Roving thoughts and provocations

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Tiananmen: How Wrong We Were

Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images
Pro-democracy student protesters sit face to face with policemen outside the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, April 22, 1989

Twenty-five years ago to the day I write this, I watched and listened as thousands of Chinese citizens in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square dared to condemn their leaders. Some shouted “Premier Li Peng resign.” Even braver ones cried “Down with Deng Xiaoping and the Communist Party.” Before long, on the night of June 3–4, the People’s Liberation Army crashed into the square, rolling over the tents pitched there by industrial workers who had joined in the protests, and mowing down unarmed demonstrators. Until then, crowds in the square had walked wherever they pleased rather than standing on one of the numbered paving stones in that vast space. For decades, those who went there to see and hear national leaders were instructed to stand on a particular stone and shout prescribed slogans. But in May 1989, students and ordinary people were engaged in something the Communist Party has never been able to tolerate: zifade, “spontaneous” demonstrations.

That spontaneity spread from Inner Mongolia to Guangzhou. In Beijing, instead of the usual greeting between acquaintances, “Have you eaten yet?” people asked, “Have you demonstrated yet?” Police and soldiers had almost disappeared, and the staff of the Party’s newspapers appeared in the square holding high a banner bearing the words “We don’t want to lie anymore.” A few days before the killings, thousands of unarmed soldiers marched towards the square only to be scolded by elderly women and shamed into turning back. A column of tanks had been stalled on the edge of the city, where young men urinated on their treads while local women offered the crews cups of tea. In late May, I and several other journalists watched those tanks turn away, along with truckloads of soldiers, who had been blocked and rebuked in the suburbs before they, too, drove off. Now I really thought the Party was finished. How wrong we were—foreign reporters (I was a correspondent for The Observer in those days), China-watchers abroad, and many Chinese themselves. During a television interview in the square I said that, while I couldn’t predict, I was confident “China would never be the same again.” I wrote several opinion pieces for my paper saying much the same, surer about Chinese affairs than I had ever been.

On the night of the army’s entry into the center of Beijing I stood on one of the marble bridges under Mao’s portrait over the gate into the Forbidden City that faced onto the square. Shots sounded ever louder and as the army advanced under the dark red walls of the City a young man next to me shouted that the streaks in the darkness, even the sparks flashing off the stones, were “blanks.” Seconds later he slumped over the railing with a widening red circle on his t-shirt. No longer the China-expert, I turned to leave. My way was blocked by some Armed Police, who said, “You motherfucking foreign journalist,” knocked out five of my teeth, and fractured my left arm. Their officer was shooting people they had beaten to the ground and would have shot me if the Financial Times’s Robert Thompson had not bravely walked over and led me away.

The next morning, Sunday, June 4, I cycled back to the edge of the square just in time to see soldiers mow down parents of students who had come to look for those who had not returned home and who were feared to have been killed and their bodies burned. While I lay in the grass at the side of the avenue, doctors and nurses from the Peking Union Hospital (where my father had briefly worked in the early Thirties) arrived in an ambulance and in their bloodstained gowns went among the fallen; the soldiers shot them down, too. I managed to fly back to London later that day.

Hundreds were shot in the square that night and the following morning, or crushed by tanks, and the shooting up and down the streets and avenues of the capital continued for several days. Long red and gold signs hanging outside buildings that had said, “Support the Students,” were quickly replaced with others proclaiming, “Support the Party.” A decree went out: “No Laughing in Tiananmen Square.” Tank tread-marks scarred the main roads for a year and bullet holes pockmarked the buildings along those roads. Those scars remained until 1990 when the center of capital was scoured clean for the Asian Games.

All over China citizens were arrested immediately after the shootings, and workers in Shanghai were executed. Nobel Peace Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo, now serving eleven years for encouraging a pro-democracy manifesto, received the first of his several prison sentences right after June 4 for exhorting students in the square to demand democracy as well as an end to corruption. Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang was placed under house arrest until his death sixteen years later, for urging that the students be treated respectfully. I was standing nearby on May 19 when Zhao came into the square and apologized to the demonstrators for having come “too late, too late,” with Wen Jiabao, later premier, standing behind him.

General Secretary of the Communist Party Zhao Zhiyang (left) talking to protesters in Tiananmen Square with future premier Wen Jiabao behind him, May 19, 1989

Since the killings Tiananmen has remained the Communist Party’s most destructive and revealing dilemma. As Perry Link explained in a recent post,

The Chinese government’s use of lethal force was no accident. It was a choice, the result of calculation, and moreover was, from the regime’s point of view—now as well as then—the correct choice. We know from The Tiananmen Papers that people at the top of the Communist Party of China felt that they were facing an existential threat in spring 1989. Major protests in the streets not only of Beijing but of nearly every provincial capital in China led Vice President Wang Zhen, Prime Minister Li Peng, and others in the ruling circle to conclude that the survival of their regime was at stake.

Deng Xiaoping engineered the crackdown and for some years in Beijing, late at night on the anniversary of Tiananmen, one could hear the tinkle of little bottles, xiaoping, a play on Deng’s name.

Now, as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the killings looms, the usual suspects are being rounded up, notably Professor Ding Zilin, founder of the several hundred-strong Tiananmen Mothers, the group of women whose children were killed on the night of June 3–4. The authorities have also detained human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who vowed in the square that night that if he were not killed he would return to the spot every year. One of the signers of Charter 08, linked to Liu Xiaobo, Pu contended that,

If I just slouch along through life, taking the easy route, what do I say to the spirits of those murdered “rioters” of seventeen years ago? And if everyone forgets, are we not opening the door to future massacres? Our Tiananmen generation is now in middle age; we are in positions where we can make a difference. Do we not want to?

Can the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party still be terrified of what happened twenty-five years ago? Yes. Indeed, I may have been inadvertently right in May 1989 when I said China would “never be the same again.” It is sleeker, richer, internationally more reckless, more corrupt—and its leaders are ever more terrified. They have just imprisoned an outspoken journalist, Gao Yu, for “revealing state secrets.” These are lodged in the anodyne-sounding “Document Number Nine,” now being read to closed Party meetings around the country, and include the condemnation of “Western values,” specifically constitutional democracy and the universality of human rights, the very concepts Liu Xiaobo called for in Tiananmen Square in May 1989 along with the original three-hundred signers, now at least two thousand, of Charter 08. These are not secrets. For the Chinese Communist party they are radioactive. One of the indefatigable wits on China’s closely monitored Internet recently wrote, “Remember May 35th.”

I am reminded of the old street sweeper in 1990 at a corner in Beijing. She was shoveling donkey dung into a pail. I asked her if she thought things had changed for the better. She replied, “This city is like donkey dung. Clean and smooth on the outside, but inside it’s still shit.”

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