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1989 Tiananmen Spring

Page history last edited by Bob Andrian 6 years ago

The Tiananmen Spring of 1989


While the documentary film, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, (1995) reveals a detailed examination of the fateful events of the spring of 1989 from the perspective of participating students and citizens, it was not until 2001 with the English language publication of The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership's Decision to Use Force Against Their Own People--In Their Own Words, that we first encounter the perspectives of Chinese Communist Party officials as they reacted to the course of events from April 15 to June 4 in Beijing and throughout China.


The compiler of the documents, Zhang Liang, was a Party sympathizer who believed in political reform and who felt that the official government verdict labeling the demonstrations that spring ultimately as a "counterrevolutionary riot" (later softened to "turmoil" and later to a "political disturbance") needed to be revisited. With the publication of the Papers, (which were stealthily removed from China and brought to the U.S. to be edited by two American China scholars), the compiler was clearly sending a message about the illegitimacy of the Chinese government's suppression of the protests at Tiananmen.


The collection of the documents proved to be a treasure trove of information passed to Party decision makers during the spring by various bureaucratic agencies in Beijing (and other cities---all told there were demonstrations that took place in 341 cities) monitoring what was happening in the Square, around the country and around the world in terms of foreign diplomatic reaction.


The documents reveal key disagreements among the Party's highest echelon about how to handle the student protests. (There were similar key differences amongst student leaders about the evolution of the protests.) In effect the key CCP decision makers included the five-member Standing Committee of the China's Political Bureau (Politburo) and an extra-constitutional body of "Eight Elders," which, along with Deng Xiaoping, "retired" as General Secretary, but still holding the reins of power due to his control of the military, had the final decision on all policy matters.


Needless to say, the CCP higher ups reacted predictably to the English language publication of the Tiananmen Papers: (Of course they did not have to contend with an independent judiciary as Richard Nixon did after the publication of the Pentagon Papers.)


The Communist Party of China and the Chinese Government have already made the correct conclusion about the political disturbances that took place in Beijing at the end of the spring and the beginning of the summer in 1989, and that conclusion will not change. The practice over the past decade has proved that the prompt and decisive measures that the CPC and the Chinese Government took at the time were "highly necessary to the stability and development of China." The CPC Central Committee, with Jiang Zemin at the core, is united. Any attempt to play up the matter again and disrupt China by the despicable means of fabricating materials and distorting facts will be futile.

(Beijing Review, 1/25/01, as cited in The Tiananmen Papers, xvi)


Alibaba's CEO, Jack Ma, agreed. In 2013 he stated,


"As CEO of a company, whether it's the scandal involving Alibaba or the spinning off of [its online payment service] Alipay, at that moment you're like Deng Xiaoping during 'June Fourth.' As the country's highest policymaker, he wanted stability. It was necessary for him to make this cruel decision. It wasn't a perfect decision at the time. At any time, a person in charge must make these kinds of decisions." (as quoted in Lim, The People's Republic of Amnesia, 48)


Excerpts from the Tiananmen Papers can help understand what was transpiring in the minds of CCP leaders that from April-June in 1989.



Tiananmen Legacies


1. According to the CPC, violence is an acceptable practice to solve political problems, large and small.


When Louisa Lim interviewed Bao Tong, confidante of Zhao Ziyang and thus a reformist Party official who was incarcerated for five years after 6-4-89, he observed,


"If that was now possible at the highest levels of government, then why not at the lower levels? There was one big Tiananmen. But how many little Tiananmens have there been? How many little Tiananmens are there every day?" (as quoted in Lim, 173) 


As Lim points out, either through the threat of violence or the use of it, local authorities have responded to protests over environmental issues, land seizures, government corruption, and ethnic unrest (especially among Uighurs and Tibetans). There were 10,000 such "mass incidents" in 1994; in 2010 180,000 were recorded.


2. Because political liberalization did not accompany economic reforms, China ended up with authoritarian, crony capitalism.


According to a persistent myth, the credit for China's economic growth should go to the government's violent crackdown of June 4, 1989. As a result of the Party's actions, the subsequent political stability made foreign investment possible, increased exports, construction, and so on. Peoples' focus shifted to taking advantage of opportunities to get rich. Louisa Lim believes that all this happened not despite Tiananmen but because of it.


