Obituary: Yang Baibing backed 1989 crackdown and prospered from it

Yang Baibing said to have signed the order for PLA to shoot Tiananmen protesters, but later fell foul of Deng Xiaoping

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 7:54am

Yang Baibing, one of the military strongmen who supported former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's bloody crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy protest in Tiananmen Square, has died at the age of 93.

Xinhua said yesterday that Yang, who was director of the People's Liberation Army's General Political Department in 1989, died after an illness in Beijing on Tuesday afternoon.

"Yang was an outstanding member of the Chinese Communist Party, a seasoned, loyal communist fighter, a proletarian revolutionary and an excellent leader of the political work in the military," according to a statement from by the party's Central Committee.

In 2004, a three-hour documentary produced by the party's publicity department about the Tiananmen crackdown - intended for viewing by party members - indicated that Yang signed the order instructing the PLA to shoot unarmed students and workers taking part in the pro-democracy protest, Yazhou Zhoukan, a Hong Kong-based weekly magazine, reported at the time.

Yang was also a strong proponent of economic liberalisation. On March 23, 1992, just two months after Deng's tour to Shenzhen, Yang, then secretary general of the PLA's Central Military Commission (CMC), ordered the army to defend the country's economic reforms, according to the Hengyang Daily, a mouthpiece of Hengyang party committee in Hunan.

Along with his more famous half-brother, former president Yang Shangkun , Yang Baibing was among the most powerful leaders after Tiananmen. He was also a member of the secretariat of the party's 13th Central Committee and a member of the Politburo of the 14th Central Committee. The brothers were once known in the army as the "Yang clan".

But Yang Baibing was forced into retirement in 1992 and his supporters purged from the officer corps by Deng, who feared the brothers were accumulating too much power after Jiang Zemin was made chairman of the CMC.

A Beijing-based military source said the factor that triggered Yang Baibing's downfall was General Yu Yongbo's covert report to Jiang about matters discussed at a private meeting of several of Yang's army allies in late 1992. Yu eventually succeed Yang Baibing as head of the PLA's political department.

"The generals happened to touch on the topic of the likely situation after Deng's death amid wild chat at Yang's home after dinner," the source said. "One of the participants secretly informed Jiang about the meeting, which, in turn, triggered a huge political storm."

Chen Ziming , who was sentenced to 13 years in prison for "counter-revolutionary" activities after the June 4, 1989, crackdown but released on medical parole in 1994, said Yang Baibing's death made him wonder whether he had left behind any memoir containing self-reflection on Tiananmen.

In 2010, a message on the internet said Yang Baibing's had planned to get an American professor visiting Sun Yat-sen University to edit his memoirs, which reflected on his family's role in China's modern history. But the plan was abandoned at the request of the authorities when all the interviews and preparatory work had been completed.

A similar ban was imposed on former premier Li Peng , who hoped to publish a 30,000-word diary defending his role in the bloody crackdown.

Wang Dan , a prominent Tiananmen student leader who spent more than six years in jail, said Yang Baibing should be given the posthumous right to speak out. The public had a right to know about the Yang family's "self-examination" on the crackdown.

"I believe many senior generals and party officials were well aware that the Tiananmen crackdown seriously jeopardised our country's social and political development, and Yang should be among them," he said.

"I hope Yang's memoirs will be published soon as it will help the public look into the whole incident." Additional reporting by Choi Chi-yuk