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The Empire Strikes Back

Tiananmen: The Rape of Peking

by Michael Fathers, by Andrew Higgins
The Independent/Doubleday, 148 pp., £4.99

Tiananmen Square

by Scott Simmie, by Bob Nixon
University of Washington Press, 206 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Massacre in Beijing: The Events of 3–4 June, 1989 and Their Aftermath the Ad Hoc Study Group on Human Rights in China

a report prepared by the International League for Human Rights and
79 pp., $12.00

Tiananmen Diary: Thirteen Days in June

by Harrison E. Salisbury
Little, Brown, 176 pp., $10.95 (paper)

June Four: A Chronicle of the Chinese Democratic Uprising

by the photographers and reporters of the Ming Pao News, translated by Zi Jin, by Qin Zhou
University of Arkansas Press, 171 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Beijing Spring

photographs by David Turnley, by Peter Turnley, text by Melinda Liu
Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 175 pp., $19.95 (paper)

President Bush still regards you as his friend, a friend forever,” Brent Scowcroft told Deng Xiaoping in Beijing on December 10, six months and seven days after Deng ordered the People’s Liberation Army into Tiananmen Square. In Washington, the White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater was giving a lesson in Realpolitik: “We hope that we have reached the point where time heals all wounds, and that once the public gets used to more normalized contacts it won’t be focused on the past.”

Only six months, and already we are being asked to erase our memories of the Beijing massacre of June 3 and 4. (The phrase “Tiananmen massacre” permits an argument about exactly where the killings occurred and at what hour, which was used by the Chinese authorities to distract attention from what they actually did.) Despite Fitzwater’s hope, the demonstrations in China from April 15 to June 4, or what the Chinese call “the events” or “the counterrevolutionary turmoil” are not easy to forget. Beijing itself is gripped with fear and hatred of the Party, and the 110 acres of Tiananmen Square, the heart of the city, for the first time in forty years of Communist rule are empty, off-limits to the citizens of Beijing. Only a few tank treadmarks in the stones recall the violence of June 3 and 4. Eighty-four cities were involved, the government has admitted, and upward of three million students. At the main Chinese weapons testing center in Inner Mongolia work was halted for weeks, officials said, by demonstrators blocking the roads in what is a closed area. On some days, the Chinese press reported at the time, a million nonviolent demonstrators, one tenth the population of Beijing, gathered in Tiananmen Square and shouted for the government to resign. It was a unique event in the history of China.

The leadership headed by George Bush’s “friend forever” Deng Xiaoping for the first time in forty years commanded its soldiers to attack the citizens of Beijing and now accuses “enemies at home and abroad” of attempting to destabilize the country, which, it insists, has returned to normal. But even as they shout abuse at foreigners the leaders wrangle about the succession, the reforms, and even their enemies. Members of the Politburo claim that the Party is riddled with disloyal members who were at the center of the plot, and yet no internal purge of the Party has taken place.

Chief among these alleged plotters is now Zhao Ziyang, the deposed Party general secretary, who is under some form of house arrest. Zhao has been accused of everything short of counter-revolution, but no charges have as yet been laid against him. Deng Xiaoping has retired, his reform program in ruins, and a pall has fallen over the country. But no successor, certainly not the relatively inexperienced Jiang Zemin, the former Party boss in Shanghai and Deng’s hand-picked “core leader,” can claim supreme power. Frantic, lashing out at its enemies but in the effort often wounding itself, the Party flounders in infantile rage and no one can be sure what direction it will take.

The events” and “the clear-out” were seen at first hand by hundreds of foreign reporters, and in the weeks before the killings many Chinese, normally reticent about their considerable knowledge of the Party’s inner workings, were happy to speak to foreigners, often on the record. (Those who failed to flee abroad are now paying for this.) The square itself was rife with reports of high-level meetings, some of which had occurred only hours before. What took place at those meetings has since been officially confirmed.

Some of those foreign witnesses, who were filing daily reports for their newspapers and magazines, have now published more substantial accounts of what they experienced, and academic China specialists, too, have offered their views of the events and even their judgment on what the demonstrators should have done. There are collections of photographs, some of which regrettably imperil their subjects by revealing their faces.

The best of the recent books I have read are Tiananmen: The Rape of Peking, by Michael Fathers and Andrew Higgins, correspondents in Beijing for The Independent in London, and Tiananmen Square, by the Canadian journalists Scott Simmie and Bob Nixon, who had been working in Beijing for China Central Television. The concise and lively Tiananmen: The Rape of Peking is worth ordering from England. Writing under enormous pressure, Fathers and Higgins have produced a book that six months later withstands all but the most minute criticism. (To take one example, while they describe the police attacking people on the north end of the square, who responded with Molotov cocktails, I myself was a witness and recall that the firebombs came first.)

Fathers and Higgins sum up their view of the old men who ordered the Tiananmen killings by writing, “They divided their world into two armed camps, the Party and the conspiracy against it”—just as they had done for fifty years. The authors are particularly convincing when they observe that followers of Deng

had characterized the student movement as turmoil, conspiracy, rebellion, and eventually “counter-revolution.” They had shouted down their colleagues who counseled patience. They had warned that the Party could no longer tolerate dissent or accommodate debate. They had brought the People’s Liberation Army into the suburbs of Beijing, ready for battle…. By any humane criteria, the assault of June 3–4 was futile, random, insane. The students had attacked nobody and damaged nothing. But those who ordered the attack were not aiming simply to disperse a demonstration. They were seeking to eradicate, through terror, the idea that any direct challenge could be mounted to their own authority…. Opposition had to be seen to be crushed.

