Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 12

At about 2 in the morning on June 4, 1989, as I watched the Chinese People’s Liberation Army march into Tiananmen Square, I listened to a piece of advice from the man next to me. “Nothing to worry about,” he said. The PLA would never fire on the people. The night air was filled with shrieks and the yellow light from the lamp poles glistened on a wet red smear where a small tank had just run over a demonstrator. Loudspeakers, the same ones that on the night of May 20 had broadcast the voice of Premier Li Peng proclaiming martial law, were ordering us to clear the square and to watch out for pickpockets. White streaks shot across the sky and sparks flew off the paving stones. “What are those streaks?” someone asked. My neighbor said they were blank bullets. “And the sparks off the stones?” “A special kind of blank,” he replied, with such authority that I believed him. Then he doubled over. When I pulled him up a red stain was widening on his tee-shirt. His friends pulled him away into the screaming crowd, through which I could see three-wheeled carts with dead or wounded demonstrators stretched out on them rushing through the crowds. By now the helmeted and flak-jacketed troops trotting along under the walls of the Forbidden City were very close. I turned to leave through the Gate under the gigantic portrait of Mao Zedong. A few days earlier, three men from central China had hurled eggshells filled with paint at the portrait and the red, yellow and green ran down the impassive face and over the huge mole. This was so shocking for some of the demonstrators, who earlier had been shouting “Deng Xiaoping resign!” that they seized the three men and hustled them over to the nearest police post. Within an hour a giant crane arrived and an identical Mao portrait replaced the desecrated one.

It was under this new portrait, smooth and impassive, that I was set upon by a squad of the People’s Armed Police who had just been assaulted by young men hurling flaming bottles of gasoline. Out of their minds with fear and rage, the police were beating people to the ground with their truncheons and then shooting them with their pistols. They knocked out two teeth, fractured my arm and beat me black and blue. Robert Thomson, last month appointed editor of the London Times, and Federico Barbieri, an Italian diplomat, dragged me away from the men who would have shot me on the ground within seconds.

But–to put it bluntly–does Tiananmen matter any more in China?

Last month at Berkeley, a humane and sensitive young Chinese student gave me a piece of advice. “Jonathan, listen to me. Tiananmen was long ago. Of course it was terrible. Put it out of your mind. None of us care about that anymore. We don’t care about those old men or the Party. We just want to get on with our lives. The incident is in the past.”

The Incident. Shijian. That is one of the official words for what happened in Tiananmen. Or “the counterrevolutionary uprising.” Sometimes the word “criminal” is added. President Jiang Zemin has dismissed criticism of 1989 as “much ado about nothing,” and a few years ago, on the anniversary of June 4, when a journalist from Hong Kong asked Premier Zhu Rongji about the day he said, “I’ve completely forgotten it.”

If what President Jiang and Premier Zhu said were what they really believed, it would be fascinatingly pathological. Tiananmen is, after all, a generic name for an uprising that occurred in at least 200 places, in almost all the major cities as well as in remote outlying regions. In remote regions one might have supposed that people hardly knew what had begun in early April 1989, when Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, one of Deng’s two favorites, died. He had already been sacked (by Deng) for closing in on corrupt Politburo members and being soft on Tibet. Beijing’s students, for whom Hu was that rarity–an honest official–went into mourning and marched to the square, where they burst into emotional speeches about him, slowly extending their remarks over the next days into the shortcomings of the Party. The crowds in the square, enthusiastically singing the Internationale and the National Anthem, were good-natured and peaceful. But when a People’s Daily editorial condemned the demonstrators, on April 26, as conspirators bent on bringing down the Party and the State and wiping out the economic reforms, the mood in the square changed to resentment and militancy.

It is fashionable in China and among some Western China specialists to dismiss the Tiananmen demonstrators as little more than selfish students. But what they were in fact soon demanding was indeed counterrevolutionary: freedom of speech and the press, an end to corruption and leaders who would discuss what needed to be done. This was overwhelmingly popular in Beijing, from whose streets the police soon largely vanished, and ordinary people spoke to foreigners without weighing their words and clapped wherever the students marched. Before long, in Beijing and other places, citizens were blocking motorized military columns to prevent them from reaching the demonstrators.

The nature and scope of this national uprising, according to the “Tiananmen Papers,” [*] were plain from the many sources of intelligence available on an hourly basis to the tiny group of leaders Deng Xiaoping had assembled to consider countermeasures. These “elders” and a few others were by no means agreed. Two or three, including Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang and intelligence chief Qiao Shi, counseled at least caution, if not negotiation, with the demonstrators. Against their advice came the words, recorded in the Tiananmen Papers, of the 81-year-old Wang Zhen, retired general and vice president: “Those goddamn bastards. We should send the troops right now to grab those counterrevolutionaries. We’ve got to do it or the common people will rebel. Anyone who tries to overthrow the Communist Party deserves death and no burial.” (This happened. On the morning of June 4, I saw dozens of unarmed people mowed down by the army in front of the Peking Hotel. Most of those killed in the days after June 3-4 simply disappeared.) Deng’s own views were clearly displayed in the April 26 editorial. On June 9, he called his soldiers “a great wall of steel,” and said that Tiananmen was “a storm bound to happen.”

