[Note: The following consolidates previously published material.]
June 3-4 represents the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square
massacre. In January 2001, “The Tiananmen Papers” were
released; secret documents that purported to delve into the
struggles taking place within the Chinese leadership in the spring
The papers reveal the conversations between the hard-liners and
the reformers within the Chinese government as massive student
protests swept the country. This was best exemplified by the
burgeoning crowd in Tiananmen Square; the world''s largest
public area that carries great symbolism to the Chinese people,
for it was the place where on October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong
proclaimed the establishment of the People''s Republic of China.
The transcripts of the discussions that were taking place during
the student demonstrations are striking, and, in some cases
chilling. But the first question you may ask is, are they
authentic? American ambassador James R. Lilley, the diplomat
on the scene during the protests, believes the documents are.
“But I don''t rule out the possibility that people might have
played with the language to score certain points,” Lilley told the
New York Times.
And who is responsible for getting the conversations out of the
country? According to those who have met with the individual,
who goes by the pseudonym Zhang Liang, he is a senior
government official who is hoping to promote political reform in
China. The documents are seen as the reformers'' best opportunity
to further their ideas.
Before we delve into the work, let''s briefly review the
background to the student protests of 1989.
First, one needs to know a bit about Deng Xiaoping, the
paramount Chinese leader of the time.
Born in 1904, Deng was part of the historic Long March, the
movement of 90,000 communist troops during the war in 1934-
35 against the Nationalist forces. Mao Zedong and Chu Teh led
the 6,000-mile march which prevented the extermination of the
Communist Party and eventually led to the elevation of Mao and
the formation of the modern Chinese state.
By 1956, Deng had become the general secretary of the
Communist Party. But then along came the Cultural Revolution
The Cultural Revolution was initiated by Mao as a way of
purging the Communist Party of his opponents. He didn''t like
the way some officials were touting reform as part of their
effort to lift China out of the Dark Ages. The Revolution''s
purpose was to instill correct revolutionary attitudes. A new
youth corps was formed, the Red Guards, which employed
violence on a massive scale to ensure Mao''s ideas were
carried out. Unfortunately for Deng, he was a victim of the
purges due to his perceived capitalist tendencies. Deng was then
dismissed from his role as party secretary and sent into exile.
But in 1976, Mao died and his Gang of Four (which included his
wife) were arrested for spearheading what had become a
disastrous Revolution; one which set back China''s progress by at
least a decade. And by 1977 Deng Ziaoping was rehabilitated,
becoming de facto ruler of China the following year.
Deng quickly announced a new period of “modernizations” for
his country in the fields of industry, education, the army, and the
social sciences. It was a new openness, but there would be
limits to his reforms and no one was to criticize the Communist
Under Deng, China began to pursue a path of cautious
modernization. Deng himself said the Chinese leadership was
“crossing the river by feeling for the stones.” [J.M. Roberts]
And so you had a situation where, as historian David Reynolds
described it, “Spasms of political openness were followed by
sharp crackdowns when protesters got out of hand.” Deng
desired economic, not political change, and China made
tremendous progress in the first ten years of his leadership.
Deng did tolerate the word “democracy;” after all, it was his
intent to create his own Chinese brand. But his definition
referred to democratic centralism, not “bourgeois democracy,”
the latter placing the individual ahead of the state. And Deng was
not in search of American democracy, which he described as
being one of three governments; the executive, legislative, and
Along about 1980, two other reformers helped Deng in his
Zhao Ziyang, a longtime party member who had been dismissed
by Mao at the height of the Cultural Revolution, was named
premier. Zhao had been rehabilitated in 1975 and worked his
way back up through the party chain of command.
The other was Hu Yaobang, who from 1980-87 was general
party secretary. [Deng was still the ultimate leader, however.]
Together, Zhao and Hu represented the younger generation of
reformers who constantly had to go to battle against the Chinese
gerontocracy. Most of China''s “elders” were in their 80s, like
Deng who hit this mark in 1984, and they still had great
legitimacy because they were part of the Long March generation
which had led China through Japanese occupation and civil war
to triumph. The disasters of the past, like the Cultural
Revolution, made the elders even more leery about just who
would eventually take over the reigns of power.
