Tiananmen Square crackdown 30th anniversary
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Illustration: Adolfo Arranz

30 years on from Tiananmen Square crackdown, why Beijing still thinks it got it right

  • Three decades have passed since the Tiananmen Square crackdown when troops fired on student-led pro-democracy protesters
  • The shots were heard around the country and reverberate today despite persistent official censorship of the events

In the first of a six-part series, Jun Mai looks at why the Communist Party refuses to reverse its condemnation of student-led pro-democracy protests that were subject to a bloody crackdown in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

When US president Ronald Reagan and Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang walked out of the White House arm in arm on January 10, 1984, a sense of optimism and hope swept across the Pacific.

Nobody could have missed the symbolic and diplomatic importance of Zhao’s visit, which also underscored his leadership position in the Chinese hierarchy. Moreover, the American public liked this all-smiling new face of China. Many were convinced that Zhao’s trip would mark the beginning of a relationship that could shape the world and transform the ancient Asian civilisation into something “more like us” in the process.

Fast forward to June 1989, Zhao, now head of China’s Communist Party, finds himself a prisoner of his own state after two months of dramatic twists and turns and political infighting in Beijing. An unprecedented student-led demonstration against corruption erupted in April and spread across China like wildfire. Zhao, who sympathised with the students, lost the political battle and trust of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

The protest was later branded as an “antirevolutionary riot” and brutally put down in a fashion that shocked the world. Zhao was placed under house arrest for the alleged crime of “splitting the party”.

A student protest in 1989 ended in a bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Photo: AP

Even in the depths of his despair, Zhao, whom US historian Ezra Vogel once described as the real architect of China’s reform programme, remained hopeful that one day the party would vindicate his decision and reverse its verdict on the student movement.

“The issue [of reversing the verdict] needs to be solved sooner or later,” Zhao wrote in a letter to the party leadership in 1997. “People won’t forget about it no matter how long we sit on this. It is better we solve this issue earlier and by our own initiative. It is better we solve it when the country is stable and people are rational. [Reversing it] will create a conducive environment for our country’s reform and opening up.”

Wikipedia blocked in China ahead of Tiananmen Square anniversary

Zhao’s plea fell on deaf ears. Thirty years after the savage crackdown that killed hundreds of people and tarnished China’s international image, the party leadership remains convinced that it made the right decision in dealing with it.

Zhao’s name, just as the student movement itself, is taboo in China. Few young people in China today know who he is or what the 1989 student movement was about.

Zhao Ziyang (centre) was secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party at the time of the 1989 student protest and sympathised with their plight. Photo: AFP

Over the past three decades, various people, including party members, have made similar futile appeals to the leadership to recognise the student demonstrations as a patriotic movement and to admit it was wrong to order the army to open fire on the peaceful demonstrators.

Some hoped that as the generation of leaders that was directly involved in the crackdown died or retired from politics, there would be fewer objections to the incident being reassessed.

Beijing has quietly toned down its harsh tone in recent years, allowing some exiled student leaders to return to China and making semantic changes such as substituting “riots” with “turmoil” when describing the incident. But a major reversal of its verdict is deemed out of the question.

The high price of denial: the cost to China of sweeping the Tiananmen crackdown under the carpet

Perry Link, a sinologist with Princeton University, said the party’s insecurity and obsession with holding on to power made it hard for the leadership to reopen the case.

“They fear opening the case again for honest discussions of the horrors in the past could snowball into another popular revolt,” said Link, a co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers – a compilation of selected secret Chinese official documents relating to crackdown, which Beijing denounced as fake when published in 2001.

“[The leadership thinks] the cost it loses by repressing the truth is much less than the costs it stands to lose by telling the truth.”

Many people have appealed to China’s leadership to admit it was wrong to order the army to open fire on the peaceful demonstrators. Photo: AFP

Bao Pu, the son of Zhao’s top aide Bao Tong, said the current leadership might have to face the question of its legitimacy if it allowed people to discuss the event.

