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05/21/2009

Tiananmen Square...a look back, June 1989

[Note: Due to the timeliness of the following, I'm leaving it up one more week.  Next Hot Spots, June 9.]

With the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre coming up, June 4, it's a good time to re-run a piece I last did back in Jan. 2005.

Chinese Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang died in 2005, age 85. Zhao was the nation’s leader during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and was ousted for supporting the pro-democracy movement while opposing the military crackdown that followed. He was last seen in public on May 19, 1989; the day before martial law was declared, having lived under house arrest since then. [Supposedly, Zhao was allowed to travel into the provinces.]  There was no official comment from the Communist Party, just a two-line notice in state media.

The following relies heavily on the release of “The Tiananmen Papers,” secret documents that covered the leadership struggle during the spring of 1989.

---

The papers reveal the conversations between the hard-liners and the reformers within the Chinese government as massive student protests swept the country. This was best exemplified by the burgeoning crowd in Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public area that carries great symbolism to the Chinese people as it was the place where back on October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

The transcripts of the discussions that were taking place during the student demonstrations are striking, and, in some cases chilling. But the first question you may ask, as I openly did myself in a recent “Week in Review” piece, is, are they authentic? American ambassador James R. Lilley, the diplomat on the scene during the protests, believes the documents are. “But I don’t rule out the possibility that people might have
played with the language to score certain points,” Lilley recently told the New York Times.

And who is responsible for getting the conversations out of the country? According to those who have met with the individual, who goes by the pseudonym Zhang Liang, he is a senior government official who is hoping to promote political reform in China. The documents are seen as the reformers’ best opportunity to further their ideas.

But before we delve into the work, let’s briefly review the background to the student protests of 1989.

First, one needs to know a bit about Deng Xiaoping, the paramount Chinese leader of the time.

Born in 1904, Deng was part of the historic Long March, the movement of 90,000 communist troops during the war in 1934-35 against the Nationalist forces. Mao Zedong and Chu Teh led the 6,000-mile march that prevented the extermination of the Communist Party and eventually led to the elevation of Mao and the formation of the modern Chinese state.

By 1956, Deng had become the general secretary of the Communist Party. But then along came the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

The Cultural Revolution was initiated by Mao as a way of purging the Communist Party of his opponents. He didn’t like the way that some officials were touting reform as part of their effort to lift China out of the Dark Ages. The Revolution’s purpose was to instill correct revolutionary attitudes. A new youth corps was formed, the Red Guards, which employed violence on a massive scale to ensure that Mao’s ideas were carried out. Unfortunately for Deng, he was a victim of the purges due to his perceived capitalist tendencies. Deng was then dismissed from his role as party secretary and sent into exile.

But in 1976, Mao died and his Gang of Four (which included his wife) were arrested for spearheading what had become a disastrous Revolution; one which set back China’s progress by at least a decade. By 1977, though, Deng Ziaoping was rehabilitated, becoming de facto ruler of China the following year.

Deng quickly announced a new period of “modernizations” for his country in the fields of industry, education, the army, and the social sciences; declaring a new openness. But there would be limits to his reforms and no one was to criticize the Communist system.

Under Deng, China began to pursue a path of cautious modernization. Deng himself said the Chinese leadership was “crossing the river by feeling for the stones.” [J.M. Roberts]

And so you had a situation where, as historian David Reynolds described it, “Spasms of political openness were followed by sharp crackdowns when protesters got out of hand.” Deng desired economic, not political change, and China made tremendous progress in the first ten years of Deng’s leadership.

Deng did tolerate the word “democracy;” after all, it was his intent to create his own Chinese brand. But his definition referred to democratic centralism, not “bourgeois democracy,” the latter placing the individual ahead of the state. And Deng was not in search of American democracy, which he described as being one of three governments; the executive, legislative, and judicial varieties.

Along about 1980, two other reformers helped Deng in his efforts.

Zhao Ziyang, a longtime party member who had been dismissed by Mao at the height of the Cultural Revolution, was named premier. Zhao had been rehabilitated in 1975 and worked his way back up through the party chain of command.

The other was Hu Yaobang, who from 1980-87 was general party secretary. [Deng was still the ultimate leader.]

Together, Zhao and Hu represented the younger generation of reformers who constantly had to go to battle against the Chinese gerontocracy. Most of China’s “elders” were in their 80s, like Deng who hit this mark in 1984, and they still had great legitimacy because they were part of the Long March generation which had led China through Japanese occupation and civil war to triumph. The disasters of the past, like the Cultural Revolution, made the elders even more leery about just who would eventually take over the reins of power.

By 1986, both Zhao and Hu convinced Deng that true, economic reform was being blocked by an entrenched bureaucracy. Zhao sought more competitive party elections and a strengthened legal system, the latter for protecting property and contractual rights.  Deng took a chance and granted the intellectuals and academics more freedom as well.

But by the end of the year, the elders were worried. Hu Yaobang was stripped of his general party secretary title (though he retained a seat on the Politboro), even as the students were becoming increasingly mobilized.

In 1987, at the October Party Congress, Zhao (having been elevated to party secretary from premier) managed to push through some reforms, the biggest perhaps being the forced retirement of half the 200-member Politboro. And with regards to the key Politboro Standing Committee, an elite body of five, two were reformers, Zhao and Hu Qili; two were conservatives, Li Peng (the new premier) and Yao Yilan; and one was a
straddler, Qiao Shi.