By 1986, both Zhao and Hu convinced Deng that true, economic
reform was being blocked by an entrenched bureaucracy. Zhao
sought more competitive party elections and a strengthened legal
system, the latter for protecting property and contractual rights.
Deng took a chance and granted the intellectuals and academics
more freedom as well.
But by the end of the year, the elders were worried. Hu Yaobang
was stripped of his general party secretary title (though he
retained a seat on the Politboro), while the students were
becoming increasingly mobilized.
In 1987, at the October Party Congress, Zhao (having been
elevated to party secretary from premier) managed to push
through some reforms, the biggest perhaps being the forced
retirement of half the 200-member Politboro. And with regards
to the key Politboro Standing Committee, an elite body of five,
two were reformers, Zhao and Hu Qili; two were conservatives,
Li Peng (the new premier) and Yao Yilan; and one was a
straddler, Qiao Shi.
By 1988, the elders were concerned with the amount of
liberalization taking place in the media and at the same time
the economic boom was taking its toll, both on the cities and in
terms of inflation.
The cities were becoming harder and harder to control as
millions surged from the rural areas into the urban hotbeds of
commerce. And as foreign investment flowed in, word spread in
the hinterlands that work could be found in places like Beijing
and Shanghai. The problem was that there were laws against
mobility of this kind and as the transients threatened to take jobs
away from the longtime city dwellers who were finally seeing
prospects for a better future, that led many to begin to turn
against the reforms.
And then there were the students. One of the consequences of
the Cultural Revolution had been the closure, more or less, of the
university system. With the reform movement, there was a rush
by China''s leaders to make up for lost time. Applications for
universities soared, with the result being that the living
conditions for students were horrid. 7 or 8 to a room became
cause for protest, let alone the skyrocketing costs. The seeds
were planted for a crisis.
By the spring of 1989, it wasn''t just the students who were
increasingly disgruntled over the pace of reform in China. While
they desired more press freedoms, the workers and citizens also
demanded an end to the corruption, inflation and disruptions that
had accompanied economic reforms.
There is no doubt that China was in the midst of a boom. Deng
Xiaoping had coined slogans like “to get rich is glorious” in
order to encourage the development of the rural economy. But
with inflation running at about 30% and anger increasing over
the corruption, all that was needed was an event to spark massive
By almost all accounts, that one spark was the death on April 8,
1989 of former general party secretary Hu Yaobang. Along with
Zhao Ziyang (who had replaced Hu in the Party secretary role in
1987), the two were the leading reformers in the Chinese
government and were favorites of the students. Though details
are a bit sketchy (like just about everything else in China), it was
reported that Hu succumbed to a heart attack at the Politboro
(where he had been allowed to maintain a seat), supposedly
while arguing with hard-liners. Hu Yaobang thus became a
convenient martyr and one week later, 200,000 gathered at his
state funeral in Tiananmen Square to demand more democracy.
Many of them didn''t leave until they were forcibly and violently
removed about six weeks later on June 4.
The protests spread beyond Tiananmen Square into other urban
and rural areas. Following are some comments from the key
decision makers in the Chinese government, excerpted from the
previously mentioned “Tiananmen Papers,” the documents
smuggled out by a high-ranking Party official.
April 26, Deng Xiaoping, still the paramount leader in China
though he was without an official title.
“The students have been raising a ruckus for ten days now, and
we''ve been tolerant and restrained. But things haven''t gone our
way. A tiny minority is exploiting the students; they want to
confuse the people and throw the country into chaos...We must
explain to the whole Party and nation that we are facing a most
serious political struggle.”
The People''s Daily released an editorial that same day:
“This is a well-planned plot to confuse the people and throw the
country into ''turmoil.'' Its real aim is to reject the Chinese
Communist Party and the socialist system at the most
This was to be the theme throughout. And Deng wouldn''t let go.
But the editorial re-ignited what had then been a waning student
movement. The protests spread anew.
On May 13, General Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang (#2 to Deng in
power and influence) spoke to Deng at the latter''s residence.
Zhao: “(The student movement) has two particular features we
need to pay attention to: First, the student slogans all support the
Constitution; they favor democracy and oppose corruption.
