On this date, the state funeral for Hu Yaobang, the reform-minded Chinese Communist leader whom the students were honoring, was held. A small handful of student leaders, including Zhou Yongjun and Guo Haifeng, appeared on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, clutching their petition for Chinese reform. They knelt down on the steps in the classic Chinese tradition of waiting for the emperor to receive their petition. Chinese government officials refused to receive the delegation. This moment became an iconic photo of the Tiananmen Square protests.
The “Seven Point Petition” had been drafted on April 18, 1989.In the early morning, hundreds of students from Peking University had gathered around the Monument to People’s Heroes at Tiananmen Square. They had spent the previous night there guarding the wreaths and flowers dedicated to the newly deceased Hu Yaobang. Wang Dan, Guo Haifeng, Li Jinjin, and Zhang Boli all had been among the crowd and proposed to write a formal petition to the government. After much discussion, the following became their seven demands for government reform:
- Reevaluate and praise Hu Yaobang’s contributions
- Negate the previous anti-“spiritual pollution” and anti-“Bourgeois Liberation” movements
- Allow unofficial press and freedom of speech
- Publish government leaders’ income and holdings
- Abolish the “Beijing Ten-Points” [restricting public assembly and demonstrations]
- Increase education funding and enhance the compensation for intellectuals
- Report this movement faithfully
The rebuff of the students would prove to be the first of several grave mistakes by the government that led to the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June, 1989. On April 23, 1989, Zhou was elected the first President of the Autonomous Students Federation of Beijing Universities. The students had decided that they needed a central organization to speak for the whole array of Beijing schools that were represented in Tiananmen Square.
On May 4, 1919, thousands of students from 13 Beijing universities had gathered in Tiananmen Square to protest their government’s weak response to the Treaty of Versailles, which included terms that many felt were unfair to China. That movement soon spread to Shanghai and from students to workers, paving the way for the formation of the Communist Party. Party leaders had viewed the May Fourth movement as so critical to the Communist revolution that in 1958, when they unveiled the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the center of Tiananmen Square, the faces of the 1919 protestors were carved into one side.
In 1989, when students once again converged on the square, they chose the monument as their base. “May Fourth was very important to Chinese history,” says Wang Chaohua, a student organizer who appeared on the government list of 21 most-wanted leaders after the Tiananmen crackdown. “Like the students of May Fourth, we wanted to propose something new.” In both 1919 and 1989, says Wang, who recently completed a doctorate in Asian languages and literature at the University of California at Los Angeles, “political authorities did not command the public imagination. The vacuum was filled by intellectual energy.“