People's Daily during the 1989 Student Movement
The People's Daily is an official newspaper supervised by the Chinese Communist Party, providing direct information on the policies and positions of the government to its readers. During the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests, People's Daily played an important role in changing the course of events, especially its April 26 Editorial that provoked great tension between the government and the students when the movement was slowly abating after Hu Yaobang's memorial on April 25. As an official newspaper, its attitude toward the government and the student protestors changed multiple times as the newspaper leadership team had to balance between reporting the truth and staying in line with its higher authority, the Propaganda Department of China, according to the then deputy chief editor, Lu Chaoqi.
After the death of Hu Yaobang (April 16 to April 25)
After Hu's death on April 15, 1989, thousands of students in Beijing gathered together at the Xinhua Gate to commemorate him and his contributions. On April 21, People's Daily published an editorial, “The current big picture is to maintain social stability (维护社会稳定是当前大局),” condemning that “there were a group of people who used the death of Hu as an excuse to attack the party and government” and “a small handful of people incited the troubles and purposely led the general public into social disorder.” This pro-government editorial triggered students' dissatisfaction toward dictatorship and corrupted officials, as the editorial intentionally discouraged people from commemorating Hu by picturing the memorials as unlawful demonstrations. Yet, this editorial resulted in more students participating in the strike and memorializing Hu. The situation became more chaotic as a number of criminals in different cities took advantage of the movement to raid shops and attack police officers, reported by the People's Daily on April 24.
Widening the gulf (April 26 to May 3)
On April 26, People's Daily released an important editorial titled “It is necessary to take a clear-cut stand against turmoil (必须旗帜鲜明地反对动乱).” The content was derived from the previous Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) meeting with Deng Xiaoping, which portrayed the student movement as an anti-party, unlawful turmoil that aimed at bringing down the CCP and top leaders. The student protesters, however, viewed the April 26 Editorial as a misinterpretation of their will and asked the government to redefine their pro-democracy movement as a patriotic and lawful protest. Many people viewed this editorial as the turning point of the protest since it enraged the student protestors, leading into a widened gap between the students and the party.
Support students and ask for journalistic integrity (May 4 to May 19)
On May 6, People's Daily issued a news article titled “Beijing post-secondary schools gradually resumed classes; Zhao Ziyang's speech received positive responses (首都高校昨日起陆续复课; 赵紫阳讲话引起积极反响),” recognizing the patriotism of the student protestors. On May 15, Jiang Zemin, then Shanghai's Party Secretary, suspended the World Economic Herald. 102 staff members from the People's Daily along with hundreds of media practitioners signed an open letter to the Shanghai Municipal Party Committee, asking the Shanghai government to revoke the penalties given to Qin Benli and withdraw the Leading Group of Rectification that was in charge of the organization at the time. From May 17 to May 19 when the student-led hunger strike triggered massive protests against the government in Beijing, an estimated more than half of the People's Daily staff members took to the streets, with giant poster such as “Freedom of Press” and “We want to report truth! Don't force us to lie!” and the slogan, “April 26 Editorial was not written by us!”
Reports during the martial law (May 20 to June 2)
People inside People's Daily reacted strongly against the official declaration of the martial law on May 20. Qian Liren, the head of the newspaper, approved a series of reports, called “Xth day of Martial Law,” which summarized the situation in Beijing each day but only lasted for 10 days due to government pressure. Some hardliners found the content embarrassing, since “the people power had temporarily blocked the advance of troops into the city.” In addition, a group of People's Daily employees under editor Wu Xuecan's leadership printed and distributed approximately 1,000 copies of “People's Daily Extra,” an unauthorized extra edition that took the point of view of the student protestors. It publicized the fact that Zhao's political power had been deprived and emphasized Zhao's five pieces of advice to the PSC, including negating the April 26 Editorial and investigating in official profiteering. The extra also took a strong position against Li Peng, suggesting the National People's Congress (NPC) to remove Li from his position.
Crackdown and aftermath (June 3 to June 10)
In its June 4 edition, People's Daily showed different attitudes under its domestic news and international news section. On its front page, the newspaper issued an editorial titled “Resolutely support the party's decision of suppressing the counter-revolutionary rebellion (坚决拥护党中央决策 坚决镇压反革命暴乱).” On the contrary, under the international news section the newspaper reported on the Gwangju Uprising with the bold headline “Seoul students go on hunger strike to protest government massacre and crackdown” and on the Polish situation with headline “Warning: nobody should play with fire” and tagline “Polish leaders say elections are a great experience in reconciliation.” Given the context, the government later condemned the editorial decisions made by People's Daily, since the editorials were interpreted by the hardliners as criticisms to the government action and implicit supports to the student protestors. After the crackdown, People's Daily was reorganized by the government with a series of personnel adjustments. Both Qian, Tan Wenrui, then chief editor, and Lu stepped down due to their violation of party discipline and Wu Xuecan was sentenced to 4 years in jail for printing unauthorized extras.
- Lu Chaoqi, Liusi neibu riji (六四内部日记) (Hong Kong: Zhuoyue wenhua chubanshe, 2006), 8-9.
- “Maintaining Social Stability is the Current Big Picture (维护社会稳定是当前大局),” People's Daily, April 21, 1989, A1.
- Wu Xinghua, “Some criminals in Changsha raided shops and the police controlled the situation immediately (长沙一些不法分子抢砸商店 公安干警武警果断出击控制了局势),” People's Daily, April 24, 1989, A1.
- Buckley Chris, “People's Daily Editorial Fanned Flames of 1989 Protests,” New York Times, April 25, 2014.
- Anne-Marie Brady, Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publisher, 2007), 42.
- Lu, Liusi neibu riji (六四内部日记), 50-51.
- Brady, Marketing Dictatorship, 42.
- Han Minzhu, Cries for Democracy: Writings and Speeches from the 1989 Chinese Democracy Movement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 338.
- Hu Nan, “People's Daily Extra and Wu Xuecan (人民日报号外与吴学灿),” Boxun, May 21, 2003, http://news.boxun.com/news/gb/china/2003/05/200305211041.shtml.
- “Resolutely support the party's decision of suppressing the counter-revolutionary rebellion (坚决拥护党中央决策 坚决镇压反革命暴乱),” People's Daily, June 4, 1989, A1.
- Frank Tan, "The People's Daily: Politics and Popular Will-Journalistic Defiance in China During the Spring of 1989," Pacific Affairs 63, no. 2 (1990): 151-169, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2759720?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.
- Zhang Liang, The Tiananmen Papers, ed. Perry Link and Andrew J. Nathan (New York: PublicAffairs, 2002), 933-935.
- “Beijing Sends 7 to Jail For Democracy Protest,” New York Times, February 26, 1992, world edition, https://www.nytimes.com/1992/02/26/world/beijing-sends-7-to-jail-for-democracy-protest.html.