‘China must go forward; you shouldn’t dwell on what’s past,’ an American told me in Beijing last summer. He had decades of experience in China, and I could see what he meant, from a Chinese point of view. But from a Western one, Tiananmen does need to be revisited. If the bookstalls in Beijing offer only grossly biased accounts of ‘the Beijing turmoil’, at least few read them and fewer still believe them: the Chinese press is government-controlled. Western accounts of ‘the Tiananmen massacre’ are also biased and even more inaccurate, but many read them and most believe them: the British press is ‘free’.
In Middlemarch George Eliot remarks of Dorothea that while all censured her, ‘no one stated what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done’. When, in the autumn of 1989, I combed back numbers of the Guardian, Times and Independent from April through to August, that sentence summed up press attitudes to the Chinese leadership. No one asked what a British government would have done in their situation, but if one transplants it the answer is quite plain. Suppose that thousands of students laid siege to Downing Street demanding statements from the cabinet of their respective salaries and business interests, fought with police as they tried to force an entry and set up camp outside. Suppose that tens of thousands blocked approach roads from Harrow to Trafalgar Square with demonstrations, occupied a full square mile of central London, disrupted a state visit of major importance, extended their stay for more than seven weeks and erected a statue of Mao before Buckingham Palace. Would Mrs Thatcher have parleyed with the students, and been televised in the Palace of Westminster four weeks in, while the President of the NUS, in his dressing-gown, rebuked her with a wagging finger, saying: ‘It is your duty to fight against corruption’? Would she then have visited the hunger strikers and expressed concern about their health? And when martial law was flouted and she sent in the Army, would she have sent the soldiers in unarmed, or with orders not to fire, in the first instance? Of course not.
To know exactly what a British government would do, one need look no further than Hong Kong in spring 1989. In late May, a sixth of its population twice marched for democracy, and they meant democracy in Hong Kong as well as mainland China. We are liable to forget that the British Government denied the vote to the people of Hong Kong until negotiations for the return of the colony to China began in 1983, and that even now only a small percentage of its leadership is elected. ‘The Chinese do not understand the vote,’ a British investor, Richard Thornton, remarked that June. The Independent commented that one million marching in Hong Kong was even more significant than one million demonstrating in Beijing. David Owen warned that the involvement of the colony could be ‘very dangerous’. In early June a further demonstration damaged property and the Hong Kong riot police were sent in promptly. It was alleged, in language reminiscent of Beijing, that ‘criminal and unruly elements’ had led to its suppression. The streets were clear within two hours – but no one died which of course is crucial. I could trace no mention of further marches.
The real questions are two. Why was the Chinese leadership so slow to react? Why was their ultimate intervention so disastrous? No one, not even the Chinese, can claim to read the minds of the old men in Zhongnanhai. But the explanations, sometimes offered simultaneously, of ‘geriatric incompetence’ and ‘devilish cunning’ can’t both be true. To attempt rational answers to those questions it is necessary to look at different phases in the Beijing demonstrations. The first three weeks, from the death of Hu Yaobang on 15 April until just after 4 May (the 70th anniversary of the student protest against the treatment of China in the Treaty of Versailles), constitute one period. In early May two important student leaders, Wang Dan and Wu’Er Kaixi, both announced that the demonstrations were to end before Gorbachev’s arrival, set for 16 May: ‘Our purpose has never been to make our government lose face.’ Up to that point, despite the People’s Daily editorial of 26 April which accused the students of creating chaos, it was possible for the leadership to claim that their aims and those of the students were not dissimilar. Li Peng (the Times reported on 8 May) declared as much to a meeting of bankers, affirming that several of the students’ aims – developing education, science and democracy while fighting corruption – were those of China’s leadership.
[*] China’s Students: The Struggle for Democracy (Routledge, 224 pp., £30, 2 May 1991, 0 41505291 2).
