Written by Diane Gatterdam
Twenty-three years ago on this day, April 17th 1989, student mourning activities began to get much larger, spreading from the Beijing campuses into the nation’s symbolic central space, Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest space of it’s kind. Beginning with the May Fourth Movement in 1919, Tiananmen had always been the traditional site for protests.
Party Central and the State Council then ordered the Public Security and State Security Ministries to keep close watch on the students.
According to reports, on the afternoon of April 17 some six hundred students and young faculty from the Chinese University of Political Science and Law entered the Square with mourning banners and wreaths. They shouted slogans in favor of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.
More than ten thousand student marchers and onlookers gathered, staying until 4 P.M. Six students from CUPSL placed a flower wreath at the foot of the Monument to the People’s Heroes.
Groups of students from other Beijing universities also conducted mourning activities, and by 5 P.M. some nine wreaths marked with the names of institutions of higher education had been placed near the monument.
Meanwhile, a column of about a thousand marchers had set out from Peking University (als known as Beida). They were joined by an additional two thousand or so from other universities along the route. Significantly, the column included nine cars registered to foreign embassies, with embassy officials and foreign reporters mixing with and talking to the marchers.
About 4:30 A.M. the column entered the Square, unfurling a banner of mourning for Hu on the monument and setting wreaths. A student speaking from the monument said the students were self-organized, had nothing to do with the officially sponsored student organization, and had elected representatives to negotiate with the government. He said the students were demanding, among other things, that the government apologize for having made mistakes in policy.
Prompted by other students, he added that the students demanded freedom of the press and of speech, democratic elections, and greater transparency in government. All this was now being recorded by foreign reporters.
In the early evening a crowd of two to three thousand gathered in front of the monument and heard spontaneous speeches and readings of poems praising Hu. The group included Beijing residents, people from out of town, and foreigners. At 9:10 P.M. a foreign TV reporter recorded an interview with a citizen from outside Beijing who said that students from his town would follow the example of Beijing’s students in taking to the streets.
Similar protests were reported to be happening in many of China’s provinces including, Shanghai, Tianjin, Nanjing, Xi’an and Hunan.
By dawn the next morning there were still two or three hundred people at the monument, and they showed no signs of dispersing.
Eyewitness account from Tiananmen Square April 17th 1989:
We all knew that a major political event would trigger demonstrations, which would snowball quickly into a nationwide movement. 1989 was a year of significant anniversaries:
-10th Anniversary of the Beijing Democracy Wall
-40th Anniversary of the founding of the Peoples Republic of China
-70th Anniversary of the May 4th Movement
-Bicentennial of the French Revolution
If we missed this year, we knew we that we might have to wait a long time. All of us waited anxiously for an opportunity to come.
When I first heard that Hu had died, I couldn’t believe my ears. I called several newspapers, but none of them could confirm the news. When I finally did confirm it, I was very happy, not that he had died, but that our opportunity had arrived.
Shen Tong -Student leader and hero