By: Zhou Duo

April 29, 2024

Editor’s note: what follows is another in a series of remembrances by a participant in the events leading up to the June 4, 1989 Beijing massacre. Here, the author talks about events in middle May, 1989, when the authorities are desperate to get the students of Tiananmen Square to end their hunger strike and the students continue to adamantly refuse. Part 1 is here, part 2 here, and part 3 is here.

On May 16, I, Liu Shiding, and Cao Siyuan (Master Cao was my senior colleague and mentor) made an appointment to go to the United Front Work Department. The reason was that the night before, I had just returned home from the Beijing Hotel when I received a call from Liu Shiding. He said that Master Cao had just talked with him on the phone and wanted to write a proposal. The general idea was that in view of the current emergency situation, the Politburo collectively discussed the delay and suggested that the central government designate a member of the Politburo Standing Committee to be responsible for handling the student unrest. After hearing this, I thought my friend had gone crazy. This was simply ordinary people directly interfering in high politics. Who do you think you are, worthy of intervening in Politburo matters? But I didn’t want to disappoint everyone, so I downplayed things: “I don’t think this matter is meaningful. I’m afraid such a step won’t have any effect. What do you think?” Liu Shiding responded, “You might as well give it a try.” If you do that, at least you won’t be sentenced to several years in prison for this unrest. He said it was best to go early. I said no, I hadn’t discussed it with the driver in advance and it wouldn’t be good for him to make a wasted trip. Besides, it seemed necessary to show up first at my company to prevent some people from making irresponsible remarks.

The three of us arrived at the United Front Work Department. When Tao Siliang saw me, he said, “You’re just in time, I’m been looking for you everywhere!” She had asked someone to call my home, and my family told her that I had gone to the company to do some work; and then repeated this exchange. Tao Siliang told others that I had gone out and my whereabouts were unknown, and she was worried. She now asked me to “work hard one more time,” and go to the square and find student representatives for a meeting. “Those in charge are very anxious.” I asked about the content of such a meeting, and she replied: let’s try to figure out what’s going on. I got a little angry and said: “The situation is not clear at all. What is there to know better? What’s the use of talking without formal dialogue? The problem now is to urge the central government to make up its mind to respond to the students’ demands. Delaying will only make matters worse. Things are even more impossible to deal with now.” She said, “Calm down, just go, and quickly!” I had no choice but to do as she said.

Tiananmen Square was already packed. I got on the minibus sent by the United Front Work Department and drove to the vicinity of the twelve students who were on hunger strike on Chang’an Street, north of the Great Hall of the People. I couldn’t squeeze in though. It was impossible to find a suitable place to park. I had no choice but to tell the driver to stop the car and not to move. I got out of the car and squeezed into the square as best I could. When I entered the picket line and found Liang Number Two, he actually said, “Master Zhou, you came just in time. We just called you.” Why? He said he wanted to contact the United Front Work Department to discuss a solution. I asked him to find the leaders of the Hunger Strike Group and the High-Level Autonomous Federation who were present. Among them, there were seven or eight people in total. They squeezed out of the crowd, finally found the car, and we took it back to the United Front Work Department. I asked where the “dialogue group” was. They said they were conducting a sit-in at the northwest gate of Zhongnanhai. I led them in — this time, the United Front Work Department was not as polite as last time and asked them to wait on the cold bench in the reception room; then, I told the staff to quickly prepare a car and go to the northwest gate of Zhongnanhai to pick up the “dialogue group.”

It was almost noon now, and a large number of young and middle-aged intellectuals came in one after another. I remember Chen Zhaogang, Deng Zhenglai, Zheng Di, Zhang Lifan, Lin Yifu, Huang Fangyi, and Chen Xiaoping. The “dialogue group” had been waiting for a long time. I was about to ask for a car to take a look, but I was told that they were heading this way. I felt strange. Didn’t we send a car to pick them up? I walked out of the gate and saw a big flag in the distance. A team of more than 20 people was arriving. The leader was Xiang Xiaoji. I stepped forward and asked him why he didn’t take the bus. He looked serious and said, “So many classmates are starving to death, so walking a few steps is nothing.”

