4, 1989: The Road to Tiananmen
Philip J. Cunningham (from
THE SUN IS RISING, what a sight to behold! Red
flags flutter and unfurl in the early morning breeze above the sports
ground at Beijing Normal University where thousands of students organize
by group and get into line to take to the streets and march to Tiananmen
The great unofficial May Fourth demonstration is
underway despite stern warnings in the press and strict police orders
not to take the protest to the streets. That's the real May Fourth Spirit!
Defiance in the face of danger! Knock down the old, make way for the
new! Challenge authority!
The early morning air is cool but fresh; there is
only the faintest trace of coal dust now that the long winter is over.
Animated, nervous, smiling faces bask in the honey-colored glow of a
brilliant morning sun. Even the birds, rare as they are in Beijing,
add to the defiant chorus!
Seize the hour!
Seize the day! Wake up! China, Wake up!
The atmosphere is
charged and electric; but the movement of rebel forces gentle, cooperative
and fluidly choreographed.
Large red banners with bright yellow characters announce
group affiliations such as History Department, Educational Psychology,
Arts Choral Group, but it is the national flag of China that takes
the place of honor in the student color guard.
Self-appointed student leaders run around the thickening
crowd with battery-operated megaphones trying to get others to listen,
trying to instill order and decorum.
discipline!" one voice shouts. "Find your department, look for
"Stay with your
group!" another one screeches, as static and feedback from the megaphones
start to obscure the message.
stay with people you know!"
are available from the Arts Choral Group."
are passed around. Student scribes dash off calligraphy calling for
dialogue on sheets of plain cloth and cardboard using ink brushes and
Already the air is humming with music. In the middle
of the gathering, two accordion players are bellowing and bouncing,
rehearsing some morale-boosting numbers for the day's march. There are
not enough mimeographed song sheets to go around so marchers scribble
down lyrics in their notebooks, copying them off handout sheets and
public blackboards. No cribbing is needed for the Internationale,
as everyone knows the anthem inside out.
Why sing a song embraced by the establishment? The
idea is brilliant in a way. If you sing it enough, you own it. The communism-indoctrinated
youth of Beijing are waving the red flag to beat the red flag, employing
iconic rhetoric of rebellion to remake China in their own image.
"Do we have to
wait another 70 years?"
There it is again.
The students are willfully making parallels between their situation
and the progenitor of all student demonstrations. The social and creative
explosion that followed the May Fourth demonstration at Tiananmen Gate
in 1919 led to the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Once the
party took power, it enshrined the 1919 student demonstration as an
icon of Chinese communism.
The mood is light, cheerful; the air full of familiar
shouts, earthy Beijing greetings and boisterous sing-alongs. There's
a kind of safety in numbers, at least psychological safety. If many
people are doing something, and don't start to panic, the risk that
an individual will be singled out for punishment decreases. Non-participation
involves a risk too, the risk of being left on the wrong side of history.
Conditioned by decades of socialism, crackdowns and campaigns, Chinese
understandably look to those around them for clues on how to behave.
It's not so much follow the leader as follow other followers.
Standing in the swirling, excited crowd, I am hit
with a pang of self-consciousness. Not because I am a six-foot tall,
190-pound blond man in a sea of black hair and thin physiques; this
is a political rally in a country where foreigners live in separate
buildings, eat in different restaurants and shop in different stores
using different money from local people. Everywhere I go, thousands
of curious and sometimes resentful eyes observe my every move. Any clumsiness
or lapse of judgment on my part will be magnified many times over because
of my differentness.
"Are you going to join us or just watch?" asks a
"I don't know," I answer. "I mean, I'm a waiguoren."
"Are you afraid?" she teases, eyebrows arching skyward.
"No, not really."
"Then take a stand with us!" she says emphatically.
Without another word she takes me by the arm and leads me past a throng
of people into the middle of the arts choral group. Just then there
is a ripple of excited whispers whipping across the staging ground.
