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The 1989 Tiananmen Crackdown Was Not Inevitable

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The 1989 Tiananmen Crackdown Was Not Inevitable

In retrospect, the end of China’s 1989 protest movement seems preordained. It was anything but.

The 1989 Tiananmen Crackdown Was Not Inevitable

A young woman is caught between civilians and Chinese soldiers, who were trying to remove her from an assembly near the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, June 3, 1989.

Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Widener

In reflecting upon the crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy protests in China’s Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, Henry Kissinger declared that: “No government in the world would have tolerated having the main square of its capital occupied for eight weeks by tens of thousands of demonstrators.” This cold-hearted observation supports a narrative suggesting that the repression of June 4, 1989 was, if not justified (though Kissinger himself clearly thinks it was), then at least inevitable. The corollary is that the young students who led the pro-democracy movement were little more than a collection of Don Quixotes, tilting naively at the windmills of an all-powerful Chinese state.

There is a natural human tendency, after the fact, to imbue critical historical events with an aura of fate. More often, however, outcomes that appear inevitable in retrospect were close things in the moment, with contingency and agency playing decisive roles. Such is the case with the demise of the China spring. This becomes clear in examining three persistent myths that have arisen surrounding the events of April through early June, 1989.

Myth 1: Then, as now, China was unprepared for democracy, a system of governance unsuited for China’s unique history and culture.

Ironically for this claim, Chinese people during this very period were busy with a quite successful democratic transition – only in Taiwan, rather than on the mainland. Like mainland China, Taiwan had, since 1949 been ruled by a one-party state founded on Leninist organizational principles. The same arguments used to dismiss the suitability of China for democracy were long made by defenders of the Kuomintang (KMT) party’s authoritarian rule. Yet neither culture nor recent history prevented Taiwanese from adopting the kind of democratic political system that has gradually spread over recent decades to characterize countries of quite varied cultures representing a solid majority of the world’s population.

China itself has historical precedents that support democratic aspirations, including the early Republican period and the anti-imperialism/pro-democracy movement of May 4, 1919. The latter event in many ways served as a model for the young people of 1989. Moreover, China of the 1980s differed from today’s China, which is relatively closed to debate over political alternatives. Within intellectual circles, the assumption that market reforms and democratic reform went together was commonplace. The political climate was more open and liberal ideas had penetrated even the Communist Party itself. Indeed, the demonstrations of 1989 began in commemoration of recently deceased Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, who had dealt relatively gently with the student protests of 1986 and who spoke often about the need for freer speech and political reform during his time in office. Although removed by Deng Xiaoping precisely because Hu was considered too liberal, his views were largely shared by his successor as general secretary, Zhao Ziyang. Indeed, one reason that the protests were allowed to continue for two months is that the students – many of whom were sons and daughters of the elite – enjoyed a degree of sympathy from well-placed figures in the regime.

Even more so, the student protests hit upon chords popular with broad segments of the public. At their peak, the protests in Beijing swelled to an estimated 1 million people. Less well known is that significant demonstrations broke out in no less than 250 Chinese cities. Not all of this discontent took the form of demands for democracy. Grievances focused upon inflation, corruption, growing inequality, and the lack of worker’s rights. Still, all who participated wanted a more responsive and inclusive political order.

Over a period of several weeks in May when political controls over the press were removed, the media responded with an outpouring of sympathetic coverage of the protests and spotlighted many shortcomings of Communist Party rule. And when the crackdown did arrive, ordinary Beijingers took to the streets and many sacrificed their lives to block the progress of army units toward the Square.

Finally, the pro-democracy movement was inspired in part by similar movements in Eastern Europe – especially Solidarity in Poland – and by the liberalizing initiatives of Mikhail Gorbachev. Indeed, Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing during the protests themselves helped to underline the fundamental political changes that were even then sweeping through the communist world. That such changes might come to China itself was not a foolish idea.

To be sure, the students of Tiananmen and elsewhere in China lacked political experience. They lacked political organization and leadership. Their demands were somewhat abstract and differences over strategy and tactics eventually weakened the movement itself. But they were not mere dreamers. Instead, they represented a moment of possibility in China’s historical drama.

Myth 2: The crackdown itself was a foregone conclusion, given the stakes for the Communist Party and its leadership.

As already mentioned, even the Politburo Standing Committee was divided over how to respond to the protests. Zhao Ziyang interpreted the protests as spurred by specific and often legitimate complaints that could be addressed through dialogue, co-optation, and reform. Premier Li Peng, by contrast, thought that the ruling legitimacy and power of the Communist Party were under challenge. He also believed that foreign conspirators must be involved in stirring up trouble.