Yan Mingfu was accompanying Zhao Ziyang to meet with Gorbachev and did not arrive until nearly two o’clock in the afternoon. This time, he refused to meet with student representatives. He was angry that the students were not keeping their promises, and he said that things were going the other way and that the students were being taken advantage of by bad people. He said that while the central leaders were meeting with Gorbachev, a large number of students stormed the north door of the Great Hall of the People, breaking the glass of the door and causing a commotion in which even the voices inside could not be heard clearly. The international impact was extremely bad…We said this was impossible. Students had been working hard to maintain order everywhere and trying their best to prevent ordinary people from attacking key government agencies. Yan Mingfu said that the staff clearly saw the person who led the trouble wearing a school badge. None of us were impressed. Clearly, the views of hardliners within the central government were increasingly gaining the upper hand. Yan Mingfu asked us to act as intermediaries between him and the student representatives. In this way, the student representatives were on one side, gathered in conference room 6, and Yan was on the other side. We intellectuals had the right to charge the phone line. The two sides talked noisily for about two hours, but to no avail. Yan Mingfu insisted that the students must evacuate immediately and would discuss the rest later. He said that there must be a process for central decision-making. It was impossible to respond the next day to requests made today. Student representatives said that they would not be able to persuade their classmates to withdraw if the government did not agree to the conditions.

Yan Mingfu knew that there was no hope, even if these representatives agreed to withdraw. The students were leaderless and did not listen to anyone’s orders. According to Wu’er Kaixi’s words, as long as one percent of the students in the square did not agree to withdraw, then 99 percent of the people would not be able to leave. This meant that Wuer Kaixi was just a tail being wagged by others, and there was no student “leader” at all. The harsher people simply said that the students were a rabble.

At about four o’clock in the afternoon, after seeing there had not been any results from this attempt, these young and middle-aged intellectuals gathered in a smaller conference room to discuss whether there were other ways. Some people, along with me, firmly advocated that Yan Mingfu go to the square to meet the students in person to try to mobilize and persuade them. Others objected, saying it was too dangerous and would not work, because he was not a decision-maker and his words were therefore useless. I was very impulsive at the time and said, if things are like this, why should we care about the danger? If every leader considers his own safety first, what hope does the Communist Party have? Besides, I don’t believe there is any great danger! Second, no one can predict in advance whether it will be effective or not — I gave the example of Liu Xiaobo’s persuasion efforts on the night of May 13th — if you don’t try it, how can you know that it won’t work? Third, even if it is useless, as a gesture and an action to express one’s position and personal character, Minister Yan should do it. This is of course a great risk to him personally, but it will leave his name in history, there is no doubt about it!

The dissenters said nothing. Tao Siliang told Yan Mingfu our views, and we urged him face to face. He was a little reticent at first — not because he was worried about his own safety, but because he felt it was useless. He was probably also afraid of letting those conservatives take advantage of the situation. We encouraged him again and again and he said he could give it a try. So the staff were asked to ask the central government for instructions. He could not make such a big move without central authorization. Soon, the answer came back: yes.

Next, there were a lot of technical details to be worked out about how to get in and how to get back safely. At that time, all government departments were in a state of semi-paralysis and could not organize a security team to enter the square. I suggested that he could to dispatch two ambulances go to the first-aid station with loudspeakers, and drive them into the square. Everyone thought this was feasible. But unexpectedly, even after nearly half an hour of calling, an ambulance could not be dispatched. Not to mention a loudspeaker, which I couldn’t find at all. Everyone was discouraged. But I had an idea and asked a secretary-general of the United Front Department present named Zhang Mengna if the United Front Department had any larger vans. I said, you can prepare two such vehicles, use four pieces of white cloth to make four flags, draw red crosses on both sides, write “First Aid” and “Water Delivery” on each side, and put two flags on each car. Prepare some drinks and medicines and bring them too. Minister Yan was sitting in the car behind, and we were clearing the way in front. When Zhang Mengna heard this, she was overjoyed and immediately got ready. After much fuss, they called the Central Security Bureau and decided to pass through Zhongnanhai, then exit through the Meridian Gate and enter via the Tiananmen gate to enter the square. Liu Suli, who was present at the time, was also sent to the square to inform Wang Dan and organize an accompanying security team. Secretary-General Zhang asked me to command this operation. She repeatedly warned that Minister Yan’s personal safety must be protected.

