The Long Shadow of Tiananmen

An eye-witness of the massacre says its malign legacy persists 20 years on

China Communism Features Human Rights Politics

The Tiananmen Square killings of 4 June 1989, 20 years ago, remain the most deadly events in the People’s Republic of China since the death of Mao in 1976. Merely mentioning them can lead to arrest and detention. More than a dark shadow, the Tiananmen nightmare still hovers over the country.

Here are the essential details of what is officially still called “the incident” or “the events”. On 15 April 1989, deposed party general secretary Hu Yaobang died. He had incurred the displeasure of senior leader Deng Xiaoping for being relaxed about dissent. But students, who liked him for his honest, country bumpkin ways, assembled in their thousands to mourn him in Tiananmen, the world’s largest man-made space. The crowds grew ever larger, and on 26 April, the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily condemned the demonstrators for conspiring to destabilise China. This enraged the students, who from then on called for a retraction, greater government openness and less corruption. Real democracy was never demanded, but there were huge shouts for the end of party rule and the removal of the unpopular Premier, Li Peng, and even of Deng Xiaoping. At their height the demonstrators, no longer just students, numbered over one million. On the night of 3-4 June, the square was violently cleared and hundreds lay dead. 

From single incidents to subsequent developments at the highest level of Chinese politics, one cannot exaggerate the importance of Tiananmen. Nor were the “events” confined to Beijing alone. There were hundreds of uprisings, from Mongolia, in the north-west, to the deep south. In addition to the numbers killed — and there has never been an official figure since the government declared within days of the massacre that “not a shot was fired, not a person was killed” — thousands were imprisoned.

To this day, if the word Tiananmen appears on the Chinese internet, whoever has used or accessed it can expect a knock on the door and may join the dozens of Tiananmen activists still in China’s jails and labour camps. Such prisoners used to be convicted of “counter-revolution”. Now they are simply “criminals”. 

It is a measure of the significance of what happened that spring, that after 1989 and 1990, when communist regimes in eastern Europe began collapsing, China’s Communist Party remains in place, ruling well over one billion non-citizens and sitting on hundreds of billions of US dollars. To attract those dollars, Britain, together with the US, has issued demeaning statements involving Tibet and human rights. The debate about how to handle the demonstrations split the higher echelons of the party. Party general secretary Zhao Ziyang argued with Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng for negotiations with the students and lost. He appeared in the square on 19 May, muttering through a megaphone, “I have come too late.” We didn’t know he was referring to the declaration of martial law the next day. Within a few days, Zhao, now deposed, became the focus of leadership wrangling about how much he should be blamed for the “disorder”. By 1991, he had disappeared into house arrest. He died in 2005. Zhao’s secret memoir, Prisoner of the State (Simon & Schuster), composed while he was detained and smuggled to Hong Kong, has just been published. It confirms his sympathy for the Tiananmen demonstrators and his misery as he heard the sound of gunfire from the square. “I told myself,” Zhao whispered into a hidden tape recorder so as not to be heard by his guards, “that no matter what, I refused to become the general secretary who mobilised the military to crack down on the students. The students are only asking us to correct our flaws, not overthrow our political system.” These statements are now widely available on the internet. When they are read in China, the regime will denounce them as fabrications or delusions, but they will arouse public feelings of uncertainty and anger against the leadership. It took Deng weeks to persuade army units from around China to come to the capital to crush the uprising. When they did this, on Saturday night and Sunday morning, 3 and 4 June, it was witnessed by scores of international journalists (and millions around the world watching television), who had spotted Tiananmen as a huge story in late April. Some set up their breakfast programmes to be presented from Beijing.

Mikhail Gorbachev came to Beijing on a state visit between 15-18 May. With the square in the grip of demonstrators, he had to be smuggled into the Great Hall of the People through the secret tunnels dug under Beijing especially to guarantee safety for the leaders in case of emergencies for his audiences with an embarrassed leadership. Gorbachev held a warm conversation on 16 May with Zhao Ziyang, who revealed that Deng Xiaoping, although retired, still made key decisions. (This was held against Zhao when he was axed.) I asked Gorbachev’s press spokesman, Gennady Gerasimov, how his boss had enjoyed his discussions in Beijing. He replied, “Next time he comes here, except for Zhao, he hopes he never sees any of these guys.” At his press conference, Gorbachev said that if such demonstrations had happened in Moscow, “I would have gone into the streets to talk with the people.” He clearly imagined that the Beijing regime would not endure.

But talking with the people is precisely what Deng and his aged, mostly retired comrades, did not do. And for the first time for us foreign journalists, Beijing’s streets were fun. The almost total absence of security forces gave us the false impression that the police state had collapsed. We warmed to the open friendliness of the capital’s people, who for once were eager to speak to foreigners about the demonstrations. Instead of the usual greeting, “Have you eaten yet?”, people now asked each other, “Have you demonstrated yet?” Even the official press began running stories with pictures of the demonstrators, and I recall the staff of People’s Daily marching into the square under a banner reading: “No More Lies.”