A crucial turning point came when, on April 26, the People’s Daily published an editorial reflecting the view of hardliners. The demonstrators were called unpatriotic and counterrevolutionary “black hands” out to foment civil war. Crucially, the editorial was printed at a moment when Zhao himself was visiting South Korea and thus unable to intervene. The editorial provoked outrage among students and strengthened the hand of the more militant factions. The hunger strikes that began in mid-May were in part aimed at forcing the Communist Party to retract the April 26 verdict expressed through the official People’s Daily. This escalation complicated Zhao’s efforts to calm the protests and initiate a dialogue.

Some observers give little weight to the efforts of Zhao and other more liberal elements of the leadership on the assumption that hardliners had an inevitable advantage, even if the leadership struggle took time to resolve. In fact, however, the Politburo Standing Committee never came to a consensus prior to early June. For instance, although martial law was declared on May 20, the army units initially sent to Beijing on that date were withdrawn four days later out of concern that the loyalty of soldiers might be undermined by the appeals targeted to them by pro-democracy crowds. In general, the actions of the authorities remained vacillating up until days prior to June 4.

What proved decisive was the intervention of supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, who ultimately deposed Zhao Ziyang and other liberals from power and ordered Li Peng to supervise the crackdown. Yet even Deng’s attitude remains somewhat of a mystery. It is clear that Deng, all along, took a rather dark view of the protests and that he leaned in the direction of the hardliners within the leadership. Yet Deng waited two months to act. Moreover, Zhao and other liberals believed, until near the end, that they enjoyed Deng’s confidence.

Nor does Deng’s own history mark his reaction to the protest with the stamp of inevitability. After Zhou Enlai’s death, for instance, Mao refused to attend the funeral and forbade public displays of mourning. Such was Zhou’s popularity, however, that up to 2 million people defied the authorities by visiting Tiananmen Square on April 4, 1976 to lay wreaths in honor of Zhou. When crowds the next morning discovered that the wreaths had been removed, angry disturbances led to clashes with police involving up to 100,00 people, leading to many arrests. Deng himself, closely identified with Zhou, was purged (again) two days later. The Tiananmen incident of April 4, 1976 helped set the stage for the arrest of the Gang of Four following Mao’s death the next year. In 1980, Deng rendered his own verdict upon this example of popular mass action by reversing the convictions of many of those arrested at the time. In that case, Deng sided with those in the street who expressed support for political change. While the circumstances of 1989 led Deng to a different conclusion, this was not foreordained.

In any case, historical inevitability cannot rest upon the views and inclinations of a single individual, no matter how significant his power.

Myth 3: There was no alternative to a violent crackdown in order to avoid civil war.

If anything, the crackdown itself raised the risks of growing disorder. By June 4, the crowds in the Square had dwindled from several hundred thousand to a few thousand. Many had melted away out of exhaustion and due to the deteriorating conditions of life in the Square. More moderate factions left the Square with the aim of continuing with less confrontational modes of organizing their campuses and communities, leaving the more militant segments of the movement behind. The passage of time itself served to reduce the immediate threat to the regime.

It is sometimes claimed that authorities were hampered by the PLA’s lack of crowd-control equipment and experience in controlling mass demonstrations. This is a misreading of events. Once he made up his mind, Deng firmly sought to deliver a sharp lesson to the protesters and to deter future challenges through bloodshed. The brutality was not incidental to Deng’s purpose but essential to it.

In choosing this path, Deng ran great risks. Seven retired generals petitioned against using the PLA to suppress the demonstrations and several active duty generals registered their objections. Although rumors at the time suggesting the possibility that whole units might side with the protesters, leading to clashes within the PLA itself, proved exaggerated, this was not an entirely implausible scenario.

Moreover, even though the protests had proven entirely peaceful prior to the crackdown, Deng could not rule out the possibility that the use of force might produce violent rebellion. Indeed, virtually all of the deaths and injuries on June 4 were the result of clashes between PLA units and ordinary Beijingers who erected blockades in an attempt to prevent soldiers from reaching the Square. Similar violence was witnessed in Chengdu and elsewhere. Deng gambled upon the restraint and forbearance of the Chinese people. The fact that he won does not erase the risks that he ran in doing so. By contrast, there is no compelling evidence that a peaceful end to the standoff in the Square (or elsewhere) would have produced the chaos and violent disorder that the Communist Party claims to have averted (as opposed to continuing popular pressures for political reform, to which the Party could have acceded over time).

The myth of inevitable demise of the pro-democracy movement of 1989 serves the purpose of denying the possibility of progressive political change in China today. But myths ultimately die. The legacies of 1989 provide may yet serve as inspiration for present and future Chinese reformers.

David Skidmore is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S. He received his Ph.D. degree from Stanford University. His editorial writing has appeared in Fortune, U.S. News and World Report, Salon, The Conversation, the Diplomat, Global Times and the Des Moines Register.