Before I came up with this plan, Li Tieying arrived and said he wanted to go with me. We strongly discouraged this. We were worried that his tough words and careless remarks might anger students. I once asked, why hasn’t the central government agreed to the students’ demands so far? The key to the problem was the repudiation of the April 26 editorial. Since the central government had repeatedly affirmed that the students acted patriotically, why couldn’t they make another correct assessment? He replied that this evaluation could only be made by history, which has its own objective laws; no one could just say whatever they want.

 The farewell scene before departure was quite moving. A large group of people — staff of the United Front Work Department, journalists, and others, I don’t know — applauded warmly at the entrance of the building to say goodbye, and some people wiped away tears. Yan Mingfu said, “By risking it all, you may end up becoming the Imre Nagy of China!” To be honest, I didn’t expect him to say such righteous and awe-inspiring words, and I couldn’t help but secretly admire him.

Looking back now, it was a time when the enthusiasm of the people in all walks of life was extraordinarily high. A reporter from Xinhua News Agency was frantically trying to squeeze in when were getting on the bus. Secretary-General Zhang shouted loudly, “Reporters can’t go!” He went up and pulled the reporter down roughly. At first I mistook him for Lu Yi from the World Economic Herald and wanted to let him in, but Zhang refused. I had no choice but to block the car door and ask him to get out, while apologizing to him. Unexpectedly, this man (I later found out that he was Tang Shizeng) got into his own car and squeezed in between our two minibuses. The three vehicles passed through Zhongnanhai, Tiananmen Rostrum, and the Jinshui Bridge at lightning speed. The road in front of the museum opened near a so-called “lifeline.”

This so-called “lifeline” was a dedicated lane reserved for ambulances transporting hunger-striking students, which was sacrosanct. I asked the driver to stop the car and went down to explain the purpose of the visit to the demonstrators. I asked to enter the square headquarters via the lifeline and let Yan Mingfu use their radio station to give a radio speech. If you had not personally experienced the scene at that time, you might never be able to imagine the passionate atmosphere. The gangsters in charge of the demonstration were also half crazy, saying, “No matter who you are, no one can occupy the lifeline!” During the dispute, they suddenly saw the crowd in chaos, and a wave of people rushed towards the history museum like mad. I didn’t see it well! It turned out that Yan Mingfu had already gotten out of the car and was walking this way. I left the group of gangsters behind, turned around and ran away, while loudly complaining about Yan Mingfu’s unauthorized actions. I recall the thrilling scene at that time, and I still feel scared. Since then, I have learned how terrible a crowd without command and order can be. We were lucky that we were not crushed or trampled to death that day. Now whenever I think of the scene at that time, I see in front of me a scene of countless surging people’s faces, sweating profusely, flushed, and half-crazy. I think I almost went crazy myself. Fortunately I wore a pair of thick leather shoes, otherwise I would have broken a few of my toes. Anyway, bless my soul, I finally got in safely and returned safely that day. It’s hard for me to describe all the crazy scenes.

Yan Mingfu’s speech was not brilliant, but it was certainly moving, not through words, but through his personality. First, Wang Dan and Wu’er Kaixi said a few words, to the effect that students may agree or disagree with Yan’s opinions, but regardless of whether they agree or disagree, they should listen carefully and think about it, “because Comrade Yan Mingfu is a truly good Communist.” Wang Dan’s voice was hoarse that day. I sat on the ground three meters away from him (everyone else was sitting on the ground) and could barely understand only 70% to 80% of what he said. Wuer Kaixi was breathing heavily while wearing an oxygen bag — he must use that thing when he reaches climax. His condition was said to be “acute myocarditis.”

