EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in the August 4, 1989, of National Review.
For several weeks in May and June, Tiananmen Square in central Peking held the world’s attention. As the drama unfolded on the television screen, the world was shocked to witness an extraordinary display of the cruel reality of Communist dictatorial power. The paramount leader of China, Deng Xiaoping, had said, “We do not mind spilling a little blood.” Spilling blood was what did happen. Soldiers with automatic weapons, tanks, and armored vehicles attacked unarmed civilians. Bloody ground, prostrate bodies, wild-eyed young soldiers firing in all directions were seen by viewers all over the world. The conscience of civilized people everywhere was offended, by the hard-line leaders were oblivious to world reaction. Their spokesmen declared on camera that there were no civilian casualties, only soldiers “murdered” by counterrevolutionaries.
#ad#Ten years of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976) exploded the myth of the Communist leadership and debunked its claim that it represented the interests of the working man. When he came to power in 1978, Deng Xiaoping tried to restore the Party’s credibility with economic reform. But economic reform without political liberalization had reached a dead end. Rampant official corruption and nepotism became the order of the day. With real inflation at 50 per cent, life for those on fixed incomes became unbearable. While the people struggled to make ends meet they watched with dismay the children of senior leaders amassing huge fortunes in foreign currency. The Chinese people are long-suffering, and they know nothing other than authoritarian government. But in China’s modern history, whenever the government in power became especially detestable, the call for democracy was made by the more enlightened sections of society. Always the university students acted as the vanguard.
Seventy years ago, on May 4, 1919, students poured out of the gate of Peking University and held a demonstration calling for democracy. Their call was taken up by students all over China, and their demonstration triggered the historic May 4 Movement. As a result, China’s written language was reformed to enable the spread of literacy, and two years later the Chinese Communist Party came into existence. In a speech made in Yenan in 1939, Mao Zedong declared May 4 Youth Day. After the founding of the People’s Republic, it was routinely celebrated in China.
This year the students at Peking University were planning to hold a parade to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the May 4 Movement when they received news of the death of Hu Yaobang, the former general secretary of the Communist Party. He died of a heart attack on April 15 while making an impassioned speech urging the Party leadership to curb corruption in its ranks.
A sympathetic figure to the students, Hu had spent many years working with young people in the Communist Youth League, eventually rising to the post of general secretary of the League. He was a lifelong follower of Deng Xiaoping, who made him the general secretary of the Communist Party and his designated successor. In December 1986, when the students took to the streets to demonstrate for democracy Hu refused to act against them. He was attacked by the old-guard hard-liners. Deng sided with the hard-liners and Hu lost his position as general secretary. Although allowed to retain a minor position in the Party leadership, he became in effect a non-entity.
To mourn Hu’s passing, students at Peking University decided to bring forward the demonstration they had planned for May 4. They laid a wreath at the Monument of the Revolutionary Heroes in Tiananmen Square and paraded with banners eulogizing Hu. And they demanded that the Party give a fair assessment of Hu’s work.
Since early this year, rumors had been trickling out of China that another round of power struggle was imminent and that hard-liners were pressing Deng to remove Zhao Ziyang, Hu’s successor as the Party’s general secretary. According to the rumors, this was likely to happen after Gorbachev’s visit on May 15. Both Hu and Zhao had been handpicked by Deng to carry out his program of economic reform. Both attracted a large following among China’s intellectuals, and both protected dissidents during the Anti-Spiritual-Pollution Campaign and the Anti-Bourgeois-Liberalism Campaign.
For those who play the political game in Communist China, statements are often made with gestures. The students’ demonstration to mourn Hu Yaobang and to affirm their support for his work could be seen as a timely political gesture to strengthen Zhao’s position in the showdown with the hard-liners. It is entirely possible that some of the student organizers were sons and daughters of officials sympathetic to Zhao or having a personal stake in the outcome of this round of power struggle. Deng Xiaoping’s position in this struggle was pivotal. Although he had often in the past played a balancing role between the hard-liners and the moderates, he has moved closer to the hard-liners ever since the student demonstration of December 1986 and especially since the exposure of the financial scandal involving his crippled son, Deng Pufang.