These (are) basically in line with what the Party and government
advocate, so we cannot reject them out of hand. Second, the
number of demonstrators and supporters is enormous, and they
include people from all parts of society.” Lastly, Zhao urged
Deng to listen to the demonstrators if they sought to calm
Deng reiterated that the whole student movement had been
stirred up from outside and he was concerned about the Party
elders. “The senior comrades are getting worried...We have to
Ironically, Mikhail Gorbachev was to be arriving in town for a
full summit just a few days later. Word was out that the students
were going to announce a hunger strike and that they would
continue to block Tiananmen Square, thus significantly altering
the pomp and circumstance for Gorbachev''s appearance.
Deng: “The Square has to be in order...We have to maintain our
international image. What do we look like if the Square''s a
Zhao Ziyang replied to Deng''s inquiry as to what the ordinary
people were thinking: “The protests are widespread but limited
to cities that have universities.” [The farmers were deemed to be
docile.] “The (urban) workers are unhappy about certain social
conditions and like to let off steam from time to time, so they
sympathize with the protesters (students).”
Deng: “We must not give an inch on the basic principle of
upholding Communist Party rule and rejecting a Western
multiparty system. At the same time, the Party must resolve the
issue of democracy and address the problems that arise when
corruption pops up in the Party or government.”
Zhao tried to reassure Deng that “these little ''troubles'' are
normal inside a democratic and legal framework.”
The student movement was beginning to fracture. Many
returned to their classes, while others stayed the course. 100,000
began a hunger strike on May 13.
On May 16, Gorbachev arrived, a symbol that at long last
normalization of Sino-Soviet relations was at hand. But as he
met with Chinese leaders in the Great Hall of the People, the
cries of the protesters in the square were clearly audible.
Meanwhile, that same day the all-important Politboro Standing
Committee met separately. Zhao Ziyang reiterated that the
leadership should find a way to dispel the sense of confrontation
with the students. Premier Li Peng (#3 behind Deng and Zhao)
explained to Zhao that Comrade Xiaoping''s original words could
not be changed. The nation was facing a most serious struggle.
The split between the reformer Zhao and many of the others in
the Party hierarchy was widening.
The next day Li Peng confronted Zhao again at Deng''s residence.
“I think Comrade Ziyang must bear the main responsibility for
the escalation of the student movement, as well as for the fact
that the situation has gotten so hard to control.”
Deng then blasted Zhao for a speech that Zhao had given earlier
in May to the Asian Development Bank meeting. In it, Zhao
adopted a highly reformist tone.
“Comrade Ziyang...of course we want to build socialist
democracy, but we can''t possibly do it in a hurry, and still less
do we want that Western-style stuff. If our one billion people
jumped into multiparty elections, we''d get chaos like the ''all-out
civil war'' we saw during the Cultural Revolution.”
Deng then explained that Beijing couldn''t continue to deal with
the chaos created by the protests.
“I''ve concluded that we should bring in the People''s Liberation
Army (PLA) and declare martial law in Beijing...The aim of
martial law will be to suppress the turmoil once and for all and to
return things quickly to normal.”
Zhao replied, “Comrade Xiaoping, it will be hard for me to carry
out this plan. I have difficulties with it.”
Deng: “The minority yields to the majority!”
Zhao: “I will submit to Party discipline; the minority does yield
to the majority.”
Later that same day, the Politboro Standing Committee resumed
their meeting without Deng. Premier Li Peng was adamant that
Deng''s orders on martial law be carried out. Committee member
Yao Yilin echoed these sentiments.
“Taking this powerful measure will help restore the city to
normalcy, end the state of anarchy, and quickly and effectively
stop the turmoil.”
Zhao said again, “I''m against imposing martial law in Beijing.”
Zhao was worried that a crackdown would only make things
“In the forty years of the People''s Republic, our Party has
learned many lessons from its political and economic mistakes.
Given the crisis we now face at home and abroad, I think that
one more big political mistake might well cost us all our
It is now the morning of May 18 and Chinese leader Deng
Xiaoping has had it with the demonstrators who continue
to occupy the Square. Increasingly it is General Communist
Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang, a man who favored peaceful
reform, against Deng, the party elders, and Premier Li Peng.
On the morning of the 18th, Zhao Ziyang misses a meeting of
the leadership. Deng is worried about all-out civil war.
“Beijing has been chaotic for more than a month now...and
we''ve been extremely tolerant. What other country in the world
would watch more than a month of marches and demonstrations
in its capital and do nothing about it?”
