Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Book Excerpt: Hunger Strike Decision

The following excerpt is from my book Standoff at Tiananmen, chapter 7, describing how the students reached the decision to launch a hunger strike.

On the same day as Shen Tong made his speech at The Triangle, a Big Poster showed up there. Signed by "a few graduate students," it called for an immediate hunger strike. It did not provide specific rationale for the proposal but it mentioned that the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was coming for a state visit within a week. So, it would be a good time to stage a protest at Tiananmen Square for the biggest impact.

The idea of a hunger strike was, of course, nothing new. Within every student movement in the past, the cry of "Hunger Strike" had always been heard, together with "Protest," "March," "Boycott Class," etc. But it had always been more of a menacing outburst than a serious proposal. Yet, this time it felt different.

More than a week earlier, the famous author Zheng Yi had found himself with a roomful of young, exhausted, and angry students who had just returned from Hu Yaobang's funeral. Having failed his earlier attempt in calling for a hunger strike at Xinhuamen, Zheng Yi found this audience, which included Wang Dan, Guo Haifeng, and other active student organizers, more receptive to his ideas. With a flare of drama from a seasoned writer, Zheng Yi laid out his personal experience during the Cultural Revolution: "Hunger strike is the most powerful and tested weapon in a mass movement." He advised the younger generation, "Should the government impose martial law, should they disallow Big Posters and demonstrations, you could immediately declare a hunger strike." He painted a vivid picture of how a hunger strike would develop: "As soon as there are dozens of people declaring a hunger strike, there will be hundreds joining in to support. Thousands will gather and watch. There will be donations and great attention paid to hunger strikers' petitions. In twenty four hours, the weaker ones will start to faint. Within forty eight hours, many will collapse. Seventy-two hours will be a critical juncture, there will be ambulances taking strikers to hospitals every minute. The shuttling ambulances will be the most dramatic scene in the city. The whole society will erupt!"

Zheng Yi did not say anything about what would happen after the seventy-two hour limit. The strikes he had experienced were resolved within that time frame. It did not occur to the students to ask that question either. They were the new generation, the best and the brightest, and the future of the nation. There could be no way for the government to allow a hunger strike to go past seventy two hours, when their health could be seriously compromised. Surely a dialogue would have commenced by then. Besides, there was an international law that required a government to intervene in a public hunger strike within seventy-two hours, or the government would be considered illegitimate.

The student leaders were excited about the possibilities. But, at the time, they were not fully convinced that the situation had warranted such a dramatic tactic. It should be attempted only as a last resort.

Three weeks had passed since that night. Their patience started to run short. At Beijing Normal University, Wuer Kaixi had also been talking about a hunger strike as early as May 8 to give the stalled movement a new push.

Liu Gang had been having the nagging feeling that he had overstayed his welcome in Beijing Students Autonomous Federation, the organization he had founded almost single-handedly. As a non-student, he knew his presence was awkward. So he stayed behind the scenes as much as possible and worked hard in providing logistical support for the endless meetings. When he needed to advance an idea, he relied on friendly delegates as surrogates. But more and more, he felt that his words, along with his presence, were being ignored. On the eve of the April 27 demonstration, he had strongly advised students to stay inside their campuses. The huge success thereafter, in the eyes of exuberant student leaders, had proved his conservative attitude wrong. The movement, although only weeks old, was slipping out of his grasp.

As the idea of a hunger strike was gaining traction, Liu Gang made a strong case to stop it. The Federation agreed with him this time. But the debate got so heated that it deteriorated into a shouting match. Ma Shaofang, who had come back from his earlier resignation, pounded on tables and claimed that he had confirmed intelligence that the "reform wing" in the government was hoping for an escalation of the student movement. A hunger strike should help the reformers at the top to gain the upper hand. He was not convincing enough. Wang Chaohua cautioned that they should not base their decisions on unfounded rumors. With a vote, the Federation reached a resolution that, based on the government's softened attitude toward the Dialogue Delegation, they would not organize any large-scale event in the near future. Rather, it instructed schools to follow the guideline of "denouncing the April 26 People's Daily editorial and supporting Zhao Ziyang's May Fourth speech."

The idea of a large-scale hunger strike, however, was too tempting for some to pass on. Right after the Federation meeting, Wuer Kaixi, Wang Dan, Ma Shaofang, along with several other delegates, went along for dinner at a little restaurant near Peking University. Over the meal and after much persuasion, they made their own decision to go ahead with a hunger strike. They would launch and lead it as individuals unaffiliated with Beijing Students Autonomous Federation. The federation, they were sure, would have to come around once they had the momentum going.

They were not alone. That same evening, Chai Ling reached the same conclusion on her own. She came to see her husband Feng Congde in a very excited mood. She could not stop talking about a chat she had with Zhang Boli and his classmates in the "authors class." They had mapped out a strategy to pursue a hunger strike. With a mischievous smile, she said that they planned to sneak in bread and chocolate once they got started. It was, after all, just a show to pressure the government. It was not that serious of a deal.

Chai Ling had already left Peking University a year earlier and was now a graduate student in psychology at Beijing Normal University. But living with her husband, she continued to spend most of her time at Peking University rather than her new school. Both of them got involved in the Preparatory Committee early on. Although not a central figure herself, Chai Ling had been in charge of the organization's secretarial work.

