Monday, May 18, 2009

Book Excerpt: Meeting with Li Peng

The following excerpt is from my book Standoff at Tiananmen, chapter 9, describing the impromptu meeting between student leaders and the Premier Li Peng.

Wuer Kaixi was still dressed in a hospital gown and attached to an oxygen bag as his group was ushered into a large conference room inside the Great Hall of People. The room had high ceilings and vast space like a royal palace. A ring of comfortable sofas was placed in the middle of the room surrounded by circles of chairs. End tables with elegant flowers and tea cups stood between the sofas. There were also microphones on each table to facilitate conversation. Strangely, Wuer Kaixi felt somewhat at home. This was the Xinjiang Hall, named after the northwest Uyghur region where he had spent three years of his adolescence. The room was decorated with giant murals depicting the natural beauty of the region and artifacts of the Uyghur heritage. Typically, this room was used by government officials having audiences with selected visitors from the provinces. Today, it was a group of scratchy and starved students with wide eyes. They were entering a scene they had never dreamed of. Awkwardly, they sat down in the sofas on one side of the circle and waited. They did not know what they were waiting for.

After five minutes or so, Premier Li Peng appeared at the entry, along with an entourage of high level officials including Yan Mingfu and Li Tieying. Li Peng was wearing a gray "Mao Suit" and a solemn expression. He walked over to shake hands with each student and tried to make small talk. He was curious about Wang Dan's thick jacket, to which Wang Dan responded that it was cold in the Square at night. Wuer Kaixi's hospital gown also caught his attention. But the premier looked gloomy and uneasy. The only time he managed a half smile was when a student claimed to share the same hometown with him. Finally, he settled into his seat on the other side facing Wuer Kaixi and Wang Dan. He started the meeting by apologizing for being late, explaining that they had been held up by a traffic jam outside. Then he stated that there should be only one item on the agenda for this meeting. That was to stop the hunger strike immediately based on humanitarian principles.

It did not take long for Wuer Kaixi to get impatient. He was upset about Li Peng's apology which implied that the student movement was creating chaos in the streets. As Li Peng went on with a patronizing lecture, Wuer Kaixi cut him off: "Premier Li Peng, I am sorry that I have to interrupt you. Perhaps you thought you were only five minutes late. But I have to say, you are a month late!"

Wuer Kaixi was referring to the time when he led students chanting "Li Peng, Come Out!" outside of Xinhuamen on the evening of April 19. He stated that it was pressure from students that had led Li Peng to this meeting. Therefore, it should be the students who dictated the agenda. He did have a legitimate point. But his emotion was also starting to creep into his delivery.

Wang Dan, who maintained a calmer posture, interjected that the only way to persuade students to stop the hunger strike was to address the two conditions put forward by the student movement, "Not Turmoil, Equal Dialogue."

The rude interruption not withstanding, Wuer Kaixi and Wang Dan apparently started this meeting on a good footing by emphasizing their strengths and issues upfront. Patiently and intently, the premier was listening.

Just then, however, Wuer Kaixi was getting carried away. Without giving the other side a chance to respond, he burst out even more:

"You are much older than we are so I think it is appropriate for me to refer you as Teacher Li. So, Teacher Li, the problem at hand right now is not to convince us who sit here. We also want the students to leave the Square. But the situation at the Square is not one of a minority following the majority, but of 99.9% of the people following 0.01%. That is, if there is one hunger striker who chose not to leave, thousands of others will not leave either."

This was an absurd statement. Not only that he showed disrespect to the premier personally, but he was also misrepresenting his own side. The students at the Square had worked very hard to establish rudimentary democratic procedures. The student parliament led by Li Lu had almost nightly votes on ending the hunger strike, in which ninety percent or so consistently voted for continuing the strike. Wuer Kaixi had not spent enough time at the Square himself to appreciate or perhaps even be aware of these facts. He was painting himself into a corner by representing students as desperate and out of control.

Wang Dan tried to soften the blow. He calmly explained: "After Yan Mingfu's visit to the Square, we had conducted a poll of whether to leave the Square. More than ninety percent of hunger strikers voted not to leave." Sensing that the agenda was going astray, he quickly reaffirmed the two main student demands, "Not Turmoil, Equal Dialogue." If these two conditions were met, he said, they would be able to go to the Square and persuade all of the students to leave.

As other students were invited to express their opinions, Wuer Kaixi urged them to make their points quickly and concretely. But most of them repeated the same sentiments. One student did manage to raise the stakes. With an unusual clarity, Xiong Yan, a student from Peking University who was a member of the Dialogue Delegation, told the officials that it was not entirely up to the government anyway: "No matter whether the government recognizes our movement as patriotic and democratic or not, we believe history will. So, why do we insist on the government recognizing it? That is because it represents the will of the people. The people want to see if the government is still the people's government." Sitting on the other side, the party leader of Peking University could not help but speak up on his students' behalf as well.

Since being interrupted at the start, Premier Li Peng had been sitting quietly with a stone face. It was as if he were waiting for the students to self-destruct, which they did come agonizingly close to doing. After he made sure that all students had had a chance to speak, Li Peng pointedly started with a request that he would not be interrupted.

Perhaps inadvertently, he was immediately interrupted by a student. Li Peng swallowed hard but did not express his displeasure. Instead, he asked his ministers to give the government's response. Li Tieying, Yan Mingfu, and others took their turns with lengthy speeches that toed the party line. Finally, Li Peng spoke again. He emphasized that the only issue he was interested in was getting the hunger strikers off the Square to save their health and lives. Explaining the April 26 People's Daily editorial, he repeated the familiar platitude that they had never blamed the "vast majority" of students as instigating turmoil, which implicitly left the door open for "a small clique."

Then, in a confused attempt to directly address students' two demands, he raised his voice and offered a memorable passage: "We understand your two issues. As the premier and as a Communist Party member, I never hide my own opinions. But I can't express them today. I will find a more appropriate opportunity to express them later. But anyhow I think I have pretty much expressed my opinions anyway."

With that, he appeared to be closing the doors to further discussion. For the last time, he asked the students to stop the hunger strike. Wuer Kaixi, who had been clinging to his oxygen bag and becoming visibly weaker, confronted the premier again. Putting a brave face forward, Wang Dan stressed that, if Premier Li Peng's prospect of turmoil did materialize, it would be the government, not the students, who should be held responsible.

It was Yan Mingfu's job to put the meeting to bed. He told the audience that there was a note from the Square asking for the immediate return of Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi. As soon as he said "This dialogue is now concluded," one of the students rose to protest: "This is not a dialogue. This is just a meeting." Students wanted to set the record straight that their demand for a dialogue had not yet been satisfied. Disinterested in semantics, Yan Mingfu concurred, "Yes, this was only a meeting."

The meeting, not a dialogue, lasted about an hour.

Avoiding eye contact, Li Peng shook hands with each student once again. He appeared impatient and annoyed. Wuer Kaixi had already slumped into his chair and was being attended to by several student nurses. He was suffering from an asthma attack. As everyone was filing out of the room, Wang Chaohua was still holding onto a slim hope. She shouted across the room to Yan Mingfu: "Please give me another hour, we might still be able to persuade the students to withdraw." Yan Mingfu walked away without acknowledging her. It was too little, too late.

The students walked out of the Great Hall of People on their own and informed other leaders that their talk had broken up because of Li Peng's stubbornness. Nobody was surprised. But now everyone was extremely depressed. There appeared to be no more possibility of a peaceful resolution.

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