cafeteria prepare a big pot of noodles for the students. Everyone ate despite the fact that their decision to resume eating was neither official nor made public. It was the best meal of their young lives. A gigantic load had just been lifted off their small shoulders. For that moment, the coming martial law did not feel like a big deal. They talked, laughed, snapped pictures, and playfully signed autographs for each other. Wuer Kaixi clumsily knocked down two thermos bottles, causing explosions that amused everyone. Then, they boarded separate vans to head back to Tiananmen Square, where Wuer Kaixi had to fight through student marshals to bring their decision to the parliament meeting.

Now that Chai Ling, Li Lu, Wuer Kaixi, and the student parliament were all in agreement, it was just a matter of announcing the decision to the thousands of hunger strikers. Zheng Yi already had a statement drafted. In the headquarters bus, Chai Ling read it calmly. It was broadcast through their loudspeakers.

The reaction was immediate and chaotic. Loud and angry shouts of "Traitor!" erupted all around. Many converged on the big bus. They pounded and shook it. As Li Lu was trying to calm down the crowd with his microphone, Feng Congde shot into the bus. He had just returned from a hospital and heard about the parliament meeting. He argued that the meeting was not properly called and that there were not enough representatives present to make such a critical decision. So, he called for a meeting of his own. In his hasty but carefully audited meeting, eighty percent of delegates voted against the ending of the hunger strike. Chai Ling, Li Lu, and Zhang Boli were outraged at his unilateral action. They refused to recognize the meeting and its result. A shouting and pushing match ensued in the headquarters bus and a deeply hurt Feng Congde resigned in protest.

Grudgingly, the breaking of the fast became a matter of fact. Li Lu carefully arranged student marshals to take the weakest hunger strikers to hospitals or back to their campuses. Others chose to stay. While slowly taking in food, they decided to continue their occupation of the Square as a massive sit-in. Zhang Boli was ushered, or rather, carried by a two people to the entrance of the Museum of Chinese History. There was a telephone waiting for him. He picked up the phone and identified himself. A voice on the other end informed him that they were the State Council and they were ready to record what he had to say. Zhang Boli read the statement into the phone. He then distributed copies to several reporters from CCTV and People's Daily.

CCTV was unusually efficient this time. At nine o'clock, as the regular news broadcast was in progress, a line of scrolling text appeared at the bottom of the screen: "Students at Tiananmen Square Stop their Hunger Strike."

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