BEIJING -- Vast numbers of Beijing residents, defying the government's martial-law orders, continued to hold the People's Liberation Army at bay on the outskirts of the Chinese capital this morning.
Hundreds of thousands of people swarmed through Beijing's streets, demanding the resignation of Premier Li Peng and setting up barricades of buses and trucks that made it impossible for an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 troops ringing the city to move forward without violence.
Li declared martial law in Beijing on Saturday morning in an attempt to put an end to a month of escalating pro-democracy protests.
Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, China's leading advocate of reform, who opposed the attempted military crackdown, was widely assumed to be under some form of house arrest Saturday. Well-informed sources had reported a day earlier that he had offered his resignation. Most demonstrators appeared to support him and hope that he could still emerge from the current crisis as China's top leader.
About 2,000 students on a hunger strike ended it Saturday, saying that the government is cold-hearted and therefore it is meaningless to continue. The students also said they need their strength to continue their struggle for democracy.
About 100,000 students and ordinary citizens again spent the night in central Beijing's Tian An Men Square. Many of the protesters, tired but still cautiously optimistic, tried to sleep or sat chatting with friends. But some staged banner-waving marches, including a group of about 1,500 who rode bicycles around the square chanting, "Li Peng retire!"
Rumors swept the crowd that soldiers might soon arrive, but the sun rose today with the troops still hunkered down far away.
At all major roads leading to the city, citizens had erected barricades of buses and trucks, positioned so that passage was possible only for small vehicles weaving their way through the maze-like blockades. Virtually all army units were being held back at about 10 to 20 miles from downtown, although some army trucks succeeded in approaching within about five miles of the city center before being stopped by barricades and crowds.
The Associated Press reported soldiers at the Beijing railway station, apparently to stop the flow of people to the capital to join the protests. Citizens blockaded the station, about two miles from Tian An Men Square, with trucks across the road, the news agency said.
At many non-barricaded intersections in the central city, crowds of 100 or 200 residents stood guard through the night, ready to attempt to block any army vehicles that might appear by unexpected routes.
About 300 army trucks, each carrying about 40 men, were seen by Western reporters blocked at two locations on the west side of the city. At another location in the southwestern suburbs, more than 5,000 students and peasants held off a 200-truck convoy.
"The people love the People's Army! The People's Army protects the people!" chanted students and peasants as they formed a human barricade to reinforce the barrier of flatbed trucks they had positioned to block the soldiers' advance.
It appeared that as many as 800 to 1,000 army trucks were positioned on major roads at the edge of the capital.
Some Soldiers Unarmed
Some soldiers at various locations around the outskirts of the city appeared unarmed, while others had AK-47 automatic rifles. Neither the soldiers nor the demonstrators appeared to want violence, however, and while there were some clashes, the situation as of dawn today remained one of a tense but peaceful standoff.
Many of the soldiers had been brought in from distant provinces and knew little of the events in Beijing during the past week or 10 days. Some had been told there was flooding in the capital and that they were being brought here to help, while others were told they were being sent on exercises, according to soldiers who spoke with Western reporters and Chinese students.
Along the main road leading directly east from central Beijing, residents had erected at least a dozen major barricades of buses and trucks blocking the army's attempted route. "The people's desire: Li Peng retire!" read a banner draped on the side of a dump truck in one of the blockades.
Prefer Zhao to Li, Deng
Protesters said they are seeking greater democracy and freedom in China. When asked about Zhao, the large majority said they prefer him to Li and China's senior leader, Deng Xiaoping.
"In 1911 we had a revolution to end our feudal system and to get rid of the last emperor," said a Chinese journalist in the square this morning. "But the people have been waiting for 78 years for the last emperor to abdicate. Now it's time for him to step down."
A worker manning a blockade today on the east side of Beijing said: "I think our people all support Mr. Zhao.
"We want him to get power to control our country," he said.
Most of those standing nearby indicated agreement. Some, however, said that they do not care about Zhao and that their main hope is to force the government to grant greater freedoms and to shift political power toward the National People's Congress, China's traditionally rubber-stamp legislature.
Protests Began in April
The current wave of demonstrations began in mid-April. Students have pushed for press freedom, improved treatment of intellectuals and an attack on corruption. In the past week, as growing numbers of workers have joined the protests, scattered pictures of Chairman Mao Tse-tung have appeared. Mao, although criticized for mistakes in the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, is still seen by some Chinese as a symbol of concern for the ordinary person.
A poster seen this morning near Mao's mausoleum in Tian An Men Square carried a picture of Mao and sloppily scrawled words that one bystander explained were what the author imagined Mao would say to China's leaders if he reappeared in the square: "The nation is being destroyed in your hands! How can you treat the students and people in this cruel and unfeeling manner! The people will knock your heads off!"
The confrontation sparked in Beijing also swept through other cities of China.
Protests involving tens of thousands of people were reported in the central China city of Xian and in coastal Shanghai, China's largest city. Students in Xian chanted slogans for freedom and democracy outside city government offices and posted copies of photographs showing police beating people in an incident last month when a protest march touched off a riot.
Reuters news agency reported that in Changsha, capital of the southern province of Hunan, a foreign resident said tens of thousands of students marched through the city calling for democratic freedoms.
The news agency also reported that witnesses in Shenzhen, the special economic zone bordering Hong Kong, said thousands of students marched in the town center this morning, defying pouring rain brought by Typhoon Brenda, handing out leaflets backing Zhao's moderate approach toward student protesters.
Demonstrations and a hunger strike continued in Chengdu, in southwestern China, and tens of thousands of miners had gone on strike in coal fields near Tangshan in north China, Reuters reported, quoting Chinese sources.
A spokesman for the Beijing city government, in a statement released through the official New China News Agency, insisted that the troops are coming to the Chinese capital to maintain order, not to suppress the students.
"Under the circumstance that the social order is in serious confusion, there are many rumors in society," the spokesman said. "One of the rumors said, 'The troops have come to Beijing to suppress students.' This is completely groundless. The People's Liberation Army is the people's own army, and they are to defend the country and the people. Their entering into Beijing is by no means directed at the students, let alone 'suppressing the students.' "
The spokesman added, however, that once the troops get into the city, "Some troops may carry out tasks around the schools.
"This move is aimed at assisting this city's public security personnel and police to maintain the normal order around the schools. . . ."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times