Word has just come in that the student marchers from other colleges
have reached Beitaiping Zhuang and that it is time to fall into formation
behind departmental flags to break out of the gated, guarded campus.
"Jin Peili is marching with us" my friend says, introducing me by my
"Are you afraid?"
"Not really." Somehow being in the middle of the
music section is reassuring.
you enslaved people!" cry out a dozen voices in Arts Choral Group,
"This is the final struggle. . ."
is sung over and over, and soon it's one of those tunes you can't get
out of your head.
Doubts mount as we are forced to take a roundabout
path to find a way past the padlocked bars of the southeast gate. The
student vanguard discovers a passable exit through the narrow doorway
adjacent to the vestibule manned by campus security. A row of policemen
is visible just outside the bars of the gate, but we outnumber them
by the hundreds, if not thousands.
Guards or no guards, there is no stopping the rush
off campus once the first few students squeeze through. We break ranks,
forcefully propelled forward through the passageway to face the unknown.
Like grains of sand slipping down the thin neck of an hourglass, dropping
past a point of no return.
AS WE EMERGE on
the street, two campus security agents plead with some flustered students
to immediately return to campus. The narrowness of the make-shift exit
had forced everyone to go more or less single file, making footfall
on the street an isolated and vulnerable moment. The procession quickly
reassembles into departmental groups aided by the waving of banners
and shouts of student facilitators. Cars and buses on the wide thoroughfare
outside the school gate are slowed and then halted as the road is inundated
by wave after wave of protesters pouring off campus. Traffic on the
wide avenue comes to a complete halt.
A long line of police watch intently from the far
side of the road. They are ridiculously outnumbered and make no attempt
to stop the crowd. Immobilized automobiles get swallowed up, lapped
by bodies on all sides, like listing ships in a turbulent sea. From
the north comes a spirited procession of students from other schools,
and in no time students fill the road as far as the eye can see.
Bright banners for Beijing University, Qinghua University,
and Zhengfa University are hoisted above the crowd on bamboo poles,
flapping in the wind, cracking like whips. As the assembly of students
makes a tentative move south towards Tiananmen Square, the police back
off and let the human mass shuffle towards city center. It's hard to
tell if the police are in shock and intimidated by the stupendous size
of the crowd or silently supportive, won over by the contagious, ebullient
spirit of the young protesters. Either way, they do nothing but watch.
Pedestrians start gawking too, cyclists sit on their
bikes, unable to cruise forward, curious about the disturbance. As if
the sight of a demonstration is enough to take one's breath away, most
of the inconvenienced commuters stare in dumbfounded silence, though
a few shout words of support and clap at the ragtag student army marching
down the street. Passengers stranded on stalled buses peer out their
rectangular windows, thoughtfully surveying the crowd.
The police ignore the law-breaking students, but
the students do not ignore the police. Instead some fast-thinking students
try to win the day with cheerful improvisation and song.
"The people love the People's Police!"
"The People's Police love the people!"
climb onto the roof of a stalled bus to better survey the crowd. They
exhibit neither amusement nor anger. Some uniformed officers remove
their hats, as if off duty, others stand stiffly at attention. Are they
mesmerized by the irrepressible optimism of the marchers or just waiting
for orders? We stream confidently past several lines of police, as the
rhythmic drone of accordions set the playlist for a series of crisp
rhyming chants. Word quickly reaches us that police blockades a short
distance down the road have been penetrated by the vanguard of flag-waving
marchers in front of us, so spirits mount and the student parade picks
up speed. The demonstration flows southward on Xinwai Road, coursing
past nondescript walled compounds containing military hospitals, factories
and apartment blocks.
Near Xiaoxitian the international press corps are
in evidence, as foreign men hastily clamber up ladders and balance heavy
cameras on broad shoulders to take aim and record the progress of a
floating protest that already has a whiff of history about it. Seeing
the dark lenses, the arts choral group lights up on cue.