After the crushing came the clean-up, which Fathers and Higgins brilliantly sum up in their image of an army sanitary officer spraying the pavement in front of the Zhongnanhai, the leaders’ headquarters, where students had been camped for days, sometimes literally nose-to-nose with its guards:

Backwards and forwards, pumping the watering can in a regular motion, he moved with the care of a man spraying his tomatoes on a summer Sunday morning. If his fellow countrymen were dying, a few hundred yards down the road, it was not his job to worry.

Simmie and Nixon have written a different, more ambitious book. It is also different, they write, from what they had intended when they began their interviews with Chinese in the spring of 1988. Then they had wanted to know how people’s lives and thinking had been affected by forty years of upheaval and purges. Last year the people they interviewed were hopeful. “Lessons had been learned. China was moving, albeit slowly, towards a more tolerant, a more democratic society…. The student movement changed all that.” Their book, therefore, moves on two planes: a diary of events leading up to June 4; and a series of interviews with Chinese about their lives in and under the Party. These interviews show the discontent that led so many people to show up in Tiananmen Square in April and May, not just university students and academicians, but hotel and postal workers, primary-school teachers, clerks, and even policemen and soldiers.

Tiananmen Square includes an account of one of China’s leading ballerinas. Bai Shuxiang, and her effort to maintain a career, which began in the late Fifties, while she had to cope with what the Party called her “bad class background.” Her father was a magistrate under Chiang Kai-shek, and was shot in 1958—the year when she first became a star of the Beijing ballet. Soon afterward, at a party given by Premier Zhou Enlai, Bai was dancing with the premier, and she mentioned that her father’s execution might cause her problems. Zhou reassured her, “Your father is your father. You can go your own way. So long as you draw a distinction between you and your father politically, there is no problem.” Bai told Simmie and Nixon that when her father was shot, “I was siding with the government and I believed it was correct.”

As a sign of the kind of society China had become in the late Fifties, and of what was taken to be normal behavior there, on the part of both the premier and the executed man’s daughter, the story is revealing enough. But what happened to Bai in 1986 demonstrates the continuing cruelty of Party rule, and helps to explain why so many Chinese went to Tiananmen Square three years later. In 1986, twenty-eight years after the event, she appealed her father’s execution, which she now considered unjust, and her appeal was upheld by the court. To make up for the grievous mistake, the court sentenced her dead father to fifteen years in prison.

Deng Xiaoping and his elderly colleagues created the world in which Bai Shuxiang grew up and in which she was still living in 1986 when her father was “reprieved.” Regarding themselves as the surviving founders of the original Party establishment, which is run like a kind of Mafia, they were prepared to do anything—literally anything—to ensure that the rabble in the Square and their covert supporters at home and abroad did not succeed in forcing the resignation of reliable Party loyalists, leaving China in the hands of leaders like Zhao Ziyang who were, in their view, too weak and indecisive to ensure the primacy of the Party.

Both books vividly describe the recent battle inside the Party.1 Zhao, who had been under attack from Party conservatives for almost a year because his economic reforms were weakening Party control, was determined to reassert his strength by getting on better with Gorbachev at the summit than either Li Peng or Deng. In so doing he angered the Dengists. We learn from the official denunciations of Zhao after his fall that, for example, he told Gorbachev on TV, in what he said was a “secret,” that Deng continued to make all key decisions even though he had officially withdrawn from everyday official life, and also that he, Zhao, made some sort of common cause with the students:

Zhao, like the students, was obsessed with the powerful, unpredictable forces which Mikhail Gorbachev’s arrival threatened to unleash…. Events suggest that when Zhao arrived back in Peking [on May 1 from North Korea] he judged that the moment had come to assert his own claims to the succession.

Within a few days of the declaration of martial law on May 20 the leaders were sending out messages that Zhao was finished. This was understood at the time, as Simmie and Nixon record:

Everyone knew that the “very very few people,” the “very small number of conspirators,” and “certain individuals within the leadership of the Communist Party,” were all references to the Zhao Ziyang faction.

Even during the demonstrations considerable information leaked out from inner-Party meetings. One source was probably Bao Tong, Zhao’s closest confidant and the head of the Party’s Political Reform Research Center, now closed, while Bao himself is in prison. Only hours after meetings in which the leaders opposed to Zhao discussed a harder line sometimes with Deng, the verbatim proceedings or a reliable oral account would appear in the square—and then reappear in Western publications. The students were aware of the inner-Party conflict, and when asked if they felt more faith in Zhao then in the other leaders, they tended to say only that some leaders were less bad than others. The student leader Wuer Kaixi said,

  1. 1

    It is also the subject of the an article by Nicholas D. Kristof in The New York Times Magazine, November 12, 1989, “How the Hardliners Won,” which collects the leaked materials from the square and adds some off-the-record conversations with officials.

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