Wednesday, May 13, 2009

This Day in 1989: May13, Hunger Strike Launches

On May 13, 1989, around a hundred or so students marched into Tiananmen Square and started their hunger strike. They were accompanied by an equal number of student marshals who would protect and serve them. In existing personal memoirs and recollections, there were conflicting descriptions of this entry. Some recalled that they were cheered by enthusiastic crowd, others depicted a quiet scene in which they were ignored.

The latter was more likely to be true. At this point of time, the student movement was still in its "low-tide" stage and most thought it was already over. It was a surprise when Chai Ling was able to inspire many students to join her hunger strike. At noon that day, students at Peking University, where the most hunger strikers came from, had an emotional send-off for their "warriors." But outside of the campus, there was hardly any knowledge of the new development.

The hunger strikers themselves were not prepared. They arrived most in their summer clothes without overnight supplies. They had hoped that their action would trigger an immediate response from the government and be over with in a day or so.

Feng Congde was not persuaded by his wife Chai Ling into joining the hunger strike. He did not agree with the tactic. On this day, he went to the Soviet embassy to deliver an invitation to Mikhail Gorbachev to visit his school. Then he rode his bicycle to Tiananmen Square on his own, where he saw that the crowd of hunger strikers were not able to attract any real attention in the vastness of the Square. He went on to purchase cloths and paint and would spend the entire night to make a giant flag for the hunger strikers.

It was Yan Mingfu, a bureaucrat heading the so-called United Front Office of the Chinese Communist Party, who reached out to the students, apparently out of his own initiative. He took upon himself to find a way to end the hunger strike ahead of Gorbachev's state visit. In a matter of hours, he gathered independent intellectuals such as Wang Juntao along with most of the student leaders in his office for an informal contact. Students pushed for a formal dialogue but Yan Mingfu was not yet ready to give in.

Yan Mingfu did get close to persuade the students from calling off the hunger strike that night. Wang Dan, Wuer Kaixi and others were convinced by his sincerity and reasoning. But by that time Chai Ling, who was fast emerging as the new leader, had left the office and the rest of them were not able to make a formal decision on their own.

Days of 1989

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