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The Empire Strikes Back

Our movement had absolutely nothing to do with the Party struggle. We didn’t care anything about their internal struggles. We wanted to found a new democratic system in China; there was no [leadership] faction supporting a democratic system.

No doubt more details will emerge of the factional infighting, particularly if there is ever a reckoning in Beijing along the lines of the trial of the Gang of Four ten years ago, when tape recordings were played in court of revealing, often unsavory discussions within the core leadership. What is important now, six months after the Beijing massacre of June 3 and 4, is that China’s international reputation has since sunk very low. In the middle of April, when the demonstrations began in Tiananmen Square, China was regarded not as a superpower but as a great regional power. Deng Xiaoping, had he resigned his last official posts as chairman of the Party and state military commissions before the demonstrations began, rather than in early November, would have been remembered as the man who had rescued his country from years of Maoist hysteria and poverty and set it on the road to stability, a modest prosperity, and even modernization. As it is, Deng may well be remembered as the Butcher of Tiananmen Square, who left equally guilty men as his heirs.

China’s remaining friends are a curious group: Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Burkina Faso, North Korea, Cuba, the PLO, and, until the end of December, Romania. The Dengists know that relations with Moscow are frozen, a far cry from the expected result of the Deng–Gorbachev summit in China in May, which was reduced to a marginal event by the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Friendship with Washington officially cooled for six months, although it now emerges that Scowcroft made an earlier visit in July, whether to censure or reassure we do not know. Deng Xiaoping told Richard Nixon during his visit this past November that Washington had been involved in the Tiananmen affair and must apologize. (Nixon, to his credit, reminded the Chinese at a state banquet that “Lenin wrote that facts are stubborn things.”)

More acutely painful, perhaps, is the changed relationship with East Germany. Egon Krenz had come to China for its National Day on October 1 to extend his and Erich Honecker’s congratulations on the Tiananmen Square “clear-out,” as June 4 is officially called. Now the East Germans want it said that it was because Erich Honecker had planned a second Tiananmen-style “clear-out” in Leipzig that it became necessary to remove him. Most painful of all for Deng is the fall and execution of Romanian President Ceausescu. Three weeks before his death Ceausescu gave an interview to the Beijing People’s Daily, in which he described the international situation—after East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria—as “grim” and urged that Romania and China

take the initiative to resolve all kinds of current difficulties, initiatives which would be beneficial to the development of socialism both in the two nations and in other countries.

After Ceausescu’s death China recognized the new government in Bucharest only tepidly; the wild scenes in Romanian cities, with the people, the army, and the security police fighting in the streets and the execution of longtime tyrants, have evidently hardened the resolve of Deng and his cabal to crush the slightest sign of resistance anywhere. These leaders will have been told by their embassy in Bucharest that the collapse of Ceausescu’s regime began in Timisoara, with people’s resentment over the treatment of a dissident priest, and that the upheaval spread rapidly to other towns. Deng knows that Chinese crowds, usually placid enough, are capable of great violence. On the Peking University campus a poster went up recently saying LEARN FROM ROMANIA.

Although George Bush is eager for reconciliation with Beijing, and Mrs. Thatcher, afraid of irritating Deng, could not bring herself, in the House of Commons, to congratulate the Dalai Lama for winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the extent to which Chinese influence has diminished in Eastern Europe is suggested by the Dalai Lama’s visit to East Germany on December 6, just before he received the Nobel prize. Beijing could do no more than complain to the East Germans that this was the “splittist” Dalai Lama’s first visit to a “socialist” country.

But perhaps the most blunt foreign judgment on the government of Jiang Zemin, President Yang Shangkun, and Premier Li Peng came from Moody’s, the international credit ratings firm, which in mid-November lowered China’s credit rating from A3 to BAAAI. Moody’s reason for the demotion is worth quoting: “the degree of weakness in the capacity of China’s political structure to cope with demands for political and social changes.”

China is not accustomed to pariah status. Until June 4 it had been excused from the Western moral judgments that few other nations escape, including the Soviet Union, Israel, South Africa, and the US. Even the worst Chinese depredations in Tibet had only recently begun to cause some outrage in the West—although not from any government—and Deng had observed with satisfaction that imprisoning men like the dissident Wei Jingsheng—now in his tenth year of detention for calling for democracy (and criticizing Deng by name) at Beijing’s Democracy Wall in 1979, had caused barely a ripple in China’s international relations. Deng is turning out to be right. The visit to Beijing by National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft—which may well blacken America’s name with the Chinese who someday will form a new democratic regime—was only the latest sign that the US, pursuing a Kissingerian Realpolitik, allows China far more latitude morally than any other People’s Democracy.

