From Seven-Point Petition to Immigration Law: Activist Li Jinjin Today
Li Jinjin is a New York-based lawyer who played a major role in drafting the Seven Point Petition and forming the Beijing Autonomous Workers Federation during the 1989 Movement. I had the fortunate opportunity to connect with him through activist Chen Pokong, who is also based in New York. We sat down in Li’s office to discuss his personal story and perspective on China today.
What is your connection to Tiananmen and the series of events that have led you to where you are now?
I first heard about Hu Yaobang’s death on April 15, 1989 at 3pm, when they broadcasted the news on the radio. I was on campus at Peking University at the time, where I was a doctorate law student. Fifteen minutes after the news was announced, a few students came out with big posts to commemorate him. Three hours later, when I stopped by the Triangle, I saw that tons of posts were pasted on the bulletin board criticizing Deng Xiaoping and commemerating Hu Yaobang’s death. The Triangle is historically known for being the hotbed of China’s political climate since Mao’s era. Red Guards in the past used to always post things here. Something big was about to happen. These were the very first actions initiated for what would soon be the 1989 democracy movement.
On the evening of April 17, 1989, the students at my university again set out to commemorate Hu Yaobang, but this time was a larger effort; we would go to the center of Tiananmen Square. They went all around the dorms, gathering students. I was one of them. Someone on the 4th floor of one of the dorms threw down a giant banner, which had been written in large characters “China’s Soul” and we carried that as we went out to the square.
When we arrived, we began working on our next big move. So we spent the night drafting seven requests to the People Representatives:
- 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
These were not very difficult requests we were making to the government. I was determined to make the requests heard, so I volunteered to the crowd to be one of the student representatives who would talk to the officials in the People’s Representatives.
Initially, the security in the People’s Representatives paid us no attention; they ignored us and ordered us to go back. So I said, “If you don’t agree to our requests, we will go on a sitting strike.” So our group moved a little closer outside the Great Hall of People and sent out people to notify more students around Beijing about our strike. Between noon to five, we went from a few hundred to over ten thousand students. We had suddenly become powerful.
Between noon to five, we went from a few hundred to over ten thousand students. We had suddenly become powerful.
We didn’t know what our future was. That was the biggest stress for me as a leader because my job was to control the people. We did not prepare for any of the consequences. I didn’t know this movement would be a struggle to the death. The students were not prepared for violence. When the authories agreed to speak with me, I had to plan carefully in order to avoid bigger consequences.
So I announced to the crowd, “If they accept our requests, we must disperse.”
I went into the Great People’s hall with two other students and our giant banner. When we met the delegates, we demanded that they walk out to the crowd and publically take our seven points before the thousands of students. I did not expect the government to agree to our requests, but simply to accept them. There is a difference. So the three delegates went out and formally accepted our demands. “It’s over” I told the crowd. Little did I know that thousands more were only on their way.
“It’s over” I told the crowd. Little did I know that thousands more were only on their way.
As I was leaving, some people had gotten ahold of the banner. Many more students from Peking University were marching to Tiananmen Square, ready to fight for weeks, months even. Led by the banner, the crowd was now heading to the New China Gates, where the CPC is headquartered. They sat there and yelled slogans, demanding to enter the gates. Soldiers we making efforts to stop them. Someone eventually threw the giant banner over the wall.
I had no control of the crowd anymore. I don’t think any of us knew what was going on. I didn’t even know. But we did what we felt was right at the time.
Whenever people think about the Tiananmen Incident, they remember June 4 and the aftermath following the killings, but not much is said about the events preceding that. What else happened between April 18 and June 4?
Well after the Seven Point Petition, the next big turning point happened on May 12. That was the day Mikhail Gorbachev, then General Secretary of the Soviet Union, would meet with Deng. It was a very important event for the two countries. So we thought this would be an opportunity cause global attention, if we held a big protest.
Starting May 13, the student group accounced a hunger strike. This was when our Beijing protests caused attention across the nation. By then, our movement had really become huge.
On May 19, I went out on the streets and I saw many working-class locals talk about the students. The local workers would often ride their bikes on Chang An, the main road adjacent to Tiananmen, so they were aware of the protests going on.
I began to think that this was not a student movement, but a people’s movement. So I made efforts to organize a worker’s movement. With two workers, Han Dongfang at the lead, I encouraged them to start a union under my guidance. I ended up being the legal consultant for the group. I explained to them their rights and how to effectively organize an activist group step-by-step. This group would eventually become the Beijing Autonomous Worker’s Federation.
The Worker’s Federation survived only 14 days before being overturned by the massacre on June 3rd. The authorities arrested the three of us soon afterwards. I was arrested on June 8 and detained for 22 months. I was released on April 22, 1991.
After my release, I applied for asylum and went to the United States in 1993 to join Columbia for law school, where I studied constitutionalism and China.
What is your relationship with China now?
Well, I still have relatives and family there. I am also still concerned about China’s development, democracy and human rights. I participate in many pro-democracy organizations in the US, including serving as director of Human Rights in China and chairman of the supervision board in the China Democracy Party National Committee.
What is your opinion on Chinese millenials and how they perceive the 1989 Movement?
This is a very complicated question.
Directly, very few millennials are interested in the movement because there is limited information available about the overseas pro-democracy movement. When they do find out about us though, many try to understand and show support. Some will even join. In my opinion, many millennials are inclined to understand and support us when they are triggered.
I don’t believe many Chinese people really accept the communist ideology. Even though Chinese citizens follow the papers distributed by the government, they live a life completely separate from the communist ideology. The Chinese constitution mentions protection of the people’s freedom, but in reality this is not practiced at all. This is why even though there are many rich people in China now, many still try to come to the US to build a family. The funny contradiction is that though they seek naturalization, most do not try to assimilate into Western culture.
If the 1989 Movement had been successful, what would victory have looked like?
China’s economic development would have been much better than the current situation and some of the side effects of 1989 would have been reduced. Chinese citizens would have had more space to speak about politics in everyday life.
Some people say that if we had succeeded and Zhao Ziyang was still in power, that China would not have been as economically successful. This is not true. Even if 1989 was a success, it would still be limited. China would have had a more liberal and humanitarian leadership, but it would still be under the power of the CCP. As for the economy, if people want to get rich, nobody can stop that. China would have grown regardless of the outcome in 1989.
Can you talk more about Zhao Ziyang, who he was and why you mentioned him?
In March 1988, Zhao Ziyang was then the highest ranking official in China’s Communist Party, serving as General Secretary. Zhao was not a liberal democratic intellectual, but he had a deep concern for the damage Mao caused on the country. He proposed to separate the party from the government so that the party represented the CCP and the government represented the administration. But because China wants to control everything, the CCP is currently still both the party and the government.
Chinese statesmen are very smart. They know better than to let a student movement overthrow the party. There was no way pro-democracy intellectuals would ever have gained power if 1989 was a success. But with the hands of liberal leaders in the party, there would have been potential for change. Zhao’s eventual dismissal from office was China’s downfall.
Li Jinjin is an immigration lawyer who also serves as director of Human Rights in China and chairman of the supervision board in the CDP National Committee.
Grace Wong is an interdisciplinary artist and arts administrator. She is interested in the potential for photography, writing and media to address humanity and human rights.