DECISIONS BEHIND THE TIANANMEN SQUARE MASSACRE

TIANANMEN SQUARE MASSACRE DECISION

20080219-tiananmen Square.jpg The meeting in which the decision to declare martial law was held without Zhao Ziyang being present even though as premier he was supposed to preside over such meeting according to the Communist Party Charter.

In many ways the two dozen or so leaders in the Chinese elite were out of touch with what was going on. They believed, for example, that “groups of old ladies and children slept on the road,” blocking martial law troops form entering Beijing—but there were no such old ladies or children.

Deng, who endured the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural revolution, had little tolerance for political instability. Many say Deng faced a choice between re-asserting the power of the Communist party or opening up the party to the forces of democracy, which would probably lead to the dilution of the party’s power. Given that choice he chose force to re-assert the party’s power.

Good Websites and Sources on Deng Xiaoping: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Life of Deng Xiaoping cbw.com ; CNN Profile cnn.com ; New York Times Obituary nytimes.com ; China Daily Profile chinadaily.com. ; Wikipedia article on Economic Reforms in China Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Special Economic Zones Wikipedia .

Good Websites and Sources on the Tiananmen Square Protests: Graphic pictures christusrex.org and christusrex.org ; Tiananmen Square Documents gwu.edu/ ; Gate of Heavenly Peace tsquare.tv ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; BBC Eyewitness Account news.bbc.co.uk Film: The Gate of Heavenly Peace has been praised for its balanced treatment of the Tiananmen Square Incident. Gate of Heavenly Peace tsquare.tv.

Books Abour Deng Xiaoping: Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra F. Vogel (Belknap/Harvard University, 2011); Burying Mao: Chinese Politics in the Age of Deng Xiaoping by Richard Baum (1996, Princeton University Press); China After Deng Xiaoping: The Power Struggle in Beijing Since Tiananmen by Willy Wo-lap Lam (1995, P.A. Professional Consultants); Deng Xiaoping by Uli Franz (1988, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich); Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese Revolution: A Political Biography by David S.G. Goodman (1994, Routledge); Deng Xiaoping: Chronicle of an Empire by Ruan Ming (1994, Westview Press); Deng Xiaoping and the Making of Modern China by Richard Evans 1993, Hamish Hamilton); Deng Xiaoping: My Father by Deng Maomao (1995, Basic Books); Deng Xiaoping: Portrait of a Chinese Statesman edited by David Shambaugh (1995, Clarendon Paperbacks); The New Emperors: Mao and Deng---a Dual Biography by Harrison E. Salisbury (1992, HarperCollins). Books about Modern China worth reading include The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence, China-Alive in a Bitter Sea by Fox Butterfield, To Get Rich is Glorious by Orville Schell, The New Emperors by Harrison Salisbury, Coming Alive-China After Mao by Roger Garside and The Dragon Wakes by Christopher Hibbert. You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com.

Books About Tiananmen Square: Timothy Brook’s “Quelling the People: The Military Suppression of the Beijing Democracy Movement” is regarded as the most complete book on Tiananmen Square. According to Ian Johnson it is “a work by a classically trained historian who turned his powers of analysis and fact-digging on the massacre. Even though Brook’s book doesn’t include some important works published in the 2000s (especially the memoirs of then Party secretary Zhao Ziyang and a compilation of leaked documents known as The Tiananmen Papers), Quelling the People remains the best one-volume history of the events in Beijing.” One should also note the works of Wu Renhua, a Tiananmen participant and author of several Chinese-language works, as well as a a book by Jeremy Brown of Simon Fraser University.

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History)

Deng and the Tiananmen Square Massacre Decision

Deng is widely believed to have been the one who ordered the crack down at Tiananmen Square. According to the Tiananmen Papers, before the arrival of Gorbachev, Deng said, "We must not give an inch on the basic principal of upholding the Communist Party. At the same time the party must resolve the issue of democracy."

Later Deng changed his tune. On May 18, he said, "After thinking long and hard about this, I've concluded that we should bring in the People's Liberation Army and declare martial law in Beijing."

Later Deng said, "If they refuse to leave they will be responsible for the consequences." Analysts believe that a few dozen policemen could easily have removed the protestors but Deng, who had just emerged from a power struggle within the Communist Party, felt it was necessary to send a strong message that he was solidly in power and wouldn't tolerate dissent.

Deng reportedly waited for Zhao to crack down on the students. When Zhao didn’t, Deng decided it was time to replace Zhao and take matters into his own hands, telling the Elders, “It’s lucky we’re still here to keep a lid on things.”

Communist Party Struggle at the Time of Tiananmen Square


The debate over how to respond to protesting students was part of a continuing struggle over economic and political change. In his book Zhao said that the goal of the party meetings at the time of the demonstrations was not to suppress the student demonstrations but rather to settle a power struggle between conservative and liberal factions. Adi Ignatius, one of the editors of the book and editor in chief of the Harvard Business Review, wrote in Time, “China’s hard lined had tried for years to derail the economic and political innovations that Zhao had introduced. Tiananmen, Zhao demonstrates in his journal, gave conservatives a pretext to set the clock back .