Li Peng: “...Zhao Ziyang has not come today (because) he
opposes martial law. He encouraged the students right from the
Party elder Wang Zhen: “These people are really asking for it!
They should be nabbed as soon as they pop out again. Give ''em
no mercy! The students are nuts if they think this handful of
people can overthrow our Party and our government! These kids
don''t know how good they''ve got it!...If the students don''t leave
Tiananmen on their own, the PLA (People''s Liberation Army)
should go in and carry them out. This is ridiculous!”
Elder Bo Yibo: “The whole imperialist Western world wants to
make socialist countries leave the socialist road and become
satellites in the system of international monopoly capitalism.”
The afternoon of May 18 Li Peng met with the student leaders,
who were adamant that their movement be characterized as
patriotic. Li, of course, didn''t agree. Then at 4 AM on May
19, Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng visited Tiananmen Square. Zhao
knew his career was near an end.
“We have come too late,” Zhao said, bringing tears to the eyes of
those who heard him. He begged the students to leave before it
was too late. Afterwards, Zhao requested three days'' sick leave.
Interestingly, a vast majority of the original student strikers had
actually left the Square, but they were continually being replaced
by new students from outside; as many as 57,000 arrived
between May 16 and May 19. They traveled on trains from all
over the country and made demands while en route that stretched
the system, even asking for free food.
Martial law had now been declared, initially applying to five
urban districts of Beijing. Opposition was swift, not just in the
capital, but around the country as well. On May 21, student
leaders in the Square voted to declare victory and withdraw, but
they then reversed their decision at the urging of the new
recruits. Deng was upset that martial law hadn''t restored order.
“Zhao Ziyang''s intransigence has been obvious,” said Deng,
“and he bears undeniable responsibility.”
Wang Zhen: “What (Zhao) really wants is to drive us old people
But other leaders didn''t want to make a change at the top of the
Party just now.
Finally, on May 27 it was decided that Jiang Zemin, a Party
leader in Shanghai, would be named the new general secretary,
replacing Zhao, and on the morning of June 2, Li Peng addressed
the party elders as well as the Standing Committee of the
Li launched a tirade, blaming the West for all of the troubles. He
spoke of employees of the U.S. embassy collecting intelligence
at night in the Square and how units from Taiwan''s security
service were rushing to send agents in, disguised as visitors (both
“It is becoming increasingly clear that the turmoil has been
generated by a coalition of foreign and domestic reactionary
forces and that their goals are to overthrow the Communist Party
and to subvert the socialist system.”
Wang Zhen: “Those goddamn bastards! Who do they think they
are, trampling on sacred ground like Tiananmen so long?! We
should send the troops right now...What''s the People''s
Liberation Army for, anyway?...They''re not supposed to just sit
around and eat!...Anybody who tries to overthrow the
Communist Party deserves death and no burial!”
Deng agreed the root cause of the situation they found
themselves in was the Western world, especially the U.S.
“Some Western countries use things like ''human rights,'' or like
saying the socialist system is irrational or illegal, to criticize us,
but what they''re really after is our sovereignty.
“Look how many people around the world they''ve robbed of
human rights! And look how many Chinese people they''ve hurt
the human rights of since they invaded China during the Opium
War!” [1839-42 conflict between China and Britain, a result of
which Britain obtained Hong Kong.]
“Two conditions are indispensable for our developmental goals:
a stable environment at home and a peaceful environment
abroad...Imagine for a moment what could happen if China falls
into turmoil. If it happens now, it''d be far worse than the
Cultural Revolution...Once civil war got started, blood would
flow like a river, and where would human rights be then?”
Deng then proceeded to talk about the huge refugee problem that
would be created by a civil war, “in the hundreds of millions.”
Later on, during the same meeting Deng speaks of what many in
the West had admired.
“No one can keep China''s reform and opening from going
forward. Why is that? It''s simple: Without reform and opening
our development stops and our economy slides downhill. Living
standards decline if we turn back. The momentum of reform
cannot be stopped.”
Li Peng then suggests that the troops, now well- positioned, be
moved into Tiananmen Square to clear the students. Deng agrees
and adds, “As we proceed with the clearing, we must explain it
clearly to all the citizens and students, asking them to leave and
doing our very best to persuade them. But if they refuse to leave,
they will be responsible for the consequences.”
