When Hu Yaobang’s death was announced on April 15, 1989, tens of thousands of Beijing college students spontaneously left their classrooms and marched to Tiananmen Square. The hard-liners had blamed Hu for encouraging the forces of bourgeois liberalization. The students now demanded the restoration of Hu’s good name and reputation.
Students Took to the Streets
In the spring of 1988, a leading Communist Party newspaper published an editorial commentary listing several types of economic crimes and misdemeanors that had recently reached epidemic proportions. The laobaixing were getting very angry, and they had good reason to be.
The rebellion was not long in coming. It started in mid-April of 1989. The occasion was the sudden, unexpected death of Hu Yaobang. Marching to Tiananmen Square, tens of thousands of Beijing college students demanded the restoration of Hu’s good name and reputation. When the government refused to acknowledge the students’ demands, the demonstrations grew larger and began to spread to other cities.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Tiananmen: A Global News Story
Concerned about China’s fragile political stability, Deng Xiaoping cautioned the protesting students—who now numbered in the many tens of thousands—that they were being manipulated by “unpatriotic elements” and that their protests had created “turmoil”, in Chinese, dongluan. That’s a very serious charge.
However, far from calming the situation, Deng’s warning, which was published in the People’s Daily toward the end of April, served to catalyze even more significant and more widespread urban protests. It’s like pouring oil on a fire. Daily demonstrations at Tiananmen Square now drew more than a hundred thousand participants and supporters.
In the second week of May, a student hunger strike was initiated in Tiananmen Square. Timed to coincide with the first official visit to China by the new Soviet Party chief, Mikhail Gorbachev, the strike captured the attention—and the sympathy—of the world’s media. Tiananmen was now a global news story.
Deng Xiaoping was humiliated, and he was furious. Refusing to negotiate with the rebellious students until they first called off their hunger strike and left Tiananmen Square, Deng was determined not to back down. Things were moving rapidly toward some sort of confrontation.
Learn more about Deng Xiaoping’s early regime.
Li Peng and the Hunger Strikers
On the morning of May 18, Premier Li Peng and a small delegation of high-level government officials met with leaders of the student hunger strike in a last-ditch effort to resolve the conflict peacefully.
Things had gotten off to a very bad start. Two of the student leaders, named Wang Dan and Wu’er Kaixi, began by brashly refusing to accept Premier Li’s patronizing display of concern for the welfare of the hunger strikers. The appearance of Wu’er Kaixi had been given an additional dramatic moment by the fact that he entered the meeting room in a wheelchair, wearing pajamas, with an IV drip coming out of his nose.
Learn more about the challenges to party authority in China.
Conversation between Li Peng and Student Leaders
Here’s how the conversation between Li Peng and the student leaders went:
[Li Peng began:] Today we will discuss one issue: how to relieve the hunger strikers of their present plight. The party and the government are most concerned about the health of the students. You are all young, the oldest among you is only 22 or 23, younger even than my youngest child.[At which point, Wu’er Kaixi interrupted:] Excuse me for interrupting you, Premier Li, but time is running short. We are sitting here comfortably while the students outside are suffering from hunger. You just said that we should discuss only one issue. But the truth is, it was not you who invited us to talk, but we, all of us in Tiananmen Square, who invited you to talk. So we should be the ones to name the issues to be discussed.
[At this point, Wang Dan resumed the discussion:] For the students to leave the Square and call off the hunger strike, our conditions must be met in full…First, [there must be] a positive affirmation of the current student movement as a democratic and patriotic movement, not as “turmoil”. Second, a dialogue [must] be held as soon as possible.[Then Li Peng responded:] The fact is, social disorder has occurred in Beijing and is spreading to the whole country. The current situation…is out of control…Anarchy has reigned in Beijing for the past several days…The government of the People’s Republic of China…cannot disregard such phenomena…[Now Wu’er Kaixi responded:] I want to repeat what I just said: We don’t want to be bogged down in discussions. Give an immediate response to our conditions, because the students in the Square are starving. If we remain bogged down on this question, then we will conclude that the government is not at all sincere…Then there will be no need for us to stay here any longer.
When the meeting adjourned, Wu’er Kaixi refused to shake hands with a visibly shaken Li Peng. The Chinese premier gritted his teeth in a forced smile, valiantly trying to maintain his composure for the television cameras. It was evident to many Chinese citizens that nothing good would come of this. And it didn’t take long for that belief to be proven true.
Common Questions about the 1989 Protests in Tiananmen Square by Chinese Students
The Beijing college students demanded the restoration of Hu Yaobang’s good name and reputation after his sudden death. The hard-liners had blamed Hu for encouraging the forces of bourgeois liberalization.
The Tiananmen Square protests became a global news story when the students went on a hunger strike and timed it to coincide with the first official visit to China by the new Soviet Party chief, Mikhail Gorbachev. The strike captured the attention—and the sympathy—of the world’s media.
The student leaders had two demands. The first was to consider the student movement as democratic and patriotic movement, instead of “turmoil”. The second was to open a channel of communication and hold dialogue as soon as possible.