By Paula Chin
June 12, 1989 12:00 PM

The red banners emblazoned with slogans of defiance fluttered in the breeze, loudspeakers blasted exhortations to the people to keep their spirits high, and hundreds of makeshift tents were still standing in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square—but the intoxicating spirit had vanished. On May 17, more than a million Chinese had stormed through the heart of the capital in an unprecedented display of people power. Now, a week later, the throngs had dwindled to a ragtag group of several thousand weary protesters in the enormous square just outside the gates of the Forbidden City, once home to China’s imperial dynasties. Trash heaps festered in the sweltering 90°F heat. And ominous rumors of an impending military crackdown swept the square as if borne on the hot winds.

Listless and weak from his hunger strike, Zhong He, a 23-year-old student from Beijing’s People’s University, watched somberly as harried student leaders, megaphones in hand, tried to shore up the demonstrators’ flagging morale. Several blocks away, at the state broadcasting center, Wei Hua, 26, a popular television anchorwoman and radio announcer, was also troubled. She had been catapulted to international celebrity after publicly calling for Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to step down and now wondered what price she would ultimately pay for speaking her mind. Meantime, in the courtyard of a rural housing compound on the western fringe of Beijing, truck driver Li Chuanli, 35, was holding an impassioned discussion with his neighbors. A few days earlier, they had joined a force of 100,000 students and ordinary citizens who blocked a military convoy headed for Tiananmen Square—and now they, too, were desperately hoping the movement could somehow stay alive.

They come from the far corners of China’s teeming, splintered society of more than 1 billion people—an idealistic intellectual, a glamorous TV journalist and a rank-and-file worker—but each was swept up by the tumultuous wave of protest that has riveted the world and shaken Beijing’s Communist government to its core. By design and by fate, they had become part of the massive upheaval that may well have marked a turning point in China’s history, and all were left wondering: What would happen next?

His six-day fast had ended the previous week, but Zhong He, frail and spent as he sat slumped on a threadbare cot in Tiananmen Square, was still wearing the white headband on which he had written the Chinese characters for SPIRIT OF DEMOCRACY. A philosophy and political science major, Zhong watched as the crowds thinned, but he still held out hope that the students’ protest would not be all for nothing. “In a struggle like this, it’s normal for support to dwindle,” he says. “That doesn’t mean the people will abandon us or that China will slip back to the way it was before.”

Born in Beijing, Zhong grew up in a family buffeted by upheaval. His father, Zhong Zhikui, who has suffered from severe arthritis since childhood, was for a time a hospital janitor. But during the Cultural Revolution, his colleagues hounded him because he could work only part-time, and he was eventually forced out of his job. That left his wife, Yang Shuizhen, to support the family on her meager earnings as a vegetable store cashier. It was not enough, and in 1971, when Zhong was 5, he was sent to his father’s ancestral village in northeast Hebei province for three years.

After returning to Beijing, Zhong was a dedicated schoolboy with a fondness for Chinese literature and English—as well as basketball and soccer. It wasn’t until his early teens that he learned of his parents’ suffering and felt the first stirrings of rebellion against the Communist regime. As a high school student, Zhong joined hundreds of thousands of other young people who took to the streets in late 1986 and early 1987 in the first massive movement for democratic reforms.

During his first year in college, Zhong started reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant, whose works, he says, “impressed me deeply about the right to freedom and social equality and how they could be won through revolution.” He was also inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

At the same time, Zhong became aware of the widening economic chasm between his country’s haves and have-nots. Leader Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms have slowly led to the dismantling of the country’s inefficient communes and the reorganization of state-run factories, giving peasants and city dwellers alike incentives to work harder and produce more. Many people have become rich—but many more, including Zhong’s own family, have been left behind. Though his mother’s earnings jumped during the last decade from $12 to $70 a month, nearly half of that is spent on food and books for Zhong. The cramped two-room house his family has lived in for 40 years is testimony to their scarce earnings. They have none of the “eight precious things”—which include such goods as a refrigerator, a TV, a VCR and a washing machine—that urban Chinese now regard as necessities.

