The Tiananmen Papers, Part I
Having just read the excerpts from "The Tiananmen Papers," the
secret documents which delve into the inner struggles that were
taking place among the Chinese leadership back in the spring of
1989, I thought we''d spend a few weeks on the story.
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.
The full translation of The Tiananmen Papers is slated for
publication in the U.S. sometime this spring. Eventually, it is
expected that the papers will have a mass audience in China as
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 which 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
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. And by 1977 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
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
Along about 1980, two other reformers helped Deng in his
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, however.]
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 reigns 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). And throughout all of the
changes, 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. And 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, that 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.
Next week, 1989 and The Tiananmen Papers.
J.M. Roberts, "Twentieth Century"
"The Oxford History of the 20th Century"
David Reynolds, "One World Divisible"
Richard Bernstein / New York Times
BBC News Wire
Steve Mufson / Washington Post