Written by Diane Gatterdam
Twenty-one years ago on this day Friday May 19th 1989, at 4:00 am in the morning, Zhao Ziyang, who for so many years had faithfully followed the dictates of the Party decided to break Party discipline, and what turned out to be his last public appearance before he was put under house arrest, came out on the Square to talk with the students.
Without permission from either the Poliburo or Deng, left for the Square. He was so fatigued from the previous day that when he finally got there, he hardly seemed to know what to do.
As he stepped from his chauffeur-driven car, his face was as gray as his Mao suit.
To his annoyance he realized that he had been followed by Li Peng, whose appearance in the Square seemed ridiculous as Li was so thoroughly despised by the students.
With Li behind him like a shadow, Zhao walked toward the fleet of city buses in which the hunger strikers were living.
Students groggily sat up to see what the commotion was and realized that Party’s General Secretary and the Premier were outside, some assumed that the government had at last yielded to their demands, and began applauding and reaching out the window to shake Zhao hand.
Zhao boarded the trash-strewn bus and started to talk with the students. Awkwardly, Li also tried to make small talk with the students, but sensing how unwelcome he was, or fearful that he would be compromised on camera by a breach of Party discipline, he mysteriously departed after only a few minutes.
Moving to the doorway of the bus as crowds of excited students gathered around, Zhao began to speak through a small orange-colored battery powered bullhorn.
“I just want to say a few words to you students, I have come too late.” Too late, he said as tears welled up in his eyes.
“But you have finally come,” said one student.
“I am sorry, fellow students, I don’t come to ask you to excuse us. All I want to say is that because your fast has entered the 7th day, students are now physically very week, and this situation simply cannot go on.”
As Zhao spoke, a video cameraman caught the faces of the several headbanded hunger strikers around him.
Like Zhao, their faces looked gray, their eyes were hooded with exhaustion and lips chapped from lack of sleep.
“I know your fasting is aimed at winning satisfactory answers to the demand you have put forward to the government and the Party. I think that satisfactory answers are obtainable. You should understand however, that resolution of such problems is complicated, and more time is needed. But since you hunger strike reaching the 7th day, you must not persist.”
He made one more appeal for them to leave the Square.
“I know that you comrades all have the best of intentions to do something beneficial for the country, but if this strike continues and get out of control, the consequences could be very serious.”
It was obvious that Zhao knew this was his final farewell. His tone was made desperate by his awareness that whatever happened to him, if the student did not relent, they would soon confront troops.
“Are you going to give up you lives?” he finally asked, “please think about this in a rational way.”
The students crowed around him asking him to sign notebooks, umbrellas, t-shirts, what ever they had.
This appearance in the Square won him popular sympathy, but it was clear that this trip ended any chance he still had of surviving with the Party leadership.
Beijing woke up to see Zhao’s appearance in the Square with the students on TV.
Rumors swept through the capital that troops that were on the outskirts of the city would move in.
Not only were the student and the intellectuals in a state of rebellion but that day Han Dongfang and the Beijing Autonomous Worker’s Federation (BAWF) called for a general strike.
A report was sent to Zhongnanhai from the Railway Ministry that a total of 56,888 students had entered the city on 165 trains between May 16th and May 19th, most of them demanding rides without tickets. Some students blocked the tracks in Wuhan and Fuzhou.
Shen Tong, Wu’er Kaixi, Wang Dan, Xiang Xiaoji and Wang Chaohua were summoned to the United Front Department. When they got there was a nice meal and it was almost a party atmosphere very relaxed.
For the first time in weeks, many of the students in the room were well fed and reclining on comfortable sofas, and Wu’er Kaixi was making everyone laugh.
The students decided that they had to end the fast and so they went back to the square where they looked for Chai Ling.
Chai Ling would only come out of the bus after a meeting began to discuss how they would tell the student they were ending the strike.
She immediately got into a heated argument with Wu’er Kaixi, she was upset about who would announce this news and while they were arguing, Wang Chaohua and Shen Tong walked to the broadcast station at the monument and made the announcement.
The students in the leadership command bus were not happy about this.
It was past 9:00 pm when Chai Ling called a press conference and announced that the hunger strike was ending and becoming a peaceful sit-in.
Her husband Feng Congde was hysterical when he heard the hunger strike was ending and he and Chai Ling got into a huge fight and had to be pulled apart by Li Lu.
That night Li Lu also spotted his girlfriend from Nanjing, Zhao Ming who came to find him.
Although the citizens of Beijing did not know it, at dusk on the evening of May 19th an extraordinary joint meeting of officials from the Central Committee, the State Council, the Beijing Municipal Government and key military commanders was convened in the cloistered confines of the Beijing Military Region headquarters.
With the exception of Zhao Ziyang, every high-ranking Party, government and military leader was there.
When their deliberation finally ended around 10:00 pm, loudspeakers in the Square crackled to life, and the shrill vice of Li Peng reverberated out to the fasting students.
At the same time, the regular television programming was interrupted and a grim-faced Li flickered onto Beijing screens.
“Comrades, anarchy is becoming more and more serious, law and discipline is being violated” he began.
“If we do not promptly bring this standoff to an end and instead just let things go on a situation that no one wants to see develop will very likely emerge.”
Shaking his fist in the air, Li asserted, “It’s becoming clearer and clearer that an extremely small handful of people want to achieve their political goal of negating the socialist system. Undermining the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, overthrowing the government and totally negating the people’s democratic dictatorship through turmoil.
If they should achieve their goals, reform and the open door policy, our democratic legal system and socialist modernization will go up in smoke, and China will undergo a historical reversal.”
“As a result”, said Li, “the government has decided to take decisive and firm measures in order to put a swift end to the turmoil, to protect the leadership of the Party, and to protect the socialist system.”
The crowd in the Square went berserk! People started waving their fists shouting “Down with Li Peng”
The students started puncturing the tires on all of the buses and removing the steering wheels so the army could not come and drive them out.
(THE NEXT MORNING MAY 20TH BEIJING WAS PUT UNDER MARTIAL LAW!)
On the evening of May 19th as troops in the suburbs began moving in, groups of hundreds of people on motorcycles calling themselves the “Flying Tigers” sped around Beijing sounding the alarm.
Given the absence of a real communications network, their warnings were crucial in turning out tens of thousands of people of all ages, and from all walks of life to block major arteries leading into the Square.
Some observers estimate that by dawn on the May 20th as many as 2 million citizens had taken to the streets……
You can see the Video of Zhai Ziyang speaking to the students in the Square here: