Dispirited Protesters in China Vow to Carry On
Students camping out in Tian An Men Square to demand democratic reforms were sullen, confused and divided Sunday night, but protest leaders vowed not to abandon their squalid tent city, making it unlikely there will be an end soon to the protest movement that helped precipitate a major upheaval in China’s leadership.
Representatives of the students announced they have retracted an earlier plan to leave the square on Tuesday, the 10th day of martial law that Premier Li Peng declared May 20 to suppress pro-democracy demonstrations but that he has been so far unable to enforce.
Although the matter remained subject to a continuing debate, student leaders said they now want to remain dug in at the sprawling ceremonial plaza until June 20, when the National People’s Congress is expected to convene. They said they hope Li’s tenure and his unpopular martial-law order will be taken up by the legislature, which traditionally rubber-stamps the decisions of senior Communist Party officials.
After weeks of accelerating student protests since mid-April, the occupation of Tian An Men began May 13 with a one-week hunger strike aimed at forcing the government to open a dialogue with the students on democracy and official corruption.
Tens of thousands of students from throughout China gathered in the square over the last two weeks to support the cause, which eventually was expanded to demand the resignation of Li and his hard-line backer, top leader Deng Xiaoping. In the murky resolution of a long-simmering power struggle, Li and Deng are believed to have used the “turmoil” caused by the students as a pretext to oust moderate party chief Zhao Ziyang, who publicly sympathized with the protesters.
By Sunday night, the number of students in the square had dwindled well below 10,000 and the atmosphere was morose, as many students seemed exhausted and dispirited. The square was odoriferous and unsanitary, several days beyond the point where health officials had warned of a possible health hazard.
Signs of Conciliation
In a related development, the government gave its strongest sign to date it might adopt a conciliatory stance toward the protesters, making what appeared to be a retraction of an April 26 editorial in the People’s Daily, the official party organ, that touched off a furor among students by branding them as unpatriotic and as causing chaos.
The official New China News Agency said late Sunday evening that the party’s ruling body, the Central Committee, and the State Council, the top administrative organ of the government, “have fully affirmed their patriotic enthusiasm and will not investigate and punish those students who have voiced and committed extremist words and acts.”
In a dispatch that opened by describing letters and telegrams purportedly sent by Chinese citizens urging students to leave the square, the agency said the two bodies “also pledged to provide the students with conveniences for their evacuation from Tian An Men Square and to continue to hold extensive dialogues at various levels and through various channels with the students and people in other circles.”
Authorities may have little choice but to deal leniently with the students and other pro-democracy dissidents, owing to an apparently deep reservoir of support among the general populace.
Earlier Sunday, students mustered a surprising show of strength by staging a march throughout the capital involving, according to estimates by foreign news agencies, between 50,000 and 80,000 participants. Another 30,000 people reportedly marched in Shanghai, China’s largest city.
Importantly, the protesters received a generally enthusiastic reception by onlookers, despite the fact that an ideological crackdown is already well under way after Li and Deng consolidated their control of the military, the party and the media last week.
Answering a call by the students for international support, an estimated 500,000 to 1 million people rallied on their behalf Sunday in Hong Kong, the British colony that will revert to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Thousands of Chinese also marched in Taiwan and Australia on Sunday.
Crowds estimated in the hundreds of thousands, and by some accounts as high as 1 million, had turned out in Beijing for pro-democracy demonstrations since the students began occupying Tian An Men Square. A massive outpouring by ordinary citizens, who milled in the streets and formed human barricades, blocked People’s Liberation Army troops attempting to enter the capital early last week to enforce martial law.
“I don’t know what kind of measures the government plans to use to suppress us now, or whether they will send in the army,” said a student from Tianjin, about 60 miles southeast of Beijing, who was interviewed in the square around midnight Sunday. “But basically, even if we withdraw, we’ve achieved victory, because we’ve changed the mentality of the Chinese people.”
A proposal Saturday to leave the square after staging one final rally Tuesday was vehemently opposed by youths who had recently arrived from the provinces and want to participate more actively in the “democracy movement,” as it is called, before returning home, students said.
The protest thus retains unpredictable residual strength--despite the exhaustion of Beijing-area students--who have boycotted classes and rallied intensively for six weeks already--and increasing pessimism about the chances of bringing about immediate democratic reforms, now that rigid ideologues appear to be firmly in control of the party.
“We may not be able to overthrow Li Peng or Deng Xiaoping,” said Sung Maoxi, 21, who arrived from a distant province Sunday. “But the students have great power to advance democracy in the country.”
Meanwhile, China watchers sifting through the official media to piece together the puzzle of an imminent Communist Party purge--presumably aimed at Zhao and his allies belonging to an “anti-party clique"--were left empty-handed Sunday.
The immediate task is to assemble reliable information on whether the victims will line up in a “gang of four” or a “gang of seven,” which, depending on who is listed, may or may not affect the direction and pace of China’s program of economic reform. Also of keen interest is whether Chinese intellectuals will be persecuted.
In a curious footnote to the power struggle that Western diplomats here believe cost Zhao his job, however, the party chief’s name appeared in print for the first time in several days, in Sunday’s edition of the People’s Daily.
It was in a small story on the back page about “famous men who have given up smoking.” Zhao, it said, exercised formidable willpower while learning to abstain from cigarettes.