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China’s Tiananmen moment: the party rules

Kerry Brown
3 June 2009

Zhao Ziyang was the general-secretary of the Chinese Communist Party when the student demonstrations in Beijing that reached their tragic denoument on the night of 3-4 June 1989 took place. He was the most senior figure to lose his position as a result of the events, being placed under Kerry Brown is an associate fellow on the Asia programme, Chatham House. He is the author of Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century (Anthem Press, 2007), The Rise of the Dragon: Inward and Outward Investment in China in the Reform Period 1978-2007 (Chandos, 2008) and Friends and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of China (Anthem Press, forthcoming, 2009). His website is here

Also by Kerry Brown on openDemocracy:

"Beijing's political tightrope-walk" (12 March 2008)

"Taiwan and China: an electoral prelude" (4 April 2008)

"China on Olympic eve: a globalisation of sentiment" (10 July 2008)

"The Olympics countdown: Beijing to Shanghai" (6 August 2008)

"China changes itself: an Olympics report" (20 August 2008)

"China's nervous transition" (22 September 2008)

"China in 2009: a year for surprise" (14 January 2009)

"China's political tunnel" (22 January 2009)

"China's giant struggle" (5 February 2009)

"China local, China global" (11 March 2009)

"China's coming struggle for power" (14 May 2009)house arrest until his death in 2005. Even the announcement of his demise was low-key. For these last sixteen years of a long career he remained a sensitive if near-invisible figure in Chinese politics: someone who embodied the terrible conflict of conscience consuming the party about how it should deal with the students in Tiananmen Square.

But fortunately for history - if perhaps less so for the party - Zhao managed to record on cassette-tapes over thirty hours' testimony of the heady weeks leading up to 4 June 1989. These were discovered after he died, and smuggled to Hong Kong. There, in the former party head's own voice, is the story of the party wrestling with what came to be called the "revolt".

The missed chance

Zhao's tale, now set out in the book Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang (Simon & Schuster, 2009), is both riveting and sobering. A key factor governing his own fate is that because Zhao had spent most of his career in the provinces, he lacked patronage at the centre: when the crunch came, he was vulnerable. He was head of the party in name only. The real head, Deng Xiaoping, was able - once he had been influenced in that direction by others - was able to seal his fate in a couple of meetings. The archaic ways in which China conducted affairs, on an almost tribal model - even as late as 1989 - is staggering. So much for the rule of law!

Beyond the personal fate of a senior leader, Zhao Ziyang's account offers an important political assessment of the course of events that followed former party chief Hu Yaobang's death on 15 April 1989 and funeral a week later - even though he does not make it explicit. It seems that in mid-April there was a good chance that the initial grievances of the students and their demands for more openness could have been met, and the entire protest peacefully defused.

An editorial 0n 26 April 1989 in the People's Daily - interpreted as the definitive voice of the party - scuppered this with a clear condemnation of the students as agents of "chaos" and "conspiracy"; this served only to make many of them more unbending in return. Zhao contends that the villain in this respect was the then premier, Li Peng, who may well have acted with the backing of the more conservative elements in the leadership to exacerbate the troubles and bring things to a head rather than calm them down (as he tried to do in his remarkable meeting with the students on 19 May 2009). Perhaps this is a little too Machiavellian and imputes to the "leftists" more strategic coordination than they had in reality; but during a time of such intense crisis with huge implications, the argument has to be taken seriously.

Zhao could perhaps be accused of being naive and idealistic. In the end he was very much the product of the system that was to eventually turn against him. But his later years of being a captive of the state brought him closer to the realisation that without fundamental political reform, the foundations of China's economic prowess would always be shaky. This alone, as the considered opinion of someone who once sat in the all-important standing committee of the politburo as well as being head of the CCP, is very significant.

The real question

Zhao's reflections on the course of events of April-June 1989 raise various "what ifs". In the end, what happened, happened - though the fact that June 1989 is still so sensitive in China shows how much of a stain it has left.

In some ways, it can be interpreted as the moment when the Communist Party, rather than the government, confronted a play-off between its rhetoric on opening up and what it actually intended to do. For years it had surfed around with the ideas of freeing up civil society, the media, even village elections (which started in early 1988). But when the searching questions were sharply posed in 1989 about how the party (at least for the elder leaders) might respond to proper dissent, there was only one response: the gun. It was a brutal reminder that, for all the warm words and cosmetic changes, the heart of the party was unchanged. In 2009, is the same still true?

Probably not. For one thing, the elders have all gone now. The party under Hu Jintao (a man like Zhao with more experience in the provinces than at the centre) is not beholden to any one supreme leader. Its tribalism persists, as does its instinct to remain in power. But the idea it could spill blood is now not tenable. If 1989 was repeated, the party would be finished. It knows this, and therefore has undertaken massive (and exhausting) pre-emptive actions against any potential threats. The China Democracy Party in 1998 lasted a matter of days, and was crushed brutally. The same has been true of any other force from the Falun Gong to any separatist parties that have got in the party's way. Since 1989, the key has been to stay on top of any protests and maintain political traction before they come near the level of 1989.

The next crisis

At the same time, talk about democracy and democratisation has become more urgent and focused. Hu Jintao famously used the "d" word more than any other in his speech at the seventeenth party congress in October 2007. The state council even issued a paper on democracy in October 2005, which says: "Democracy is an outcome of the development of the political civilisation of mankind. It is also the common desire of people all over the world."

But the nagging suspicion remains that the nice talk solves nothing: the issue of what the commitment of the party to "democracy" means is as unclear as ever. If - just if - there was concerted opposition today, as there was in 1989, how would the party react? What would it do? How would it behave if it came to a moment when its rhetoric was finally faced with unavoidable demands?

We don't know, and perhaps that moment will never come. Perhaps the party will succeed in its long transition to a form of democratisation that it feels comfortable with. It would be an enormous challenge, fraught with difficulties. But in view of the party's record of facing down impossible odds and coming through, only the most purblind would put its chances at nil. With such an outcome achieved, 1989 would then seem very different: not a near-death moment for the party, but a time when it looked into the eyes of real opposition; learned how to face it down, and more - learned to reinvent itself and move on, stronger and tougher. 

Among openDemocracy's many articles on China:

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

James A Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008)

Chang Ping, "Tibet: looking for the truth" (8 May 2008)

Li Datong, "China and the earthquake" (2 June 2008)

Emily Lau, "Tiananmen, 1989-2008" (4 June 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "Tiananmen's shifting legacy" (26 June 2008)

Li Datong, "Death in Shanghai, law in China" (15 September 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's long march to modernisation" (7 October 2008)

Perry Link, "Charter 08: a blueprint for China" (5 January 2009)

Wei Jingsheng, "China's political tunnel" (22 January 2009)

Li Datong, "The CCTV fire: a voice without restraint" (5 March 2009)

Li Datong, "China: democracy in action" (19 March 2009)

Temstsel Hao, "Dharamsala: forging Tibetans' future" (29 April 2009)

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