Twenty years ago the PRC was experiencing the largest demonstrations of public dissent in its history. I was then living and teaching in Nanjing and I watched as that city and my students were swept up in the tide of protest. It was a remarkable and, ultimately sad, time.
I wrote an article that included an analysis of the 1989 events in Nanjing. It is an academic piece with a particular theoretical angle. But I have extracted the narrative of the Spring 1989 events and placed it below the fold here. I do this to add to the public memory of those events and those times. And I commend the people over at The China Beat for doing such good work of late in posting material on the protests of twenty years ago.
(Here, for those interested in the theoretical stuff, is a pdf of the entire article, entitled: "Collective Identity, Symbolic Mobilization, and Student Protest in Nanjing, China, 1988-1989," Comparative Politics, vol. 26, no. 4 (July 1994), pp. 395-413: Download Nanjing)
The 1989 story is below....
footnotes can be found at the end of the text
Nanjing's Democracy Protests, April 15-May 4, 1989
Hu Yaobang's death provided a legitimate reason for public action, mourning a fallen party leader.53 Almost as soon as they heard the news, Nanjing students began to interpret the meaning of Hu's death, making him into something that defined themselves collectively. Eulogies to him in wall posters at Nanjing University became a vehicle for core framing tasks: criticizing China's problems, proposing solutions, and motivating participation in protests.54 Critiques of tyrannical abuses of power, factionalism, corruption, and economic mismanagement were common themes in the early wall posters. Calls for further economic reform, political decentralization, and multiparty democracy were articulated. Hu was compared to past martyrs, Liu Shaoqi and others, who died at the hands of "power-mongers." In contrast, other leaders were represented as villains; Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang were castigated as corrupt and aloof.55
Hu Yaobang's life was thus made into a struggle against all that was bad in China, his death an opportunity to extoll a vision of what China could be and to resist the forces of political tyranny, economic ruin, and social malaise. It was hardly relevant that Hu may not have been a shining hero in real life; the students were defining themselves politically as much as they were honoring Hu. Moreover, the wall posters were problematic for local leaders because student-created images of Hu challenged established political authority and economic policy. But Communist Party officials could not easily assail the very reverential student praise for a former general secretary, whom the official obituary regarded as a "loyal fighter for Communism."56 State authorities could only wait and hope to regain the interpretive initiative as the students' enthusiasm flagged.
The students took advantage of the state's dilemma to push their symbol making beyond wall posters. An on-campus commemoration at Nanjing University on April 17 was followed two days later by a larger march through the city's streets that drew students from several other local colleges. Their slogans revealed the political character of their protest. Rarely referring directly to Hu, they chanted: "down with official corruption," "down with dictatorship," "long live freedom," "long live democracy."57 These efforts did not spawn a citywide protest organization in Nanjing, however. Several relatively small demonstrations occurred between April 19 and May 4 but paled in comparison to Beijing's throngs. It was evident that the Nanjing students simply were not as well organized as their Beijing peers. When the Beijing students began to establish their independent unions, the Nanjing students did not immediately follow suit. The two cities communicated, but not enough to systematize the Nanjing protests.58
Nanjing's weak organization was evident on May 4, an officially recognized day of tribute to the activists of 1919. Nanjing students marched to the provincial government headquarters, where 200-300 students staged a sit-in, calling for a "dialogue" with the governor. They issued ten demands: resignation of bureaucrats who neglected their duty; resignation of leaders over seventy-five years of age; limitations on Communist Party expenditures; a public investigation into official corruption; public disclosure of leaders' homes, incomes, and family members' situations; freedom of the press; a report of the "real facts" of the April 22 and April 27 demonstrations in Beijing; protection for demonstrators and organizers; a truthful account of the Nanjing University student who was forced into a nervous breakdown by school officials; and abolition of local regulations against demonstrations.59
The governor refused to meet with the protesters that day, and the dwindling group of students retired to their dormitories with little to show for their efforts. The demonstration had been anticipated by local authorities, who for several days before had pressured students not to participate in unsanctioned events. Local work units notified their employees to avoid the demonstrations, thwarting a student-worker alliance. On the day itself, police were out in force, recording the protests with video cameras. Few students were willing to risk arrest, and the Nanjing movement waned.
