Special report. ‘This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil.’ The events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 have been effectively erased from the Chinese record, and the understanding of those events has been drastically simplified in the West. Here we unpack the real history of the Beijing massacre, in the decades before and since.

Protesters and Party: Inside the massacre of 1989

We all think we know something about the events that took place in China, in Beijing, 30 years ago. We usually talk about “the facts” of what happened in Tiananmen Square in terms of a simple narrative: protests and demands for democratic reforms by university students, met with harsh repression by the Communist Party, leading to the “Tiananmen massacre.”

We also know that Beijing has effectively erased those days from the official history: no one talks about them, no one is allowed to talk about them, and no information about them can be found on the “curated” Chinese Internet. Furthermore, it won’t be easy nowadays to find a young Chinese person who knows something about this topic. None of these facts are in doubt. However, the story of what happened during those days in May and June 1989 actually involves a more complex mix of elements than is usually acknowledged.

There were many people protesting in the streets during those days, both university students and other social categories. Of course, the stories coming from the “leaders” of the protests in Beijing have been given the most extensive media coverage, even years after the facts. Some of them escaped the repression thanks to the solidarity of many others; some reached Hong Kong and then flew onward to the United States.

A number of them have recounted their experiences from those days. Some had their lives changed completely: a few became millionaires; others converted to Christianity. However, much less is known about the stories of the people who died (300, according to the figures of the Communist Party, but many more, numbering in the thousands, according to activists, the families of the victims and a number of humanitarian organizations), or about the thousands who were arrested (the last one to be released, who was a factory worker at the time, emerged from prison in 2016). One can find more information about many of the protagonists of the events in Louisa Lim’s book The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited.

In the media accounts, there has been very little mention of the inherent problems that the “student movement” also had (in this regard, Beijing Coma by Ma Jian is an excellent book for getting an understanding of the various errors and limitations that the student protesters were laboring under).

Even fewer people know about—or, if they do, few deem it worthy to highlight—the particular economic conditions and the “climate” reigning in the factories during those years, factors that are still crucial for China as it is today. Furthermore, the decision by the Communist Party to unleash the army against the people who were protesting in the streets and squares took place at a dramatic moment for the CCP, as it had to contend with the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, which had ended only a decade before.

The reforms implemented by Deng Xiaoping were changing the country at a rapid pace, leading, among other things, to new criteria for evaluating the “efficiency” of those in positions of power, different from those of the past.

The Party was changing from a model of “political management” of the country to an “economic management” model: this process caused a number of problems and a general spread of corruption, which was one of the many reasons for the protests during that period.

Due to this complex background, “the facts” about Tiananmen Square are still being studied by researchers, and sometimes new revelations are uncovered.

Amid the multitude of different interpretations, verdicts and common oversimplifications, the basic sequence of events remains the same: the massacre committed against students, workers and regular citizens of Beijing; the dramatic decision of the Communist Party to proceed with repressive measures, at the end of an internal struggle that would forever mark the course of the CCP; and, in the background of it all, the “Chinese Spring,” which had been the result of a period of intense and lively political and cultural activity during the ‘80s.

The year 1989 is a watershed for the recent history of China because this was the year in which the social contract between the Chinese people and the Communist Party was effectively changed, setting the country on the path of economic growth that has led to its status as a major global power today.

Beginning with the end: the aftermath of the Beijing massacre

In June 1998, US President Bill Clinton traveled to China and attended a welcome ceremony organized in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The American media criticized the president, accusing Clinton of endorsing the attempt by the Communist Party to erase the events of 1989 from memory. In fact, the Clinton administration had been attempting to do just that, for the sake of Clinton’s own policy of rapprochement with China after the embargo that had been imposed because of the massacre.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that since 1949, Washington had always been very worried about China during its “Maoist” stage. Of course, this was an ideological apprehension, based on the fear that Communism was spreading further and further. Then, after the overtures made by Deng Xiaoping, the US—more than happy to seize the opportunity to break the international Communist front and isolate the Soviet Union—began a long process of rapprochement to China, ending with Beijing’s accession to the WTO, which took place in 2001: the year when mass anti-globalization protests were happening in Genoa, and also the year in which the history of the United States was about to change forever.

To support China’s integration into the world’s economic institutions, the US swept episodes such as those in 1989 under the rug (thus helping to puff up a country that would come to be seen nowadays as the “enemy”). The Americans were proved wrong many times in their assessment of the likelihood that economic reforms in China would automatically bring democracy.

Indeed, the events in 1989 proved quite the opposite. What happened on June 4, 1989, ended up being a sanctioned precedent for the authoritarian path taken by global capitalism in China ever since. According to Naomi Klein, it was precisely this “shock” that finally pushed China onto the neoliberal road toward globalization.

If we return to 1998, with Clinton’s visit to China and the controversy about the place that symbolically represented the events in 1989, Jay Mathews, a Washington Post reporter who was present in Beijing in 1989, felt the need, 10 years after the events surrounding Tiananmen, to highlight a number of crucial facts, starting with a debate on a point which might seem trivial at first, but is in fact quite important: namely, that associating the word “massacre” with “Tiananmen” is an error, because, as Mathews writes, “as far as can be determined from the available evidence, no one died that night in Tiananmen Square.”