By 1988, the elders were concerned with the amount of liberalization taking place in the media, while at the same time the economic boom was taking its toll, both on the cities and in terms of inflation.

The cities were becoming harder and harder to control as millions surged from the rural areas into the urban hotbeds of commerce. And as foreign investment flowed in, word spread in the hinterlands that work could be found in places like Beijing and Shanghai. The problem was that there were laws against mobility of this kind and as the transients threatened to take jobs away from the longtime city dwellers who were finally seeing prospects for a better future, this led many to begin to turn against the reforms.

And then there were the students. One of the consequences of the Cultural Revolution had been the closure, more or less, of the university system. With the reform movement, there was a rush by China’s leaders to make up for lost time. Applications for universities soared, with the result being that the living conditions for students were horrid. 7 or 8 to a room became cause for protest, let alone the skyrocketing costs. The seeds were planted for a crisis.

By the spring of 1989, it wasn’t just the students who were increasingly disgruntled over the pace of reform in China. The workers and citizens also demanded an end to the corruption, inflation and disruptions that had accompanied economic upheaval.

There is no doubt that China was in the midst of a boom. Deng Xiaoping had coined slogans like “to get rich is glorious” in order to encourage the development of the rural economy. But with inflation running at about 30% and anger increasing over the corruption, all that was needed was an event to spark massive protests.

By almost all accounts, that one spark was the death on April 8, 1989, of former general party secretary Hu Yaobang. Along with Zhao Ziyang (who had replaced Hu in the Party secretary role in 1987), the two were the leading reformers in the Chinese government and were favorites of the students. Though details are a bit sketchy (like just about everything else in China), it was reported that Hu succumbed to a heart attack at the Politboro (where he had been allowed to maintain a seat), supposedly while arguing with hard-liners. Hu Yaobang thus became a convenient martyr and one week later, 200,000 gathered at his state funeral in Tiananmen Square to demand more democracy.  Many of them didn’t leave until they were forcibly and violently removed about six weeks later, on June 4.

The protests spread beyond Tiananmen into other urban and rural areas. Following are some comments from the key decision makers in the Chinese government, excerpted from what is now known as “The Tiananmen Papers,” the documents smuggled out by a high-ranking Party official.

April 26, Deng Xiaoping, still the ultimate leader in China though he was without an official title:

“The students have been raising a ruckus for ten days now, and we’ve been tolerant and restrained. But things haven’t gone our way. A tiny minority is exploiting the students; they want to confuse the people and throw the country into chaos...We must explain to the whole Party and nation that we are facing a most serious political struggle.”

The People’s Daily released an editorial that same day:

“This is a well-planned plot to confuse the people and throw the country into ‘turmoil.’ Its real aim is to reject the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist system at the most fundamental level.”

This was to be the theme throughout. And Deng wouldn’t let go.  But the editorial re-ignited what had then been a waning student movement. The protests spread anew.

On May 13, General Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang (#2 to Deng in power and influence) spoke to Deng at the latter’s residence.

Zhao: “(The student movement) has two particular features we need to pay attention to: First, the student slogans all support the Constitution; they favor democracy and oppose corruption. These (are) basically in line with what the Party and government advocate, so we cannot reject them out of hand. Second, the number of demonstrators and supporters is enormous, and they include people from all parts of society.” Lastly, Zhao urged Deng to listen to the demonstrators if they sought to calm tensions.

Deng reiterated that the whole student movement had been stirred up from outside and he was worried about the Party elders. “The senior comrades are getting worried...We have to be decisive.”

Ironically, Mikhail Gorbachev was to be arriving in town for a full summit just a few days later. Word was out that the students were going to announce a hunger strike and that they would continue to block Tiananmen Square, thus significantly altering the pomp and circumstance for Gorbachev’s appearance.

Deng: “The Square has to be in order...We have to maintain our international image. What do we look like if the Square’s a mess?”

Zhao Ziayng replied to Deng’s inquiry as to what the ordinary people were thinking: “The protests are widespread but limited to cities that have universities.” [The farmers were deemed to be docile.] “The (urban) workers are unhappy about certain social conditions and like to let off steam from time to time, so they sympathize with the protesters (students).”

Deng: “We must not give an inch on the basic principle of upholding Communist Party rule and rejecting a Western multiparty system. At the same time, the Party must resolve the issue of democracy and address the problems that arise when corruption pops up in the Party or government.”

Zhao tried to reassure Deng that “these little ‘troubles’ are normal inside a democratic and legal framework.”

The student movement was beginning to fracture. Many returned to their classes, while others stayed the course. 100,000 began a hunger strike on May 13.

On May 16, Gorbachev arrived, a symbol that at long last normalization of Sino-Soviet relations was at hand. But as he met with Chinese leaders in the Great Hall of the People, the cries of the protesters in the square were clearly audible.

Meanwhile, that same day the all-important Politboro Standing Committee met separately. Zhao Ziyang reiterated that the leadership should find a way to dispel the sense of confrontation with the students. Premier Li Peng (#3 behind Deng and Zhao) explained to Zhao that Comrade Xiaoping’s original words could not be changed. The nation was facing a most serious struggle. The split between the reformer Zhao and many of the others in the Party hierarchy was widening.