“The party’s legitimacy was lost the moment it ordered the army to open fire on the peaceful protesters … it is counting on the public to forget about it.

Then there is the fear that reopening the discussion might lead to divisions within the party. Under the one-party structure, the Communist Party seems to regard internal strife and division as the greatest challenges to its power.

[China’s leaders] fear opening the case again for honest discussions of the horrors in the past could snowball into another popular revolt
Perry Link, co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers

This sentiment was probably best summed up by Li Peng, who was Chinese premier in 1989 and played a key role in Zhao’s downfall and was influential in the decision to use the military to crack down on the student movement.

In his memoir published in 2004 in Hong Kong, Li argued that any challenge to the official narrative of the incident should be seen as an attempt to divide the party from within.

“The party reached a conclusion a long time ago about the riot. No vindication will be allowed. People with ill intention have always tried to vindicate the case … they are just looking for cracks among the leadership and trying to split it.”

Li Peng, who was Chinese premier in 1989, was influential in the decision to use the military to crack down on the student movement. Photo: Sunny Lee

To Li, the greatest threat of the 1989 student movement was the division at the top on how to handle it. The protests led to open conflicts between the hardliner camp that rallied around him and the reformists who backed Zhao. As their differences became public the whole nation saw how its leaders were at odds with one other, and the party’s carefully cultivated image of unity melted.

This only ended with a total defeat of Zhao and the subsequent purge of his camp. Zhao was later accused of “splitting the party”.

“People were saying there were two voices within the leadership and asking which one they should follow,” Chen Xitong, the then mayor of Beijing, wrote in a report soon after the tragedy. “Some even complained Ziyang is playing the good guy up there and leaving us to play the bad guys [on the frontline].”

Blood red anxiety: how Tiananmen coloured the world of Chinese artist Chen Guang

The crack at the top was the most visible since the end of the Cultural Revolution. Since then, China’s Communist leaders – from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping – have stuck to the official narrative and presented a united front on the issue.

According to Li’s memoir, Jiang in 2001 described The Tiananmen Papers as a Western conspiracy to split the party.

“They were trying to hype up the event to create internal chaos for us,” he was quoted as saying in an internal meeting. “They were trying to subvert the leadership of the party and the socialist system.”

Jiang Zemin (left), pictured in September 1989 with paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, was head of the party at the time of the student protests. Photo: Reuters

Zhou Duo, an academic who advised the student protesters in 1989, said it would be difficult for the leadership to reopen the case.

“It involves Deng [Xiaoping] and the military … and it’s only one of the historical messes of the Communist Party,” said the scholar-turned-executive who was frequently consulted by the party at the time. “The difficulty is immense.”

Together with the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and two other intellectuals, Zhou was one of the Four Gentlemen of Tiananmen, a group that joined and advised the students during their hunger strike and coordinated their evacuation from the square after shots were fired in other parts of the city.

Liu Xiaobo bust unveiled in Prague to mark 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square

Outside China, Deng was condemned – even by those who once admired his achievements – for his decision to use troops to put down a peaceful demonstration. But the party never saw it as a mistake, making a resolution similar to that of the Cultural Revolution unlikely.

Millions of people perished in the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution, which pushed the country to the brink of collapse and ended only with the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.

In 1981, the party passed a resolution that openly labelled the Cultural Revolution as a “catastrophe” and criticised Mao for his mistake. But Mao was never purged and is still revered by many today.

Zhou Duo (third right) and the late Liu Xiaobo (second right) joined the students in their hunger strike. Photo: Reuters

Zhou said it would be unrealistic to expect a similar resolution on the June 4 crackdown as the consensus among the ruling elite is much narrower compared to that for the Cultural Revolution.

“The Cultural Revolution antagonised almost everybody, and the cadres were hurt the most,” he said. “And these cadres were the main driving force behind denouncing the Cultural Revolution.”

In comparison, the impact of June 4 was much smaller, Zhou said. At one stage it threatened to derail China’s reform programme altogether, until Deng intervened and reconfirmed the open door policy with his famous speech to southern China in 1992.

