Written by Diane Gatterdam
Twenty-three years ago on this day Saturday April 22nd 1989, more than 100,000 students and many others filled Tiananmen Square for the funeral of Hu Yaobang scheduled to start at 10:00 am.
Police had planed to close the square at 5am, but were to late and there was nothing they could do but cordon off the entrance to the Great Hall of the people.
Shortly before 10:00am Deng Xiaoping slipped in through a back entrance to the Great Hall wanting to avoid the indignity of entering in full view of so many protesters. He was greeted by Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng.
Just before 10:00 outdoor loudspeakers were turned on so that everyone in the square could hear the ceremony inside which was also being broadcast nation wide on CCTV.
The mood inside the hall was in stark contrast to the youthful exuberance outside. Standing in front of Hu’s Chinese flagged draped body under a crystal sarcophagus was a sea of doddering old party leaders in dark Mao suits.
Zhao Ziyang gave a long lugubrious and very carefully worded eulogy which, not surprisingly, made no mention of Hu’s ouster in 1987 or did it take into account the students’ demands.
Although TV cameras broadcast no images of the crowds outside, in the hall they could hear the distant roar of the crowd and some sympathetic insiders peeked out windows though the curtains to get a glimpse of the turmoil on the square.
By the time the ceremony ended the singing and chanting outside had risen to a steady roar. With Wu’er Kaixi as leader, demonstrators began chanting “ Dialogue! Dialogue! Dialogue!” and “Li Peng come out! Li Peng come out!”
All the leaders left the ceremony by the back door.
By 1:30 pm, when they had not received any response from leaders, three student representatives walked up the steps of the Great Hall of the People and after falling on their knees, one student held a scroll over his head, begging Li Peng to come out and accept it. The scroll contained the 7 demands of the students.
For 45 minutes these three students remained in this position.
This position is reminiscent of imperial underlings prostrating themselves before the Emperor. By resorting to this archaic form of petitioning, they were implying that China’s leaders were actually no different from the autocratic feudal Emperor’s of the past.
Of course Li Peng never emerged.
As the three students finally descended the steps some bystanders burst into tears saying, “This is a tragic country”.
“Fellow students who participated in this April 22nd protest will be unable to forget this scene,” read a wall poster at Beida shortly after the funeral. “They sacrificed their own self- respect and human dignity to fulfil this mission entrusted to them by ten’s of thousands of students.”
The most tragic part of the government’s refusal to respond decisively to the demands of the students was that they missed a critical opportunity to defuse the confrontation; even a modest concession might have quelled the demonstrators.
Their non-action now assured that the standoff with the protesters would escalate.
No one really knew how much it would spiral out of control…