Ignatius wrote, “The power structure described in the book is chaotic and often bumbling...Deng is a conflicted figure who urges Zhao to push hard for economic changes but demands a crackdown on anything that seems to challenge the party’s authority. Deng is at times portrayed not as an emperor but as a puppet subject to manipulations by Zhao or his rivals, depending on who presents his case to the old man first.”

In June 2010, a Hong Kong publisher was printing an alleged insider account of decision-making process behind the Tiananmen square crackdown in 1989 allegedly by former premier Li Peng when it suddenly stopped the presses, siting copyright problems.

Thought Processes behind the Tiananmen Decisions

Describing the thought process behind the decision that were made, Zhao wrote in his memoirs, “First, it was determined then that the student movement was a planned conspiracy of anti-Party, anti-socialist elements with leadership. So now we must ask, who were these leaders? What was the plan? What was the conspiracy? What evidence exists to support this? It was also said that there were black hands within the Party. Then who were they? [Source: Zhao Ziyang’s Prisoner of the State +++]

Second, it was said that this event was aimed at overthrowing the People’s Republic and the Communist Party. Where is the evidence? I had said at the time that most people were only asking us to correct our flaws, not attempting to overthrow our political system. After so many years, what evidence has been obtained through the interrogations? Have I been proven right, or have they? Many of the democracy activists in exile say that before June Fourth, they had still believed that the Party could improve itself. After June Fourth, however, they saw the Party as hopeless and only then did they take a stand to oppose the Party.” +++

Third, can it be proven that the June Fourth movement was counterrevolutionary turmoil, as it was designated? The students were orderly. Many reports indicate that on the occasions when the People’s Liberation Army came under attack, in many incidents it was the students who had come to its defense. Large numbers of city residents blocked the PLA from entering the city. Why? Were they intent on overthrowing the republic?” [Ibid]


Li Peng

Of course, whenever there are large numbers of people involved, there will always be some tiny minority within the crowd who might want to attack the PLA. It was a chaotic situation. It is perfectly possible that some hooligans took advantage of the situation to make trouble, but how can these actions be attributed to the majority of the citizens and students? By now, the answer to this question should be clear.” +++

Another issue was how to deal with people implicated in all of this. The Anti-Liberalization Campaign was not just a theoretical issue. My biggest headaches came from the issues of whether to punish people, how to reduce the harm done to people, and how to contain the circle of people being harmed. From the beginning of the campaign, some Party elders were also very enthusiastic and wanted to punish a lot of people. Deng Xiaoping had always believed that those who proceeded with liberalization within the Party should be severely punished. Wang Zhen and other elders believed this as well. People like Deng Liqun and Hu Qiaomu were even more eager to take the opportunity to destroy certain people and take pleasure in the aftermath. “ +++

Under these circumstances, it was difficult to protect certain people, or limit the number being hurt or even to reduce the degree of harm that was done. Hence when it was drafted, the Number Four Document set strict limits on the punishment of those designated by the campaign as having made mistakes. The document defined this as: Punishments that will be publicized and administrative punishments must first be approved by the Central Committee, and are to be meted out to those few Party members who openly promote bourgeois liberalism, refuse to mend their ways despite repeated admonitions, and have extensive influence. The document also stated, For those who hold some mistaken views, criticisms by fellow Party members may be carried out in Party group administrative meetings. They should be allowed to hold to their own views and the method of carrying out the criticism must be calm.” +++

When proceeding with the Anti-Liberalization Campaign, I had intentionally emphasized that we should classify those who had taken faulty liberal actions as well as those who were too conservative and rigid into the same group of people who were too biased. The purpose was to avoid or reduce the harm being done to people.” +++

Critical Meeting Between Zhao Ziyang and Deng Xiaoping

Zhao Ziyang argued that most of the demonstrating students were only asking us to correct our flaws, not attempting to overthrow our political system. In his memoirs Zhao attacks several officials, especially his arch rival, the conservative former prime minister Li Peng, who fiercely opposed or, in his view, betrayed him. He describes how they schemed to turn Deng against him and blocked, resisted, and sabotaged Zhao’s efforts to defuse the tensions. Zhao said that Li Peng accompanied him when he went to Tiananmen quare but was “terrified” and quickly fled the

As he feuded with hard-line party rivals over how to handle the students occupying Tiananmen Square, Zhao requested a personal audience with Deng. Zhao was told to go to Deng’s home on the afternoon of May 17 for what he thought would be a private talk. To his dismay, he arrived to find that Deng had assembled several key members of the Politburo, including Zhao’s bitter foes. [Source: Erik Eckholm, New York Times, May 14, 2009]


Zhao Ziyang

Ignatius wrote, “The key moment in Zhao’s narrative is a meeting held at Deng Xiaoping’s home on May 17,1989, less than three weeks before the Tiananmen massacre, Zhao argued that the government should back off from its harsh threats against the protesters and look for ways to ease tensions, two officials immediately stood up to criticize Zhao, effectively blaming him for escalating the protest in him. Deng had the last world with his fateful decision to impose martial law and move troops into the capital. In a rare historical instance of a split at the party’s highest levels, Zhao wouldn’t sign on.”