The Western attitude toward violations of Chinese human rights helps to explain why China’s leaders were willing to order the murder of unarmed citizens in front of dozens of foreign reporters, including television crews. The 27th and 38th Armies did not enter the square to clear it. They were sent to punish—and to ensure that never again would the army allow itself to be stopped by nonviolent means or to exhibit sympathy with the demands of the demonstrators. (In the days before the killings we saw soldiers and police in uniform, their fingers raised in the V sign, which had spread from Poland to China as a gesture of libertarian solidarity.) Fathers and Higgins are convincing when they write:

Those who ordered the army into Beijing, Deng and President Yang Shangkun, had done so not merely to disperse the mobs from the barricades, but to create a spectacle of repression so shocking that it could not fail to cow anyone within the Party who had dared to sympathize with such defiance.

Even with the new publications now available, the most telling source for understanding Tiananmen is Deng’s speech to army commanders on June 9.2 Deng had trouble standing and his hands trembled but his words were clear and his expression was one of the deepest pleasure. “This storm was bound to happen sooner or later,” he said. “It was also inevitable that the turmoil would develop into a counter-revolutionary rebellion…. The key point is that they wanted to overthrow our state and the Party.” Of the army, which had wavered for two weeks after President Yang Shangkun ordered it into the square early in the morning of May 20, only to confront a vast nonviolent demonstration mounted with neither training nor anticipation by the people of Beijing, Deng said, “What they crossed this time was genuinely a political threshhold of life and death. This was by no means easy…this army of ours is forever an army under the leadership of the Party.”

Then came the message to anyone who might be tempted to try another Tiananmen demonstration: “At the same time we should never forget how cruel our enemies are. For them we should not have an iota of forgiveness.”

When he said, “This storm was bound to happen sooner or later,” Deng was speaking the truth as he saw it: the enemy never sleeps. From the early Forties, when Mao and his fellow guerrilla leaders in the caves of Yan’an were training the force that in 1949 would defeat Chiang Kai-shek, the Party had established a few basic truths, all of them based on the eternal presence of enemies, within and without. Whatever falsifications of the past were necessary were devised, including a bogus history of the Party, centering on Mao’s primal role, which has never been withdrawn. The leader, at first Mao (later Deng), was invested with supreme authority, propped up by the unique quality of his Thought. Anything, in fact, was permissible as long as it was shown to be aimed at the enemy—sometimes the Japanese, sometimes the Kuomintang, often the Chinese “bourgeoisie,” which ceaselessly schemed to overthrow socialism. The men around Mao, who had connived in the falsification of the past, were certain that the Chairman, unlike Stalin, would never turn on his comrades, a conviction shaken during the purges of the middle Fifties and unsustainable a few years later when the failure of the Great Leap drove Mao into a search for scapegoats among his oldest comrades.

That determination to destroy enemies is also one of Deng’s most enduring characteristics. As Mao’s Party general secretary during the Anti-Rightist movement of the late Fifties, he was in charge of a purge that claimed at least 400,000 victims, many of them not rehabilitated for twenty years. And despite his own rough treatment during the Cultural Revolution, Deng always justified the Anti-Rightist drive, putting order and discipline well before the modernization for which he has been so famous in the West.

From the second week of the Tiananmen Square occupation on, Deng, according to many reliable reports, was known to be eager for blood. 3 He was dissuaded from ordering the police to fire on the April 27 marchers (who were protesting his characterization of them as hoodlums and traitors in the June 26 People’s Daily) only by the doubts of security chief Qiao Shi that the police would shoot down thousands of students.4 Then Deng waited, deterred by the Gorbachev visit, which made it impossible to clear out Tiananmen Square and deal decisively with Zhao Ziyang, for reasons of public relations. The students’ protests had been tolerated, Fathers and Higgins write, not because the Party had come to agree with them, but because it would have been even more embarrassing to stage a bloody crackdown in Gorbachev’s presence. Similarly, it had been easier to tolerate Zhao’s indiscretions than to shut him up. The Soviet president had been, involuntarily, a sort of Lord of Misrule over Beijing. When he left China on Thursday, May 18, after a stopover in Shanghai, the harsh realities would reassert themselves.

Once Deng was certain that with Zhao, the vice-chairman of the military commission, out of the way the army would cross “the political threshhold of life and death,” he acted with characteristic, merciless determination. At meetings on May 16 and 22 Deng approved the imposition of martial law on parts of Beijing and ordered something like 100,000 soldiers from thirteen army groups to surround the city, although it was known from leaked documents available in the square that many senior commanders opposed a violent crackdown.5 On May 23 orders were issued making clear that Zhao was finished.6

  1. 2

    Beijing Review, July 10–16, 1989, pp. 14–17.

  2. 3

    Simmie and Nixon, p. 37, and Kristof, p. 40.

  3. 4

    I heard this at the time from a senior Party member, and it has been confirmed by Kristof, p. 66.

  4. 5

    The Hong Kong newspaper Cheng Ming, June 1, 1989, pp. 6–10, provides documentary evidence that Deng made these key decisions.

  5. 6

    Asiaweek, June 2, 1989, pp. 23–29; according to Kristof, p. 71, the decision to remove Zhao and replace him with Jiang Zemin was made on May 31.

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