"Everyone unite! The Internationale shall be realized..."
marchers strut and swing and cry their hearts out, happy to have been
observed, the first sign of the student-media symbiosis that will capture
the world’s imagination in the weeks to come.
We surge southwards like a river swollen with rain, seeking Tiananmen.
Crossing Second Ring Road, one of Beijing's key arteries, brings east-west
traffic to a halt, leaving taxis and busses backed up as far as the
eye can see. Construction workers take pause and line the streets, some
of them waving and shouting rowdily. As if on cue, the Arts Choral Group
accordion players change tack, fading out on the Internationale to launch
a new tune. When I hear the lyrics I know why. It is proletarian outreach
"Peasants, workers, soldiers, unite together!"
The crowd explodes in celebration upon hearing the call for solidarity.
The rhetoric is not new, but hearing it in this context is.
A strange excitement lifts me. This is the China
I have long imagined but never known, the China synonymous with revolution
and rebellion that I've read about in history and literature. The energy
is inclusive and all-encompassing, it looks as if a peaceful people's
uprising is in the making.
As the procession moves south along the narrow tree-lined
shopping street leading to Xidan, the choral group starts chanting a
ditty to the melody to Frere Jacques.
Women yaoqiu minzhu!
Women yaoqiu ziyou!
Xiang qian jin!
Xiang qian jin!
Down with corruption!
Down with nepotism!
We seek democracy!
We seek freedom!
The mood of the moment is more fun-loving than militant but political
implications of the word dadao, that is to say "down with," are
ominous. Things can't be forever uplifting without knocking things down.
Somewhere along the road to Tiananmen, the illegal
May Fourth demonstration turns into an unsanctioned but broadly tolerated
peace march. By the time we reach Changan Boulevard, the numbers are
swelling beyond count. Everywhere well-wishers come out of their homes,
offices and shops to wave and show support. Police blockades at critical
junctions are relaxed as the good-natured vanguard of students wearing
sun-visors, carrying the sweaters and jackets no longer needed in the
midday sun, cheerfully beg cooperation.
A jolt of energy surges through the rapidly moving
procession, now numbering ten thousand or more as we reach the northern
extremity of the Great Hall of the People and our forbidden destination
comes into full view. The protesters around me are sweaty and sunburned,
some losing their voices, others already limping from the long march,
but even those unsteady of foot have a bounce in their step, the proud
young rebels homing in on the station that is the end of the line in
The crowd picks up speed as it pours onto the vast
emptiness of Tiananmen Square, finally coming to rest near the Martyr's
My group settles in the shadow of Sun Yatsen's portrait,
a wood-framed monolith temporarily erected for the national holiday.
DAILY LIFE in the
People's Republic has been excellent preparation for the practical and
dramatic demands of staging political theatre at Tiananmen. Everyone
is with their group. There are no rules but there is much order -- order
that comes from years of life in a communal society, from learning how
to live with your family in a cramped apartment, from managing to share
a single desk with six roommates in a dorm room, from learning how to
march and sing in state-sponsored youth fests. Crowding and cooperation
and putting on a show are nothing new to these young communists.
LONG LIVE THE PEOPLE!
DEMOCRACY AND SCIENCE
UNDER THE SKY, ALL FOR THE PEOPLE
As the sit-in begins on the monumental chessboard carved out of the
arid, mountain-ringed plain of Beijing, no one knows for sure where
things are going or what will happen next, but the location is deliberate.
Tiananmen is the ceremonial stage for a nation of a billion. Nowhere
in Beijing does the sky seem wider and grander than over Tiananmen,
the sky gate; the place where the sky meets the ground. Scorching hot
in the sun, magical in the moonlight, lyrical lookout on the cosmos,
celestial yet grounded. Open to the heavens, a conduit of the elements,
Tiananmen is the place, if such a place exists, where the mandate of
heaven resides, but only the people can bestow it, and only the people
can take it away.
J. Cunningham is a Beijing-based writer of Irish descent, and a KJ contributing
held by the author
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