This narrative, edited and abridged, is a recollection of the open yet orderly atmosphere that characterized three weeks in May 1989 when Beijing enjoyed a brief respite from Party control. Author Chen Gang, a college student during the iconic events, recalls his personal experience from the student demonstrations that involved millions of people.
There are concerns that China, removed from the one-Party state’s dominance, would suffer great chaos. As a matter of fact, we in Beijing enjoyed some twenty days of peace and order in the spring and summer of 1989—outside the grip of the Chinese Communist Party.
Starting May 13 of that year, college students from many of the Chinese capital’s institutions flocked to Tiananmen Square to take part in the demonstrations and hunger strike in support of human rights and to protest the corruption of Party officials. Ordinary residents as well as students, spontaneously joined in the events, making a peak of of three million people across Beijing.
It was from this day on that the Communist Party began to lose control, and anarchy seemed to loom over the capital.
Spontaneous Order at Tiananmen
At the time, I was a junior in college. On May 16, I went with my fellow students and professors to Tiananmen to support those on hunger strike. Every day, thousands upon thousands of Beijingers of different class backgrounds swarmed into the square or marched in parades around the area.
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The police—those managing traffic, public security officers, and military police—had all left their posts at Tiananmen and in the general vicinity. But there was no chaos at all. Rather, students simply occupied the empty positions to maintain order. I was at the square every day, and I neither saw nor heard of any theft or violence.
To support the students, people from all over the capital sent a wide variety of food, drink, and other goods to the square. The supplies piled up in mountains. We immediately began a sincere effort to share the responsibilities of distribution. As firstcomers, we did not abuse our privilege. We instead handed out the food and supplies to others before seeing to our own needs. And those who came took just what they needed.
Hundreds of thousands of Chinese gathering in Tiananmen Square demanding democracy despite martial law in Beijing on June 2, 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)
It was an emotional moment: I had never expected that the communist slogan of “Assign the abundant material goods to the people according to their need” would be first realized there at a Tiananmen Square—freed of the Party organization.
The patriotism of the students’ movement was a great motivator. The people set aside their selfishness and put their hearts to the future of the state and our nation. Among the students were no lack of beautiful girls from around the country. I was very young and without a girlfriend, and indeed there were many opportunities for me to find a like-minded young woman there on the square. Yet, for fear of blaspheming this great patriotic undertaking, I dared not be moved by any personal desires. I never asked the names or hometowns of those pretty girls standing next to me side by side.
Without the Party
On May 20, seeing power and personal privilege slipping from their hands, the Communist Party leadership declared martial law. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army were deployed outside Beijing and prepared to suppress the students and “resume normal order” despite the fact that it had never been lost and that the millions of Beijing residents were working and living in peace.
And it was with peaceful disobedience that hundreds of thousands of people blocked the People’s Liberation Army formations marching into the capital from all directions. The Beijing government, all but paralyzed, fell out of Party control. The capital’s higher institution set up autonomous students’ and workers’ associations, all without Party leaders.
Beijing magistrates in their court uniforms join workers demonstrating in Beijing streets on May 18, 1989, in support of student hunger strikers gathered at Tiananmen Square. (Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)
Fully-armed soldiers arriving in combat vehicles were at a loss when they saw what the capital looked like. On May 21, I went to the Gucheng Street in Shijingshan District, which was near my home. I saw only a long column of military vehicles snaking through the street, stopped in place by a human chain of residents.
The troops had been fooled by the authorities, who claimed that there was “turmoil in Beijing” and that order needed to be restored. Locals surrounding the soldiers spoke to them about the truth of the circumstances, that the students were protesting against corruption, that Beijing was in good order, and that the PLA was not needed to restore anything. The only request was for the patriotic students and citizens to be spared bloodshed.
Everywhere the people of the capital used their bodies to halt the army vehicles. The words of a middle-aged lady stuck in my mind: “Why doesn’t the United Nations send peacekeeping forces to protect us here in Beijing?”
Pro-democracy demonstrators applaud students from Beijing University standing on People’s Liberation Army (PLA) armored personnel carriers in Beijing on May 21, 1989, trying to convince the soldiers to defy the Martial Law which was proclaimed the previous day. (Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)
No police, military police, or soldiers occupied Beijing proper or its outskirts. The capital was simply out of the Communist Party’s domain. Not wanting to give the authorities any excuse to suppress the demonstrations, the students cooperated to institute a meticulous regime of social law and order, starting with directing traffic.
At that time, there was no “riot,” and even thieves renounced stealing. Beijing police statistics showed a visible decrease in all crimes during those events. Traffic accidents reached an all-time low. Commercial activity continued without interruption.
Pro-democracy demonstrators surround a truck carrying People’s Liberation Army soldiers on their way to Tiananmen Square in Beijing on May 20, 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)
Common Hopes
Normally, under the Party’s

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