23 Year Remembrance of Tiananmen Square – May 15th 1989, Beijing China

Written by Diane Gatterdam



Twenty-three years ago on this day Monday May 15th 1989, the dramatic Sino-Soviet reconciliation was scheduled to begin with a grand ceremony in Tiananmen Square at 4:00 PM. Gorbachev was to be greeted by a Chinese honor guard and a twenty-one –gun salute, then to lay a wreath at the foot of the Monument of Hero’s.


As the sun rose on the square, Li Lu returned to Tiananmen after all night trips to the hospital getting supplies and saline water for the hunger strikers.

The square seemed relatively empty compared to when he left. He found Chai Ling who was in despair at being deceived by the government again. After hearing that the government was going to send in police to clear the square by 8:00 am, the majority of the student delegates decided to remain on the square and Wu’er Kaixi asked the hunger strikers to move to the east side of the square as a compromise with the government.


“I wonder what had happened? I discovered that most of our people had moved to the east of the monument, about a thousand people lying on the ground. They looked numb. There was no hope in their eyes, only despair. It was very cold, yet they were firm awaiting death.”
-Li Lu

Chai Ling went over to the broadcasting station and took the microphone:


Chai Ling

“My name is Chai Ling. I am a graduate student of the department of psychology at Beijing Normal University. I wrote the manifesto for the hunger strike. I declared we would fight to the end with our lives.

I will accept death if necessary, but I will not take defeat lying down.

The hunger strike has been going on for two days. Many of the students have fainted. But the government has shown no sincerity, no compassion. They do not care if the students just die like this, one by one.

The doctors said three days is the limit. I cannot just wait for so many young lives to disappear.

If you are doomed to death, I will be the first one to walk to death. If my life can save all of us here, I will not hesitate to set fire to myself in order to save the rest of us.


Now, if I am to be effective, if we are not to die in vain, we must set up a formal headquarters for the hunger strike, to co-ordinate our efforts and protect ourselves.

I offer myself to be the first commander, and make Li Lu deputy commander.”

My qualification is to pledge to achieve our goals and protect you with my life.”

People responded with tears and applause.


Chai Ling then said the students needed to prepare for a prolonged struggle

They needed to form picket lines and medical teams. Most important they needed to organize the students.

Each collage then organized one representative to speak for them and a meeting was set up immediately. They voted on various proposals and priorities.


Shen Tong was worried that if the students didn’t leave the square they would be in grave danger.

“I knew that my worst fears had come true when at 11:30 there was still no sign of Gorbachev, we had disrupted the first Sino-Soviet summit in 30 years.”
– Shen Tong

On his way back to Beida, Shen stopped at his parent’s house, which was close to the square, and on the news was the welcoming ceremony for Gorbachev that had taken place at the airport instead of Tiananmen.



When Gorbachev and his wife stepped off the plain, they were greeted by an apologetic Yang Shangkun and Party officials and given flowers by grade-school children.



The news footage showed the limo’s coming into the city via the Third Ring Road – not the usual route for diplomatic VIP’s. He was then taken into the Great Hall by a back entrance.


What was to be a very formal ceremony in Tiananmen was a shabby greeting at the Beijing Airport for the President of Russia.

The first meeting between Soviet and Chinese leaders since 1949 was up-staged by the students. The Chinese Government’s loss of face must have been very hard to take.

At noon hundreds of thousands of people poured into the square along with a thousand teachers from Beijing University to support the students.


Ambulances were waiting and ready as many students now where fainting and had to be taken away to hospitals.

Many students were holding banners that said: “Welcome Mr. Gorbachev the Great Reformer.”



Eyewitness account:

“I watched as one father bathed his daughter’s face with a damp cloth and fed her broth from a thermos bottle, all the while begging her to return home.

She steadfastly refused to go, and eventually her father departed in tears.

He was so overcome with emotion that as he walked away, he dropped his thermos bottle. Helping him pick it up, I tried to console him, only to find that he was weeping not because he failed to convince his daughter to abandon her fast, but because he felt so proud of her determination to risk her life for the sake of her country.


My generation never dared to speak out, much less to act out what we really believed, he told me, half sobbing, half laughing. Now my daughter is doing it for me. How can I not thank her?”
-Orvelle Schell

Everywhere around the city you could see the characters – Shengyuan – (support) inscribed on homemade placards, banners, headbands, and clothing.

Ordinary workers brought cartloads of drinks as testament of their support. Private vendors contributed free sun visors and umbrellas from their stands. Peasants bicycled in from the countryside with steamed buns.

The paradox was that even as the events in the Square filled so many ordinary people with a sense of pride and optimism, they humiliated Deng and the hard-line Party leaders making them more inflexible and the impasse more adamant and dangerous that ever.



After two days and two nights of the hunger strike, nearly 100 students had fainted and been taken to hospitals and one Beijing Normal student was dissuaded from immolation himself.


Almost all of the foreign press focused on the events in the Square and spelled a major victory for the students.


Yan Jiaqi (Chinese dissident) signed a petition calling for the release from prison of Wei Jingsheng. He was also quoted by foreign journalist as saying:

“The winds of democratization blowing from Moscow would be irresistible in China.”

Yang Shangkin in his formal meeting with Gorbachev later that day emphasized the leadership’s determination to move forward with reform.

Since reform meant change, and there was no fixed blueprint, mistakes were expected.

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