The next day Li Peng confronted Zhao again at Deng’s residence.

“I think Comrade Ziyang must bear the main responsibility for the escalation of the student movement, as well as for the fact that the situation has gotten so hard to control.”

Deng then blasted Zhao for a speech that Zhao had given earlier in May to the Asian Development Bank meeting. In it Zhao adopted a highly reformist tone.

“Comrade Ziyang...of course we want to build socialist democracy, but we can’t possibly do it in a hurry, and still less do we want that Western-style stuff. If our one billion people jumped into multiparty elections, we’d get chaos like the ‘all-out civil war’ we saw during the Cultural Revolution.”

Deng then explained that Beijing couldn’t continue to deal with the chaos created by the protests.

“I’ve concluded that we should bring in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and declare martial law in Beijing...The aim of martial law will be to suppress the turmoil once and for all and to return things quickly to normal.”

Zhao replied, “Comrade Xiaoping, it will be hard for me to carry out this plan. I have difficulties with it.”

Deng: “The minority yields to the majority!”

Zhao: “I will submit to Party discipline; the minority does yield to the majority.”

Later that same day, the Politboro Standing Committee resumed their meeting without Deng. Premier Li Peng was adamant that Deng’s orders on martial law be carried out. Committee member Yao Yilin echoed these sentiments.

“Taking this powerful measure will help restore the city to normalcy, end the state of anarchy, and quickly and effectively stop the turmoil.”

Zhao said again, “I’m against imposing martial law in Beijing.” Zhao was worried that a crackdown would only make things worse.

“In the forty years of the People’s Republic, our Party has learned many lessons from its political and economic mistakes.  Given the crisis we now face at home and abroad, I think that one more big political mistake might well cost us all our remaining legitimacy.”

It is now the morning of May 18 and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping has had it with the demonstrators who continue to occupy the Square. Increasingly, it is General Communist Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang, a man who favored peaceful reform, against Deng, the party elders, and Premier Li Peng.

On the morning of the 18th, Zhao misses a meeting of the leadership. Deng is worried about all out civil war.

“Beijing has been chaotic for more than a month now...and we’ve been extremely tolerant. What other country in the world would watch more than a month of marches and demonstrations in its capital and do nothing about it?”

Li Peng: “...Zhao Ziyang has not come today (because) he opposes martial law. He encouraged the students right from the beginning.”

Party elder Wang Zhen: “These people are really asking for it!  They should be nabbed as soon as they pop out again. Give ‘em no mercy! The students are nuts if they think this handful of people can overthrow our Party and our government! These kids don’t know how good they’ve got it!...If the students don’t leave Tiananmen on their own, the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) should go in and carry them out. This is ridiculous!”

Elder Bo Yibo: “The whole imperialist Western world wants to make socialist countries leave the socialist road and become satellites in the system of international monopoly capitalism.”

The afternoon of May 18, Li Peng met with the student leaders who were adamant that their movement be characterized as patriotic. Li, of course, didn’t agree. Then at 4 AM on May 19, Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng visited Tiananmen Square. Zhao knew his career was near an end.

“We have come too late,” Zhao said, bringing tears to the eyes of those who heard him. He begged the students to leave before it was too late. Afterwards, Zhao requested three days’ sick leave.

Interestingly, a vast majority of the original student strikers had actually left the Square, but they were continually being replaced by new students from outside; as many as 57,000 arrived between May 16 and May 19. They traveled on trains from all over the country and made demands while en route that stretched the system, even asking for free food.

Martial law had now been declared, initially applying to five urban districts of Beijing. Opposition was swift, not just in the capital, but around the country as well. On May 21, student leaders in the Square voted to declare victory and withdraw, but they then reversed their decision at the urging of the new recruits. Deng was upset that martial law hadn’t restored order.

“Zhao Ziyang’s intransigence has been obvious,” said Deng, “and he bears undeniable responsibility.”

Wang Zhen: “What (Zhao) really wants is to drive us old people from power.”

But other leaders didn’t want to make a change at the top of the Party just now.

Finally, on May 27 it was decided that Jiang Zemin, a Party leader in Shanghai, would be named the new general secretary, replacing Zhao. And on the morning of June 2, Li Peng addressed the party elders as well as the Standing Committee of the Politboro.

Li launched a tirade, blaming the West for all of the troubles. He spoke of employees of the U.S. embassy collecting intelligence at night in the Square and how units from Taiwan’s security service were rushing to send agents in, disguised as visitors (the latter probably true).

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the turmoil has been generated by a coalition of foreign and domestic reactionary forces and that their goals are to overthrow the Communist Party and to subvert the socialist system.”

Wang Zhen: “Those goddamn bastards! Who do they think they are, trampling on sacred ground like Tiananmen so long?! We should send the troops right now...What’s the People’s Liberation Army for, anyway?... They’re not supposed to just sit around and eat!...Anybody who tries to overthrow the Communist Party deserves death and no burial!”

Deng agreed the root cause of the situation they found themselves in was the Western world, especially the U.S.

“Some Western countries use things like ‘human rights,’ or like saying the socialist system is irrational or illegal, to criticize us, but what they’re really after is our sovereignty.

“Look how many people around the world they’ve robbed of human rights! And look how many Chinese people they’ve hurt the human rights of since they invaded China during the Opium War!” [1839-42 conflict between China and Britain, a result of which Britain obtained Hong Kong.]

