Los Angeles Times, May 26, 1989, Friday
CHINA IN TURMOIL
Fresh Recruits for Student Army Arrive by Rail to Join Beijing’s War of Nerves
By KARL SCHOENBERGER, Times Staff Writer
BEIJING – At one platform of the vast, cavernous and filthy Beijing Railway Station, fresh recruits arrived from the countryside, stowaways who had come to the capital Thursday night to join fellow students in Tian An Men Square in a protracted war of nerves with authorities. Their faces lighted up as the train pulled into the station to the cheers of sympathizers.
At the next platform, more than 1,000 similarly youthful soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army languished on the hard seats of a parked and darkened train in which they had been cooped up for more than four days. The troops were sent here Sunday to help enforce martial law, only to have their exit from the station blocked by throngs of irate students and citizens.
The scene at the station perhaps sums up the baffling stalemate between one of the world’s most authoritarian governments and its suddenly defiant people.
Exuberant students are banking on the naive hope that they can lead China’s masses in a drive for democracy. But hard-line Communist Party leaders are emerging from a murky power struggle apparently victorious and preparing to recoup a humiliating loss of face by making good on an ultimatum to crack down on dissent.
A curious tension was in the air Thursday evening after Premier Li Peng made his first public appearance since declaring martial law five days earlier. Li’s grasp on power was confirmed when he was shown greeting ambassadors on the 7 p.m. news broadcast of the Chinese Central Television network.
Employees of the same state-run network were among journalists and intellectuals who led tens of thousands of people earlier in the day on a march to Tian An Men Square, expressing solidarity with students who have carried out a hunger strike and sit-in there for the last two weeks.
An equally large number of people watched and cheered as the protesters arrived at the square chanting, “Li Peng, step down!” Some of them dared to call for the resignation of Deng Xiaoping, China’s top leader and Li’s backer.
“Li Peng’s government has lost the trust of the people,” said a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He joined the protest wearing a baseball cap bearing the message: “To Be or Not to Be, That Is a Question.”
But Deng, 84, arouses more ambivalent feelings among protesters than does the vilified Li. Deng is respected because he is the hero of economic reform, and he supposedly controls the powerful military.
“We don’t want to make him too angry,” a student protester said.
Generally, references to Deng have come in the form of mild rebukes, such as the slogan painted on a subway train earlier this week: “When a Person Gets Old, He Can No Longer Carry a Tune.”
Mockery Grows Explicit
By Thursday, however, the gentle prodding had given way to a more explicit mockery.
“Xiaoping, Xiaoping, in his 80s,” demonstrators chanted. “Health OK, brain not sharp. Go home quickly. Go play bridge.”
A group of music students who perform in a rock ‘n’ roll band in the rubbish-strewn tent city erected by protesters in the center of the square attacked Deng in one of their songs.
“We are masters, not willing to be slaves,” the words go. “We want democracy, we don’t need an emperor.”
Meanwhile, back at the railroad station, new slogan fodder continued to arrive from the provinces as students ignored an “urgent circular” issued Thursday by the State Council warning them to stay away from Beijing. And while rumors circulated about massive numbers of troops circling the capital, a small group of students kept a symbolic vigil over the trainload of stranded People’s Liberation Army soldiers.
“We’re not afraid of them because they’re the people’s army,” said one of a few dozen students positioned on a platform near the train. “But we’re keeping an eye on them and trying to talk with them. I don’t think they’re going anywhere soon.”
GRAPHIC: Photo, Premier Li Peng as he appeared on Chinese Central Television. ; Photo, Marchers in Beijing on Thursday carry painted characters that read “Li Peng, Step Down.” Associated Press