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May 18, 1989

China Division [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan], 'Chinese Student Actions (Hunger Strike)'

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Chinese Student Actions (Hunger Strike)

                                                                                                            May 18, 1989

                                                                                                            China Division

1. Present Situation

The hunger strike, which has been held in front of Tiananmen Square since the 13thto coincide with Gorbachev’s visit to China, developed on the evening of the 17th into the largest gathering (one million persons) in the past month of intellectuals and ordinary city residents demonstrating their support. It has also spread to the provinces. There has also been criticism of leaders by their names.

On the other hand, the authorities attempted but failed to persuade the students by “dialogue” (14th and 15th) and Zhao Ziyang’s written statement (17th). During this time, they were forced to make some changes (cancellations, changes in venue) to Gorbachev’s schedule. (In the morning of the 18th, Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng, among others, visited students in the hospital.)

2. Behind the Broad and Expanded Support for the Student Actions

(1) There is emotional support for the student demands in opposition to the corruption and graft seen among the privileged class (an expression of the extent of the average citizen’s discontent with the present situation).

(2) There is the discontent of urban residents suffering from inflation.

(3) As average citizen come to understand “democracy” and “freedom,” they support the students.

(4) There is sympathy in regard to the non-violent method of the hunger strike.

(5) There is a crowd psychology of “everyone’s going there.” (People have been seen taking their children with them and smiling.)

3. Behind the Authorities Not Taking Hard-Line Measures

(1) Gorbachev is visiting China; close to a thousand members of the foreign press are gathered in Beijing.

(2) The students have gained widespread support from average city residents, so adopting hardline measures would be difficult.

(3) Student demands are consistent with present policy (opposition to corruption and graft, democratization).

4. Prospects

(1) In the short term: After Gorbachev returns to the Soviet Union, the authorities will conduct some specific negotiations in regard to student demands. The student movement will settle down for a little while.

(2) In the long term: Student demands are, in the final analysis, for “democracy” and “freedom.” Realizing them in terms of policy would take time, so the student movement will start again on some occasion or another.

(3) Effects on the Leadership

There is a view that behind the present situation there exists considerably strong popular resentment in regard to Deng Xiaoping’s long “dictatorship.” There was already the rumor that Deng would retire after the Chinese-Soviet summit. Even if the present student actions do not directly serve as the trigger, there exists the possibility of their becoming a factor hastening Deng’s retirement. 

On the other hand, there is the view that Zhao Ziyang is having a hard time of it in a difficult position, caught between Deng Xiaoping and the students. Because he is carefully showing a flexible response to the students on the basis of the collective leadership system, however, the impression is that it will not develop into a criticism of Zhao.

The China Division provides an update on the student protests in China, commenting that "there is emotional support for the student demands" among the broad masses. The report also evaluates how the Chinese leadership is handling the protest movement.

Document Information


2020-0545, Act on Access to Information Held by Administrative Organs, published online by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. Translated by Stephen Mercado.


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