“Two conditions are indispensable for our developmental goals: a stable environment at home and a peaceful environment abroad...Imagine for a moment what could happen if China falls into turmoil. If it happens now, it’d be far worse than the Cultural Revolution ....Once civil war got started, blood would flow like a river, and where would human rights be then?”

Deng then proceeded to talk about the huge refugee problem that would be created by a civil war, “in the hundreds of millions.”

Later on, during the same meeting Deng speaks of what many in the West had admired.

“No one can keep China’s reform and opening from going forward. Why is that? It’s simple: Without reform and opening our development stops and our economy slides downhill. Living standards decline if we turn back. The momentum of reform cannot be stopped.”

Li Peng then suggests that the troops, now well-positioned, be moved into Tiananmen Square to clear the students. Deng agrees and adds, “As we proceed with the clearing, we must explain it clearly to all the citizens and students, asking them to leave and doing our very best to persuade them. But if they refuse to leave, they will be responsible for the consequences.”

The afternoon of June 3, Li Peng met with party elder Yang Shangkun. The situation in all of Beijing was deteriorating rapidly, with demonstrations and small “riots” spreading. Yang told Li that he had just talked to Deng who had relayed that the problem should be solved by dawn. The Square was to be cleared by sunup. Deng also wanted the students to understand that the troops were prepared to use all means necessary, but only as a last resort. Everything was to be done to avoid bloodshed, particularly within Tiananmen Square itself. Said Yang, “No one must die in the Square...it’s Comrade Xiaoping’s view.”

But while there was a crowd of about 50,000 in the Square, there were also vast gatherings throughout Beijing. The troops began to approach Tiananmen from many sides. [Picture troops coming from the north, south, east and west, advancing on Central Park.]

By 10:30 PM on June 3, soldiers were confronted by tens of thousands near the Muxudi Bridge. They were pelted with rocks and the troops lost their composure. Within minutes, at least 100 citizens and students were hit with gunfire. From an account by the State Security Ministry, “From then on there were no more lulls in the shooting. Soldiers on the trucks fired into the air continuously until people hurled rocks or verbal insults, and then they fired into the crowd.” The bodies of the dead and wounded were being continually delivered to nearby hospitals. Everyone was shouting “Fascists!” “Animals!” and “Bloody massacre!”

By 1 AM on June 4, all martial-law troops had entered Tiananmen Square and for three hours pressed students to voluntarily leave before the 4 AM deadline. [Remember, Tiananmen is the largest public square in the world. This was not a simple process.]

At 4 AM all the lights in the square went out and the troops pressured the students from all sides. When the lights came on at 4:30 AM, the students found themselves facing a large number of armed soldiers, as well as rows of tanks and armored cars moving slowly through the Square. The Goddess of Democracy (the students’ facsimile of the Statue of Liberty) fell to the ground. Around 5 AM the students made an orderly retreat and at 5:40 the square was cleared.

This is the paradox. Most people, when hearing of Tiananmen Square and June 3-4, assume that the deaths took place in the Square proper. But the shooting was outside of it.

In the following days, demonstrations spread to some 181 locations, including all the provincial capitals, the major cities, and special economic zones. And then by June 8 the situation began to stabilize.

On June 6 Deng held a meeting with the leadership to assess the damage. Everyone was particularly interested in the casualty accounts from the foreign networks. AP said “At least 500 dead.” NBC: “1,400 dead, 10,000 wounded.” ABC and BBC: “2,000 dead.”

Li Peng said, “The figures on the dead are these: 23 from the martial law troops...about 200 soldiers are also missing. The dead among city people, students, and rioters number about 200.  No one was killed within Tiananmen Square itself.”

[The truth lies somewhere in between and we will never know the exact count. The hospitals were prohibited from issuing any reports and the families of those killed were not allowed to hold public services; all grieving was to take place in private.]

Deng: “...We should be forgiving toward the student demonstrators and petition signers...and we shouldn’t try to track down individual responsibility among them.”

Deng urged that the numbers of students arrested should be held to a minimum. At the same time, he re-imposed strict discipline on the Party. China would not go the way of Eastern Europe and the USSR. [Ironically, on the very same day, June 4, Poland was holding its first free elections.]

As for the Chinese people, they were numbed. As Andrew Nathan writes, “(Shortly afterwards), the campuses were tranquil, and China seemed shrouded in a dour mist that harbored a spiritual emptiness. Money ruled everything, morals died, corruption burgeoned, bribes were bartered, and when all this became known on the campuses it turned students thoroughly off politics. They had lost the idealism of the 1980s and now
concentrated only on their own fates.”

As for Zhao Ziyang, the reformer and a hero to the students, he was placed under house arrest.

Sources:

“Twentieth Century,” J.M. Roberts
“The Oxford History of the 20th Century”
“One World Divisible,” David Reynolds
Richard Bernstein / New York Times
BBC News Wire
Steve Mufson / Washington Post
“The Presidents,” edited by Henry Graff
“China: A New History,” Fairbank and Goldman
Andrew Nathan, January / February 2001 issue of Foreign Affairs. [Nathan was one of three translators who vouched for the authenticity of ‘The Tiananmen Papers,’ along with the editors of Foreign Affairs.]

Hot Spots will return June 9.

