The Guangzhou Students in the 1989 Democratic Movement — A Personal Account


Shang Ji De

 (Please note that this translation is an abridged version of the Chinese original)

Students nationally experiment with autonomy.

Since the Umbrella Movement, it has been fashionable for many young people in Hong Kong to be ‘anti-China’. In fact the 1989 democratic movement is worthy of attention even for those who advocate the division of China and Hong Kong—the independent autonomous students’ organisations at China’s higher education institutes, such as the Beijing Students’ Autonomous Federation, were organisations that flourished during the 1989 democracy movement. Although these autonomous students’ organisations all disappeared with the 1989 pro-democracy movement, it was the first time since the establishment of the Communist Party that spontaneous autonomous students’ organisation were established on this scale.

The Beijing students’ action was quickly copied by students in every major city. I will share my personal experience and participation related to the Guangzhou Patriotic Students’ Federation.

Guangzhou is located in Southern China near to Hong Kong and Macau and so was better situated for frequent exchanges and information dissemination than China’s inland provinces and cities. Since the beginning of reform and open, people had long complained about the corruption of party officials. Of Guangzhou higher education institutions, Sun Yat-sen University, South China University of Technology, South China Normal University and Jinan University are the most famous. The main members of the Guangzhou Patriotic Students’ Federation came from these four institutions.

Students from the Media Department of Jinan University first launched a fundraising campaign to support the Beijing student movement. Soon, in response to the call by the Beijing Students’ Autonomous Federation, Guangzhou higher education institutions launched a class boycott. During the boycott, on many occasions, different groups of students collectively marched to the main entrance of the Guangzhou provincial government to express support for the Beijing student movement as well as to demand an end to profiteering by officials. But it was not until the Beijing students’ hunger strike propaganda group came to Guangzhou to promote the Beijing democratic movement that the Guangzhou Patriotic Students’ Federation was finally launched.

When the Beijing authorities announced martial law in Beijing for the first time, it had a deterrent effect on the Guangzhou students’ movement. As a result, many students retreated to wait and see. Some of the Jinan university students who came from Hong Kong and Macau left and went home. But soon they returned to the Guangzhou campus again and brought with them newspapers from Hong Kong [there was censorship in Mainland even if bits of information still leaked out — translator’s note]. News about how Beijing people fearlessly and selflessly blocked tanks and military vehicles, sent food and water and drove the soldiers back was brought back, breaking the news blockade.


Guangzhou students call a strike and class boycott.

After the Beijing authorities announced martial law for the first time, in order to collect more democracy movement news, early every morning Jinan university students would take a train to Hong Kong to buy the major magazines and newspapers and then the Jinan Patriotic Student Association printing group would make a large number of copies to distribute them everywhere. As university students at other campuses in Guangzhou did not have the same freedom to travel, the Jinan campus soon became the Guangzhou democracy movement news distribution centre. For three days and three nights, as a member of the printing group I worked unremittingly without much food and sleep, but even this was not enough to satisfy the need of fellow students. A fellow student from the printing group remarked that (quoting Mao Zedong) “Making a revolution is not like offering your guest a meal”.

After the Beijing students announced the end of the hunger strike but still remained in the square, a number of students from the Beijing Students’ Autonomous Federation, who were members of the propaganda group, went to institutions in different provinces and cities to promote the Beijing democracy movement. On June 3rd, a group of eleven from the Beijing Students’ Autonomous Federation’s propaganda group came to Jinan University, and two other students and I were responsible for their reception. This was followed by an assembly of students from different institutions at Jinan Park. The Beijing propaganda group reported the Beijing student hunger strikers‘ demands: 1, the CCP government admit that the student movement was a patriotic democratic movement; 2, to curb market speculation; 3, the CCP promise that no retaliation against students would be taken.

With rapid developments changing the situation, on the early morning of June 4th the tragic news of the crackdown by the army in Beijing reverberated throughout the whole of Jinan campus and a lot of students immediately assembled outside of the Jinan campus West gate. South China Normal University students held a huge march to the Guangzhou provincial government. On the afternoon of June 4th, a general assembly was held at the Jinan campus for those who had sacrificed themselves for democracy. Students from Sun Yat-sen University, South China Normal University and South China University of Technology came to attend. The assembly decided to set up a Guangzhou Higher Education Patriotic Autonomous Students’ Federation and to organize a propaganda department to break through the news blockade, and also to call on the people of Guangzhou to take part in a city wide strike on the 5th June. Students boycotting classes blockaded the Haizhu Bridge to create the conditions for a citywide strike.

As the Jinan Patriotic Students’ Association printing group had been in operation longer and had more experience than other campuses, it became the propaganda department for the Guangzhou Higher Education Patriotic Autonomous Students’ Federation and on the spot at the assembly recruited three teams of 6-8 people to be sent to Sichuan, Hunan and different parts of Guangdong. Students from the propaganda department collected the major newspapers in Hong Kong and Asia Television news clips. During the night they would make multiple copies for each propaganda team to take away in the morning.


Students blockade Haizhu Bridge

On the morning of June 5th, almost ten thousand university students took to the streets and up to twenty thousand ordinary people assembled as onlookers. At around 8.30am more than a thousand Sun Yat-sen University students blockaded Haizhu Bridge, successfully blocking a major road into Guangzhou city and preventing people from going to work. Although this was successful, the effort to launch a general strike failed. At the same time, from morning to night, the Guangdong propaganda team brought with them television and film clips showing news clips of the army’s suppression of the Beijing people, while at the same time they distributed leaflets. Wherever they went it stirred up public condemnation of the government’s suppression of the democracy movement.

On the evening of June 5th, the situation suddenly changed once again. More than ten times the Guangzhou Higher Education Patriotic Autonomous Students’ Federation received news that the provincial government was preparing to suppress the Patriotic Autonomous Students’ Federation. The spirits of the majority of the students could no longer endure this tense state and when contact was lost with the Sichuan propaganda team and news was received that the PLA army stationed in Boluo had arrived in Guangzhou and were at the entrance of the Overseas Chinese hospital, it was the last straw in breaking their nerves. The chairperson of the Federation announced its dissolution and called on the students to leave the campus. Most students disagreed with this call but did not prevent anyone from leaving. As a liaison officer for the propaganda group, in order not to cause risk to other liaison officers and propaganda teams, in this situation, the first thing I had to do was to destroy the contact lists.

In the face of the brutal crackdown by the Communist Party, young people in Guangzhou showed courage. I was one amongst them. The burning of paper could be smelled all night and in the morning they showed bravery when there were rumours that the PLA was inquiring about the students, although this turned out to be a false alarm. But this allowed the students from the Federation to clearly understand that faced with the strength of such a strong ruler it was difficult for them to resist. Then the Federation decided to launch the “empty campus movement” to protest the efforts of the Communist Party authorities to suppress the democratic movement. Beginning on June 6th, students continuously boycotted classes and one after another left school and went home. Although some students took part in the later “Operation Yellow Bird” [an operation to save student activists who were wanted by the authorities — translator’s note), the Autonomous Students’ Federation soon stopped functioning and then disintegrated in July.

The night before the 28th year memorial of the June 4th Massacre.