The weakness of the Nanjing movement at this time was due to both structural and symbolic factors. State power clearly worked against local activists, who could not overcome the general sense of danger associated with protest activity. Nanjing students were also less certain than their Beijing peers of elite fragmentation and the presence of allies within the state apparatus. They heard stories of political intrigue in the capital, but these stories were second- or third-hand accounts, not persuasive enough to counteract their ambivalence. Beijing students, by contrast, were closer to the political center and quicker to see political opportunities as they unfolded. Symbolically, the Nanjing movement was limited by the very circumstances that motivated it. The specific event of Hu Yaobang's death had moved students to act. The impetus for action dissipated, however, once proper funeral rituals were observed. Unable to create other symbols that might have sustained mobilization, as the Beijing students did, the Nanjing movement gradually lost its momentum, swinging the advantage back to the state.
"Support Beijing," May 15-June 6, 1989
The key event that revived the local movement was the Beijing hunger strike that began on May 13, a purer political symbol of defiance. The ritualistic grieving for Hu Yaobang had provided an opening for legitimate public demonstrations, but it had also limited the students' vision of protest. The hunger strike afforded a new rallying cry: "Support Beijing."' The personal element of aiding suffering peers in Beijing made political commitments more focused and militant in Nanjing.
The local movement organization began to take shape in the wake of the Beijing hunger strike. Nanjing faculty members were critical in this regard. Over the weekend of May 13-14, a teacher in the Nanjing University law department publicly announced his resignation from the party.60 Shortly thereafter a petition was posted, signed by one hundred Nanjing University faculty members, supporting the Beijing students. This action emboldened Nanjing students to found a protest organization, modeled on the Beijing student unions. On May 16 an announcement was posted declaring the establishment of the Autonomous Union of Nanjing Universities. This union was to be an open and democratic body, representing the identity of the movement itself. A second poster listed the names of the provisional leadership, until proper elections could be held, and major offices. In an ironic imitation of official government structures, a standing committee of five students oversaw the work of propaganda, liaison, and logistics departments. The basic organizational building blocks, as in Beijing, were individual academic departments. This department-based structure was very effective; it brought organization down to the interpersonal level where classmates could motivate and reassure one another.
Along with the new organization, Nanjing students also developed a strategy of protest. They reoriented their objectives and formulated tactics to secure their goals. Four demands were issued on May 16: a dialogue between the 'highest leaders" of the provincial government and representatives of the autonomous student union before May 20, accurately reported in the local media; recognition of the student union's legality and protection of its rights of assembly and publication; a guarantee of the security of student protesters; and a publicly supervised investigation of official corruption. The May 4 demands had expressed student frustration with abuses of power and corruption; the new objectives would create the institutional means to act on the earlier concerns.
The Nanjing students increased the pressure on local authorities to accede to their demands. They struck their classes and filled the streets with larger and larger demonstrations between May 16 and 19. At their height, roughly 100,000 people jammed major downtown thorough- fares.61 The movement took on many of the features of the Tiananmen Square occupation that was simultaneously occurring in Beijing. Marching under school and departmental flags, students called for democracy and freedom; they reiterated demands for dialogue, truthful reporting, recognition of the student union, and investigations into official corruption. Teachers joined their students, as did, for the first time, some workers. Journalists, in solidarity with their Beijing colleagues, protested against press restrictions.
The situation changed dramatically on May 19, when martial law was declared in parts of Beijing, raising the costs of protest everywhere. The emerging Nanjing student organization did not, however, disintegrate when faced with serious possibilities of repression. On the same night that martial law was announced in Beijing. police agents visited Nanjing organizers and said that they would follow suit in approximately twenty-four hours. Some protest leaders welcomed this threat, seeing in it a sign of government weakness and the possibility of greater symbolic gains. An all night sit-in, held on May 20-21, called local officials' bluff. When the night passed without martial law, Nanjing activists turned their wrath on key Beijing leaders Li Peng, Yang Shangkun, and Deng Xiaoping, calling for the troika to resign. Far from backing down, the Nanjing students, empowered by the week's victories, dared local officials to crack down.
Nanjing protesters were now able to control their demonstrations to produce specific symbolic effects. On May 21, several thousand students went to Nanjing military region headquarters and kowtowed in the street, beseeching the military not to use force. They sang the national anthem, representing themselves as good citizens with no alternative but virtuous remonstrance. In the early morning hours of May 22, under renewed threats of martial law, thousands converged on a central square in well-ordered columns, chanting defiant slogans in haunting unison. They were marching as to war, a powerful show of their resolve. Later that same day, the tactics shifted to rallying the citizens of Nanjing. Bicycle brigades of students spread the protest message through the city's southern districts, working class neighborhoods as yet untouched by the movement. Although the people did not respond as they did in Beijing, this effort helped to counter a sense of social isolation among the students. They were not merely acting by themselves for themselves but were defining themselves as stewards of China's common good.
These actions were different from the makeshift demonstrations of April 19 and May 4. They involved more calculated and precise strategic symbolizing that stiffened resistance to official censure. The Nanjing movement, however, was not wholly self-propelling; it was still tied symbolically and operationally to Beijing. The central role of Beijing helped Nanjing students in that the provincial government dared not take decisive action as long as the situation in the capital was unresolved. The extrinsic dynamic, however, also hampered Nanjing students. As the Beijing demonstrations began to lose their focus, so too the Nanjing movement began to fade. Strategy beyond existing victories was cloudy as Nanjing organizers waited for a clearer sense of the situation in Beijing,
What was needed was an event that would keep up spirits in Nanjing until Beijing sorted itself out. Activists devised just such an action: the long march for democracy. On June 1, about 800 students from a dozen different Nanjing schools set off on foot for Beijing.62 Crowds numbering in the thousands bid them farewell. Their plan was to carry the message of democracy to the hinterland and, upon their arrival in the capital, show their support for the movement there and deliver a petition calling for an emergency session of the National People's Congress to renounce martial law. For the next three days the long marchers commanded the attention of Nanjing students, but their undertaking was cut short by the Beijing massacre.
The carnage in Beijing did not immediately put a stop to the Nanjing protests. Rather, it induced several more episodes of strategic symbolizing. As the tragic news was heard on June 4, students and teachers organized demonstrations of public mourning. On June 5 grief turned to contention as students laid siege to the city.The northwest entrance to a main traffic circle was blockaded by two empty buses. Students sat-in at important intersections throughout the downtown area, but especially on the route to the Changjiang (Yangzi) River Bridge, snarling transportation. Believing military occupation was imminent, they hoped to obstruct the most obvious approaches to the city. Students solicited, and received, money from citizens. Linked by telephone and fax machine to news sources in Hong Kong and elsewhere, students covered the city with international press reports of the massacre, thus breaking the state's information monopoly.
The most daring post-massacre action occurred on June 6, when hundreds of students blocked the Changjiang River Bridge. This structure is Nanjing's most prominent national symbol, representing China's self-reliance in the aftermath of the Sino-Soviet split. It is also a key rail and road corridor. Students brought all traffic on the bridge to a standstill for the daylight hours. The next day, a contingent of about 400 students slowed traffic on the bridge for several hours. It was the finale of the Nanjing movement.
By this time it was clear that repression in Nanjing would not take the bloody form of the Beijing massacre. Local authorities pursued a series of late night arrests to break the movement. In the following weeks over 3,500 people were arrested throughout Jiangsu province for offenses related to the spring demonstrations.63 Faced with certain incarceration, protest leaders went underground, and demoralized students left town to avoid trouble.
53. For a detailed analysis of the 1989 democracy movement in Nanjing, see Richard Lufrano. "Nanjing Spring: The 1989 Student Movement in a Provincial Capital." Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 24 (January 1992).
54. "Yaobang Reform Memorial" (Yaobang Gaige Ji); "Mourn Yaobang, Discuss Reform" (DaoYaobang, Lungaige); wall posters at Nanjing University, April 16, 1989.
55. "Song of the Five Sons" (Wuzige), wall poster, Nanjing University. April 16, 1989.
56. Xinhua Ribao, Apr. 16, 1989, p. 1.
57. Author's eyewitness observation.
58. Jingxin Dongpo de 56 Tian (Beijing: State Education Commission. 1989).
59. Ibid., pp. 88-89.
60. Ibid., pp. 116-117.
61. From author's eyewitness observations.
62. Jingxin Dongpo de 56 Tian, p. 191.
63. Asia Watch, Nov. 15., 1989.