On May 4, students from Peking University took to the streets in ever-increasing numbers and unfurled banners calling for democracy, just as students from the same university had done seventy years ago. They were quickly joined by students from other universities. The demonstrators seemed well organized and disciplined. They marched in orderly processions from their universities to Tiananmen Square, a vast expanse of concrete built by the Communist Party when it took over the city more than forty years ago. The centuries-old wall, antique decorative arches, and historical monuments were all torn down so that a million people could be reviewed by Mao Zedong and other Communist leaders standing in the gallery over Tiananmen (the Gate of Heavenly Peace), for which the Square is peace. It was here, on October 1, 1949, that Mao declared to the world, “The Chinese people have stood up!” But he proceeded to knock them down again with his periodic political movements. (It was also here, soon after Communist China embraced the Soviet Union as Big Brother, that an elderly citizen of Peking walked around with an open umbrella on a sunny day, telling passersby that it was raining in Moscow.)
Trying to forestall a police crackdown, the students held banners that said, “The People’s Police Love the People!” and carried portraits of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. They also sang the Communist anthem, “The Internationale.” They took all these precautions to show that they merely wanted democratic changes within the framework of the Communist regime, not to overthrow the regime. They hoped to prevent the government from branding them as “counterrevolutionaries.” Although they did not have an agenda or try to define “democracy,” they did state some of their demands in concrete terms: recognition of their own freely elected Students’ Association; freedom of the press, so that their demonstration could be given fair coverage; and an honest government to punish corruption by the sons and daughters of senior Party officials.
If the government had assumed a sympathetic attitude toward these mild and legitimate demands, the subsequent bloodbath might have been averted. But the government chose to adopt an attitude of no compromise.
Support for the students grew. Demonstrations spread to other cities. Workers and professional people in every walk of life, including policemen and soldiers, joined in to turn the pro-democracy demonstration into a citizens’ protest against the Communist system. When the students went on a hunger strike, the number of people gathered at Tiananmen Square swelled to nearly a million. The young hunger strikers, enervated by the ninety-degree heat and refusing food and drink, became the focus of national and world attention and touched the hearts of countless millions watching on television.
Both General Secretary Zhao Ziyang and Prime Minister Li Peng visited the hunger strikers and held meetings with them. While Zhao was sympathetic and conciliatory, Li was arrogant and uncompromising. He declared martial law to clear the square. Angered, the students brought out banners demanding his resignation. Perhaps this was their first mistake. It is hardly feasible to for any government to sack its prime minister simply because students demanded it. The second mistake was demanding the resignation of Deng Xiaoping. Instead of dividing the enemy, they pushed the two men together.
Mao Zedong once said, “In any given situation, we have to identify our major enemy. We must unite with the minor enemies to destroy him. When the major enemy is destroyed, one of the minor enemies would emerge as the next major enemy. We should then unite with the rest of the minor enemies to destroy him.” The young people in China today, in their fascination with all things Western, neglected Mao’s cunning advice. They grossly underestimated the old-guard hard-liners who had shared Mao’s power and were cast in the same mold as the “Great Helmsman.”
Whether it was the students’ demand for Deng’s resignation that pushed him into the camp of the hard-liners we may never know. For many days, all government leaders disappeared from view. There were rumors of a split in the Party and in the army. Some said Deng was seriously ill and others that he was dead. Many contingents of troops were moved into Peking, but the soldiers fraternized with the students and allowed civilians to stop them from entering Tiananmen Square. At the same time, support and encouragement poured in from all over the world. China-watchers, journalists with cameramen, and writers of world renown flocked to Tiananmen Square to interview the demonstrators. With the world on their side, the students developed a false sense of security. Even when the situation became really ugly and a ruthless crackdown seemed imminent, many remained.
The power struggle behind closed doors was at last resolved. The hard-liners had won. Zhao Ziyang and his family were confined to their home. Zhao’s close collaborators disappeared. One by one, the military commanders, including Defense Minister Qin Jiwei, a supporter of Zhao, lined up behind the hard-liners. Veteran Party leaders who opposed the use of force abandoned their opposition out of personal loyalty to Deng Xiaoping. The 27th Army moved into Tiananmen Square with tanks, armored cars, and automatic weapons. Soldiers fired indiscriminately at unarmed civilians, including old people, children, and Red Cross workers there to help the wounded. Then they turned to fire at buildings, killing many people at windows and on balconies. Some rolled their tanks over the wounded lying on the ground, while others set fire to bodies to destroy evidence of the atrocities.