The afternoon of June 3, Li Peng met with party elder Yang
Shangkun. The situation in all of Beijing was deteriorating
rapidly, with demonstrations and small “riots” spreading. Yang
told Li that he had just talked to Deng who had relayed that the
problem should be solved by dawn. The Square was to be
cleared by sunup. Deng also wanted the students to understand
that the troops were prepared to use all means necessary, but
only as a last resort. Everything was to be done to avoid
bloodshed, particularly within Tiananmen Square itself. Said
Yang, “No one must die in the Square...it''s Comrade Xiaoping''s
But while there was a crowd of about 50,000 in the Square, there
were also vast gatherings throughout Beijing. The troops began
to approach Tiananmen from many sides. [Picture troops coming
from the north, south, east and west, advancing on Central Park.]
By 10:30 PM on June 3, soldiers were confronted by tens of
thousands near the Muxudi Bridge. They were pelted with rocks
and the troops lost their composure. Within minutes, at least 100
citizens and students were hit with gunfire. From an account by
the State Security Ministry, “From then on there were no more
lulls in the shooting. Soldiers on the trucks fired into the air
continuously until people hurled rocks or verbal insults, and then
they fired into the crowd.” The bodies of the dead and wounded
were being continually delivered to nearby hospitals. Everyone
was shouting “Fascists!” “Animals!,” and “Bloody massacre!”
By 1:00 AM on June 4, all martial-law troops had entered
Tiananmen Square and for three hours pressed students to
voluntarily leave before the 4:00 AM deadline. [Remember,
Tiananmen is the largest public square in the world. This was
not a simple process.]
At 4:00 AM the lights in the square went out and the troops
pressured the students from all sides. When the lights came on at
4:30 AM, the students found themselves facing a large number of
armed soldiers, as well as rows of tanks and armored cars
moving slowly through the Square. The Goddess of Democracy
(the students'' facsimile of the Statue of Liberty) fell to the
ground. Around 5:00 AM the students made an orderly retreat
and at 5:40 the square was cleared.
This is the paradox. Most people, when hearing of Tiananmen
Square and June 3-4, assume that the deaths took place in the
Square proper. But the shooting was outside of it.
In the following days, demonstrations spread to some 181
locations, including all the provincial capitals, the major cities,
and special economic zones. And then by June 8 the situation
began to stabilize.
On June 6 Deng held a meeting with the leadership to assess the
damage. Everyone was particularly interested in the casualty
accounts from the foreign networks. AP said “At least 500
dead.” NBC: “1,400 dead, 10,000 wounded.” ABC and BBC:
Li Peng said, “The figures on the dead are these: 23 from the
martial law troops...about 200 soldiers are also missing. The
dead among city people, students, and rioters number about 200.
No one was killed within Tiananmen Square itself.”
[The truth lies somewhere in between and we will never know
the exact count. The hospitals were prohibited from issuing any
reports and the families of those killed were not allowed to hold
public services; all grieving was to take place in private.]
Deng: “...We should be forgiving toward the student demonstrators
and petition signers...and we shouldn''t try to track down
individual responsibility among them.”
Deng urged that the numbers of students arrested should be held
to a minimum. At the same time, he reimposed strict discipline
on the Party. China would not go the way of Eastern Europe and
the USSR. [Ironically, on the very same day, June 4, Poland was
holding its first free elections.]
As for the Chinese people, they were numbed. As Andrew
Nathan writes, “(Shortly afterwards), the campuses were
tranquil, and China seemed shrouded in a dour mist that harbored
a spiritual emptiness. Money ruled everything, morals died,
corruption burgeoned, bribes were bartered, and when all this
became known on the campuses it turned students thoroughly off
politics. They had lost the idealism of the 1980s and now
concentrated only on their own fates.”
As for Zhao Ziyang, the reformer and a hero to the students, he
remains under house arrest.
BBC News Wire
Richard Bernstein / New York Times
Fairbank and Goldman, “China: A New History”
Henry Graff, “The Presidents”
Steve Mufson / Washington Post
Andrew Nathan, Foreign Affairs: Jan. / Feb. 2001*
David Reynolds, “One World Divisible”
J.M. Roberts, “Twentieth Century”
*Source of much of the dialogue.
Hott Spotts will return June 17.