Some Tiananmen events remain easy to recall even 20 years later. In late April, I accompanied thousands of students marching miles from their campuses to Tiananmen Square. Such marches, unapproved by the security services, were (and remain) illegal. Along the way crowds applauded the students and offered them food and cold drinks. We reached a roadblock formed by army trucks and lines of soldiers. I noticed the soldiers taking off their belts, with buckles bearing the characters “Eighth Route Army”, after Mao’s legendary forces during the civil war, and wrapping them around their fists, always a sign of impending violence. I found myself pressed nose to nose with a young, sweating, trembling soldier. Over his shoulder, I saw an officer and wondered whether the soldiers would now beat us up — or worse. I had already noticed armed soldiers in the trucks. The officer barked an order, the troops parted, a cheer went up from the students, and we marched through.

A few days later, on Changan Avenue, Beijing’s main thoroughfare, I saw hundreds of unarmed soldiers trotting towards the square. Before long, they were set upon by ordinary Beijingers, who scolded them for daring to threaten “our students”. The soldiers fled back the way they had come, tails between their legs. When the soldiers next appeared, on the night of 3-4 June, heavily armed and ready to kill, I recalled that it had not occurred to me that such a public humiliation of the People’s Liberation Army, the “fathers and mothers of the people”, could not be tolerated by the heirs of Chairman Mao.

On another night, I went with three journalist friends to the east of Beijing where we had heard a column of tanks had been stalled by villagers. There we saw the village men urinating on the tanks’ treads and the women offering tea to the crews through the forward hatches. I clambered on to a tank and knocked on the hatch. When the astounded commander, wearing a Snoopy-like leather helmet appeared, I asked him where he was going. “I’m going to Beijing to save the Central Committee,” he answered. When I said I thought the army were the fathers and mothers of the people, he replied, “But Deng Xiaoping is my baba [dad].” 

By mid-May, factory workers began setting up their tents in a separate “village” in the square. They fraternised little with the students. It was a sign of the class difference between the students and the workers, who had little to do with each other. But we didn’t foresee that when the possibility of a student-worker union arose, a phenomenon of eastern Europe, Deng would act. When the tanks roared into the square, they first rolled over the workers’ empty tents. On the night of the killings, a vision and pandemonium of Hell that few had expected, Deng didn’t care about the watching press. Nor did he care about the massacre, the next morning, of hundreds of screaming parents and other relatives of the students, at the edge of the square, demanding to see the killed or wounded. They were shot down, further Hell, and when doctors and nurses arrived from the nearby Beijing Union Medical School (where my father worked in 1935), I saw them shot down, too.

Deng was right to expect little condemnation from the West. The following December, when President George H. W. Bush’s National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, met Deng in Beijing, he was heard to say, “My president wants you to know he is your friend forever.” Deng reportedly told Scowcroft, “China will persist in punishing those instigators of the rebellion and its behind-the-scenes bosses in accordance with Chinese laws. China will by no means waver in its resolution of this kind. Otherwise, how can the country continue to exist?” There was an international show of indignation until August 1991, when Prime Minister John Major flew to Beijing to sign a memorandum of understanding to build the new Hong Kong airport, a task usually delegated to a junior minister. Mr Major had checked with President Bush that such a visit, the first by a European leader to China since Tiananmen, would receive American approval. It did. In Beijing Mr Major assured us that he had pressed Li Peng about political prisoners and human rights. I was later informed by a senior Hong Kong civil servant, Anson Chan, who had been in the room, that no such discussion had taken place.

The Chinese regime has got away with it. Young students in the best Chinese universities, if they have heard of Tiananmen at all, remark that it was some sort of disorder which the regime did well to put down. When the then mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, visited Beijing in April 2006, he was asked by reporters in Tiananmen Square if he would mention what happened there in 1989 to his Beijing counterpart. Mr Livingstone replied, “We have had some interesting riots in Trafalgar Square — only 20 years ago the poll tax riots, and the flames licking up. If you go back to some of the earlier incidents, you will find many occasions when lots of innocent protesters were hacked to pieces with sabres.”

Last October, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, suddenly proclaimed that Tibet had always been a part of China. Most Western authorities on Tibetan history dispute this. Beijing’s response was contemptuous. It was obvious, scoffed the official press, that Britain was after China’s money. In February, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Beijing that with the world gripped by an economic crisis, now was not the time to concentrate on human rights in China. Yet only two months earlier, when several thousand very brave Chinese signed a human rights declaration, some of the main signatories were arrested.

I’ve just finished a thick book on the Chinese criminal justice system. There are dozens of capital crimes in China, and more people are executed there annually — between 2,000 and 5,000, the regime won’t say exactly how many — than in the rest of the world combined. No wonder, then, that Ding Zilin, whose son was murdered in Tiananmen Square, and who formed an alliance of 126 “Tiananmen Mothers” whose children were also killed, has written this: “A person can make many different choices. I made the choice of documenting death. I have scaled a mountain of corpses and I have floated in the tears of the victims’ families.”