China’s economic inequality, exacerbated by corruption and greed among government officials, “has come to a point where the people can no longer stand it,” says Zhong. So when students gathered to mourn the death of ousted liberal party chief Hu Yaobang on April 15, their demands for political reforms erupted anew. “We don’t seek democracy in the Western style or an end to the one-party system,” says Zhong, “but we do want a government that is more responsive to the people. That means a more open press and the election of congress members, rather than having them promoted from within the party. We want more freedom.”

Right from the start, Zhong joined the massive sit-in at Tiananmen Square, and on May 14, the day after some 2,000 students began a hunger strike to force the government to meet with them openly to discuss reforms, Zhong decided he had to do the same. “I was astonished at the students’ decision and their courage,” he says. “It was clear many were willing to die—some had even written last wills.” For six days he subsisted solely on water and soft drinks and watched with alarm as hundreds of students collapsed and were rushed to hospitals.

Zhong finally ended his fast on May 20 with a few bites of bread, followed by some vegetables the next day when he attended the wedding of his 25-year-old sister, Jiayue—but that was only after student leaders called off the hunger strike. “So many people’s health was taking a grave turn, it placed too great a burden on the organizers,” he says. Moreover, one of the key goals of the strike had been accomplished: to draw support from workers and peasants, who had marched through Beijing, some 700,000 strong, in an unprecedented show of solidarity. “It was the first time that has happened,” says Zhong. “In the political sense, you can’t call it a revolution. But in terms of the way people think, it is.”

That belief helps sustain Zhong as he continues his vigil at Tiananmen Square. He is buoyed also by his parents’ unwavering support. “Their demands are reasonable, and their demonstrations are a peaceful way of showing protest,” says Zhong Zhikui; even if his son’s blood were spilled, he says, “I would have no regrets. There is a price we must pay for democracy.”

Sitting in a dingy office at the headquarters of Radio Beijing, Wei Hua cannot readily answer that same question: at what cost freedom? Attractive, brash, thoroughly modern and Westernized—she is dressed in blue jeans, red polo shirt, sneakers and a gold necklace that says in English 100% CRAZY—she is by turns cavalier and fretful. Besides being one of China’s most celebrated television news personalities, she is also a pop singer who has toured the country with her band, Breathing, performing everything from Madonna‘s “Papa Don’t Preach” to sentimental Chinese ballads. She is clearly bewildered by the predicament in which she now finds herself. “I’m not even really interested in politics,” she says. “Now I’m really scared. I’m not sure whether speaking up is worth risking everything.”

Wei Hua knows full well that her life has been blessed. The daughter of a senior army official, she was raised in a comfortable middle-class household, isolated from the violent excesses of the Cultural Revolution. While China was racked by turmoil, Wei Hua practiced calligraphy, studied music and dreamed of becoming an actress or a singer.

By the time she was 14, Wei Hua found her political consciousness growing—despite her efforts to ignore it. “I still stayed home, reading novels and magazines,” she says. “But I started to feel that China was becoming an unsafe place.” She also began listening to Voice of America radio broadcasts. “I had always bought the line about how awful the American imperialists were. When I heard reports that said the opposite, I wondered what the hell was really going on.”

Meantime, she worked on her career. In 1980, after graduating from high school, Wei Hua enrolled at the Beijing Broadcast Institute and four years later landed a job at Radio Beijing. In 1986, when she heard that China Central Television was beginning an English-language division, she leapt at the opportunity. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be big! Radio would never be able to compete with TV.’ ”

When she first began anchoring for CCTV, she had no qualms about delivering the official government line. “I was paid by the state to be, you know, the tongue of the party,” she says. “Besides, the English section had more freedom and wasn’t quite so propaganda-oriented.” When the student protests erupted in late 1986, she and her co-workers reported the demonstrations accurately and objectively; this time around, she was determined to do the same.

