China Police Break Up Pro-Democracy Protest
Chinese police early today dispersed hundreds of pro-democracy student protesters who had marched on Communist Party and government headquarters in the most dramatic display of anti-government sentiment in the Chinese capital in more than a decade.
The action by nearly 1,000 police officers shortly before dawn ended a five-hour standoff that began after the protest by about 5,000 students erupted Tuesday evening in the streets of central Beijing.
“Long live freedom, long live democracy . . . down with corruption!” the excited crowd chanted as it surged from Tian An Men Square toward the ornate two-story, red-columned gate of the nearby Zhongnanhai compound.
“Go in!” some screamed as the crowd approached a thin line of a couple of dozen soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder in the 15-foot-wide entryway. The soldiers did not appear to have guns. Many of China’s top leaders live behind that gate, and even more of them work there.
Some shoving and scuffling ensued between students and plainclothes security officers near the entrance.
But the crowd made no serious attempt to sweep the soldiers aside. Instead, students set up wreaths in honor of the late Communist Party reformist leader Hu Yaobang and staged a midnight sit-in at the gate to demand action by the government on a variety of pro-democracy demands.
A standoff ensued, with the crowd gradually dwindling to about 1,500 by 4:15 a.m. today, when about 1,000 police officers suddenly appeared and cleared the area.
The students’ activities, which had blocked most of Beijing’s main boulevard, were “irregular” and had interfered with traffic safety, police announced over a loudspeaker as waves of officers pushed most of the crowd west toward the city’s suburban university district.
At least one student who resisted verbally was manhandled by police, but in general the students gave ground without resistance.
At the height of the protest shortly before midnight, the crowd chanted, “Li Peng, come out,” in an appeal for the premier to emerge and discuss their demands.
Student leaders stood and read a list of demands released earlier in the day, including free speech and free press, removal of restrictions on street demonstrations, rehabilitation of those victimized by two major anti-liberal political campaigns of the past six years, public disclosure of national leaders’ income, more funds for education and a reassessment of Hu that would credit him for his contributions to democracy.
Premier Li, who takes a cautious approach to reform and is unpopular with many students, is believed by many analysts to be locked in a rivalry with Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang over personal power and the proper course for China’s economic development. But the crowd did not appear to support Zhao or anyone else at the top levels of government.
One student said in an interview that the crowd singled out Li in its chant because he heads the government but that most of the protesters do not support anyone in the ruling Communist Party Politburo. The student said that even the liberal reformer Hu--in whose memory, nominally, the march was being made--would be seen as a target for criticism by the students were he still alive.
“I think Hu Yaobang is just an excuse for them,” he explained.
Hu Was Viewed as Liberal
Hu, who died last Saturday at age 73, was widely viewed as the most liberal of China’s top leaders. He was forced out of his post as head of the Communist Party two years ago, after orthodox hard-liners criticized him for failing to suppress pro-democracy student demonstrations that swept the nation in late 1986 and early 1987. The largest of those demonstrations were in Shanghai and involved tens of thousands of people, but no protests in Beijing at that time were as big as Tuesday’s demonstration.
Hu’s fall in January, 1987, was followed by a hard-line ideological campaign against the importation of Western ideas of democracy and capitalism. But by the end of the year, relatively liberal leaders such as Zhao were firmly pushing reform forward again.
China’s major emphasis has been on market-oriented economic reforms. Political controls have also been relaxed to some degree. But to the frustration of many students and intellectuals, there has been little movement toward genuine democracy.
Many of the students still at Zhongnanhai when the police moved in apparently felt some surprise.
“I didn’t expect them to use the police,” one student said as he walked away.
Another young man, who spoke excellent English, approached a reporter to say that 70 years ago, his grandfather had been a demonstrator in the famous May 4th incident of 1919, an anti-government protest that developed into a broad progressive campaign. “Today,” he said, “we’re demonstrating for the same things: democracy and science.”
For the first several hours after the crowd gathered in front of Zhongnanhai, a police vehicle equipped with a loudspeaker insistently blared out: “Don’t stop. Move forward.”
Although the crowd blocked traffic in most lanes of the broad avenue that passes by the compound, three police officers standing near the car with the loudspeaker around midnight simply chatted with each other in a relaxed manner, without making any serious attempt to disperse the crowd.
Unauthorized demonstrations have been illegal in Beijing since late 1986. Today’s order to disperse, which required demonstrators and journalists to leave the Zhongnanhai area, was issued by the Beijing city government. But it was not immediately clear whether the actual decision may have been taken at a higher political level.
During much of the day Tuesday, the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the middle of nearby Tian An Men Square was the main center for protest activity. Around midnight, about 1,000 students who seemed unaware of the demonstration at Zhongnanhai were still gathered beneath the monument, discussing reform and issuing demands for democracy. They had dispersed of their own accord before police cleared the students from the area around Zhongnanhai.