BEIJING — "The events have not run their course--far from it." --Mikhail S. Gorbachev, at the end of his first day in China
The impending arrival of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev for the first Sino-Soviet summit meeting in 30 years added a new element to the demonstrations in Beijing. Gorbachev represented youth, openness, flexibility, political change--things the Chinese students yearned for, things their own leaders seemed to them incapable of delivering.
Gorbachev's visit also meant new visibility for the protesters. With the Soviet leader came more reporters and more television crews. Many stayed after Gorbachev left China, and many more arrived as the protests escalated. Hordes of journalists were on hand to record the climactic events of subsequent weeks.
On Saturday, May 13, two days before Gorbachev's scheduled arrival, about 1,000 protesters began a hunger strike in Tian An Men Square. Unless their demands were met, they vowed, they would remain in the square and embarrass China and its aged leaders before the world.
The hunger strike was unprecedented in China, a nation that has known centuries of deprivation and starvation. That students would risk illness or death to dramatize their cry for freedom caused immense impact as the news spread through and beyond the capital.
With the hunger strike under way, the Sino-Soviet summit presented the Chinese government with a daunting challenge. How could the authorities recapture the streets--and the world stage--from the masses of peaceful demonstrators?
Even General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who would become the protesters' leading ally, issued a dramatic televised appeal to the students Saturday evening to call off their protests and avoid humiliating their country during the summit.
"The whole world is watching," Zhao said. "I think every citizen who loves his country will think carefully. We must protect our international reputation and not do anything that would damage the summit meeting."
Zhao's message had no noticeable effect. On May 14, red banners representing Beijing universities dotted Tian An Men Square. A large black banner proclaimed, "Hunger strike!"
"The Soviet Union has Gorbachev. Who does China have?" read a banner in the square. "You're 58 and I'm 85!" read another, comparing Deng Xiaoping, who will be 85 in August, to Gorbachev.
By nightfall, 50,000 students and factory and office workers had gathered in the square, nervously expecting to be cleared out for Gorbachev's arrival the next morning.
"The government won't let the world see so many students demonstrating here," one student predicted that evening. "I think maybe the police will move in."
But the police held back. Tens of thousands of students and supporters remained in the square beyond the 8:30 a.m. Monday deadline set by authorities to clear the site.
The fast-swelling crowd forced authorities to move the May 15 welcoming ceremony from Tian An Men Square to Beijing airport. The Chinese honor guard and military band were bused to the airport from their barracks near the Great Hall of the People. Apologetic explanations were offered to the Soviet advance team.
"We recognize that it would be physically impossible to carry out this part of the program," Gennady I. Gerasimov, the chief Soviet spokesman, said when the ceremony was relocated. "Why should we worry? They are friendly crowds. But this is a matter for the Chinese."
Aboard Gorbachev's jet, an official of the Soviet Foreign Ministry told him that perhaps half a million Chinese had congregated in and around Tian An Men Square.
"How big is this square?" asked an incredulous Gorbachev. "Perhaps half a million people? Is that possible?"
Assured that it was, Gorbachev asked about the nature and temper of the crowd and the possibility of violence.
"We saw no threat," the official said later. "On the contrary, according to the people we had in the square, the crowd was overwhelmingly friendly toward the Soviet Union and toward Mikhail Gorbachev personally. In a way, it was a welcome beyond our imagination. Who would have thought that after all that passed between us, the leader of the Soviet Union would be welcomed as a hero in China?"
On Monday evening, after he had seen the crowds for himself, Gorbachev summoned his China experts--diplomats, intelligence officers, journalists--for a two-hour discussion at his guest house after the welcoming banquet at the Great Hall of the People.
He peppered them with questions about the protests until past midnight, seeking to understand what the outcome might be, what the underlying issues were, how the leadership was handling the situation, what the long-term impact would be. He challenged those offering timid assessments to rethink their positions. He also cautioned the others, a considerable number, who were carried away by the enthusiasm of the students.