Zhou was sent to prison for his involvement in the student movement in 1989 and is still closely watched to this day. Despite that, he said he still held Deng in high regard for his efforts to reform China.

“I was at the eye of the hurricane and I have faced oppression for three decades. But I’m still against denouncing Deng,” Zhou said. “Without Deng, there would have been no reform and opening up.”

Zhou Duo says he still holds Deng Xiaoping, pictured in 1989 with then US president George Bush, in high regard for his efforts to reform China. Photo: AP
More importantly, there were many party elites who wholeheartedly believed in Deng’s iron-fisted approach and saw it as a key difference between China and the rest of the communist bloc, which collapsed and disintegrated just a year after the Tiananmen crackdown.

“In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was domestic and international political turmoil,” said then president Hu Jintao in a 2004 speech. “Deng Xiaoping and other [party] elders … resolutely defended the country’s independence and stability … and helped us survive ferocious winds and waves.”

President Xi echoed that view in 2014, when he praised Deng for handling the 1989 crisis “calmly”.

To Beijing, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a lesson in life and death. Over the years, it has allocated a huge amount of resources to examining its demise so as to avoid repeating the fate.

Leica’s ad agency denies releasing ‘Tank Man’ film without approval

Li Shengming, a social scientist who headed a heavyweight government research project on the Soviet Union, blamed political reforms in the final days of the USSR for its collapse.

In an eight-episode documentary made in 2006 for Chinese officials, Li, then vice-chair of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, argued that Moscow was wrong in permitting the free flow of content from Western media, encouraging people to make contact with foreigners, and allowing civil groups to flourish.

In the documentary, which was also shown to Russian researchers and cadres in Vietnam, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and later a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was blamed for turning a blind eye to America’s “subversive actions” and launching his policy of perestroika – restructuring the Soviet political system.

Some Chinese researchers blamed former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, pictured with Deng Xiaoping in May 1989, for the fall of the USSR. Photo: Reuters

Li also blamed the Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, another Nobel Prize laureate, for penning books like The Gulag Archipelago, which told of the dark past of the Stalin era.

The narrative found an audience among Chinese officials. President Xi has repeatedly referred to “the lesson of the Soviet Union” in his speeches on topics ranging from regulating historical studies to the control of the media.

“As General Secretary Xi Jinping has paid it much attention … we are confident that China won’t take the path that led to Soviet’s collapse,” Li wrote in a revised introduction to the documentary in 2013, the year after Xi took over as party leader.

June 4 museum to open in Hong Kong in time for Tiananmen anniversary

Zhao Erjun, the son of Zhao Ziyang, was once as hopeful as his father that the case would one day be readdressed.

“When Xi became leader, many approached me with congratulations,” he said of former officials who were purged following the fall of his father. “They told me that Xi is the son of Xi Zhongxun and the solution would come soon.”

The elder Xi, who fought alongside Mao in the founding of the People’s Republic of China, is remembered by many for his political tolerance and openness.

He called for introducing laws to guarantee people the freedom of opinion and expression, and was known for his support for reformist leaders like Hu Yaobang, whose death triggered the student-led demonstrations in 1989.

The student protest in China in 1989 was branded an “antirevolutionary riot” and brutally put down in a fashion that shocked the world. Photo: AFP

But Zhao’s optimism has faded over the past six years. Several times a year, supporters of his late father visited his neighbourhood to pay their respects to the reformist leader, often under heavy police watch, he said.

But the police presence had increased in recent years and even old acquaintances who had known the family for decades had been prevented from coming, he said.

October marks the 100th anniversary of Zhao Snr’s birth and his son has been trying to decide where to place the late leader’s ashes, which he has kept at his home since his father’s death in 2005.

“We had to promise that we would never tell anyone where we put them and the authorities will decide what we can inscribe on the headstone,” he said. “But even then, I think it is a small chance they will allow us to do that.”

Additional reporting by Minnie Chan and Echo Xie

In the next instalment, we examine the price the Communist Party and the country pays for doubling down on reformist calls for checks on power.