Yan Mingfu said: “I am visiting you on behalf of the central leadership. I feel very, very sad to see the students like this. The students have good wishes and hopes. But you have no right to destroy yourself like this. You are all good people, and there’s a lot to do in the future. The burden of modernizing our country falls on your shoulders. You must take care of yourselves. If your bodies collapse, it will be a huge loss to the country, and you will also suffer. All issues can be discussed calmly, and there is no need to adopt such extreme measures. There must be a process to solve these questions, and we should not be too hasty. The central government has been carefully considering your requests. We can sit down and discuss a proper resolution. The Political Bureau of the Central Committee made a decision long ago, and will never take revenge on you students. I hope that you can return to campus as soon as possible, take good care of themselves, and study hard. If you don’t believe my guarantee, you can take me, Yan Mingfu, back to school as a hostage! If something goes wrong, I am willing to take all the responsibility!”

As he spoke, groups of students sat on the ground wiping tears from their eyes. Some kept shouting slogans, though it was unclear what they were saying. Yan Mingfu himself was very impulsive and his voice cracked. I saw that he was about to shed tears. I sat on the ground and thought to myself that if the hunger strike had just started on May 13 and the heat had not risen to this level, and all the central leaders had come out to meet with the students and personally do the work of persuasion, how could the persuasion have failed? Great opportunities, all missed! Who is to blame? Who should be blamed? I was thinking wildly when I suddenly saw the crowd in chaos. Several big men with walkie-talkies in their hands surrounded Yan Mingfu. I later found out that they were personnel from the Central Security Bureau (Ma Xiaoli later told me that they were staff from the United Front Work Department) pushing out in a hurry. We stood up quickly, held our arms tightly together for our lives, and formed a circle, protecting Yan Mingfu in the middle. The crowd around was crying and shouting “Minister Yan,” and it was a mess. Yan Mingfu finally shed tears and said angrily: “Why don’t those people come on a hunger strike themselves?”. I still don’t know who he was referring to. Did he mean Fang Lizhi? Someone else? He probably really thought that the students’ hunger strike was instigated by some “bad people” who were behind it. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Wang Dan told me personally that the hunger strike was completely accidental. He and a few students were having dinner in a small restaurant at night. I don’t know who came up with the idea first. They talked about it for a while, and then they started working on it as soon as they got back. All these things are so absurd and funny from top to bottom that future generations will not believe it when they hear this. But that’s the reality, believe it or not. China is a large stage dedicated to performing absurdist dramas, ranking first in the world. In China, nothing out of the ordinary is impossible.

A group of people stumbled and finally squeezed out of the security line, then again unable to move, still far away from where they parked. In the end, the big men from the Central Security Bureau found a way to forcefully stop an ambulance. Without any explanation, they forced Yan Mingfu into the car through the back door, leaving the door ajar, and drove away frantically. We took the original two cars and made a large circle from the front gate to the Beijing Concert Hall. We squeezed through the crowd for nearly an hour before returning to the United Front Work Department.

That day truly exhausted me. I ate something randomly, didn’t care about anything, found an empty conference room and fell asleep. Elsewhere in the room, Master Cao and a group of people started talking, talking, talking with the student representatives who had stayed behind! It seemed to me that the talk was all nonsense. Master Cao is famous for his even temper, while I’ve long been impatient. When I woke up, it was almost twelve o’clock. I just felt dizzy and my whole body ached. I staggered out and turned into the large conference room. I saw Master Cao still talking to the students and writing something while talking. I went over and asked, and it turned out that it was a letter of opinion that he and Liu Shiding had agreed to write. There were about four articles in total, and he published them on the front page of Science and Technology Daily the next day. A total of twelve people signed, including six of us intellectuals and six student representatives, including Wang Dan.