However, as Andrew Nathan argues in a Foreign Affairs article, "Modern China's Original Sin: Tiananmen Square's Legacy of Repression," If the PRC had chosen [political] liberalization in 1989, economic growth would have still occurred with a more consumption driven model, and less repressed wages [especially in the rural sector] , less corruption and less pollution. (Nathan, 4) 


Instead the state controls the factors of production (land, labor, credit, transportation, energy); the state fosters "national champions companies," which are private but controlled by the CPC; and while political elites get rich, there is more corruption, more pollution, more economic inequality, more land seizures and more labor repression. Which leads to a third legacy. (Ibid)


3. To maintain its power, the "princeling kleptocracy" needs to be corrupt, far more corrupt than "the nepotism and profiteering that drove some of the 1989 protests." (Lim, 175)


The investigations both by Bloomberg News and The New York Times into the wealth of CPC top officials and their progeny led to both organizations being blocked in China. The latter's report determined, for example, that the assets of the relatives of former premier Wen Jiabao total $2.7 billion. As Louisa Lim states,


Even Wen Jiabao's nonagenarian mother, once a humble schooteacher, was worth $120 million. His younger brother has a company that was given government contracts worth more than $30 million to handle waste-water treatment and medical waste disposal, while his wife has built her own fortune managing state diamond companies that were later privatized. (Ibid, 176)


4. Despite the scandals, the Chinese Communist Party has grown stronger and richer and is enormously popular even among those under 35.


As Lim notes, the CPC, with 85 million members, larger than Germany's population, is the world's largest political party. The richest 50 delegates to the NPC (National People's Congress) are worth about $94 billion, "about 60 times more than their richest American counterparts." (Ibid, 51) Such opportunities for material gain and power and the accompanying feelings of national pride do not escape the imaginations of China youth. Lim once asked a 15-year old schoolgirl from Yunnan what her aspirations might be as an adult. "I want to spend time with corrupt officials," she answered. "The more corrupt they are, the better." (Ibid, 103)  Despite growing economic inequality in China, economic growth continues to buttress the CPC's legitimacy as a recent NPR story reveals.


5. Censorship and repression are rampant as the "Great Forgetting" continues.


From Tiananmen 1989 to the present, the CPC has worked to secure the collective silence of wayward Party members and Chinese intellectuals about the events of that spring by offering financial incentives. An essay in 2013 in the NYT by Beijing writer, Yan Lianke, noted the Faustian bargain.


"It doesn't matter whether you are a writer, a historian or social scientist. You will be awarded power, fame and money as long as you are willing to see what is allowed to be seen, and look away from what is not allowed to be looked at; as long as you are willing to sing the praises of what needs to be praised and ignore what needs to be blanked out. In other words, our anmesia is a state-sponsored sport." (as quoted in Lim, 50) 


More recently on November 17, 2014, Chinese academics were being criticized for not being supportive enough of China's political system and for being too critical of what makes China "look bad."


High school history textbooks rarely even mention the events of Tiananmen spring in 1989. Musuems do not include any exhibits. University textbooks often distort what happened, for example, claiming the public supported the infamous April 26 People's Daily editorial labeling the protests "dongluan" or turmoil, when in fact demonstrations erupted in many cities across the country in response to the government's harshness.


China's Internet Police (a separate division of the Ministry of Public Security) struggle at times to keep up with China's over 600 million internet users. Each June 4th, the censors keep adding to the long lists of banned words including "today," "tomorrow," "that year," "special day," and "sensitive word." When on June 4, 2012, the Shanghai stock exchange fell 64.89 points, censors jumped to ban any reference to it. Louisa Lim also comments on the images that are removed from the Internet.


... birthday cake candles that feature the numbers 6 or 4; photos of chrysanthemums, which are traditional flowers of mourning; anything with the slightest similarity to a tank, including Lego tanks, cartoon tanks, or tanks made out of mahjong tiles; and, in 2013, even yellow rubber ducks. This stemmed from an artistic installation by a Dutch artist who had floated a gigantic yellow rubber duck in Hong Kong harbor. That theme was then adopted by Internet wags who recreated the Tank Man picture substituting yellow rubber ducks for tanks. The censors moved in quickly but not quickly enough, proving the limitations of old-school censorship in a new media environment. (Lim, 99-100) 


There is a long-established hierarchy of repressing dissent in China. First police invite the dissident to "drink tea." Next comes 24-hour surveillance. Then security officials "disappear" people for weeks and months. Finally, the government (usually starting at the local level) produces trumped up charges and a trial is held with guilty the presumed verdict (not unlike during Imperial times).


