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Tiananmen RevisitedPhilippa Tristram
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‘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.

His use of that vexed word ‘democracy’ no doubt seems pure hypocrisy to a Western readership, but that is partly because we see democracy and single-party states as antithetic. China’s experiment in Western-style democracy collapsed within months of its first national elections in 1912; the country then fragmented. Subsequently, a variety of democratic forms have been discussed, some quite compatible with a single-party state. Fang Lizhi, for example, argued in 1986 that if the National People’s Congress became truly representative and accountable to its constituents, ‘we wouldn’t need to change our political structure, or abandon Party leadership, or leave the socialist road’. To a majority of students democracy probably meant neither a choice of parties nor even candidates, but the right to choose one’s leaders or representatives at every level by popular consensus, like the Paris Commune. To some small extent, the Party has moved along that road. Its minor officials are elected and representatives to the people’s congresses are no longer merely Party nominees. A year ago the Chinese university at which I was teaching (which is also a constituency) was outraged when its leaders proposed a second candidate to run against the popular choice, a devotee of all things American, who eventually gained nearly 75 per cent of the poll. Moreover, as Ruth Cherrington points out in her valuable book China’s Students,* support for the idea of democracy has been based on the promotion of economic progress: ‘Believing in democracy for its own sake does not seem to be characteristic of Chinese political thought, past or present.’ Democracy was not so much the students’ starting point, as a cure for the evils of corruption which have burgeoned in China with the development of Deng’s market reforms.

Returning in 1990 to teach in Beijing for a further year, I could see how much its citizens had changed since 1983, for good and ill. People were better fed, better dressed and better housed; they were also much more outspoken. On the other hand, some human rights (in China’s eyes, not ours) like the right to shelter and the right to work, had been eroded. Petty crime, almost unknown in 1983, was a daily occurrence; a division between the haves and have-nots was apparent; a black market in currency was flourishing; corruption was visible at every level, and even foreigners needed influence to get things done. Some of these things are quite familiar to us, but to the students, brought up to believe in egalitarianism, even a high income, however legal, is intrinsically corrupt. Moreover China’s leadership, both before and after June 1989, has declared itself opposed to some, though by no means all, of these evils.

In linking those words, ‘science and democracy’, Li Peng was not only indicating the connection between democracy and economic progress; he was also alluding to the past, for ‘science and democracy’ was the slogan of the 4 May movement of 1919. The student demonstrations of 1989 were densely allusive to past demonstrations and the leadership was naturally aware of it. In China’s Students, Ruth Cherrington traces back ‘the duty of remonstrance’ – ‘a form of patriotism rather than rebellion’ – as it devolved from the scholar class of imperial China upon the intellectuals, and particularly the students of this century. In a succession of demonstrations, dating back to 1985, young protesters who wished to see their country develop into a modern, independent nation, put themselves at risk. It was a testimony to their patriotism, for many paid with their lives (once, in 1925, at the hands of British-led police). But if the students saw themselves as inheriting the duty of remonstrance, the Government must also have remembered that Chinese history is littered with leaders who ignored the remonstrators, at their peril. Even before 1949, the habits of criticism and self-criticism were strongly engrained. Until 9 May an entente between the students and the leadership was possible. Beyond that point, though every sign suggests they wanted to avoid a showdown, even after the fall of Zhao Ziyang, the factors that combined to make one inevitable were multiplying.

On 10 May Wang Dan reversed his decision: demonstrations would be held when Gorbachev arrived. Two days later the first hunger strike began. What explains the students’ reversal of their earlier decision? Journalists at the time suggested a power struggle, similar to that which everyone assumed was going on among the leadership. But the movement had acquired its own momentum which the student leaders were powerless to control. Demonstrators from the provinces were travelling into Beijing by train for free, as their predecessors had done in the Cultural Revolution. Hong Kong students had become involved; on 4 May they had joined their Beijing counterparts, marching under their own banner. The Government must have felt that a natural termination was receding fast. Beyond Gorbachev’s visit lay the National People’s Congress in June. Still further on, in October, lay the 40th anniversary of liberation. Since late April, demonstrations in other major cities, many of them violent, had occurred.

