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© 1995, Long Bow Group Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Major funding for this program was provided by
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The Ford Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation.
Produced in association with the Independent Television Service (ITVS).
The Gate of Heavenly Peace
The Gate of Heavenly Peace
Few students were ready simply to go back to class.
But what should they do next?
The triumph of April 27 would be the last moment in which all
parties working for change were united.
The euphoria soon began to fade and disagreements over tactics
What a student movement represents is a call for social
justice. There are times when we have no choice but to take to
the streets to express our ideas, vent our anger, and show our
determination to change things. April 27th was such a time. The
students did a great job, and the government was forced to change
its usual behavior. But our ultimate goal is to change the entire
system. This cannot be accomplished by students staying in the
The students demanded that the government grant legal status
to their new organization, the Coalition of Independent Student
Unions, and talk with them as equals.
They wanted duihua, dialogue.
One of the most important demands raised by the students was
for the government to have a dialogue with them. Where did the
idea of dialogue come from? Actually, Zhao Ziyang was the first
to promote it.
He said government leaders should engage in dialogue with
ordinary people. The Party hard-liners opposed this from the
start: "It's absurd!" they said. "The Party and the People are
one family, how can a family negotiate with itself? You're trying
to imitate the West!"
They wouldn't even let us use the word
Duihua, dialogue, was a key part of the reformers' strategy to open up
the political system. It was aimed at making officials at all
levels more responsive to popular opinion.
The head of the Party, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, was a
leading advocate of these reforms. At the 1987 Party Congress,
Zhao was finally able to get the principle of dialogue adopted as
But to have the entrenched party bureaucracy to behave in new
ways was another matter.
On April 29, the government held a meeting with
representatives of the official student union of Beijing. Only a
few of the new activists managed to get in.
Yuan Mu was the government spokesman. His was not the new,
more open face that Zhao Ziyang wanted. He spoke with the voice
of standard Party authoritarianism.
And he did most of the talking.
The Independent Student Union called this meeting a fraud.
Surrounded by the media, the student leaders made the rounds
of government offices to present their conditions for further
Reporters, please don't create chaos. Please be
At one government bureau, a group from the countryside was
trying to get their grievances heard.
Grassroots democracy hadn't reached their village. So they
were doing what they'd always done: kneeling before the offices
of the central government, to beg for official intervention in
their local problems.
They were having little luck getting anyone to listen.
The students said that unless the government accepted their
preconditions for dialogue, they would march again.
YUAN MU PRESS CONFERENCE
Their petition says right here, "We absolutely refuse to
allow the existing student unions to organize dialogue with the
government." Instead, they insist that the so-called Coalition
of Independent Student Unions, which was formed during the
demonstrations without any legal procedures, should be the
group which organizes the talks.
Some student activists were trying to institute elections.
And they were getting support on campus.
LI WEI, chairing election meeting
Since the government keeps stressing the issue of legality,
we should elect a legitimate body to represent us in talks with
Through elections on many campuses, a Student Dialogue Group
The students now changed their tactics. Rather than demanding
official recognition as a precondition for dialogue, they were
willing to talk right away, and they wanted to talk about their
XIANG XIAOJI - Coordinator of Dialogue Group
The aim of dialogue was not to solve everything at once. We
wanted to establish some ground rules, open up some channels for
communication, so that whenever problems arose, there'd be ways
of resolving them. We wanted to lay some foundations for the
future; we wanted to make a good start.
What we were hoping for was gradual progress, reform, not
cataclysmic change, not revolution. Because, honestly, in 1989
the situation wasn't so bad that people felt they needed a
A new path seemed to be opening up, a path leading away from
the confrontational politics that had dominated China for
decades. The path China had, long ago, failed to take.
OFFICIAL MAY 4 CELEBRATION
On May 4 China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the
demonstrations of 1919, when patriotic students had first
protested against an unresponsive government.
There were two celebrations on that day: the
government-sponsored commemorations at the monument...
and a mass student march from the university district to
The students sang a patriotic song from the 1930's.
Today we are blossoming,
Tomorrow we will be pillars of society.