Vol. 14 No. 24 · 17 December 1992
The substance of Philippa Tristram’s article (LRB, 19 November) seems to be that the violent crushing of the democracy movement in China in 1989 is both understandable and excusable. It happened, she says, because the Chinese authorities were inexperienced at crowd control, and anyway not many died. And she seems to imply that the students were naughty to have done what they did, because they disrupted President Gorbachev’s visit. She further points out that there is more food on sale in China than in Eastern Europe, so its people should be applauding not demonstrating. Our organisation is concerned with human rights issues in the People’s Republic of China. Our monitoring of arrests, trials, executions, censorship and repression in China following the events of 1989, and our work with Chinese refugees and exiles, afford us a perspective from which Philippa Tristram’s apology for China’s leaders appears profoundly ill-informed and misplaced. In 1989 millions all over China took the only political action open to them in the hope of securing increased liberties and more say over their own lives. Their efforts were brutally suppressed. Repression continues: we have a large, carefully checked body of evidence, continually updated, which Miss Tristram is welcome to consult. It will show her that her article is of a piece with David Irving revisionism, and does a very profound disservice to the Chinese people.
June 4 China Support, London SE1
Vol. 15 No. 1 · 7 January 1993
Like A.C. Grayling (Letters, 17 December 1992), I was distressed at the uninformed nature of Ms Tristram’s impressions of the events in Tiananmen Square and their consequences, as also at her easy identification with the excuses offered by China’s ruling clique. Now the rest of the world watches in dismay as China shows its anger at the Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, and the Legislative Assembly: military violence is not an option, luckily for Hong Kong, but it seems that wrecking the prosperity of Hong Kong is (despite its own heavy investment in the colony). Patten is not proposing to introduce Westminster-style parliamentary democracy to Hong Kong: strong executive control will continue into the next century. But even very modest attempts to increase consultation in Hong Kong beyond a small handful of top businessmen and administrators are apparently intolerable to the gerontocracy in Peking.
Professor of Chinese,
We have read with concern Philippa Tristram’s article (LRB, 19 November 1992). Although it makes some valid points and stresses some facts generally ignored by the media, it contrived to paint a very distorted picture of the events at Tiananmen Square. Tristram’s main argument seems to be that the students at Tiananmen, being ill-prepared and unable to control events, had in some sense brought the violent response upon themselves; and that the authorities had no other option but to react as they did. True many people, though sympathising with their ultimate aim and admiring their courage, were critical of the Tiananmen students for their handling of the situation. Yet with few of their leaders beyond their early twenties and with little help from intellectuals or experienced campaigners, they were surely the side which deserved our indulgence for any shortcomings in keeping control.
Tristram, echoing the disclaimers of the Chinese Government, argued that there was no other way for the authorities to act. The unarmed troops sent in were humiliated; there was a lack of tear-gas, fire hydrants and other standard instruments for crowd control; and the first casualties were accidents. But why would such conditions develop if not because of the incompetence of the authorities? That the students were supported by more than a million citizens of Beijing alone showed that there were reasons for discontent. When discontent is rife, demonstrations are to be expected, and contingency plans and crowd-control tools are obviously needed to avoid loss of life. In the explosive situation which developed in Tiananmen Square flashpoints should have been carefully avoided, and if they occurred, defused. If crowd control is not considered the responsibility of the government, whose responsibility is it?
The Chinese authorities have one immutable belief: that they should hold power and exercise it in whatever way they see fit. The people are not allowed to question this. Given this, there was perhaps no other way the Government could react. But this is not an excuse. Nor is it an excuse to say, as Tristram did, that the Chinese economy is much healthier than it might have been had the Government succumbed in 1989. We, the people, want both a thriving economy and a humane government, and if we do not get both we want to know the reason why, not just be told to shut up or be murdered. And it can’t be said that Western leaders would probably react similarly when trapped in the same situation. No one claims that all Western leaders are naturally better (why should they be?) or that the Chinese or Chinese leaders are somehow an inferior breed. We just say that what the Chinese Government did was atrocious, and that it would be atrocious whether it occurred in China or in the West.
Ultimately, of course, what is of interest is not who is right and who is wrong but what is right and what is wrong. We do not seek revenge for the victims at Tiananmen. What is really important is that nothing like this should happen again, in China or elsewhere. Thus, we would ask Ms Tristram and those who agree with her to refrain from making further excuses for the Chinese authorities.
