by Richard Bohm, Ph.D.And University of California, Los Angeles
In the latter half of the 1980s, urban distress was clearly increasing, and college students in China were increasingly anxious. Throughout most of 1986, there was little general consistency or rationality for student grievances. But that changed dramatically in the fall of 1986, when discontent on campus began to coalesce around one common theme: the demand for student empowerment.
Two developments have driven integration around the demand for student empowerment.
The first was the revival of Deng Xiaoping’s ill-fated 1980 proposals for systemic political reform. In mid-1986, on Deng’s instructions, Zhao Ziyang appointed an advisory committee, composed largely of intellectuals from parties with liberal leanings, to again address the issue of political reform, which had been silenced since 1980. He instructed its members to prepare a set of concrete proposals for submission to the next party national convention.
When news of Zhao’s instructions reached college campuses across the country, expectations for political change understandably soared.
The second development that helped spur political activism among college students in the latter half of 1986 was a hugely popular, multi-campus discussion tour by a free-thinking, free-speaking college professor named Fang Lisi.
Learn more about the early ding system.
Fang Lizi: I love the crowd
Fang Lizi was an astrophysicist, who was also the vice president of the Chinese University of Science and Technology in Anhui Province.
During Mao’s era, Professor Fang was repeatedly criticized and persecuted for his political views, first during the 1957 Anti-Right Movement and again later during the Cultural Revolution.
Fang had been a liberal all his life, and he gave voice to the feelings of vulnerability and frustration of a large number of Chinese students. In a series of campus lectures delivered in November and December of 1986, Fang Lisi boldly criticized by name a number of party leaders who were accused of corruption. and contempt for party officials who denied people their constitutional right to freedom of expression.
He challenged Chinese students to “break all the barriers” that have hindered open intellectual research and creativity, and urged young people to boldly take their futures in their own hands.
Wherever the charismatic Fang Lizi spoke, he attracted large crowds of enthusiastic young fans. In the wake of his speeches on half a dozen college campuses in Hefei, Shanghai and Beijing, tens of thousands of students poured out of their classrooms and dormitories into the streets.
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Student demonstrations 1986
In December 1986, 75,000 students from 150 colleges in 17 Chinese cities participated in pro-democracy rallies and demonstrations.
Not surprisingly, party leaders are divided over how to view these events. Liberal politicians, such as the liberal-leaning mayor of Tianjin, Li Ruihuan, have called for calm, urging his city’s citizens not to be overly alarmed by the student demonstrations. Along the same lines, Hu Yaobang, the politically permissive General Secretary, adopted a very calm attitude towards the protesting students.
But others were less tolerant, including the Beijing county municipal government.
Prodemocracy rally in Tiananmen Square
When more than 20,000 students in Beijing participated in a pro-democracy rally in Tiananmen Square on New Year’s Eve, the official newspaper, Beijing DailyHe responded with an editorial accusing them of inciting “sedition” and questioning their patriotism. In a display of furious defiance, the students set a fire in the square in which they burned several hundred abridged copies of the offending newspaper.
With that, the old hardliners of the Communist Party, who were already visibly resentful of the students for their presentation of bourgeois liberalism, began to rage. The students had brazenly thrown their noses at the power, and even worse, they had gotten away with it.
Learn more about social and political tensions in China.
Deng supports the hard line stance
Even the mild-mannered Deng Xiaoping was furious. He blamed Fang Li for inflaming the students’ feelings, and now Deng demanded that Fang be expelled from the Chinese Communist Party.
But the party’s conservatives didn’t stop there. Feeling that the momentum had shifted in their favor, they now demanded a firm response to the scandalous behavior of the students in Tiananmen Square, and demanded that Hu Yaobang personally take responsibility for encouraging the students to show defiance.
Impressed by his conflicting advice and opinions, Ding initially hedged and impressed. But the burning of newspapers in Tiananmen Square convinced him that he needed to take a stand. And on New Year’s Eve, he came to support the hard-line position.
Although Deng clearly preferred not to use force, he was convinced that a dangerous precedent would be set if the party succumbed to the demands of the students.
End the Tiananmen protests
Under these circumstances, ending the Tiananmen protests became an important test of Deng’s will, one he was determined to win. On the last day of December, he announced his feelings to his inner circle of party elders.
He said, “We can’t allow people who go right and wrong… to do as they please.”
Although Deng was clearly prepared to take resolute action, the situation accidentally resolved itself without resorting to mass violence. On the first day of the new year, January 1, 1987, the municipal police arrested 30 students demonstrating in Tiananmen Square. Motivated by this show of government design, and the chill of Beijing’s frigid winter wind, the students decided to end their protest in a face-saving manner. In a recent spirited mass gathering in Tiananmen Square, they sang revolutionary songs and quietly dispersed, returning to their campuses to resume their studies and prepare for the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday.
With that, the crisis went into remission, and Ding’s dark side once again disappeared from view.
Frequently asked questions about student empowerment: Pro-democracy demonstrations and rallies in China
Fang Lizzy He was a lifelong liberal who gave voice to the feelings of vulnerability and frustration of many Chinese students. He challenged Chinese students to “break all the barriers” that have hindered open intellectual research and creativity.
In December 1986, 75,000 students from 150 colleges in 17 Chinese cities participated Pro-democracy rallies and demonstrations.
More than 20,000 students in Beijing participated in a pro-democracy rally in Tiananmen Square New Year’s Eve 1986.