Today we are singing together,
Tomorrow we will rise in a powerful wave
to defend our country.
Fellow students, be strong,
Shoulder the fate of our nation.
In official Communist Party history, the student protests of
1919 were but a prelude to the Party's revolutionary makeover of
But in fact many of the leading voices of the May 4th era
spoke not for revolution but for democratic reform. After their
days of street protest, many students went back to school, took
up various professions and continued to work for social change.
Those who saw no hope for reform joined the Communist Party to
fight for an ideal society. Over the decades, the voices
championing gradual change were either stifled by conservative
power-holders or drowned out by cries for revolution.
By marching into Tiananmen Square, the students of 1989 were
saying to the Party: We are the true inheritors of the democratic
legacy of the May 4th Movement.
But the May 4th spirit they were most familiar with was the
one the Party had taught them.
In the value system of the Communist Party, revolution is
placed at the top. So comrades are called revolutionary comrades,
couples revolutionary couples, and families revolutionary
families. Everything is revolutionary. Reform is not a good word
in Communist vocabulary.
What we were trying to do was to introduce the idea of
incremental change to the people of China. We were trying to tell
them that reform was not a bad thing, and that revolution often
failed to deliver its promise.
Once again, the government had not suppressed the march. In
fact, the leaders at the top were deeply divided on how to deal
with the protesters.
On the very day of the May 4th anniversary, Party Secretary
General Zhao Ziyang made a speech that departed surprisingly from
the hard-line April 26th editorial. In a nationally televised
meeting with foreign bankers, Zhao told his audience that there
was no serious turmoil in China.
Duihua, dialogue, Zhao said, was the solution to the present tension.
The students now debated: should they go back to class and
show support for this conciliatory attitude?
Or did Zhao Ziyang's remarks indicate deep rifts in the
central government that must be exploited by pushing harder,
Many students went back to class.
On May 8th, several leaders of the independent student union
of my university came to see me. They complained about the
students who had returned to class, and said they wanted to
blockade the classrooms.
I said: "I thought you were demanding democracy. A basic
principle of democracy is the right of individual choice. If you
deprive others of their choice, how is that different from the
way the communist party has always deprived you of your choice?"
It had not even occurred to them that there was a problem.
They couldn't come up with any good arguments in response, but
they still felt uncomfortable. They said, "Then how can we get
anything done?" In China everything has always been handled this
way: only by preventing others from doing what they want can you
accomplish what you want.
The movement at Beijing University also reached a low point.
More and more students returned to class. A lot of energy was
wasted debating whether we should go back to class or not. I felt
At that time I thought we should resume classes, because I
felt a stalemate like this wouldn't necessarily get us anywhere.
And the students were pretty tired.
On May 10th, Wang Dan gave an interview to a Canadian
WANG DAN, interview by Canadian TV - May 10, 1989
I think that the student movement should move on to a new
stage. No more large-scale, intense street action, no more
boycotting classes. Instead, we need down-to-earth work to
build democracy on campus: the legalization of student
organizations, independent student newspapers and radio
stations. This work might not look all that grand or glamorous,
but it's extremely important.
And yet, over the heads of the prominent student leaders still
hung the People's Daily editorial of April 26, the shadow of
dongluan. That threat cut off any impulse toward moderation.
CHAI LING leads chanting before the office of the People's Daily
Full of nonsense!
Lying to the people!
Where's your conscience?
You may think you're safe!
But your time will come!
When the time is here!
The people will have their day!
Once we were chatting. I said, "How many years do political
offenders get?" Someone said it used to be three years, then it
was increased to five years, then seven and then seventeen years.
I felt very sad. If I got seventeen years, I'd be forty by the
time I got out. I really didn't want that to happen.
On May 11th, six of us discussed the situation. We had placed
a lot of hope on talks with the government. But they kept putting
it off. We feared that the movement would run out of momentum.
Then the government would have been able to arrest the student
leaders one by one and disband the independent unions.
So it was necessary to escalate the movement, to use more
radical methods and apply more pressure to force the government
to concede to our demands. Since demonstrations and sit-down
strikes no longer bothered the government we felt the next step
should be a hunger strike.