Chan Hong-Mo, Shen Ning, Lau Bing Sum, Phillip Baker, Stephen Ng, Bobby Chan
Alliance for a Better China, Didcot, Oxfordshire
Vol. 15 No. 2 · 28 January 1993
A.C. Grayling’s letter (Letters, 17 December 1992), in response to Philippa Tristram’s article, is typical of the automatic prejudice with which Western liberals have reacted to what Tristram has accurately depicted as the tragedy of Tiananmen. Grayling’s heavily programmed and utterly predictable, almost clichéd view shows that he has missed the essential points raised in Tristram’s evaluation: 1. that the patience of the regime (thanks to strong prodemocracy elements in the power structure which stayed the hand of the ‘hardliners’) lasted much longer than, say, that of the French Government (in all the major student protests since 1968) or, for that matter, the Thatcher Government in its response to the students’ march to Parliament and Downing Street in 1988 (a much meeker affair than the Tiananmen demonstration); 2. that provocation and vacillation on the students’ side precipitated the final dénouement, the murder and disembowelling of soldiers and the public display of their dead bodies preceding, not following, the firing against the students; and 3. that those in control of the power of any state can be expected to adopt stringent measures against those who attack the symbols of its authority, and in this context the Chinese Government acted without due haste.
Centre for Contemporary Research on India,
Vol. 15 No. 3 · 11 February 1993
Amnesty International have published a report entitled simply Torture in China. It shows how limited and unimaginative the Nazis and the Japanese were in their torture techniques during the Second World War. The French practice of electrocuting genitals, nipples and tongues – fondly copied by the Chileans and Argentinians in the Seventies – or the long-standing favourite of beatings on the soles of the feet, or our own British invention of hooded disorientation, are as nothing compared to the banquet of tortures that today’s China practises.
In addition to beatings and proddings with electric batons and truncheons the Chinese have subtle, long-lasting refinements. One is the ‘shackle board’ which consists of a ‘wooden door laid flat on four short legs, with handcuffs fixed at each corner of the board. Prisoners are attached to the board with their arms and legs spread out and handcuffed at the corners. A hole in the board allows evacuation of urine and excrement.’ Prisoners are left attached to the ‘shackle board’ for several months, with some going mad, reports Amnesty. Another torture is Su Qin bei jian or ‘Su Quin carries a sword on his back’. This refers to the way a Chinese warrior carried his sword strapped to his back. One arm is reached back over the shoulder and the other arm is twisted behind the back and the two are tied together. The prisoner, in intense pain, is left as long as his guards desire. Then there is liankao or ‘chain-shackling’, which involves shackling prisoners’ feet and hands behind their backs. The refinement is to force both wrists and ankles into a shackle designed only for the wrist: pliers and hammers are used, Amnesty notes. Piansanlum or ‘bending three wheels’ consists in ‘shackling together two prisoners, with the hands of one tied to the feet of the other’. They squat and shuffle along, trying to eat, sleep, piss and shit for day after day at the guards’ pleasure. One guard at the Mian County Detentions Centre boasted he knew 39 ways of shackling prisoners. For those who want a quicker thrill, an alternative is laoniu gendi, or ‘the old ox ploughing the land’. Two prisoners are handcuffed together, back-to-back, and a rope attached. Other prisoners are forced by beatings to pull the rope and the two handcuffed victims at a faster and faster pace around the prison yard. Soon one prisoner falls. His yoked comrade must keep dragging him along the ground. When the concrete is covered in blood the torture stops.
When it was finished Xie Baoquin’s back was but a massive wound which took several months to heal. The wounds suppurated throughout the whole winter. He did not receive any medication and it was left to his cell mates to take care of him. His back was covered with a cotton blanket which became regularly soaked with pus from his wounds, impregnating the cell with the smell of rotting flesh.
Most of the people thus treated were imprisoned during or after 1989. While the Chinese authorities now and then let out a prisoner who has won international recognition, there are still an estimated ten million people held in Chinese prisons and labour camps.
