The story of an army commander who disobeyed Deng

Mark O'Neill

Yang Jisheng's book covers topics of interest to everyone in China but which few dare to write about. One is the case of Xu Qinxian, commander of the 38th Army in Beijing in the spring of 1989. Because he refused to obey the order of the party's Central Military Commission to join the crackdown on student-led protest, he was relieved of his post, court-martialled, jailed for five years and exiled from Beijing.

Yang met Xu twice after his release, meetings made possible only because of Yang's good connections with senior civil and military officials during his 35 years at Xinhua.

According to his account, Xu was in the General Hospital of the Beijing Military Region during the protests and followed them carefully. On May 17, he was recovering well from an operation to remove kidney stones when he received a visit from the deputy commander of the Beijing Military Region, to inform him of the mobilisation order. Martial law would be declared on the evening of May 19. Commanders of the other armies had expressed their support and Xu was ordered to do the same.

'I will not implement a verbal order. I need one on paper,' he said. 'Today there was no written order, that will come later,' said the deputy commander. 'In times of war, it is like that.'

'Now is not a time of war,' Xu said. 'I will not carry out a verbal order.' He telephoned his superiors to inform them of his decision and told a friend that he was ready to be executed. 'I would rather be beheaded than be judged guilty in the court of history,' he said.

The next day, informed of Xu's decision, president Yang Shangkun was very uneasy and could not sleep well for several days. He informed Deng Xiaoping, who said that a soldier could not disobey an order.

Officers quickly took Xu away from the hospital. A military tribunal stripped him of his party membership and sentenced him to five years, of which he served four in Qincheng prison near Beijing and one in a police hospital.

On his release, party chief Jiang Zemin ordered that he retire to Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, and receive the treatment befitting a deputy commander.

Born in Shandong province in August 1935, Xu had an outstanding military career. In 1950, he volunteered to serve in the war in Korea but was turned down because he was too young. After eight months studying at a PLA communications school in Fushun, Liaoning province, he served in a tank regiment in Korea. A keen student and lover of poetry, he rose through the ranks to become commander of the 38th Army, the largest, most mechanised and best trained in the PLA.

At the time, the story of Xu's insubordination spread among the public in Beijing, who found it almost impossible to believe. It also sent a signal - misleading as it turned out - that there might be a split in the army, which emboldened the protesters. Everyone assumed that Xu would be executed, the normal punishment for such a serious offence. It appears that his distinguished military record and personal relationships with the leaders earned him a light sentence and comfortable retirement.