Brian Trumbore

 


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-05/21/2009-      
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Hot Spots

05/21/2009

Tiananmen Square...a look back, June 1989

[Note: Due to the timeliness of the following, I'm leaving it up one more week.  Next Hot Spots, June 9.]

With the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre coming up, June 4, it's a good time to re-run a piece I last did back in Jan. 2005.

Chinese Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang died in 2005, age 85. Zhao was the nation’s leader during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and was ousted for supporting the pro-democracy movement while opposing the military crackdown that followed. He was last seen in public on May 19, 1989; the day before martial law was declared, having lived under house arrest since then. [Supposedly, Zhao was allowed to travel into the provinces.]  There was no official comment from the Communist Party, just a two-line notice in state media.

The following relies heavily on the release of “The Tiananmen Papers,” secret documents that covered the leadership struggle during the spring of 1989.

---

The papers reveal the conversations between the hard-liners and the reformers within the Chinese government as massive student protests swept the country. This was best exemplified by the burgeoning crowd in Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public area that carries great symbolism to the Chinese people as it was the place where back on October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

The transcripts of the discussions that were taking place during the student demonstrations are striking, and, in some cases chilling. But the first question you may ask, as I openly did myself in a recent “Week in Review” piece, is, are they authentic? American ambassador James R. Lilley, the diplomat on the scene during the protests, believes the documents are. “But I don’t rule out the possibility that people might have
played with the language to score certain points,” Lilley recently told the New York Times.

And who is responsible for getting the conversations out of the country? According to those who have met with the individual, who goes by the pseudonym Zhang Liang, he is a senior government official who is hoping to promote political reform in China. The documents are seen as the reformers’ best opportunity to further their ideas.

But before we delve into the work, let’s briefly review the background to the student protests of 1989.

First, one needs to know a bit about Deng Xiaoping, the paramount Chinese leader of the time.

Born in 1904, Deng was part of the historic Long March, the movement of 90,000 communist troops during the war in 1934-35 against the Nationalist forces. Mao Zedong and Chu Teh led the 6,000-mile march that prevented the extermination of the Communist Party and eventually led to the elevation of Mao and the formation of the modern Chinese state.

By 1956, Deng had become the general secretary of the Communist Party. But then along came the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

The Cultural Revolution was initiated by Mao as a way of purging the Communist Party of his opponents. He didn’t like the way that some officials were touting reform as part of their effort to lift China out of the Dark Ages. The Revolution’s purpose was to instill correct revolutionary attitudes. A new youth corps was formed, the Red Guards, which employed violence on a massive scale to ensure that Mao’s ideas were carried out. Unfortunately for Deng, he was a victim of the purges due to his perceived capitalist tendencies. Deng was then dismissed from his role as party secretary and sent into exile.

But in 1976, Mao died and his Gang of Four (which included his wife) were arrested for spearheading what had become a disastrous Revolution; one which set back China’s progress by at least a decade. By 1977, though, Deng Ziaoping was rehabilitated, becoming de facto ruler of China the following year.

Deng quickly announced a new period of “modernizations” for his country in the fields of industry, education, the army, and the social sciences; declaring a new openness. But there would be limits to his reforms and no one was to criticize the Communist system.

Under Deng, China began to pursue a path of cautious modernization. Deng himself said the Chinese leadership was “crossing the river by feeling for the stones.” [J.M. Roberts]

And so you had a situation where, as historian David Reynolds described it, “Spasms of political openness were followed by sharp crackdowns when protesters got out of hand.” Deng desired economic, not political change, and China made tremendous progress in the first ten years of Deng’s leadership.

Deng did tolerate the word “democracy;” after all, it was his intent to create his own Chinese brand. But his definition referred to democratic centralism, not “bourgeois democracy,” the latter placing the individual ahead of the state. And Deng was not in search of American democracy, which he described as being one of three governments; the executive, legislative, and judicial varieties.

Along about 1980, two other reformers helped Deng in his efforts.

Zhao Ziyang, a longtime party member who had been dismissed by Mao at the height of the Cultural Revolution, was named premier. Zhao had been rehabilitated in 1975 and worked his way back up through the party chain of command.

The other was Hu Yaobang, who from 1980-87 was general party secretary. [Deng was still the ultimate leader.]

Together, Zhao and Hu represented the younger generation of reformers who constantly had to go to battle against the Chinese gerontocracy. Most of China’s “elders” were in their 80s, like Deng who hit this mark in 1984, and they still had great legitimacy because they were part of the Long March generation which had led China through Japanese occupation and civil war to triumph. The disasters of the past, like the Cultural Revolution, made the elders even more leery about just who would eventually take over the reins of power.

By 1986, both Zhao and Hu convinced Deng that true, economic reform was being blocked by an entrenched bureaucracy. Zhao sought more competitive party elections and a strengthened legal system, the latter for protecting property and contractual rights.  Deng took a chance and granted the intellectuals and academics more freedom as well.

But by the end of the year, the elders were worried. Hu Yaobang was stripped of his general party secretary title (though he retained a seat on the Politboro), even as the students were becoming increasingly mobilized.

In 1987, at the October Party Congress, Zhao (having been elevated to party secretary from premier) managed to push through some reforms, the biggest perhaps being the forced retirement of half the 200-member Politboro. And with regards to the key Politboro Standing Committee, an elite body of five, two were reformers, Zhao and Hu Qili; two were conservatives, Li Peng (the new premier) and Yao Yilan; and one was a
straddler, Qiao Shi.