The world watched with horror and consternation. The crackdown seemed unnecessarily vicious. It gave the impression that the old men of Communist China were completely out of touch with world trends and frightened out of their wits. What happened in Peking on June 4 will not be easily forgotten by the world or the Chinese people. But for the time being, there is little they can do.
Even before the bloodstains had been washed away, arrests were being made. Workers have already been sentenced to death in Shanghai and Peking for “crimes” against the military. Others are being hunted, and some have been turned in by their relatives. Punishment will be severe, ranging from death to years in labor camps in the interior of China, where the climate is harsh and living conditions extremely primitive. The student leaders, if caught, will be pressed to right confessions and to denounce others, including their professors and fellow students. IF they resist or refuse to provide whatever is punished, they will be punished with starvation, beating, and torture until they give in.
This was the first time in the history of the Chinese Communist Party that the People’s Liberation Army was used to carry out the task of repression. Although Mao Zedong killed millions during his numerous political campaigns, he always used the masses and the police to deal with the victims. During the Cultural Revolution, the killing was done by the Red Guards and the Revolutionaries. What Deng Xiaoping has done now will have far-reaching consequences. In the next five years, most of the old guard–men in their eighties, including Deng himself–will disappear from the scene. After their demise, the government of China could degenerate into a military dictatorship. If no one man is strong enough to emerge as a national leader, acceptable to army commanders in all the regions of China, the country could suffer a new era of civil wars. The pattern of China’s history has been one of alternating periods of unity and disintegration. China is now a nuclear power. If control of those weapons should fall into irresponsible hands, world peace will be threatened.
Deng Xiaoping was the man who had originally initiated China’s economic reform and open-door policy. China was earning $2 billion a year form tourism alone. Foreign investors have sunk $12 billion into joint ventures. Deng Xiaoping’s effort to free China’s economy from rigid planning had caught the imagination of the Western world and earned him a reservoir of good will. Why did he choose a course of action that jeopardized his ten years’ effort? The answer lies in the traditionally cynical Communist view of capitalists. Their propaganda has always depicted the Western businessman as amoral, ready to deal with anyone as long as there is profit. Deng believed that when the dust settles, the businessmen will be back. To reassure them, he has allowed several leaders in the forefront of reform and familiar to Western businessmen to escape the purge even though closely linked with Zhao Ziyang. When the businessmen return, they will be warmly welcomed as if nothing had happened.
But the crackdown only drives the people’s discontent temporarily underground. At any moment, it could erupt again. Such a prospect must discourage many with plans for new investments.
Since1979, a large number of young people have been allowed to leave China for advanced education abroad. At the moment, there are nearly forty thousand students and scholars scattered in various American universities. After June 4, Black Sunday, many of these students are afraid to go back. Many others still in China will try any means to leave the country, although the government, for its part, will try very hard to stop them. A serious exodus of talent would undermine whatever effort the government still wants to make to modernize China.
As for the young Americans who have been going to China to study or teach English, the hard-liners have always looked upon them with deep suspicion. [An account by one such, George Jochnowitz, follows.] With opportunities for close contact with university students, they have been a source of inspiration to the Chinese students’ yearning for democracy and freedom. The hard-liners will want to cut down the number allowed into China and keep those who enter the country under close surveillance. Since the December 1986 students’ demonstration, government agents have been sent into universities; branch offices of the security police have been opened on campus. These suppressive organizations will be given added power to watch both students and teachers, foreign and Chinese.
For the immediate future, Mainland China will be a much less attractive place for Americans to visit and work in. It will be difficult if not dangerous to make contact with Chinese people. Foreigners will feel isolated as in the Fifties and Sixties. But the cobweb of wishful thinking about the Chinese Communists will have been wiped off. Americans will see the Chinese Communist government for what it really is: a repressive regime with complete disregard for its people and world opinion.
The massacre of the pro-democracy demonstrators in Peking is but a painful episode in the Chinese people’s struggle for democratic change that started more than seventy years ago. The transformation of China from feudal autocracy into a modern democratic state is a long and agonizing process. It is not just a matter of changing the political and economic system. Much of China’s traditional culture will have to be jettisoned. The urban idealists must involve the 70 per cent of China’s population that lives in the countryside. When the wish for change blossoms in every heart, democracy will come to China. The massacre in Peking will bring that day nearer.