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The Empire Strikes Back

On May 30, just as it looked as if the demonstrations would fade away, to be resumed perhaps only after the summer holidays, the white plaster statue of the Goddess of Liberty was wheeled into the square in three sections and erected, facing the huge portrait of Mao that was hanging over the south gate of the Forbidden City. The tone of the official broadcasts from the loudspeakers in the square, which had alternated for several weeks between warnings and regret, now became threatening. “The statue is a foreign thing,” said the broadcasts, calling attention to the Goddess’s resemblance to the Statue of Liberty. “This is China, not America.”

The statue, “like the students themselves, seemed immovable, indestructable, and permanent,” Simmie and Nixon write. So did the dozens of large sturdy tents, paid for in Hong Kong, each able to hold up to fifty sleeping students. It must have looked to Deng as if the demonstrations would never stop. On June 2 at a meeting at his residence it was decided to order the army to clear out the square.7

It is plain that Deng, Yang Shangkun, and Li Peng wanted the demonstrators and their supporters in China and abroad to be taught a lesson from the violent crackdown. They knew that the reports to the West from the large number of journalists in Beijing would be transmitted into China by radio and reprinted in Reference News, the Party’s own compilation of foreign newspaper reports on China, which, although restricted, is widely read.

Perhaps, therefore, the Big Lie contrived to cover up the night of June 3–4 was intended, for foreigners at least, to be confusing rather than credible. It is certainly easy to refute.8 The Lie has varied from the earliest days, when it was claimed that not a shot had been fired and not a person killed (those of us in the square who saw soldiers shooting and people being shot, or saw piles of bodies in hospital morgues, could deny that immediately), to the latest version, which has two parts: first, not a person was killed in the square on June 4—this claim is narrowly limited to about 4 to 5:30 AM, and to the immediate area of the Martyrs’ Memorial. We can accept Robin Monro’s eyewitness report for Human Rights Watch in New York that he saw no one killed at that time and in that place, although a Spanish TV crew saw students killed immediately afterward;9 but in the West some people, who have seen no television pictures of killing at the monument, doubt whether much killing took place at all on the night of June 3–4.

I and others saw bystanders killed at the north end of the square at about 2 AM, and many others reported seeing hundreds or even thousands of people killed earlier, in the streets to the west of Tiananmen, as the army smashed its way toward the square. Fathers and Higgins, and Simmie and Nixon provide vivid eyewitness accounts, as do the informants in the scrupulously compiled report of the League of Human Rights, Massacre in Beijing.

The second part of the Lie holds that many soldiers were killed defending themselves against “hooligans.” During this defense, it is claimed, a few hundred civilians, including around thirty students, some of whom were unfortunate onlookers who should have stayed away, were also killed.

There are plenty of eyewitness accounts to the contrary; I myself saw twenty or thirty people shot outside the Beijing Hotel at 10:20 AM on Sunday, June 4, as did other journalists, including the American Margaret Herbst and Andrew Higgins, one of the authors of Tiananmen: The Rape of Peking. Harrison Salisbury, who describes himself in Tiananmen Diary: Thirteen Days in June, as knowing China “as well, if not better, than any member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo”—he neither speaks nor reads Chinese—and was actually in Beijing for only four days, according to his diary entries, failed to notice this mini-massacre, although his room faced down onto the avenue where it was occurring. He merely notes “outbursts of shouting” at that very minute, which puzzled him. Indeed, Salisbury (to his credit) records that he slept through the critical events of the weekend.

Another part of the Lie makes the claim that innocent soldiers were lynched. The most notorious of the soldiers, whose disfigured corpse is regularly shown in official photographs, was seen by two British psychiatrists (who have written to me about it) shooting down a man, a woman, and a child; it was then that the soldier was lynched and burned. His comrades were allowed to escape.10

Simmie and Nixon’s Tiananmen Square is more satisfactory than the book by Fathers and Higgins in its citing of sources. The Human Rights report Massacre in Beijing is excellent on sources, too. As it happens, Andrew Higgins witnessed the shootings outside the Beijing Hotel, but Tiananmen: The Rape of Peking does not mention his experience. Simmie and Nixon quote the account of Margaret Herbst:

They shot at anything that moved. I was walking along the streets, and blood was everywhere—human pulp, remains. I started to run, then just dove for cover on the street, dragging myself through a thick pool of blood to get away.

This may sound like reporters’ exaggeration, but in the circumstances it is, if anything, restrained. Simmie and Nixon are good, too, about what was implied when the army stalled on May 20. The troops, they note, were not armed. Probably “the soldiers did not want to move.”

(I saw a column of tanks in a village east of Beijing, blocked in the early dawn by village women squatting before them while the young men peed, giggling, on the tank treads. The commander assured me that Deng Xiaoping—“my father”—had ordered the tanks into Tiananmen Square. But by the next morning the tanks had withdrawn. Perhaps they were among those squashing people two weeks later along Changan Boulevard.)