Even though local party secretaries can be elected, their political careers are dependent on social stability maintenance. Thus they exert rigid and sometimes ruthless control over municipal agencies that work with the local economy, the media, the courts, the police and the Women's Federation when it comes to population control. As Andrew Nathan observes, "In this way, strong-arm tactics have come to foster economic growth and economic growth legitimizes strong-arm tactics." In its current form of rule,the political system cannot support a populace with strong civil and political rights. The imprisoned literary critic, Liu Xiaobo, therefore remains an existential threat to the regime.


In 2012, the dissident Zhu Yufu composed a poem, part of which included the following words:

It's time Chinese people!

The square belongs to everyone. 

Your feet are your own.

It's time to use your feet and head to the square to make your

   choice. (as cited in Lim, 207)


Which cost him a seven-year prison sentence, even if the poem was never published but simply sent over Skype to a friend.


In his book, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, (which just won the 2014 National Book Award for nonfiction), Evan Osnos reports that in September of 2013,  


... the government adopted a novel approach to taming the unruly power of the Web: the Supreme People's Court issued a rule stating that any "false defamatory" comment viewed five thousand times, or forwarded five hundred times, could result in a prison sentence of up to three years. Now that the state was struggling to prevent people from speaking out, it would try to prevent them from repeating what they heard. (Osnos, 363-64)


6. "Fight corruption too little and you'll destroy the country. Fight it too much and you'll destroy the Party." 


A major goal of the CPC, which will be led by Xi Jiinping until 2023, is to surpass the Soviet Union as the world's longest running one-party state. The Party retains an "apocalyptic vision of China's demise" similar to what happened to Russia after the Soviet Communist Party collapsed. What should the CPC do about the spiritual pollution coming from the West? As Osnos describes, 


... a Party memo leaked in August [2013] ... called for eradicating seven subversive strains of thinking. Beginning with "Western constitutional democracy," the list included press freedom, civic participation, "universal values" of human rights, and what it described as "nihilist" interpretations of the Party's history. The seven "taboos" were delivered to university professors and social media celebrities, who were warned not to cross the line. (Ibid, 365)


Osnos believes that the Party's redoubled efforts to commit to authoritarianism will ultimately prove to be a risky bet. He notes that political scientists refer to the "zone of democratic transition"---when a country's per capita income exceeds four thousand dollars, the correlation for regime change rises sharply. 


By 2013, china was at a level of $8,500. The China scholar Minxin Pei examined the 25 autocracies with higher levels of income and a resistance to democratization. He found that 21 of them were oil states. China was not. (Ibid,366) 


The son of Tiananmen 1989, Party leader and reformer, Hu Yaobang, whose death in April of that year served as the catalyst for the democracy movement in the square, Hu Dehua, noted last year that the CPC was facing a crisis:


"There are two options: to suppress the opposition or to reach reconciliation with the people," he said. It had faced this choice once before, in 1989; and in an astonishing acknowledge of the bloodshed at Tiananmen, he asked, "What does this mean: 'man enough'? Is driving battle tanks against your own people 'man enough'?" (Ibid)


NOTE: 'man enough' refers to a speech by Xi Jinping, in which he lamented the fact that no one had been "man enough" to stop Gorbachev from ruining the Soviet Union. 


7. "The arts must serve the people and serve socialism."


Fantasy and science fiction writer, Ursula LeGuin, received the National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. I invite you to listen to her speech as a matter of comparison to Mr. Xi's.



8. Does Tiananmen 1989 still matter today?


Louisa Lim laments how much ordinary people in China "have colluded in [the country's] amnesia and embraced it." (Lim, 211) Remembering unpleasant things, especially like what took place in the spring of 1989, simply has no benefit. Far easier to ignore or erase the past. And yet she concludes her book by saying,


China's Communist Party constantly alludes to the nation's 5,000 years of history while omitting its more recent acts of shame. ... does it really matter? The answer is that it does. It matters because the national identity of this new world power is based on lies. When those lies are taught in the schools, passed unchallenged from one generation to the next, and truth-telling is punished, a moral vacuum gapes ever larger, the debt grows greater, and the cost paid is the dearest of all: a loss of humanity. (Ibid)


For his part, Tiananmen Papers' editor Andrew Nathan concludes,


A regime that cannot allow people to discuss Tiananmen is ... afraid of its own history and what that history can do to it. It is trying to outrun that history, but history cannot be outrun. It can only be confronted. (Nathan, "China's Original Sin ..."  4) 


All nations must confront their pasts felicitously at the very least to learn more about themselves as they navigate the present. And all peoples would surely benefit from learning the histories of others they engage with.


Analysis of Tiananmen Papers

Tiananmen home page 

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