Twenty-five years ago today, an estimated 150,000 students from every university in Beijing took to the streets, marching toward the geographic heart and soul of China, Tiananmen Square. The students pushed through rows of police who barred their way. City residents leaned out of windows, climbed trees lining the boulevards, and crowded onto the sidewalks to cheer the students’ protest. Workers took to the streets to protect the students, creating a barrier between them and the police. Never before had something like this happened in the history of the Chinese Republic.
They arrived against the odds in euphoric triumph.
Their march was in defiance of an editorial published in the People’s Daily that denounced the peaceful student assemblies that had occurred on the Square in preceding days.
The People’s Daily editorial had called the movement “turmoil” and those at its center “counter-revolutionary.” To illustrate what this meant to the university students, the following is an excerpt from A Heart for Freedom, the autobiography of Chai Ling, one of the student leaders:
“I looked at the students standing around me. Their faces were serious and tense. The government had called our movement a dong luan, a chaos or turmoil – the same verdict the Party had used against the crimes of the Cultural Revolution. No other movement had been labeled dong luan; that was a name for disaster. The government also called our student organizations “illegal” and accused us of attempting to overthrow the government and the Party. To any Chinese, no crime deserved a punishment more severe than the crime of “overthrowing the government and the Party.”
Deng Xiaoping, the main man in power in the Chinese Communist Party, had allowed the demonstrations to go on for the ten days prior without interference, or comment, though he kept a close watch on the events. He was determined to keep the university students away from the high schools, wanting no repeat of the Cultural Revolution.
More importantly, in that age of unprecedented economic reform, he wanted to keep the university students away from the disgruntled working class who, despite the successes of reform, stood to lose the economic safeguards provided by the “iron rice bowl,” which guaranteed job security, free education, medical care, and housing.
All the while, the central government ignored the root issue for the students: a request for real dialogue with their leaders regarding political corruption, a free press, free speech, more money for education, the right to peaceful demonstrations, among other things.
The stakes had been raised. The students knew the verdict must be reversed, otherwise the consequences would be dire.
On April 27th, the peaceful demonstration became a non-violent, but urgent, protest.
The photos were downloaded from the internet.
The blog was edited by Christopher Ross