Fu Yuehua was a 32-year old female construction worker. She had been fired from her construction job after she reported being raped by the party secretary in her work unit. Unable to gain a fair hearing, and without means to support herself, she fell into poverty, and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. Later she organized rural petitioners and ‘sent down youth’ in Beijing to demand an end to hunger and oppression in China.
A Political Scientist’s Nirvana
It was at a critical juncture in China’s post-Mao transition, early January 1979, that I arrived in Beijing with nine of my UCLA colleagues. We were there to negotiate an academic exchange agreement with Sun Yat-sen University and the Ministry of Education.
But what really made my pulse quicken was the anticipation of being able to observe—and perhaps even participate in—the extraordinary debates about China’s future that were being conducted daily at Democracy Wall. For a political scientist, it was nirvana.
Reading Fu Yuehua’s poster, I made a mental note of the date of her scheduled demonstration— Sunday, January 14, 1979.
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January 14, 1979
As it happened, January 14 was our last full day in Beijing, and our delegation had scheduled a final, all-day negotiating session with the Ministry of Education. The meeting was held in a conference room on one of the upper floors of the Peking Hotel. As the day wore on, we were getting close to a final agreement on our academic exchanges.
At that point, one of my UCLA colleagues got up to stretch his legs. Strolling over to a nearby window, he looked out. After a moment or two he came back to the conference table and, as he passed my chair, he whispered to me, “Take a look outside.”
I waited a few moments and then sauntered over to the window. Looking down at the street below, Chang’an Boulevard, I saw hundreds of demonstrators marching slowly, in uneven columns, along China’s largest highway. Marching to the west, they carried banners in Chinese proclaiming ‘End Hunger’, ‘We want Jobs’, and ‘Human Rights and Democracy’.
The double-glazed windows of the hotel were shut tight against the cold, so I couldn’t hear their chants. But their meaning was clear enough.
At the head of the procession marched a woman I took to be Fu Yuehua. The protestors were marching toward Tiananmen Square along the most famous boulevard in the country—scene of the May 4th movement of 1919 and Mao Zedong’s proclamation of the birth of the people’s Republic of China in 1949.
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A Silent Protest
There was no unusual activity in the Square when I reached there at dusk. It was disappointing, but I continued on. By the time I reached the well-guarded front entrance to Zhongnanhai, a half mile further on, it was getting quite dark.
A minor traffic jam was causing some confusion. I could make out the silhouettes of perhaps 150 people sitting down in the street, still carrying their banners. They shouted no slogans, but merely sat quietly in front of the CCP leaders’ residential compound, blocking traffic on Beijing’s busiest thoroughfare. The guards in front of Zhongnanhai stood rigidly at attention, unblinking.
A Peaceful Display of Civil Disobedience
At the edge of the crowd I watched, fascinated, wishing that I had brought my camera. After about 15 more minutes of this silent vigil, people began to get up and disperse, in groups of three or four. Fu Yuehua was one of the last to leave.
By now it was almost totally dark. I tried to approach Fu, but two of her associates nudged me aside, fearful of having her photographed by police in the company of a Westerner.
Fu Yuehua’s audacity was stunning. She had succeeded in organizing a large-scale, peaceful display of civil disobedience.
Fu Yuehua: First Known Political Casualty
However, Fu Yuehua’s triumph proved short-lived. Exactly four days later, on January 18, the Beijing municipal police, alarmed by the rising boldness of the petitioners’ movement, arrested Fu Yuehua, making her the first known political casualty of the China’s Democracy Wall Movement.
By then, however, my UCLA colleagues and I had already returned to Los Angeles, where we could only read with alarm the news of mounting police harassment of prodemocracy activists.
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The Limits of Permissible Expression
At that point, we had no way of knowing that Fu Yuehua’s petitioners demonstration of January 14 had touched off an intense, heated debate within the Chinese leadership over the limits of permissible expression.
Nor could we know that another seven years would elapse before the next prodemocracy demonstration would be held in Tiananmen Square.
But the news of Fu Yuehua’s protest and incarceration was all but drowned out by a far bigger news story that crested at the turn of the New Year, 1979.
After seven years of chronic dithering, the United States and China had agreed to establish diplomatic relations. At long last, the normalization process had been completed. A new era in U.S.-China relations was about to begin.
Common Questions about Fu Yuehua and China’s Democracy Wall Movement
Fu Yuehua was a 32-year old female construction worker. She had been fired from her construction job after she reported being raped by the party secretary in her work unit. She later organized a large-scale, peaceful display of civil disobedience.
At the Chang’an Boulevard, hundreds of demonstrators marched slowly, in uneven columns, along China’s largest highway. Marching to the west, they carried banners in Chinese proclaiming ‘End hunger’, ‘We want jobs’, and ‘Human rights and democracy’.
Fu Yuehua’s petitioners demonstration of January 14 led to an intense, heated debate within the Chinese leadership over the limits of permissible expression.