The police collected thousands of pictures of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and of the killings on the night of June 3–4. As soon as possible they began an inspection of these, frame by frame in the case of video and TV sequences, and they arrested those they could identify. Simmie and Nixon give the subjects of their photographs the protection of blanked-out faces. By contrast, even though the text of Beijing Spring includes a section called “Big Brother is Watching,” which mentions, the use of video clips to identify suspects, the brilliant color photographs by David and Peter Turnley will be a great help to the Public Security Bureau. The picture of the unarmed soldiers chased away from Tiananmen Square on the night of June 2–3—used as an excuse the following night for sending the army roaring into the square with its guns blazing—catches the soldiers’ bewilderment. But the very beauty of the Turnley’s dramatic and beautifully lit pictures sometimes obscures the ugly reality.

The Hong Kong newspaper, Ming Pao, which has an honorable record of critical independence from Beijing, had sent a team to the demonstrations. The black-and-white pictures taken by Ming Pao‘s photographers in June Four, overexposed and jagged as they are, manage to capture the muddle and helter-skelter of the events of Tiananmen Square—but they reveal faces which the police will now be able to hunt down.11

The hunt is extensive. Britain’s official observers in Hong Kong believed in mid-December that well over 100,000 Chinese have been arrested since June 4. Estimates of executions run into the hundreds. Wang Dan, one of the student leaders in the square, is reported to have been tortured since his capture, and just before Christmas in Beijing, I was told by reliable sources that the advisers to Zhao Ziyang who were arrested in June had been beaten in the capital’s notorious Qin Cheng prison.

On the same visit I met others accused of being “bourgeois liberals” and “counterrevolutionaries.” They are undergoing constant “brainwashing”—this is their term—or “thought reform” as their interrogators call it. For some this has meant they have had to undergo questioning in sessions that last eight hours a day, six days a week, since early June. The technique applied to them has been well established since the earliest Maoist period: victims must memorize and repeat official policy statements verbatim and then explain at length why they once believed something else. If they say right away that they now accept government policy, this is immediately rejected as mere groveling; once the confession appears sincere the victims must then explain the stages by which they changed their minds. They must also give detailed accounts of meetings they attended at which disloyal statements were supposed to have been made and must say who was there, who said what, and who kept silent. Telephone conversations, of which there are complete records, must also be explained. If the victim hesitates, he is assured that his interrogators already know all the facts; only a confession that withholds nothing shows a repentant attitude and can help the victim avoid more serious punishment, including prison.

The entire process is immensely cynical. The interrogators know they have reformed few thoughts; the victims know the interrogators know this. The goal is to intimidate the victims and reduce them to what one described to me as “stupidity and humiliation.” An additional aspect of the humiliation concerns the victims’ children: like all other students in China they are now compelled to learn by heart the Party’s line on Tiananmen and counterrevolution. Like their parents, the children do not believe what their teachers are forcing them to say (nor do many of the teachers believe it themselves, in Beijing or in the other eighty-three cities where demonstrations occurred.) But as one of the parents—who is being interrogated daily—told me,

I tell my daughter to memorize it, get 100 percent, and get promoted. This is the worst part; another generation is being trained to be hypocrites, just like our parents and ourselves. We thought that was over after Mao died.

One of the reasons Deng’s “storm” was “bound to happen” was that among his perceived enemies were Chinese intellectuals longing for Western-style democracy—the very people who are now dead, in hiding or exile, or undergoing brainwashing. Their “bourgeois liberalism,” as the Chinese Stalinists always call it, has its origins in the May 4th Movement of 1919, when Beijing University students shouted demands for parliamentary democracy. Deng, who is of the generation radicalized by the May 4th Movement, must have remembered that long-ago cry when the students in Tiananmen Square carried banners hailing the “Mr. Democracy” of the May 4th Movement on their march, which marked its seventieth anniversary. Deng must have recalled how a small group of implacable dissidents, of whom he was one, had eventually overthrown the government of China and established a new order.

This revolutionary intellectual tradition is one of the themes discussed by Professor Dorothy Solinger, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine, in her contribution to the symposium on China after Tiananmen Square, recently published in the World Policy Journal.12 She notes the traditional demands of Chinese intellectuals for “high behavioral standards” from their rulers: when rulers were no longer honest and sincere, the mandarin class traditionally supposed that the dynasty or regime must be dying. This explains, Professor Solinger rightly says, the growing demands in the square that the top leaders resign. Where Professor Solinger goes wrong is in her regret that the students did not make “informed attempts to implement democratic procedures to defuse the situation.” What Professor Solinger means here is unclear; she notes that the first posters called for “structural reform of the political system” and that the initial seven-point demands of the students included more political openness, legal guarantees of citizens’ rights, and a free press. Other activists called for people’s congresses. These demands, not very different from those shouted recently in Leipzig, Prague, Budapest, may have appeared insufficiently “informed” abroad; in the square itself—after forty years of dictatorship and with the knowledge from May 20 onward that Beijing was more and more tightly hemmed in by tens of thousands of soldiers backed with armor—they were both imaginative and concrete.

