This is a story that needs telling because China is our neighbour and we must understand it better
An excerpt from a new book by former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to China Vijay Gokhale, who revisits for the first time his first-hand experience of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square incident, which he witnessed as a young diplomat, and explains why, 32 years on, its legacy remains significant for both China and the world.
I have always wanted to tell this story since I witnessed it 32 years ago in Beijing, but my circumstances prevented me from doing so until now. It has been called by many names, but is best known as the Tiananmen Square incident because Tiananmen Square was the stage on which the drama that held the world spellbound for fifty days was performed. The happenings in the square led to the sort of chaos and uncertainty that usually presages a regime change. That did not happen.
At the time it was a global phenomenon. Within a few months, however, the Berlin Wall came down and the world’s attention reverted to Europe. The happenings in China in the spring and early summer of 1989 faded from public memory.
This is a story that needs telling because China is our neighbour and our people require a much deeper understanding of China than is presently the case. My story is intended to interpret the facts, to some of which I was eyewitness, with the benefit of hindsight. While thirty years have passed, it still remains an event of seminal importance in recent Chinese history. China has changed, yet the communist system remains. Personalities have come and gone, but the Red Aristocracy still rules China and stays focussed on self- preservation and self-perpetuation. Indians can no longer afford to have a superficial understanding of events involving their largest neighbour and to-be-hegemon, other than at their own peril.
Saturday, 15 April 1989. The day began quietly. Winter was just giving way to spring. There were no signs of the impending storm that broke on the seven o’clock evening news bulletin. The death of Hu Yaobang was the leading story. He had suffered a heart attack during a politburo meeting, and had passed away at 7.53 a.m. that morning in hospital.
An embassy colleague who happened to be present in Beijing University that afternoon on some other business was the first to inform us about the appearance of big-character posters in praise of the deceased Hu. That evening students began to gather in small groups across campuses in China to discuss the news. The overwhelming sentiment was one of sympathy for one who they felt had been treated unfairly.
By 18 April, the number of students visiting the square swelled to tens of thousands. Aside from Beijing University, two other universities took a lead — the People’s University and the Central Nationalities Institute. The base of the Monument to the People’s Heroes was gradually almost entirely covered with paper wreaths, flowers and elegies to Hu, handwritten on paper and pasted to the column. A growing number of ordinary people were reading them. Criticism about the Party began to surface. There were reports of random acts of throwing of bottles or shoes at the public security forces.
The students’ demands focussed on four main areas — greater education and job opportunities; the elimination of benefits to the children of cadres; greater responsiveness to the citizens’ needs by the government; and some personal freedoms. Hu became a useful rallying point because he had been more sympathetic than others in 1986.
The Western media started to create the impression that the students were seeking Western-style democracy. The Western media’s initial efforts to define what was happening in the campuses in terms of their own reference points was the beginning of a fundamental misjudgement by Western governments about the nature of the student movement as well as the subsequent actions taken by the Chinese government. Many of them got it wrong from the outset.
On the night of 20 April, a group of students decided to stage a sit-in at the Xinhuamen, which is the ceremonial gate leading to the residences and offices of China’s top leadership. The Xinhuamen is set into the ochre-coloured walls that surround the entire Forbidden City. In early April, the magnolia and forsythia that bloom along its southern facade make it particularly attractive in the drabness of the fading winter. After the 1949 Revolution, Mao had decided to appropriate this part of the Forbidden City. It was ironical that the communists, who had fought against imperialism and feudalism, had then decided to reside inside the very symbols of the state they had overthrown. But Mao was nothing if not a bundle of contradictions. He regarded himself as the true inheritor of Chinese imperial power, and had acted like an emperor.
I recall it raining exceptionally hard that night, which made it difficult for us to visit the place for a first-hand look. We learnt that many students left the area of the Xinhuamen, but a substantial number also began a sit-down into the early hours of 21 April. There are two versions of what transpired next. According to an official version, the students left the police with no choice but to evict them after they tried to ‘storm the gate’, and this eviction was carried out without force, by picking up the students and loading them into buses for the return journey to their hostels. According to the Xinhua News Agency, no student suffered injuries, though the security forces needed hospitalization because some students had thrown bottles and other objects at them. The students’ version, which was the one that the Western media chose to carry, was rather different. They claimed that around 4.30 a.m. they had been surrounded, beaten with belts and kicked by jackboots, their pleas for mercy had been ignored, and they had been evicted forcefully.
The remarkable successes that China had in maintaining economic growth and political stability from 1990 onwards hid one major development. Communism as an ideology seems to have vanished in the Chinese state during this period. Mao Zedong Thought did not suit the times. The only ideology that was important was the preservation of the political status quo. This trend seems to have gained momentum under the current Chinese leader, Xi Jinping. Outwardly, General Secretary Xi is viewed as having fundamentally altered Deng’s carefully crafted political arrangements. It is little appreciated that Xi has remained true to Deng Xiaoping’s core message of protecting and perpetuating the rule of the Communist Party of China. Though his methods may be different, there is perhaps no real difference in substance between Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping on the core goal.
The Tiananmen Square Incident of 4 June marked the end of a decade of political and economic experimentation by the communists. Deng and the Party elders worked out a new modus vivendi. First, economic reform and opening up must proceed unhindered and without reversal. Second, political reform was not open for discussion. The highest principle of politics would be the perpetuation of the Party’s control on power. A new political arrangement was intended to give effect to this principle. The progress that China has achieved should not hide the fact that it is not a fully normal state. It is a one-party state with an army that owes loyalty to the Party above the nation. The 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, by offering a glimpse into the nature of Chinese politics under the Communist Party of China, adds to the knowledge about an institution that reveals little about itself even as it aspires to become the global hegemon by 2049.
Extracted from Tiananmen Square: The Making of a Protest by Vijay Gokhale, published by HarperCollins India.