I realized that things had already taken a bad turn, Zhao recalls. From Deng’s impatient body language and the scathing attacks he received from his rivals, Zhao said it was obvious that Deng had already decided to overrule Zhao’s proposal for dialogue with the students and impose martial law. It seems my mission in history has already ended, Zhao recalls telling a party elder later that day. I told myself that no matter what, I would not be the general secretary who mobilized the military to crack down on students. As Zhao anticipated, he was immediately sidelined and soon vilified for splitting the party. [Eckholm, Op Cit]

Zhao’s aide Bao Tong told the Times of London that he was with Zhao after meeting with Deng on May 17. He told the Times of London, “Comrade Ziyang was completely relaxed. He asked me to draft a letter of resignation. I asked if he would reign as general secretary of the party or deputy of the Central Military Commission, he said.” Both.” So I went away and wrote it.” On the matter Zhao wrote: “I refused to become the General Secretary who mobilized the military to crack down on the students.”

By forcing out Zhao and restoring a political grip that remains largely in place today, the conservatives squelched hopes that China’s economic reforms would be accompanied by systematic political change. But they were also surprised by the popular revulsion over the crackdown. [Eckholm, Op Cit]

Tiananmen Square an Excuse to Oust Zhao Ziyang


Zhao Ziyang without his trademark glasses

In a review of “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited” by Louisa Lim, Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books, “Most observers have assumed that the students caused a split in the leadership, with Deng siding with hard?liners against Zhao, the reformist Party secretary who had some sympathy for the students. This was also Bao’s view until he read the memoirs of then premier Li Peng, himself a hard?liner, who argued that Deng had become frustrated with Zhao’s liberal tendencies much earlier. It’s hard to know if this interpretation is correct, but Lim is right to highlight it, showing how Zhao had been doomed from the start: [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, June 5, 2014 ==]

In “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited”, Louisa Lim wrote: “‘This had nothing to do with the students,’ Bao told Lim. He believes That Deng used the students as a tool to oust his designated successor. ‘He had to find a reason. The more the students pushed, the more of a reason Deng Xiaoping had. If the students all went home, then Deng Xiaoping wouldn’t have had a reason.’”

According to Associated Press: “The upheaval cut short a trend in the late 1980s toward the ruling party allowing state-controlled media more freedom. Then-party leader Zhao Ziyang had told regulators to ease press controls, which he said would "make things better." Newspapers responded by reporting on public frustration at corruption and social controls. After the crackdown, Deng fired Zhao and replaced him with Jiang Zemin. He presided over a new strategy — "correct guidance of public opinion." It set the tone for pervasive controls over the next three decades.” [Source: Joe McDonald, Associated Press, June 1 2014]

Johnson wrote: “This raises the question, much discussed over the past quarter?century, of whether the students could have avoided the massacre by dispersing a few days earlier when the military action seemed inevitable. In reviewing the material, however, one gets the feeling that not only Zhao’s fall but the massacre itself was almost inevitable. Deng had consistently opposed any political dissent and he seemed determined to send a message once and for all that outright opposition would not be tolerated.”

Vogel’s Take on Deng Xiaoping and Tiananmen Square

On the view of historian Ezra Vogel on Tiananmen Square, Perry Anderson wrote in the London Review of Books: What the students, actuated by resentment that they were “receiving fewer economic rewards for their ability and hard work than were uneducated entrepreneurs, really wanted was improvements in their living conditions. But learning from earlier failures, they “used slogans that resonated with the citizenry—democracy, freedom and the like—to win wider public support. A “hothouse generation” with little experience of life, their callow orators “had no basis for negotiating with political leaders on behalf of other students” . Wiser foreign reporters soon tumbled to the fact that most of those in the square “knew little about democracy and freedom and had little idea about how to achieve such goals” . No surprise that Deng felt he had to put down these ungrateful beneficiaries of “the reform and opening that he had helped to create and from the political stability that underpinned the economic growth” . [Source: Perry Anderson, London Review of Books, February 9, 2012]

The result was a “tragedy of enormous proportions” that stirred the West, but Chinese reactions varied greatly. After citing some that were critical, Vogel gives the last and longest word to those “officials who admire Deng’s handling of the Tiananmen demonstrations” , ending: “They acknowledge the seriousness of the tragedy of 1989, but they believe that even greater tragedies would have befallen China had Deng failed to bring an end to the two months of chaos in June 1989.” Of course, he adds unctuously, “all of us who care about human welfare are repulsed by the brutal crackdown,” but who knows if they are not right” “We must admit that we do not know. What we do know is that in the two decades after Tiananmen, China enjoyed relative stability and rapid—even spectacular—economic growth.” [Ibid]

Image Sources: AP, Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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