Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Tiananmen: What happened, and why? 

Zhao Ziyang prepares to speak to the students at Tiananmen Square on May 19th.

It is generally agreed that the event that started the protests that eventually led to the Tiananmen Massacre was the death of Hu Yaobang, who was known as a reformer.

But I believe that the main event that exacerbated the conflict was when the Communist Party decided not to apologize for the editorial which was published in the People's Daily by Li Peng without the knowledge of the Politburo:

Deng's discussion with Li Peng and others on April 25 was supposed to be an internal affair. However, Li Peng decided to disseminate the contents of Deng's remarks that very evening to Party cadres of all levels, and paraphrased their talk in the editorial that he had the People's Daily publish on April 26, publicly designating the student demonstrations as "premeditated and organized turmoil with anti- Party and anti-socialist motives." [from Prisoner of the State, by Zhao Ziyang]
Deng was not happy that his remarks had been pubished without his consent. After all, his remarks were in response to the report that Li Peng had given him. Does this mean that Deng Xiaoping was deceived? Zhao Ziyang doesn't think so. According him, Deng leaned toward a hard-line approach. But expressing these thoughts in a private meeting is one thing. Publishing them really angered the students. Zhao Ziyang favored a softer approach, but he had been on a trip to North Korea, so he was not present to diffuse the situation, and by the time he got back, Deng's remarks had already been published.

This conflict between the hardliners, led by Li Peng, and the softer approach favored by Zhao Ziyang is, I believe, the central drama of the whole event. If Zhao Ziyang's peaceful, conciliatory approach had been tried, the tragedy of June 4th may have been prevented. I think it very likely would have been. Here's Zhao Ziyang again:

However, the crux of the issue was Deng Xiaoping himself. I hoped at the time that he could just relax things a bit, for example, by saying something like, "It seems that when Li Peng gave his report on April 25, we overreacted to the situation. It now appears that the student demonstrations are not such an overwhelming problem." With something like this to work with, I could turn the situation around without even putting any of the liability on Deng. [from Prisoner of the State, by Zhao Ziyang]
So why wasn't something like that done? Was it that they realized they had been too harsh, but could not admit it for fear of losing face, or was it the case that Deng never wavered in his original harsh assessment of the students' motives?

But the reaction of the students was also misguided:

Having grown entirely disillusioned with the government dialogues, the students decided to use the occasion of Gorbachev's visit to stage large-scale street demonstrations and a hunger strike. They believed it was the best opportunity to exert pressure on the government, which would be compelled to show tolerance during the state visit. But the students were mistaken, for the more they pushed ahead, the more pretext Li Peng and his associates had to crack down on them using violent means. [from Prisoner of the State, by Zhao Ziyang]
We all know what happened. Zhao Ziyang lost the power struggle and the Party decided to bring in the military. According to Zhao, this decision was made by Deng Xiaoping in a meeting on May 17th. What happened? Was Li Peng just more persuasive, or was it the case (as Zhao seems to think) that Deng himself tended to be a hardliner, so he didn't need much persuading? Whatever the case may be, Li Peng won the day and the tanks rolled in:
In the end, Deng Xiaoping made the final decision. He said, "The development of the situation has only confirmed that the judgment of the April 26 editorial was correct. The reason that the student demonstrations have not subsided is something within the party, and that is Zhao's May 4 speach at the ADB meeting. Since there is no way to back down now without the situation spiriling completely out of control, the decision is to move troops into Beijing to impose martial law. [from Prisoner of the State, by Zhao Ziyang]

Zhao Ziyang had given a speech on May 4th to the delegates of the Asian Development Bank. It was well received, but Deng seemed to believe that it was an attempt to out-stage him or something--showing a division in the party, which Deng probably felt was an encouragement to the students to keep protesting. Zhao Ziyang emphatically denies this, but I don't know. I don't have the text of the speech, so there is no way for me to assess it. I only have the report of Bao Tong, who wrote the speech.

On May 19th, Zhao Ziyang went to Tiananmen Square to warn the students. Li Peng initially tried to prevent Zhao Ziyang from going to the square, but when he saw that Zhao was determined to go, he decided to go with him. But according to Zhao, he got cold feet and fled, so the only person we recognize from this picture is Wen Jiabao, who eventually became the Premier under Hu Jintao.

Western media tends toward hyperbole when describing events in China. Bad China sells in the West. I am wary of this. So I don't like words like "massacre." But in this case, there's just no other word that fits. It really was a bloody massacre, with government troops gunning down unarmed civilians by the tens and hundreds:

Within days of the massacre, Zhao Ziyang was arrested. He remained under house arrest for the rest of his life. This was a great loss for China. Zhao Ziyang was a superb administrator. After the Cultural revolution, he was made Party Secretary of Sichuan Province. As with much of China, Sichuan had been devastated by the mismanagement of the Great Leap forward and the Cultural Revolution. There was massive starvation. Zhao Ziyang's market reforms revolutionized the countryside. The laobaixing in Sichuan used to have a saying: 要吃粮, 找紫阳 . It's a play on words in Mandarin, but it basically says, "If you want to have food to eat, go find Zhao Ziyang." Nobody went hungry after Zhao Ziyang took over.

Zhao Zihang died in January of 2005. I remember I was sitting in a coffee bar in Wudaokou reading the Asia Wall Street Journal. There were many tributes to Zhao Ziyang. Two pages of the newspaper were given to articles about his leadership, his gifts as an administrator, and his attempt to be kind to the students and find a peaceful solution to the Tiananmen crisis. After I left the coffee bar, I walked out into the street and bought a copy of the China Daily. There was just a brief article saying that he made "serious mistakes." I thought, "This is all??" The contrast between how he was portrayed in the Western media, and how he was portrayed in the governmet propaganda paper was striking.

Many years ago, I was a the English corner when someone brought up Tiananmen. One guy said, "The students lost."

I said, "Well, they lost the battle, but they won the war." The lost the battle, of course, because their demonstration was brutally suppressed. But they won the war, because China was forever changed. In a way, the same thing could be said about Zhao Ziyang. He lost the battle, because he spent the last sixteen years of his life under house arrest. But he won the war. During those sixteen years, he secretly recorded thirty hours of tapes giving his memoirs of the Tiananmen tragedy. The tapes were smuggled to Hong Kong and transcribed into a book (see three-minute video below). So we have an uncensored report of the inner struggle within the Party in the days that led up to the tragic events of June 4th:

When I think of the events of June 4th 1989, I am reminded of the Vietnam-era song by the Beatles, "Give Peace a Chance." How might history have been different if the Party had listened to Zhao Ziyang instead of Li Peng and decided to "give peace a chance?" I dare to believe that many lives could have been saved.

So what should be our assessment of the Tiananmen massacre? To borrow a page from Dickens, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. It was the worst of times, because many people died. But it was the best of times, because it brought out the extraordinary humanity of the Chinese people and their attempts to help the students. The many rickshaw drivers who went into action to bring the wounded to safety. The precious medical personnel who worked their hearts out to save as many lives as they could. Then there was the bus driver who used his bus to block truckloads of troops trying to enter the city. An army officer put a gun to his head and ordered him to move the bus. The bus driver reached in and pulled the key from the ignition and threw it as far as he could.

George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." We cannot change what happened. It is not for us to change history. It is for us to remember it, and tell it to our children, so that it is not repeated. And in that effort, we are greatly assisted by Zhao Ziyang's little book, which will live in history as the final word on why Tiananmen happened.



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