Tao Siliang asked us to wait and not leave yet. She said that Hu Qili might go to the square in the early morning and asked us to accompany him. Waiting until nearly two o’clock in the middle of the night, Yan Mingfu sent a message: the Central Committee was holding a meeting, please go back and rest. It was already three o’clock when I got home. It is said that at the Politburo meeting late that night, Zhao Ziyang was dismissed from his post and Li Peng took charge of the Politburo’s work.

 Another day passed. On May 18th. I was working in my company, dealing with the never-ending affairs of the public-relations department. Suddenly it occurred to me that I should call the men present on the 16th. In the end, I only got through to only one, Deng Zhenglai. When he heard it was me, he yelled again: “Hey, just in time, I have something to tell you.” He said that at noon that day, a group of people — Yan Jiaqi, Bao Zunxin, Cao Siyuan and others — had an appointment at Fuxing. We met at the gate overpass to discuss things. “What’s the matter?” “You’ll know when you get here.” I was told to make sure I go. Strange, why meet on an overpass?

Over those few days, the city of Beijing was like a special big fair. People from all directions and all walks of life came, and it was very lively. The Fuxingmen overpass was packed with people as usual. I arrived on time, and Deng Zhenglai, Cao Siyuan, Chen Zhaogang, Min Qi, etc. also arrived one after another, as well as a lot of other miscellaneous people, including many reporters, whom I didn’t recognize. After waiting for nearly an hour, Lao Bao and Yan Jiaqi hadn’t shown up. Everyone had some random discussions and began to disperse. I left the car I came in behind in and wanted to call another one. Where could I get one? The buses had all stopped by that time. I had no choice but to sit on the lawn under the bridge and chat. Deng Zhenglai was filled with indignation and said that if the government still did not agree to the students’ demands, the intelligentsia should join the hunger strike. He said he came to us just to discuss this matter. I advocate waiting and seeing how the situation developed. Later, someone from the United Front Work Department sent a message to dissuade him, and the matter was shelved. At nearly two o’clock in the afternoon, Deng Zhenglai, Chen Zhaogang and I remembered that we had not eaten yet — I was about to start dinner when I had come out of the company building, so I grabbed a few preserved eggs and came out, and had already shared them with Min Qi on the bridge. We were discussing where to find a restaurant to fill our stomachs.

I suddenly felt that this all seemed extremely boring. I felt like it was all just a children’s game. I know I shouldn’t be so mean. Everyone said this was a “great patriotic democratic movement.” However, that’s exactly how I felt at the time. You really can’t blame me, I can’t force my feelings.

Some suggested going to the square to have a look, but I didn’t even raise my eyelids. It was just the same old same old, nothing new. The three of us walked to Yanjing Hotel and wanted to take a taxi home. There were a lot of taxis parked, but no driver dared to take us. It was said that students started shouting when they saw people riding by in small cars, though didn’t dare to smash them. We tried every possible means to persuade any driver, but to no avail. I was hungry, tired, and upset. I had no choice but to walk around, trying to find a restaurant to eat at. We turned onto the road north of Yanjing Hotel and found a roadside place. The three of us had lunch. Halfway through eating, I was about to fall asleep. It was pouring rain outside, and I suddenly felt sorry for the college students in the square. Being exposed to the sun, rain, and being so hungry meant you really needed a bit of dedication.

After the rain stopped, we left the restaurant. Deng Zhenglai was lucky enough to finally hail a taxi and take me back to the People’s Court while he returned to the National People’s Congress. He said that he had made an appointment with Wang Juntao, Chen Ziming, Master Bao and others to meet at the entrance of the United Front Work Department in the evening, and asked me to make sure to go too.

