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.

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.

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