They clearly did begin to wonder if the Cultural Revolution had returned. Since it has been discredited, few now remember that the Cultural Revolution (student-led) was once hailed as the greatest experiment in popular democracy the world had ever known, a ‘people’s charter’ on a massive scale. The students were naturally outraged by that allegation: they were pacific where the Red Guards were violent; they were sophisticated where the Red Guards were not; their movement was generated from the grass-roots upwards, not from the leadership downwards. But these distinctions may not have been so clear to the leadership, most of whom are leaders now because they suffered in the Cultural Revolution. Deng himself was publicly humiliated, calls were even made for his execution; his son, attacked in 1989 as a beneficiary of nepotism, is a paraplegic thanks to the Red Guards. In the early Eighties Deng’s main critics, advocates of democracy, had been Red Guards. Two small demonstrations immediately preceding Tiananmen – against the authorities at Beida who dismantled Mao’s statue there in 1988, and outside his mausoleum that December when demonstrators chanted ‘Long live Chairman Mao’ – would have given colour to this suspicion. The siege of Zhongnanhai in April 1989 courted a parallel with the events of May-June 1967. Portraits of Mao were carried by the demonstrators on 4 May. When the Goddess of Democracy was raised on 30 May the Chinese themselves detected the vocabulary of the Cultural Revolution in student speeches. One may suspect that like the present grass-roots craze for Mao badges, dingle-dangles and the music of the Cultural Revolution, these actions were chiefly intended to criticise the current leadership. Nevertheless, advocates of a return to a purer Communism have claimed the protesters of 1989 as their supporters – the final chapter of William Hinton’s The Great Reversal is one example.

A fear of foreign involvement must also have figured in the leaders’ thinking. No one believes their claim that China’s students were the puppets of a conspiracy with international connections, but some ad hoc involvement is undeniable. The Guardian noted on 1 June that money was pouring in from overseas. The previous day the Times had estimated Hong Kong’s contribution as £2m. In early May Hong Kong students were also reported as opposing the termination of the Beijing protest. If Hong Kong’s businessmen saw China’s ‘turmoil’ as a threat to their own prosperity, a majority of citizens must have seen it, whatever its outcome, as their opportunity. Their claim to British passports, first reported on 20 April, was much more effective after 4 June. None of this in Western eyes is very sinister, but the Chinese Government may well have thought it was.

Where computer communications networks are concerned, they may have had stronger grounds for their suspicions. In mid-June the Today programme on Radio 4 carried an interview with a Chinese student who described a computer network, organised largely by Chinese in North America, by which means (or so he claimed) the simultaneous uprisings in many other Chinese cities had been organised. The flight of Wan Runnan, former president of China’s largest computer company, may suggest the Beijing connection. Unfortunately, I only became aware of this activity on my university’s computer when a colleague remarked that it had not been so busy since the claim to atomic implosion in a glass of water. The single print-out I obtained relates to 7 June. Some of it can be dismissed as wishfulfilment: ‘Deng Xiaoping had died of heart attach [sic] before the military action and was said to have left a word “Do not use military force” before his death.’ But much of it relates to supposed divisions in the Army which might have set the scene for civil war. According to one well-established foreign expert in Beijing, this scenario had been scripted days in advance of 4 June, for the Western journalists who rang him were interested only in news of divisions in the Army. On 8 June the Independent scotched this rumour by asserting that troops on the night of 4 June had been drawn from a number of different units (as one would expect from any government still in its senses; a similar attempt to split the PLA occurred during the Cultural Revolution). Like other ‘episodes’ – the assassination of Li Peng, slaughter on the Beijing campuses – this appears to have been deliberate misinformation. But misinformation can precipitate disaster, as the leadership was naturally aware.

It is difficult not to run ahead of events. To the best of my knowledge, the remaining facts are these. On 19 May, the day after Gorbachev’s departure, over a million people demonstrated in Beijing, for citizens who had formerly cheered from the sidelines had participated in their numbers since mid-May. The following day Zhao Ziyang fell from power. He had become the students’ hero on the grounds that ‘though undoubtedly responsible for the corruption’ he had ‘a correct attitude toward the movement’. Immediately, martial law was declared. The Army with tanks and guns appeared in Beijing streets, but were turned back by roadblocks and ‘people power’: one must assume, since they did not use their arms, that they had orders not to shoot. A stalemate ensued, protests continued in a minor key and Tiananmen was still occupied, but on 27 May Wu’Er Kaixi and Wang Dan announced that demonstrations would now be called off on grounds of hygiene. Not all agreed; on 30 May the Goddess of Democracy was raised in Tiananmen. But the protest as a whole seemed to be dwindling.

It was an accident on 2 June, caused by an armoured car which crashed through a barrier killing four pedestrians, which brought the demonstrators back onto the streets. The driver was later sentenced. But this was the first blood shed in seven weeks of demonstrations, and the four at once became the protest’s martyrs. People reappeared in force, a new hunger strike began and contingents of young, unarmed soldiers marched into the city. Some were gently handled, some not so gently; all were shamed. On 3 June armed troops replaced them; these too apparently had orders not to shoot. A friend told me that he saw a bus-load, stripped of their uniforms, their weapons confiscated by the crowd. He reflected (as any Englishman might) that no government was going to stand for this. It didn’t. Later that night an armoured car, the first of many, approached Tiananmen. The three soldiers inside were incinerated. The Army radioed back for the leaders’ instructions and were told to retaliate when they met with violence (this message was intercepted by a Western communications satellite).