I have gone over what may seem like old ground because it is obvious that the leadership regarded June 4, 1989 as far more than an “incident.” Deng had handpicked President Jiang himself to oversee the aftermath. This included a widespread “qingcha” (ferreting-out) of one-quarter of the Party, at least 10 million members of which were considered unreliable or weak. And while relatively few students were persecuted, many workers were arrested, tortured and shot. The leaders’ nightmare of a union of intellectuals and workers had been made real by the tented “village” of industrial workers in one corner of the square. Nothing is more alarming to the Party than the increasingly large and turbulent strikes and demonstrations of badly paid and laid off industrial workers. Farmers too regularly crowd into country towns to howl against illegal taxes and petty corruption. Both Jiang Zemin and Li Peng have conceded more than once that “corruption”–the main target during Tiananmen–“can bring us down.” While there may not be another “Tiananmen” in Beijing triggered by students, one could take place anywhere, led by farmers or workers, against whom the armed forces, uneasy about using force in 1989, might be unwilling to open fire.

It is often correctly remarked, in some kind of mitigation, that the Party, keen on some sort of undefined political reform, now permits freedom of conversation and even occasional revisionist printed remarks. Foreign academics speak to the Party School about political variation and to lawyers about the rule of law. But the government insists that “only the Party can rule China.” Those who dispute this in print, like the tiny membership of the Democratic Party, go to jail.

Tiananmen, for the Chinese government, remains neuralgic. The three American academics whose names appear on the cover of the Tiananmen Papers have been denied visas. Some of the jailed Democrats had called for a reversal of the Tiananmen verdict. “The circle of victims continues to increase each year,” Amnesty International said last week. “Those seeking to commemorate the anniversary of the crackdown that culminated on June 4, 1989 continue to be arrested and held in labour camps. Those calling for a review of the events–some through posting appeals on the internet–have also been arrested and sentenced for drawing attention to the crackdown.” In March 2000, the widow of Edgar Snow–the American journalist admired throughout China for his account of Mao’s guerrilla life in “Red Star Over China,” not to mention two groveling volumes after the Communist victory–came to Beijing. Normally she would have been welcomed at the highest level. But this time she was visiting Professor Ding Zilin, whose son had been shot dead in 1989. In the face of continuous official obstruction and harassment, Ding has compiled a long list of people killed at the same time, by no means all students or in Beijing. Mrs. Snow was prevented from seeing Professor Ding and angrily left China. As for Professor Ding herself, she says that, in the years after Tiananmen, “I have scaled a mountain of corpses and I have floated in the tears of the victims’ families.” Her understanding of the Chinese Communist Party’s responsibility for 80 million “unnatural” deaths since 1949–a realistic estimate arising from executions, campaigns and politically caused disasters like the mass starvation of 1959-1961 is profound. Had she not been involved with the families of 1989’s victims, Professor Ding says, the 80 million dead might have been only a matter for “dinner conversation.” But, because of Tiananmen, “the commemoration of death may prove the most important for the Chinese people.”

I believe that, like much else in China since 1949, Tiananmen was so horrible that many Chinese put it in the back of their minds. I have often asked Chinese about ghastly things I knew had happened to them during the Cultural Revolution and been greeted with a regretful smile and a dismissive wave of the hand. So it appears with Tiananmen. After all, many millions of Chinese and their families were affected by the post-June 4 qingcha. When Chinese, echoing the Party, say that “stability” must be maintained and that in retrospect Tiananmen reminds them of the Cultural Revolution, I don’t believe them. That chaos of 1966-1976 was provoked by Mao and the Party (as the Party admitted in 1981) who were responsible, as well, for the entire fifty years of disasters, including the 1959-1961 famine. But confronting that fact, of which Tiananmen is a part, requires, as Professor Ding insists, a second confrontation with a dangerous question: What is to be done?

There will certainly be a reckoning, and it will not be much ado about nothing. In 1991, the mother of an unemployed 22-year-old youth–Zha Aiguo (Aiguo means “Love China,” a common Cultural Revolution name), who was killed during Tiananmen–visited his grave. As was normal in those days, she was detained and taken to a local police station for interrogation. There, she said, she scrawled these words in the dirt: “Pen and paper will speak in a thousand years. The children and the grandchildren will eventually settle the score.” If the Party decides to tough it out, a Tiananmen settlement could, someday, end in a welter of violence arising from the atavistic Chinese conviction that “blood debts must be answered with blood.”


The Tiananmen papers: a collection of highly secret documents, published in English last year, many of them recording verbatim conversations within the leadership. They were transmitted to the West by a highly placed official and are generally regarded as authentic, though some dispute that. Beijing insists they are a fabrication.


Jonathan Mirsky was the China correspondent of The Observer [London] and East Asia Editor of The Times [London]. In 1989 he was named the British editors’ International Journalist of the Year for his reporting from Tiananmen. He lives in London.