I went home and slept until dusk, then got on my bicycle and went to the United Front Work Department. I was the first to arrive again. Deng Zhenglai himself did not come, but Wang Juntao, Chen Zhaogang, Ke Yunlu…altogether more than a dozen people came, and as usual they talked in random directions. It looked like it was going to rain, and a deputy director of the United Front Work Department happened to come out and see me and say hello. I said it’s going to rain. Can we borrow a conference room for us to have a meeting? He expressed embarrassment: “I’m afraid it’s not good to have a meeting, it’s against the rules. However, you are very welcome to come in, have a cup of tea, and have a casual chat. We are all old friends, so you don’t have to be polite.” In fact, in the United Front Work Department at that time it was no longer possible to protect oneself. I went in and sat there for nearly half an hour, drinking tea and chatting. In the middle, Chen Ziming ran in despite the rain. I saw that Director Fu didn’t seem to welcome him very much, so he quickly stood up and left. Chen Ziming had brought a minibus. Some people left, and the remaining six or seven people got to the car and talked for more than an hour.

I argued for writing a strong statement, simply saying that we stand on the side of the students but not offering to mediate. I thought all our mediation activities had completely failed. The United Front Work Department had obviously had its authorization withdrawn, and it was impossible for us to do anything. Now, we had only two choices before us: either stand back or intervene. To intervene, of course, it could only be on the side of the students and against the party hard-liners. It seemed that the situation could only develop along the lines of fierce confrontation between these two factions until bloody conflict broke out. And standing by and watching was not the attitude we intellectuals should adopt. It was time to move from the position of intermediaries and mediators toward that of the opposition, that of the protesters.

Although not everyone as fully bought in, several young and middle-aged intellectuals then unanimously commissioned me to draft this statement. I tore off a piece of white paper from Ke Yunlu’s notebook and asked them to sign it first, then I would go back and write the statement on it. I asked whether I would still need to show it to them. They said not, since we had learned that the government was going to take action the next day, so there was no need to edit and rewrite it.

Finally, Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming said, “During this time we have managed to use some financial and material resources at our disposal to do a series of things. We have set up a facility at the Jimen Hotel to enable us to contact people from all sides, hoping to stand up, unite and support the students, communicate the situation, and take coordinated actions if necessary. Otherwise, everyone will act alone, and the effect will be very limited. “If you are interested, we can act together and go today.” In fact, I was the only one who went. Apart from the fact that I wanted them to give me a bike to ride with them, I was mainly motivated by my friendship with Jun Tao and being somewhat curious about what on earth they planned to do.

Without fear of exaggeration i can say that Wang Juntao was an outstanding person. Extremely excellent, remarkable. Almost everyone said so about him. I had never heard any serious criticism of him — except that he was too “crazy.” There are two types of people in the world who are most susceptible to having this being said about them, those who are extremely good or extremely messed up, including those with mental-health conditions. The difference is that the former do extraordinary things because of their talents, while the latter operate from illusions. I wrote to him and scolded him for his “craziness,” but we are still good friends —even better ones now. If I am asked to name three or four of the best people among my friends, Wang Juntao must be among them. This person’s heart is as pure as a cloudless blue sky in autumn, with very few thoughts of his own self-interest — maybe occasionally, a few wisps of clouds slowly drifting from one side of the blue sky to the other. What a pity, he surely will be doomed this time, I thought. I hope he doesn’t suffer too much! All in all, if it weren’t for Wang Juntao, I would not have participated in the joint meeting at all. I really don’t want to join any organizations at all. I’d rather be alone. During the great escape after June 4th, I was always alone. Jun Tao told me several times to leave with him, but I ignored him. I can’t say I’ve never regretted it—in the days after they arrested me, I really regretted not going with them. But I just regretted it for a few days. Unexpectedly, they too still failed to escape.

That night, it was almost midnight when we arrived at the Jimen Hotel. The room was full of people, and we talked for almost two hours. I couldn’t stay any longer, so I said I wanted to go home. Jun Tao asked me to stay here, and I thought to myself, no thank you, I don’t want to stay with you stinky bastards. It had just rained that night and was very cold. He informed me that there would be a meeting at the Jimen Hotel at ten o’clock the next morning and asked me to attend. I agreed, got on my bike and rode home as hard as I could.

This piece was translated from Yibao Chinese. If republished, please be sure to add the source and link before the text when reposting.

The author’s point of view does not necessarily represent that of this journal.