Everyone knows what followed, but part of it (the only part that is reported in China itself) went unheard in the West. The sole substantial exception I could find was a photographer’s report, quoted selectively in the Guardian. He described soldiers on Changan Avenue, armed only with some ineffectual tear gas. As they fled, one was overtaken by the crowd and stoned until only the stub of his neck remained. The photographer followed the soldiers into the Nationalities Building. It was full, he said, of dead and dying soldiers. The rage of the crowd is partly explained by their different expectations of the Army, which they are educated to regard as the people’s friend. They had no experience of tear gas. As they told a foreign observer, they were certain that no other government in the world would use it on its own citizens.

One day last year I remarked to a student that he was one of three army members in my MA literature classes. I was reflecting how unusual this would be in England and at first misunderstood his apprehensive question: ‘What do you think of us?’ Then I found myself explaining to him that a man with a gun in his hands and orders to shoot would naturally do so when hugely outnumbered by a hostile crowd. The crucial question to me was whether China possessed a force fully equipped and trained in crowd control. He didn’t know, but he had never heard of one.

Different answers have been given to that question in the West. One can only be sure that they had a little tear gas and were unpractised in its usage. In 1989 no Communist country, save Poland since Gdansk, was known to be equipped for crowd control. Li Peng’s bland assertion that China had no experience of riots does not tally with episodes in the Cultural Revolution, but then, too, the Army was sent in. His claim that tear gas was ineffective, ‘People just came back’, is borne out by numerous observers. I see no reason not to believe his statement that they had no rubber bullets and no high-pressure fire hydrants. Given the Government’s evident wish, for whatever reason, to postpone a bloody outcome, it is difficult to believe that they would not have used all means at their disposal to avoid one. In that case, once they had decided that force was unavoidable, they had no choice. As the Guardian pointed out on 7 June, since so many of the PLA are not well trained, it was inevitable that ‘crack troops’ would be sent in, and in the nature of things ‘crack troops’ have lethal weapons. Why tanks? Tanks were deployed on the roads of France this summer for the same purpose, to remove the roadblocks.

After 4 June, moderate estimates in the Western press put the death toll at seven-to-eight thousand (the official Chinese estimate was 300). By the end of the month, the American State Department had revised that figure down to seven hundred, though the number generally used today is one thousand. Very few of those known to have died were students, who left the square after negotiations. Few I met in the universities contested the government figure of 36, though they pointed out that most of the students in the centre were from the provinces and figures there are hard to get. The casualties most photographed that day, seven students on Changan Avenue, returning to the university sector, who were crushed against a railing by an armoured car, could have been victims of a genuine accident. Far more who died were soldiers; more still were Beijing citizens.

It is also citizens who have suffered in the aftermath. As Fang Lizhi observed in 1987, workers are easily dealt with, but the Government ‘does not easily dare to take action against the students’. Most agree that the latter, who were pacific, have been largely spared, though again no one knows what happened in the provinces. Civilians were convicted of offences such as arson, theft and assault, like the ten known to have been executed in Beijing and Shanghai. This is in keeping with Chinese practice, which defines 40 crimes as capital offences – a fact which Amnesty found ‘horrible but acceptable’ in April 1989. Most Chinese intellectuals seem untroubled by the thought that far more young people are executed every year in China than died in Beijing that June; the figure is said to run to ‘several thousands’. Like those Americans, who in the summer of 1989 supported the decision of the US Supreme Court to allow the death penalty to be extended to minors and mental defectives, they see a criminal as best disposed of.

These days China’s leaders cite the former USSR as proof of their conviction that economic reform must precede political reform. Even last year it was difficult to book tickets on the Trans-Siberian which is crammed with Eastern Europeans who can make a profit by toting home the consumer goods freely available in Beijing: ‘To enter China is like entering the land of milk and honey.’ If infant mortality and life expectancy are indications, China in 1990 was streets ahead of India, close behind the then USSR which was close to Western Europe. Western writers sometimes make fun of da luan (‘great turmoil’) which has been used for centuries in China to justify the oppressions of autocracy. But if the country had fallen apart, as the Western press in May 1989 predicted it would, one wonders whether millions would not by now have died. Few perished even in the disastrous floods last summer, thanks to a draconian central authority. Nations have to be rich to afford a Western-style democracy, as its failure in Third World countries shows. It is not impossible to hope that China may yet develop a more practicable model of its own. If all concerned could agree that the events of 4 June were neither ‘massacre’ nor ‘turmoil’ but ‘tragedy’, it might help China to advance along that path.

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Letters

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.

A.C. Grayling
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.

Bonnie McDougall
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.

T.V. Sathyamurthy
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).

Denis MacShane
Geneva

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.

Philippa Tristram
York

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.

Arlette Laduguie
Amnesty International, London WC1

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