Asking for “consultations” with government leaders, for example, sounded tame to some foreign journalists. It was in fact a blow at the Party’s practice of appearing to “consult” or “going deeply among the people,” which means speaking only with those whom it has appointed to listen and applaud. Deng certainly thought the students’ demands were subversive: he said on June 9 that the demonstrators wanted to overthrow the state. As Andrew Nathan has pointed out: “Deng has a point: if his four principles [demanding total loyalty to the Party] are the standard of socialism, then the democrats did want to overthrow the socialist system.”13 By comparison, the American peace movement of the Sixties, which extended over a decade—Tiananmen lasted less than two months, and in a repressive society—now appears supremely idealistic in presenting the single demand that the US get out of Vietnam.

Professor Rudolf Wagner’s essay “Institutional Structure and Modernization in the PRC,” given at a Berlin symposium,14 shows how, well before the events of Tiananmen Square, the main institutions of the Chinese government—the courts, the National People’s Congress, the press, the police—had ceased to function with any constitutional legitimacy, and were becoming again, as in Mao’s time, mere tools of Party power. Wagner, a China specialist at Heidelberg, says that the retired elderly comrades, whom Deng gathered about him just before the June 4 killings, now wielded great—unconstitutional—power, as they have done ever since. These old men based their authority, as has been the practice for years in the People’s Republic, on mutual obligations, shared birthplaces, patronage, family ties, and loyalties to a specific leader—in this case Deng Xiaoping. (The 27th Army, which ploughed into Tiananmen Square, is sometimes called the Yang Family Army because it is dominated by Yang Shangkun and his relations.) Wagner calls this “the invisible power structure of the Center.”

Although all Chinese can describe this network, discussing it openly is forbidden because, as with the Mafia, any close examination of it would show how much this structure of privilege is based on the conventions shared among the chieftains’ families. One Chinese told me he knew the students were doomed the day they posted on a university bulletin board a family tree that traced the blood ties binding the top leaders.

China’s next great upheaval, which may not come for years, will probably be far more destructive. Perhaps, as Professor David Zweig, a specialist on rural politics at Tufts University, suggests, the increasingly dissatisfied peasantry will be involved, and perhaps the peasant soldiers of the PLA will not fire on peasants.15 Until then, the present leaders and the army must cooperate to sustain their power; if they ever lose it the men who ordered the killings of June 3 and 4, and those who carried them out, will probably be the targets of Romanian-style popular anger. Chinese refugees abroad have told me they would catch the first plane home if they could join in such revenge. As happened in Romania, the army might save its reputation if some of the commanders who expressed doubts about martial law acted to overthrow the present regime. But such a military solution would not be a hopeful first step toward Chinese democracy.

Today’s Central Committee has no doubt or hesitation about using violence to survive. Like their counterparts in Bucharest its members know what awaits them if a real revolution arises from below, not the sort which they themselves once directed. On the day after the killings the Central Committee issued a statement, which Marlin Fitzwater, who says he wants us to stop recalling the past, should read:

We may need to shed more blood in the future, or the People’s Republic government, which the revolutionary martyrs built with their lives and blood, will be overthrown.


The Lost Weekend October 25, 1990

  1. 7

    Cheng Ming, July 1, 1989, p. 6 ff.

  2. 8

    For the fullest versions of the Big Lie, see the speeches of Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong on June 30, to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, in BBC Monitoring, FE/0504B2/1, July 10, 1989, and Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin on the 40th Anniversary of the People’s Republic, in BBC Monitoring, FE/0576C1/1, October 2, 1989; photographs intended to show the army’s heroic defensive role can be seen in Quelling Counter-Revolutionary Rebellion in Peking, edited by the PLA Pictorial Office (Beijing: The Great Wall Publishing House, 1989); one unintended aspect of these pictures is their evidence of vast crowds involved in the movement, rather than the tiny number of “hooligans” officially described. The rapidly suppressed Beijing Review of May 29–June 4, now a collector’s item, bravely attacked martial law, and quoted an elderly worker who noted that even during the civil war not a shot had been fired in the capital, p. 6.

  3. 9

    Munro’s report to Human Rights Watch; Simmie and Nixon 188; and “Massacre,” p. 11.

  4. 10

    See Melanie Abas and Jeremy Broad-head, in British Medical Journal, Vol. 299, July 22, 1989, pp. 269–270.

  5. 11

    June 4 also provides a daily diary of events from the beginning of the demonstrations, and complete and partial texts of important documents; but its picture captions are not reliable: in the very first set, for instance, its identifications are mixed up.

  6. 12

    Democracy with Chinese Characteristics” in World Policy Journal, Fall 1989, pp. 621–632.

  7. 13

    In “Chinese Democracy in 1989: Continuity and Change,” Problems of Communism, September–October 1989, p. 29.

  8. 14

    The International Conference on Political Institutions in the Third World in the Process of Adjustment and Modernization, West Berlin, July 4–7, 1989.

  9. 15

    David Zweig, “Peasants and Politics,” in World Policy Journal, Fall 1989, p. 643.

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