One day after Wu’er Kaixi, the student leader at the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, delivered his nationally televised insult to Li Peng, Deng Xiaoping authorized Premier Li to impose martial law in Beijing. Deng was furious at the insolence of the students, and he was equally furious at Zhao Ziyang, who had openly sided with the students.
Zhao Attempts at Conciliation
For more than two weeks, Zhao Ziyang had tried to orchestrate a peaceful resolution of the mounting crisis in Tiananmen Square. He had affirmed the patriotic motives of the students, and he had pleaded with Deng Xiaoping to give him more time to persuade the students to end their hunger strike and leave the square.
However, some of the more radical students remained distrustful of Zhao even, fearing that he was a captive of the hard-liners. And they rejected his proposal that they leave the square in advance of any negotiations with the government.
Deng resisted Zhao Ziyang’s proposal to offer the students more favorable terms. Referring to the Polish situation of 1980–1981, Deng argued, “Events in Poland prove that making concessions provides no solutions. The greater the concessions made by the government, the greater the opposition forces became.”
Downcast over his inability to broker a peaceful resolution, Zhao submitted his resignation; however, Deng Xiaoping refused to accept it. Deeply distraught, Zhao next did something quite unexpected and quite remarkable.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Proclaiming Martial Law
Zhao commandeered a minivan and paid an unscheduled, unauthorized visit to the hunger strikers in Tiananmen Square. There, in the pre-dawn hours of May 19, 1989, Zhao addressed the students through a hand-held megaphone. “I’ve come too late,” he said. His eyes filled with tears. “I’ve let you down.”
Further enraged by Zhao’s tearful farewell to the students, Deng Xiaoping now invoked the emergency override powers that had been granted to him after Hu Yaobang had been dismissed from office early in 1987.
Convening an extraordinary meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, Deng stripped Zhao Ziyang of his formal authority as general secretary; and he personally authorized Li Peng to proclaim martial law.
The next day, May 20, something equally remarkable happened. As thousands of uniformed PLA troops poured into the city in truck convoys to enforce the martial law proclamation, they found their path blocked by tens of thousands of irate Beijing citizens, including students and non-students alike.
Jamming Beijing’s major access roads and thoroughfares, dense crowds of people sat down in the middle of the street, refusing to budge. The truck convoys were stopped in their tracks. The people of Beijing had spoken, and their verdict frightened the wits out of the government.
Learn more about Zhao Ziyang.
Massive Anti-Government Protests
In Nanjing, a massive anti-government rally was held in the main public square. Tens of thousands of people of all ages and walks of life crowded into the city center at the Drum Tower, seemingly unified in their support for the Beijing students and in their open contempt for Li Peng.
Large posters were draped on walls and the fences bordering the main square. Lampooning Li Peng, some of the dazibao caricatured the premier’s nerdy appearance and demanded that he xiatai (“step down”). Others called for Deng Xiaoping to retire, though these were relatively few in number. Many posters demanded the exposure and punishment of corrupt, profiteering high-level officials and their families.
Political Unrest and Vandalism
In more than 300 other large and medium-size Chinese cities, anti-government demonstrations broke out in the last ten days of May. While the total number of people participating in these protests is unknown, estimates range from 10 to 20 million, including hundreds of thousands of Communist Party members and cadres.
In a handful of cities, violence broke out, as roving bands of unemployed workers, juvenile delinquents, and impoverished rural migrants took advantage of the mounting political unrest to engage in vandalism, looting, and random property destruction.
Within 48 hours of declaring martial law in Beijing, Li Peng had become a ubiquitous national target of public derision.
Withdrawing from the Tiananmen Square
Soon a command was issued by the PLA’s top leadership, ordering the army’s immobilized troop convoys to pull back from the Tiananmen Square to the outskirts of the city. On the evening of May 22, a celebration had begun at the Tiananmen Square.
The atmosphere of jubilation was palpable. The people had won a huge victory. It looked as if by ordering the army’s withdrawal, the government had tacitly conceded defeat.
The street demonstrations that day and the next were the biggest and most enthusiastic ever, with over one million people participating. Sprinkled among them were hundreds of sympathetic PLA soldiers who had abandoned their posts.
Never before, with the short-lived exception of Poland in the summer of 1980, had a Communist regime been forced to back down so completely in the face of massive civil disobedience. Or so it seemed!
Common Questions about the Tiananmen Square Unrest
Zhao Ziyang commandeered a minivan and paid an unscheduled, unauthorized visit to the hunger strikers in Tiananmen Square. There, in the pre-dawn hours of May 19, 1989, Zhao addressed the students through a hand-held megaphone.
When thousands of uniformed PLA troops poured into the city in truck convoys to enforce the martial law proclamation, they found their path blocked by tens of thousands of irate Beijing citizens, including students and non-students alike.
A command was issued by the PLA’s top leadership, ordering the army’s immobilized troop convoys to pull back from the Tiananmen Square to the outskirts of the city. Following this, on the evening of May 22, a celebration began at the Tiananmen Square.