But after she produced a piece on the weakening hunger strikers in Tiananmen Square, Wei Hua’s boss bowed to political pressure and refused to run the story. “Then I heard [Prime Minister] Li Peng’s announcement to the students to stop their chaos,” says Wei Hua. “I felt cheated, I just wanted to cry for the whole country.” She could not hide her rage, so when a U.S. news crew interviewed her, “I said that Deng, at 84, may have problems with wrong ideas and that while we still needed his guidance, he should retire.” She was deluged with interview requests from other Western reporters and was stunned when ABC’s Nightline later “introduced me as Wei Hua, a brave journalist who says Deng should resign. After that program, my sister, who lives in Florida, called me and said she was surprised I wasn’t in jail.”

Her outspokenness, however, has endeared her to many of the Tiananmen Square protesters, who now ask for autographs. “They have dealt a big blow to the government,” she says. “But the government won’t give in, and I think [the students] should go back and study. We can’t solve China’s problems overnight. They have to move step by step.” Wei Hua concedes she has no idea what the next one should be. “I am confused too,” she says. “I simply don’t know.”

As truck driver Li Chuanli and his neighbors gathered to talk about the ongoing political drama in Beijing, they were clearly hoping that somehow the protesters could prevail. They had not joined the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, but they had seen the students in action just across the street—and admired their courage and self-control.

“It was the day after martial law was declared,” says Li. “I walked to the bus terminal at Liuli Bridge, half a mile away. I saw hundreds of students blocking the road and lined up on the overpass, waiting to stop army troops from going into the city. After a few hours, more than 100,000 ordinary people had gathered—you could only see a sea of heads, it was so crowded. Then a busload of about 40 local police drove into the edge of the crowd. As soon as they got off the bus, they used cattle prods to beat the students. Some of them were bleeding. But the students didn’t fight back, and pretty soon the crowds forced the police back into the bus. We were very angry. People wanted to slash the tires and turn the bus over, but students stopped us.”

Later that morning, a convoy of 40 military trucks arrived, and the students again showed a steely restraint. “They joined hands and formed a human wall, 20 people deep, to hold the people back [away from the troops],” says Li. “We were very moved by what the students did. They were really, really good.” In the end, civil disobedience prevailed. The police apologized; soldiers said they had been told to move into Beijing on the pretext that they would help provide flood relief.

Li’s hopes were buoyed by what he had witnessed; he and other workers know that the movement is their only chance for reforms that could ease their economic woes. “We, as ordinary people, simply want things to get better,” he says, “and we want an end to rising prices that have no limits.” Indeed, inflation has been running as high as 30 percent annually, placing intolerable burdens on workers like Li, who must support his wife and 10-year-old daughter on a meager $54-a-month salary. “You can’t know how much bitterness we have eaten,” says one of Li’s elderly neighbors, tears welling in her eyes, “and how much we still suffer.”

By the last weekend in May, the standoff continued in Tiananmen Square. Movement organizers rallied students from outside the capital and staged a small march, singing “The Internationale” and chanting, “Carry the struggle to the end!” Early last week they announced they would begin a new round of hunger strikes and lured a million people to the square as they unveiled their own Statue of Liberty—the 30-foot high plaster-and-plastic-foam Goddess of Democracy. And they vowed to continue their marathon squatters’ protest until China’s congress convenes on June 20.

That left the possibility of a bloody confrontation: Troops remained poised outside the capital, and despite their sympathy toward the students, the army was prepared to do its job. Says Zhu Zhenhua, 21, a unit leader stationed at Army Hospital No. 301 in western Beijing: “The students’ patriotic ideals are good, and we support them, but on one condition-that things remain stable. As a soldier, I have one responsibility: to keep order.”

Even if the protestors at Tiananmen disperse—voluntarily or otherwise—many Chinese are convinced the regime will not be able to turn back the clock. Wei Hua, who is considering leaving the country, hopes to return under more liberal leadership. “Now that the people’s eyes have been opened and they’ve been given air to breathe, it will be impossible to stop,” she says. Likewise, Zhong He’s hopes have not faltered. “What’s important is that a new way of thinking has begun,” he says. “The government may clamp down on our actions, but they cannot control our thoughts. The patriotic movement will not die down.”