Zhao Ziyang Speaks to Students on Tiananmen Square: “We Came Too Late”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the nationwide, student-led democracy movement in China, and the subsequent June 4th military crackdown in Beijing. To commemorate the student movement, CDT is posting a series of original news articles from 1989, beginning with the death of Hu Yaobang on April 15 and continuing through the tumultuous spring. The full series can be read at Twenty Years Ago Today: Tiananmen Square Student Movement.

On May 19th, 1989, then General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang, went to Tiananmen Square to talk to the protesting students. Watch a video of his speech:

A translated transcript is below, courtesy of Asia! Magazine:

Date: May 19, 1989

Location: Tiananmen Square, Beijing. China

“Students, we came too late. Sorry, students. Whatever you say and criticise about us is deserved. My purpose here now is not to ask for your forgiveness. I want to say that now, your bodies are very weak. You have been on a hunger strike for six days, and it’s now the seventh day. You cannot go one like this. Starving for such a long time will cause irreparable problems for your bodies, and is dangerous for your health. Now what is most important is to end this hunger strike. I know, you are doing this in the hope that the Party and the government will give a most satisfactory answer for what you are asking for. I feel, our channel for dialogue is open, and some problems need to be resolved through a process. You cannot continue to – after seven days of hunger strike – insist on stopping only when you have a satisfactory answer.

You are still young and have much time ahead of you. You should live healthily to see the day that the Four Modernisations (as proposed by China’s first premier Zhou Enlai in 1975 in the areas of agriculture, technology, industry and defence) of China are realised. You are not like us, we are already old, and do not matter. It was not easy for the country and your parents to nurture you to reach university. Now in your late teens and early twenties, you are sacrificing your lives! Students, can you think rationally for a moment? Now the situation is very dire as you all know, the Party and nation are very anxious, the whole society is worried. Besides Beijing is the capital, and each day the situation is worsening; this cannot go on. You mean well, and have the interests of our country at heart, but if this goes on, it will go out of control and will have various adverse effects.

All in all, this is what I have in mind. If you stop the hunger strike, the government will not close the door on dialogue, definitely not! What you have proposed, we can continue to discuss. It is slow, but some issues are being broached. I just wanted to visit you today and at the same time, tell you how we feel, and hope that you will calmly think about this. Under irrational circumstances, it is hard to think clearly on this. All the vigour that you have as young people, we understand as we too were young once, we too protesteed and we too laid on the tracks without considering the consequences.

Finally I ask again sincerely that you calmly think about what happens from now on. A lot of things can be resolved. I hope that you will end the hunger strike soon and I thank you.”

Read more about Zhao Ziyang, his role in the events of 1989, and his assessment of the government’s actions, in the new book Prisoner of the State.

May 19, 2009 12:01 AM
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Categories: 1989