By 1988, the elders were concerned with the amount of liberalization taking place in the media, while at the same time the economic boom was taking its toll, both on the cities and in terms of inflation.

The cities were becoming harder and harder to control as millions surged from the rural areas into the urban hotbeds of commerce. And as foreign investment flowed in, word spread in the hinterlands that work could be found in places like Beijing and Shanghai. The problem was that there were laws against mobility of this kind and as the transients threatened to take jobs away from the longtime city dwellers who were finally seeing prospects for a better future, this led many to begin to turn against the reforms.

And then there were the students. One of the consequences of the Cultural Revolution had been the closure, more or less, of the university system. With the reform movement, there was a rush by China’s leaders to make up for lost time. Applications for universities soared, with the result being that the living conditions for students were horrid. 7 or 8 to a room became cause for protest, let alone the skyrocketing costs. The seeds were planted for a crisis.

By the spring of 1989, it wasn’t just the students who were increasingly disgruntled over the pace of reform in China. The workers and citizens also demanded an end to the corruption, inflation and disruptions that had accompanied economic upheaval.

There is no doubt that China was in the midst of a boom. Deng Xiaoping had coined slogans like “to get rich is glorious” in order to encourage the development of the rural economy. But with inflation running at about 30% and anger increasing over the corruption, all that was needed was an event to spark massive protests.

By almost all accounts, that one spark was the death on April 8, 1989, of former general party secretary Hu Yaobang. Along with Zhao Ziyang (who had replaced Hu in the Party secretary role in 1987), the two were the leading reformers in the Chinese government and were favorites of the students. Though details are a bit sketchy (like just about everything else in China), it was reported that Hu succumbed to a heart attack at the Politboro (where he had been allowed to maintain a seat), supposedly while arguing with hard-liners. Hu Yaobang thus became a convenient martyr and one week later, 200,000 gathered at his state funeral in Tiananmen Square to demand more democracy.  Many of them didn’t leave until they were forcibly and violently removed about six weeks later, on June 4.

The protests spread beyond Tiananmen into other urban and rural areas. Following are some comments from the key decision makers in the Chinese government, excerpted from what is now known as “The Tiananmen Papers,” the documents smuggled out by a high-ranking Party official.

April 26, Deng Xiaoping, still the ultimate leader in China though he was without an official title:

“The students have been raising a ruckus for ten days now, and we’ve been tolerant and restrained. But things haven’t gone our way. A tiny minority is exploiting the students; they want to confuse the people and throw the country into chaos...We must explain to the whole Party and nation that we are facing a most serious political struggle.”

The People’s Daily released an editorial that same day:

“This is a well-planned plot to confuse the people and throw the country into ‘turmoil.’ Its real aim is to reject the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist system at the most fundamental level.”

This was to be the theme throughout. And Deng wouldn’t let go.  But the editorial re-ignited what had then been a waning student movement. The protests spread anew.

On May 13, General Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang (#2 to Deng in power and influence) spoke to Deng at the latter’s residence.

Zhao: “(The student movement) has two particular features we need to pay attention to: First, the student slogans all support the Constitution; they favor democracy and oppose corruption. These (are) basically in line with what the Party and government advocate, so we cannot reject them out of hand. Second, the number of demonstrators and supporters is enormous, and they include people from all parts of society.” Lastly, Zhao urged Deng to listen to the demonstrators if they sought to calm tensions.

Deng reiterated that the whole student movement had been stirred up from outside and he was worried about the Party elders. “The senior comrades are getting worried...We have to be decisive.”

Ironically, Mikhail Gorbachev was to be arriving in town for a full summit just a few days later. Word was out that the students were going to announce a hunger strike and that they would continue to block Tiananmen Square, thus significantly altering the pomp and circumstance for Gorbachev’s appearance.

Deng: “The Square has to be in order...We have to maintain our international image. What do we look like if the Square’s a mess?”

Zhao Ziayng replied to Deng’s inquiry as to what the ordinary people were thinking: “The protests are widespread but limited to cities that have universities.” [The farmers were deemed to be docile.] “The (urban) workers are unhappy about certain social conditions and like to let off steam from time to time, so they sympathize with the protesters (students).”

Deng: “We must not give an inch on the basic principle of upholding Communist Party rule and rejecting a Western multiparty system. At the same time, the Party must resolve the issue of democracy and address the problems that arise when corruption pops up in the Party or government.”

Zhao tried to reassure Deng that “these little ‘troubles’ are normal inside a democratic and legal framework.”

The student movement was beginning to fracture. Many returned to their classes, while others stayed the course. 100,000 began a hunger strike on May 13.

On May 16, Gorbachev arrived, a symbol that at long last normalization of Sino-Soviet relations was at hand. But as he met with Chinese leaders in the Great Hall of the People, the cries of the protesters in the square were clearly audible.

Meanwhile, that same day the all-important Politboro Standing Committee met separately. Zhao Ziyang reiterated that the leadership should find a way to dispel the sense of confrontation with the students. Premier Li Peng (#3 behind Deng and Zhao) explained to Zhao that Comrade Xiaoping’s original words could not be changed. The nation was facing a most serious struggle. The split between the reformer Zhao and many of the others in the Party hierarchy was widening.

