Students began the hunger strike on 13 May, two days before the highly publicized state visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Knowing that the welcoming ceremony for Gorbachev was scheduled to be held on the Square, student leaders wanted to use the hunger strike there to force the government into meeting their demands. Moreover, the hunger strike gained widespread sympathy from the population at large and earned the student movement the moral high ground that it sought. By the afternoon of 13 May, some 300,000 were gathered at the Square.
On the morning of 13 May, Yan Mingfu, head of the Communist Party's United Front, called an emergency meeting, gathering prominent student leaders and intellectuals, including Liu Xiaobo, Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao. Yan said the government was prepared to hold immediate dialogue with student representatives, but that the Tiananmen welcoming ceremony for Gorbachev would be cancelled whether the students withdraw or not—in effect removing the bargaining power the students thought they possessed. The announcement sent the student leadership into disarray.