Amnesty notes that ‘the unemployed, vagrants, workers or peasants’ are more likely to be tortured because they ‘do not have the social status, economic means or political connections which often constitute a shield against ill-treatment in detention’. There are exceptions to this rule. For example, Peng Yuzhang, a retired university professor in his seventies, was arrested in 1989 after taking part in a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration in Changsa. He was placed on the ‘shackle board’ for three months and then transferred to a psychiatric asylum. His relatives were denied permission to visit him and do not know if he is alive. Amnesty also lists many students who have been tortured but states that ‘there are few reports of ill-treatment in detention of people of high social standing, such as prominent intellectuals.’ It looks therefore as if it may still be possible for a senior member of the English Literature Department at the University of York to visit China without fear that she will encounter any of the horrors daily taking place (LRB, 19 November 1992).
Vol. 15 No. 4 · 25 February 1993
The intensity of feeling expressed by correspondents reacting to my article confirms that it was necessary to write it. A.C. Grayling, Professor MacDougall and Denis MacShane do not address the issues; they preclude discussion. Although my sympathies naturally lie, as theirs do, with the victims, I do not feel that this exonerates me from considering all other points of view. It is alarming when an attempt to do so is promptly characterised as ‘echoing’ or ‘making excuses for’ the Chinese Government. I can assure them that the only use I made of official sources, which I characterised as ‘grossly biased’, was in comparing their statistics with those of the Western press. That apart, I was entirely reliant on the major English newspapers, British books and many conversations conducted in China in the year 1990-91 with numerous people, all of whom were either supporters of, or active in, the democracy movement.
Unfortunately such reactions confirm my point that Western attitudes have become as self-righteous and intransigent as those of the Chinese Government. Torture, like that described in the Amnesty report quoted by Denis MacShane, is appalling, wherever and whenever it occurs. But again, he does not address the issues I sought to raise. In remarking that most of my informants seemed to agree that the students ‘who were pacific have been largely spared, though again no one knows what happened in the provinces’, I was of course commenting upon sentencing, not torture.
At my university, for example, though many had been active in the demonstrations, only one (a member of the PLA) had received a prison sentence. Students who visited him towards the end of his two-year term reported that he was well, but I would be the first to agree that one cannot generalise from particular examples. For that reason, I did not mention this in the original article. There, I was concerned to point out that, in the aftermath, the great majority of those sentenced had, it appears, been citizens, not students. These, so far as I could tell, had been convicted for offences which would be punishable in any Western country: members of the IRA are serving similar sentences here at present. In this connection I noted that Amnesty had been reported in April 1989 as stating that the implementation of the death penalty in China for no less than forty offences was ‘horrible but acceptable’. If that was their view in April, what became of it in June? Personally, I have never understood why execution, in certain circumstances of certain people, should be regarded as acceptable where torture isn’t; nor can I make a confident distinction between prisoners who are ‘political’ and those who aren’t, since this depends largely upon one’s point of view. I wanted to draw attention to the many prisoners, both in China and elsewhere, who are excluded from consideration by such distinctions, in West and East alike.
My article was written in the belief that we are insufficiently critical of the bases of our own judgments. The letter from supporters of the Alliance for a Better China is heartening because it does engage with that discussion. Their readiness to do so is an example to those, on either side, who don’t engage. I would like to assure them that I neither sought to justify the Chinese Government and condemn the students, nor the reverse. I was considering the reasons why both were forced into a tragic confrontation, when both, in my judgment, were anxious to avoid one. External causes, which included Western attitudes, the Western media and Western interference, helped to precipitate that confrontation. This does not ‘justify’ the action taken on 4 June. It simply notes that the Chinese Government faced a choice of evils and arguably opted for the course that preserved more human lives and human rights, for civil disorder, as current events in Europe show, can exact a monstrously heavy toll in both. I naturally agree with the Alliance for a Better China that their government ought not to have allowed themselves to be placed in a position which hindsight suggests could well have been avoided if they had developed adequate methods of crowd control.
Vol. 15 No. 6 · 25 March 1993
Philippa Tristram (Letters, 25 February) says that Amnesty International had been reported in April 1989 as stating that the implementation of the death penalty in China for no less than forty offences was ‘horrible but acceptable’. Amnesty International has never made any such statement. In early 1989, Amnesty International published two documents about the death penalty in China, both condemning it across the board.
Amnesty International, London WC1