Tiananmen Revisited

Philippa Tristram

‘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.

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[*] China’s Students: The Struggle for Democracy (Routledge, 224 pp., £30, 2 May 1991, 0 41505291 2).