The next day Li Peng confronted Zhao again at Deng’s residence.

“I think Comrade Ziyang must bear the main responsibility for the escalation of the student movement, as well as for the fact that the situation has gotten so hard to control.”

Deng then blasted Zhao for a speech that Zhao had given earlier in May to the Asian Development Bank meeting. In it Zhao adopted a highly reformist tone.

“Comrade Ziyang...of course we want to build socialist democracy, but we can’t possibly do it in a hurry, and still less do we want that Western-style stuff. If our one billion people jumped into multiparty elections, we’d get chaos like the ‘all-out civil war’ we saw during the Cultural Revolution.”

Deng then explained that Beijing couldn’t continue to deal with the chaos created by the protests.

“I’ve concluded that we should bring in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and declare martial law in Beijing...The aim of martial law will be to suppress the turmoil once and for all and to return things quickly to normal.”

Zhao replied, “Comrade Xiaoping, it will be hard for me to carry out this plan. I have difficulties with it.”

Deng: “The minority yields to the majority!”

Zhao: “I will submit to Party discipline; the minority does yield to the majority.”

Later that same day, the Politboro Standing Committee resumed their meeting without Deng. Premier Li Peng was adamant that Deng’s orders on martial law be carried out. Committee member Yao Yilin echoed these sentiments.

“Taking this powerful measure will help restore the city to normalcy, end the state of anarchy, and quickly and effectively stop the turmoil.”

Zhao said again, “I’m against imposing martial law in Beijing.” Zhao was worried that a crackdown would only make things worse.

“In the forty years of the People’s Republic, our Party has learned many lessons from its political and economic mistakes.  Given the crisis we now face at home and abroad, I think that one more big political mistake might well cost us all our remaining legitimacy.”

It is now the morning of May 18 and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping has had it with the demonstrators who continue to occupy the Square. Increasingly, it is General Communist Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang, a man who favored peaceful reform, against Deng, the party elders, and Premier Li Peng.

On the morning of the 18th, Zhao misses a meeting of the leadership. Deng is worried about all out civil war.

“Beijing has been chaotic for more than a month now...and we’ve been extremely tolerant. What other country in the world would watch more than a month of marches and demonstrations in its capital and do nothing about it?”

Li Peng: “...Zhao Ziyang has not come today (because) he opposes martial law. He encouraged the students right from the beginning.”

Party elder Wang Zhen: “These people are really asking for it!  They should be nabbed as soon as they pop out again. Give ‘em no mercy! The students are nuts if they think this handful of people can overthrow our Party and our government! These kids don’t know how good they’ve got it!...If the students don’t leave Tiananmen on their own, the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) should go in and carry them out. This is ridiculous!”

Elder Bo Yibo: “The whole imperialist Western world wants to make socialist countries leave the socialist road and become satellites in the system of international monopoly capitalism.”

The afternoon of May 18, Li Peng met with the student leaders who were adamant that their movement be characterized as patriotic. Li, of course, didn’t agree. Then at 4 AM on May 19, Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng visited Tiananmen Square. Zhao knew his career was near an end.

“We have come too late,” Zhao said, bringing tears to the eyes of those who heard him. He begged the students to leave before it was too late. Afterwards, Zhao requested three days’ sick leave.

Interestingly, a vast majority of the original student strikers had actually left the Square, but they were continually being replaced by new students from outside; as many as 57,000 arrived between May 16 and May 19. They traveled on trains from all over the country and made demands while en route that stretched the system, even asking for free food.

Martial law had now been declared, initially applying to five urban districts of Beijing. Opposition was swift, not just in the capital, but around the country as well. On May 21, student leaders in the Square voted to declare victory and withdraw, but they then reversed their decision at the urging of the new recruits. Deng was upset that martial law hadn’t restored order.

“Zhao Ziyang’s intransigence has been obvious,” said Deng, “and he bears undeniable responsibility.”

Wang Zhen: “What (Zhao) really wants is to drive us old people from power.”

But other leaders didn’t want to make a change at the top of the Party just now.

Finally, on May 27 it was decided that Jiang Zemin, a Party leader in Shanghai, would be named the new general secretary, replacing Zhao. And on the morning of June 2, Li Peng addressed the party elders as well as the Standing Committee of the Politboro.

Li launched a tirade, blaming the West for all of the troubles. He spoke of employees of the U.S. embassy collecting intelligence at night in the Square and how units from Taiwan’s security service were rushing to send agents in, disguised as visitors (the latter probably true).

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the turmoil has been generated by a coalition of foreign and domestic reactionary forces and that their goals are to overthrow the Communist Party and to subvert the socialist system.”

Wang Zhen: “Those goddamn bastards! Who do they think they are, trampling on sacred ground like Tiananmen so long?! We should send the troops right now...What’s the People’s Liberation Army for, anyway?... They’re not supposed to just sit around and eat!...Anybody who tries to overthrow the Communist Party deserves death and no burial!”

Deng agreed the root cause of the situation they found themselves in was the Western world, especially the U.S.

“Some Western countries use things like ‘human rights,’ or like saying the socialist system is irrational or illegal, to criticize us, but what they’re really after is our sovereignty.

“Look how many people around the world they’ve robbed of human rights! And look how many Chinese people they’ve hurt the human rights of since they invaded China during the Opium War!” [1839-42 conflict between China and Britain, a result of which Britain obtained Hong Kong.]

