Far From Beijing, Jaded Students Inspired to Protest

They were the children of poor farmers and factory workers, the first in their families to attend college, and for that they were grateful. But in the spring of 1989, the students at Hubei University, a provincial college in the Yangtze River city of Wuhan, were jaded beyond their years.

Their cynicism was stoked by intrusive government controls over nearly every aspect of life and the systemic corruption that favored personal connections over hard work and talent. As they neared graduation, many dreaded their predetermined futures: Most would be dispatched to the countryside as low-paid middle school teachers, with the exception of a privileged few.
But that April, as word of the student protests shaking Beijing reached Wuhan, their world-weary outlooks brightened. Words like “democracy” and “freedom” were excitedly bandied about the school cafeteria, and a few older students defied administrators and traveled 700 miles north to join the throngs in Tiananmen Square. In mid-May, after the students stopped going to class, the shabby campus took on a carnival air, with a new crop of hand-scrawled posters demanding political reform appearing on walls and lampposts each morning.
I was a 23-year-old English teacher at Hubei University, and until that spring, I had thought my students were hopelessly quiescent, cowed by the suffocating repression and resigned to their dreary fates. “We need to let the leaders in Beijing know that the young people of this country are willing to die for freedom,” said one of my students, David, a 19-year-old English major who became an organizer of the civil disobedience that swept the campus.
One of his boldest moves was to orchestrate a takeover of the campus public address system. He and a band of young collaborators renamed it “rebel radio,” and their dawn-to-dusk broadcasts criticized the Communist Party while exhorting classmates to join the daily protests that would later block the sole rail line across the Yangtze.
The momentous upheaval 25 years ago that brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to the heart of the Chinese capital has been well documented, thanks to the large foreign press corps that was based in Beijing. But less well known is that the protests against inflation and official corruption took place across the nation, paralyzing cities large and small for nearly two months that spring.
In Jiamusi, a small city in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, which borders Russia, 5,200 students took to the streets on May 18 and 19, according to party documents recently published by Dui Hua, an organization based in the United States. In the provincial capital, Harbin, the number of demonstrators swelled to more than 100,000.
In her book “The People’s Republic of Amnesia,” Louisa Lim devotes a chapter to the tumult in Chengdu, the capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan, where day after day students, teachers and workers converged around a giant statue of Mao at Tianfu Square. Later, 1,700 students joined a hunger strike there in solidarity with those in Beijing.
“Protesting became so commonplace that in certain circles, the standard greeting, ‘Have you eaten yet?’ was sometimes half-jokingly replaced by, ‘Have you demonstrated yet?’  ” she wrote.
As in Beijing, the demonstrations in Chengdu were violently crushed, leaving as many as 300 people dead and scores of others arrested, a number of whom were promptly executed, according to Ms. Lim’s research. 


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