Tiananmen Square is in the city centre of Beijing, located near the City’s Central Business District, and named after Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) which separates it from the Forbidden City. The western part of the Forbidden City houses the Chinese Communist Party HQs, and is known as Zhongnanhai. Tiananmen Square has an area of more than 5o acres, and contains many Monuments of National importance. This became the site of the infamous June Fourth Massacre in 1989.
The official Chinese tally listed 241 dead, including the soldiers. The British Ambassador estimated 10000 casualties, but his office had also reported widespread rebellion among PLA ranks, and had confused gas cannisters with surface-to-air missiles! The Western press, less out of naïvete and more out of eagerness to spread rumours, create instability, cause panic and incite revolt, served wildly sensational accounts of those fateful fifty days (April 15- June 4). From general uprising to internal revolt in PLA, inner turmoil and panic in the CCP, incoming and upturning tanks, automatic shots being fired by nervous soldiers, hundreds of students being repeatedly crushed by marching tanks – truth and fiction got hopelessly mixed up with fear and hope.
Vijay Gokhale, India’s ex-Foreign Secretary (2018-2020), who served as the Chinese Ambassador in 2016-17, was posted in Beijing in late 1980s. He has narrated the story of Tiananmen protests as he felt, saw, heard and read with disarming honesty. The account is lucid, the language is non-flowery. The book reads like reportage. Since the events themselves were seismic, mere stating of facts serves the purpose well.
The protests began with the death of reform-minded former CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang on April 15th, 1989. The former protégé of Deng Xioping had been purged two years back by the Leader himself for lending support to the cause of ‘bourgeoisie liberalism’ and trying to override, hence weaken, the Party. Posters began to appear on University campuses eulogizing him and his political ideas (similar political activity after Zhou Enlai’s death in 1976 had brought Deng into power). Between April 16th and 22nd, the day of Hu’s funeral, situation became progressively tense with students’ speeches, marches and sporadic protests gaining in scope and intensity. The Funeral attracted a much larger-than-anticipated crowd, passions ran high, there were sit-ins and three students knelt outside the Great Hall to present a petition. They demanded to see Premier Li Peng, who did not oblige. The CPC, including the Polit Bureau, seemed unsure and disunited, with the hardliner Li Peng and reformist General Secretary, Zhao Zhiyang, advocating different strategies to deal with the ‘turmoil’.
On April 26th, People’s Daily carried an Editorial which described the protests as ‘counter-revolutionary turmoil’, declaring them to be directed against the Party and China. This editorial further angered the students. On April 27th, around a lakh students and factory workers, along with intellectuals and some media persons marched to the Square. Zhao Zhiyang made conciliatory noises, especially through his May 4th speech before Asian Development Bank representatives, in which he legitimized students’ concerns about corruption and freedom of press. This caused the movement to lose a bit of steam, but a divided and indecisive CCP let the protests drag on. Press restrictions were not strictly enforced, which led them to widely cover the protests. Thousands of protest fires were across the country’s campuses.
A hunger strike was called from May 13th. The USSR Leader Gorbachev arrived on May 15th for the historic Sino-Soviet Summit (held after 30 years) which aimed to put the bitterness of the past behind, and begin a new chapter in the relations. Because of the students’ refusal to vacate the Square, Gorbachev could not be extended the traditional Chinese welcome at Tiananmen. Instead, the ceremony was held at the airport. Crass sloganeering and interruptions marked the Soviet convoy’s progress, and even the Summit meetings had to be organized at the Great Hall of the People, amid chaos and commotion at the Square. Deng felt humiliated in the hour of his finest foreign policy triumph.
In the following days, the Leader took the Elders and the PLA into confidence and acted decisively against what he would later describe as an attempt to establish West-dependent Bourgeoisie Republic by ‘select few’. Without the situation slipping out of control, the Polit Bureau Standing Committee met on May 17. Zhao Zhiyang’s May 4 speech was roundly criticized, and his concessions-based approach was rejected. In fact, the General Secretary, Zhiyang, was virtually deposed. Li Peng held an ill-tempered meeting with students on May 18th , in which he presented them with the fait accompli (hence the moniker- the Butcher of Beijing). On May 19th, Zhao visited the Square and urged the students to call off the strike. But by then he had lost his mojo, and no one paid any heed.
Martial Law was declared from May 20th, but the Chinese Government did not immediately enforce it. Troops were mobilized from across the country. Protestors and demonstrators blocked the troops’ entry into the capital. As such, mobilization was ordered in the bases outside the city. In face of the Government apathy and refusal to accept demands, the students began bickering among themselves about the future of the movement. On June 1st, Li Peng referred to the protestors as terrorists and counter-revolutionaries.
Finally, on the night of June3rd and the morning of June 4th, the troops came marching in. By that time, most of the students and intellectuals had left the Square, marching hand-in-hand. The troops removed the tents and swept the garbage. Hardly any firing took place in the Tiananmen Square. Most of the casualties happened outside the site, as PLA units cleared roadblocks, hit back at those who hurled insults and projectiles and in many cases, tried to burn army vehicles. The Square was completely cleared on June 4th.
The city remained paralyzed on June 5th. People’s Daily was admittedly printed, but copies were not available anywhere. The Tank Man Episode also occurred on June 5th. Situation across the country was fully brought under control by June 7th.
On June 9th, Deng Xiaoping, the Supreme Leader, paid homage to the PLA martyrs, and reaffirmed collective responsibility for the action that he took. He revalidated the April 26th Editorial which had described the protests as ‘counter-revolutionary turmoil’. He dismissed the concerns over corruption, labelling it an excuse for those who wanted to overthrow the Party supremacy. He also laid the line for the future- “never again let people take away our weapons”. Any seed of dissent or a trend must not be allowed to spread. China must place its own security concerns over Western expectations. Deng also committed China to the creed of market economy, and opening up to the world.
On June 24th , the CCP delivered the final words on the events in Tiananmen Square- that ‘a very small number of people’ caused counter-revolutionary turmoil, actions taken by the Leadership were necessary and that Zhao Zhiyang made unforgivable mistakes. This verdict is cast in stone and has never since been questioned. Liu Xiaobo and some others were imprisoned in 1995 for petitioning the state to reassess its June 24th Verdict.
The West imposed sanctions, primarily military, upon China, but soon leapt up at the economic opportunities offered by the opening up of the Chinese market. So much so for the Western concern with human rights! The CCP had already drawn a line around freedom of expression. Since Party was the instrument to run China for the sake of stability, order and continuity, it was beyond petty criticism. The party was to be run by collective leadership, which surrounded the leadership core.
Seven (including Wu’er Kaixi and the lady Chai Lang) of the Most Wanted 21 student leaders managed to escape to Hong Kong or to the US. Prof Fang Lizhi found refuge in the US Ambassador’s residence, from where he flew to US after protracted negotiations and hard bargaining. Shanghai party secretary, Jiang Zemin, was appointed as the next General Secretary. Zhao Zhiyang lived out his remaining days (1989-2005) in obscurity. Li Peng remained the Premier, but could never become the General Secretary. Deng Xiaoping kept paving China’s path towards greatness. He died in 1997 just before UK’s return of Hong Kong to China.
Vijay Gokhale’s book should be read as an indictment of the Western press, which cannot be relied upon for truth anywhere. He has contrasted their lame propaganda with the fearless journalism of the Chinese newspaper, World Economic Herald, which kept publishing honestly and fearlessly throughout the 1980s. The book also furthers the commonly held belief that China and the Chinese were, and remain puzzles for the rest of the world.
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