“Two conditions are indispensable for our developmental goals: a stable environment at home and a peaceful environment abroad...Imagine for a moment what could happen if China falls into turmoil. If it happens now, it’d be far worse than the Cultural Revolution ....Once civil war got started, blood would flow like a river, and where would human rights be then?”

Deng then proceeded to talk about the huge refugee problem that would be created by a civil war, “in the hundreds of millions.”

Later on, during the same meeting Deng speaks of what many in the West had admired.

“No one can keep China’s reform and opening from going forward. Why is that? It’s simple: Without reform and opening our development stops and our economy slides downhill. Living standards decline if we turn back. The momentum of reform cannot be stopped.”

Li Peng then suggests that the troops, now well-positioned, be moved into Tiananmen Square to clear the students. Deng agrees and adds, “As we proceed with the clearing, we must explain it clearly to all the citizens and students, asking them to leave and doing our very best to persuade them. But if they refuse to leave, they will be responsible for the consequences.”

The afternoon of June 3, Li Peng met with party elder Yang Shangkun. The situation in all of Beijing was deteriorating rapidly, with demonstrations and small “riots” spreading. Yang told Li that he had just talked to Deng who had relayed that the problem should be solved by dawn. The Square was to be cleared by sunup. Deng also wanted the students to understand that the troops were prepared to use all means necessary, but only as a last resort. Everything was to be done to avoid bloodshed, particularly within Tiananmen Square itself. Said Yang, “No one must die in the Square...it’s Comrade Xiaoping’s view.”

But while there was a crowd of about 50,000 in the Square, there were also vast gatherings throughout Beijing. The troops began to approach Tiananmen from many sides. [Picture troops coming from the north, south, east and west, advancing on Central Park.]

By 10:30 PM on June 3, soldiers were confronted by tens of thousands near the Muxudi Bridge. They were pelted with rocks and the troops lost their composure. Within minutes, at least 100 citizens and students were hit with gunfire. From an account by the State Security Ministry, “From then on there were no more lulls in the shooting. Soldiers on the trucks fired into the air continuously until people hurled rocks or verbal insults, and then they fired into the crowd.” The bodies of the dead and wounded were being continually delivered to nearby hospitals. Everyone was shouting “Fascists!” “Animals!” and “Bloody massacre!”

By 1 AM on June 4, all martial-law troops had entered Tiananmen Square and for three hours pressed students to voluntarily leave before the 4 AM deadline. [Remember, Tiananmen is the largest public square in the world. This was not a simple process.]

At 4 AM all the lights in the square went out and the troops pressured the students from all sides. When the lights came on at 4:30 AM, the students found themselves facing a large number of armed soldiers, as well as rows of tanks and armored cars moving slowly through the Square. The Goddess of Democracy (the students’ facsimile of the Statue of Liberty) fell to the ground. Around 5 AM the students made an orderly retreat and at 5:40 the square was cleared.

This is the paradox. Most people, when hearing of Tiananmen Square and June 3-4, assume that the deaths took place in the Square proper. But the shooting was outside of it.

In the following days, demonstrations spread to some 181 locations, including all the provincial capitals, the major cities, and special economic zones. And then by June 8 the situation began to stabilize.

On June 6 Deng held a meeting with the leadership to assess the damage. Everyone was particularly interested in the casualty accounts from the foreign networks. AP said “At least 500 dead.” NBC: “1,400 dead, 10,000 wounded.” ABC and BBC: “2,000 dead.”

Li Peng said, “The figures on the dead are these: 23 from the martial law troops...about 200 soldiers are also missing. The dead among city people, students, and rioters number about 200.  No one was killed within Tiananmen Square itself.”

[The truth lies somewhere in between and we will never know the exact count. The hospitals were prohibited from issuing any reports and the families of those killed were not allowed to hold public services; all grieving was to take place in private.]

Deng: “...We should be forgiving toward the student demonstrators and petition signers...and we shouldn’t try to track down individual responsibility among them.”

Deng urged that the numbers of students arrested should be held to a minimum. At the same time, he re-imposed strict discipline on the Party. China would not go the way of Eastern Europe and the USSR. [Ironically, on the very same day, June 4, Poland was holding its first free elections.]

As for the Chinese people, they were numbed. As Andrew Nathan writes, “(Shortly afterwards), the campuses were tranquil, and China seemed shrouded in a dour mist that harbored a spiritual emptiness. Money ruled everything, morals died, corruption burgeoned, bribes were bartered, and when all this became known on the campuses it turned students thoroughly off politics. They had lost the idealism of the 1980s and now
concentrated only on their own fates.”

As for Zhao Ziyang, the reformer and a hero to the students, he was placed under house arrest.

Sources:

“Twentieth Century,” J.M. Roberts
“The Oxford History of the 20th Century”
“One World Divisible,” David Reynolds
Richard Bernstein / New York Times
BBC News Wire
Steve Mufson / Washington Post
“The Presidents,” edited by Henry Graff
“China: A New History,” Fairbank and Goldman
Andrew Nathan, January / February 2001 issue of Foreign Affairs. [Nathan was one of three translators who vouched for the authenticity of ‘The Tiananmen Papers,’ along with the editors of Foreign Affairs.]

Hot Spots will return June 9.

Brian Trumbore