In the early morning of May 12, Wang Dan found Chai Ling at Peking University and they immediately joined forces on the hunger strike. But the Preparatory Committee, the leadership in the school, was not on board. Just as Beijing Students Autonomous Federation, the committee had decided several days earlier that it was not time for hunger strike. However, the committee did not want to, and could not, stand in the way of Wang Dan and Chai Ling as they were taking the initiatives on their own.

Wang Chaohua, on the other hand, was furious when she found that Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi, the public faces of Beijing Students Autonomous Federation, had signed on to a hunger strike as individuals despite the resolution they had passed. Yet she was also keenly aware of the predicament she was in. If a hunger strike did take place and her Federation chose to oppose it publicly, it might be the end of the Federation itself as a student leadership organization. With great reservations, she agreed to organize student marshals to protect the hunger strikers per their request. Without a strong picket line, the dozens of hunger strikers could be easily hustled away by police.

Wang Chaohua still had hopes for personal persuasion. She thought she could talk some sense into the hunger strikers. But it was Chai Ling who sought her out first to question the Federation's stand. Their conversation turned sour immediately. Chai Ling spoke emotionally and made it abundantly clear that the hunger strike would go ahead with or without the Federation's support. A strong sense of helplessness submerged Wang Chaohua.

The hunger strikers decided to formally launch their action in Tiananmen Square the next day, two days before the scheduled visit of Mikhail Gorbachev. It should give the government enough time to respond. The stakes would be too high for the government not to.

The Soviet Union and China, two giants in the communist block, famously broke up their brotherly alliance amid an ugly spat of verbal barrages, accusations, and ideological confrontations. It culminated in a long freeze interrupted only by small-scale border battles between the two armies. It was only after Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika and Deng Xiaoping's reform in their respective countries that they found a reconciliation possible and necessary. It would be the first summit of these neighbors in forty years to normalize the relationships between the two communist parties and the two nations. It had been billed as one of the crown jewels in Deng Xiaoping's reform.

The public enthusiasm for the hunger strike was however less than anticipated even at Peking University, the hot spot of the movement. During the day, only forty students signed up. Other campuses fared much worse, as their numbers failed to reach double digits. By dusk, hundreds of students crowded The Triangle as usual. They were debating the merits of a hunger strike and the opposing voices appeared to prevail. Above all, nobody was able to come up with a solid reason for this desperate action.

As darkness fell, Chai Ling got hold of the microphone. It was the very first time she gave a public speech. Her voice was low but determined. Her flow was frequently interrupted by emotional chokes and tears. The spontaneous speech jumped randomly from one train of thought to another. Yet somehow it was a gripping voice that demanded everyone's full attention. As she went on, The Triangle, always a rowdy locale, fell into a silence it had never experienced before.

Chai Ling started with her own personal story. Like many other students, she had plans to go abroad to study and was feeling a deep sense of guilt and confusion. She was not sure if going abroad at this time of the student movement could constitute a traitorous act. On the other hand, she could not decide if it was worthwhile to stay in China either. Seemingly getting carried away by her personal struggle, she framed the hunger strike as her last ditch effort to see if China, as a country, still had any hope at all:

For several years, we have had student movement after student movement, but we got nothing. Why? We ask for democracy and freedom from the government. But why could we never get it? We chant "Long Live the People" all the time. But why do people always run away when the police come? We chant "Police Love People" all the time. But why do police always beat us up? Why should we go on a hunger strike? Because we want to use this method, the only freedom we have left, to see the true face of our country and the true face of our people. I want to see if this country is worth our sacrifice and contribution.

We are fortunate to have parents who raised us to become college students. But it is time for us to stop eating. The government has time and again lied to us, ignored us. We only want the government to talk with us and to say that we are not traitors. We, the children, are ready to die. We, the children, are ready to use our lives to pursue the truth. We, the children, are ready to sacrifice ourselves.

We want to fight to live. We want to fight to live with the resolve of death.
Upstairs in his room, Shen Tong had turned off the lights and tried to catch some sleep after a long day at the media center. As he lay in darkness, Chai Ling's voice, out of the loudspeakers just outside of his window, penetrated his ears and into his heart. As the co-leader of the Dialogue Delegation, Shen Tong was against the hunger strike and had argued with Chai Ling during the day. But this night, Chai Ling's voice hit him hard. He found tears rushing out of his eyes, the first time he had cried during the movement. He could not stay in bed any longer. He rushed downstairs. He wanted to get closer to Chai Ling but an equally emotional crowd was in his way.

Indeed, most in the crowd were crying, including grown up teachers and graduate students. Among them was a writer by the name of Bai Meng from the "authors class". With tears streaming down his face, Bai Meng rushed out of the campus and bought dumplings for Chai Ling. He made Chai Ling write down her spontaneous speech as much as she could remember. Bai Meng would spend the whole night polishing it off. An "official" Hunger Strike Manifesto was thus born. Meanwhile, the tally of hunger strikers swelled past a hundred. It was a sleepless night for many students.

Two hours past midnight, Xiang Xiaoji, Shen Tong and other Dialogue Delegation members were simultaneously and quietly informed that the government was now ready to have a dialogue with them, six days after their petition.

No comments: