BEIJING — "A situation of anarchy is getting more and more serious." --Premier Li Peng
On Friday, May 19, Nicola Chapuis, a young French diplomat, found himself at the intersection of three historic revolutions.
That morning, Chapuis helped open a new exhibit in Beijing commemorating the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. The ceremonies were held in the Revolutionary History Museum, the huge gray stone building on the east side of Tian An Men Square that honors the Chinese Communist Party's 1949 "liberation" of China.
The day was clear and sunny. As Chapuis' glance wandered outside, he saw what seemed to be the makings of a third, contemporary revolution. Hundreds of thousands of people were gathered in the streets below, far more than had stormed the Bastille. With workers and students parading on trucks as if posing for film makers, the scene looked to Chapuis like political theater, like the French student uprisings of 1968 or the American Woodstock of 1969.
That day, May 19, was probably the high-water mark of the would-be Chinese revolution.
On that afternoon, workers organized a new citywide independent union of workers in Beijing. "Soon the whole country will go on strike to support the students' patriotic movement," said one of the workers holding up a banner for the new union.
Word spread among Chinese officials and Communist Party members that the 38th Army, the People's Liberation Army contingent ordinarily assigned to protect Beijing, had balked at moving into the city and against the students. If the army refused to act, the revolution would be complete. Deng Xiaoping and his entire regime would collapse.
But already, largely unknown to the protesters, forces were beginning to coalesce at the highest levels of the party and the military that would snuff out the protest movement and its political message of democracy.
Within the party leadership, which had been locked in its most bitter power struggle since the death of Mao Tse-tung, the balance was shifting decisively in favor of the old guard, the forces in favor of repression.
General Secretary Zhao, the protesters' highest-ranking sympathizer, had already lost out. The party's five-member Standing Committee of the Politburo had voted the day before to call in the troops. Hard-liners Li Peng and Yao Yilin favored imposing martial law. While the others wavered, only Zhao was willing to vote no.
Few knew any of that in the hours before dawn that Friday morning when Zhao, looking tired and drawn, went into Tian An Men Square to speak with some of the students and other demonstrators. In uncharacteristically emotional terms, he voiced support for the students and their cause.
"We were too late coming. I'm sorry," he said in a tearful seven-minute speech subsequently broadcast on Chinese television. "Your criticism of us is justified. I'm not here to ask your forgiveness. I'm just saying that your bodies have become very weak. Your hunger strike is already in its seventh day. Things can't go on like this."
Some students asked him for his autograph. It was the first time Zhao had become a hero to the students' movement, the first time their cause had become loosely linked to his fate.
The students did not realize it at the time, but it was the last time they would see Zhao, in person or on television, for the remainder of the political crisis.
Friday night, student leaders in Tian An Men Square announced conciliatory plans to call off the hunger strike. The sense of victory--indeed, of immunity--persisted. "The government will not dare suppress the students," a student named Chi said shortly after 10 p.m.
But by that time, word was already spreading through Tian An Men Square that troops were beginning to move on the outskirts of Beijing. Over the students' bullhorns, speakers began urging the students to remain peaceful, to put up no resistance, to remain nonviolent--but to remain in the square.
"Whatever happens, we will stay calm and restrained," said the flamboyant student leader Wuer Kaixi over the loudspeakers. "We should not forget our goals: That is, we are fighting for the prosperity of our motherland and the glory of China. We will fight to the end."
Shortly after midnight, Premier Li appeared on nationwide television. "The capital is in a critical situation," he declared, his high-pitched voice full of tension. "A situation of anarchy is getting more and more serious." He announced that troops would be brought into the city "to stop the turmoil and stabilize the situation."
Li said he was speaking "on behalf of the Communist Party Central Committee and the State Council"--that is, both the party and the government. Those watching on television searched in vain for Zhao. Among the five members of the Politburo Standing Committee, only Zhao was missing.