Mathews wasn’t challenging the fact that the army did indeed kill people that night: in agreement with many other witnesses, journalists and others, he reconstructed the following sequence of events: “Hundreds of people, most of them workers and passersby, did die that night, but in a different place and under different circumstances. The Chinese government estimates more than 300 fatalities. Western estimates are somewhat higher. Many victims were shot by soldiers on stretches of Changan Jie, the Avenue of Eternal Peace, about a mile west of the square, and in scattered confrontations in other parts of the city, where, it should be added, a few soldiers were beaten or burned to death by angry workers.”

We should be very clear on this fact: no one—apart from some uber-conspiracy theorists or, to use a better term, denialists—has any doubt about the fact that these violent events took place in China in 1989, both in Beijing and in other cities.

However, as Mathews pointed out in his article, if we acknowledge the media’s “oversimplification” of the facts, we can also reach an understanding of the complex set of circumstances surrounding what happened in 1989.

“The problem,” Mathews writes, “is not so much putting the murders in the wrong place, but suggesting that most of the victims were students.” As George Black and Robin Munro write in their book Black Hands of Beijing: Lives of Defiance in China’s Democracy Movement, “what took place was the slaughter not of students, but of ordinary workers and residents — precisely the target that the Chinese government had intended.”

Black and Munro also point out that the most violent repression occurred in the western suburbs of Beijing, not in Tiananmen Square. Jonathan Fenby, a historian and expert on Asia and China, also agrees that this was where the true “massacre” took place, against workers and local residents. Hundreds of workers were slaughtered in the streets. This is why a number of Chinese scholars and dissidents prefer to use the expression “the Beijing massacre” instead of the “Tiananmen Square massacre.”

The Party

How did the Communist Party react to the growing protests, happening at the same time as Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to China in late May? This is one of the most interesting aspects when examining the situation in 1989. The Communist Party went through many different phases in that period, as can be seen from the successive purges and no-holds-barred infighting, the establishment of a parallel “Standing Committee” composed of the so-called “Eight Immortals,” and even from the appointment, by means which were technically unconstitutional, of Jiang Zemin, the mayor of Shanghai, as the new Secretary of the Communist Party.

The fact that those who were killed were mostly workers allows us to better understand how the Party filtered the information that came to it from the outside world—not so much, and not only, from Tiananmen Square itself. In 1989, the Party had already been working for two years to sideline Hu Yaobang’s political influence. He was a reformist who was thought to have been too lenient with the protests that had become a recurring feature in China since 1986.

Hu died on April 15, 1989, from a heart attack suffered during a Party meeting, and the mourning for his death became the event that triggered the full-scale protests of the students, who occupied Tiananmen Square on that day.

Deng Xiaoping had decided that Hu should be purged, although the latter had been handpicked by Deng himself as his successor (it would take until 2005 for Hu’s image to be finally rehabilitated). The elderly Deng was still the great puppet master inside the CCP, even though he now lived in his private residence, far from Zhongnanhai, the Chinese Kremlin. He was, however, surrounded by his staff, who were able to supply him with up-to-date information about what was happening in the country.

The home of the elderly Deng would be the setting for the most important meetings during those frantic days of June 1989. Deng, a seasoned politician and consummate strategist, immediately grasped the nature of the problem: if the student protests were to spread to the workers, the situation would become a disaster for the CCP.

Deng repeatedly stressed that reforms should indeed be made, but that it was necessary to have order for that to happen: the population should be working, not protesting.

He thought he had managed to fix the situation by sidelining Hu Yaobang, but his replacement, Zhao Ziyang, was himself inclined towards reform, and this soon become a problem for the “Eight Immortals.”

In 2001, The Tiananmen Papers was published, a book that contains material of extraordinary importance for a better understanding of what was happening inside the CCP during those days.

As Marina Miranda wrote in a 2001 article published in Mondo Cinese, the book is “a collection of neibu documents, i.e. highly confidential and whose circulation was restricted to within the Chinese Communist Party.” These top-secret documents must have been leaked by someone who held a privileged role within the internal mechanisms of the Party.

The whistleblower, presumably “a senior Party official,” chose to adopt a particular pseudonym: Zhang Liang. “This choice of pseudonym,” Miranda writes, “has a clear political meaning: it is the name of a strategist who died in 187 BC, known for his hatred against the much-reviled Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), whose tyrannical rule is thus compared to the regime of the Communist Party.” Mao ended up associated with the Qin dynasty as well, just like Xi Jinping in more recent times. According to China scholar Kai Vogelsang, the Qin not only put into practice the first idea of ​​the Chinese Empire as we usually conceive of it today, but also created a social system marked by an extreme level of surveillance.

As we look back at the events in 1989, the Tiananmen Papers documents are of crucial importance. Many have debated the issue of their authenticity, however. In this regard, Miranda, together with many other China scholars, argues that the controversy can be put to rest as we have very good reason to rely on the reputation of the scholars who collected and published the documents: “we can, in any case, take the serious academic reputation enjoyed by the editors of the book as a guarantee of the authenticity of the material: Perry Link, professor of Chinese Language and Literature at Princeton University, and Andrew J. Nathan, Professor of Political Science at Columbia University.”

The ‘80s and the protests

Ilaria Maria Sala, who was present in Beijing in 1989, recently wrote about the spirit of that “Chinese Spring”: 1989 was the high point of a highly remarkable period in China in the late ‘80s: “the country was in the midst of social, political and cultural turmoil,” Sala writes, “a world that was drunk with possibilities: magazines and newspapers were more interesting, with long investigative pieces published in news outlets, the so-called Baogao Wenxue (“Literary Reportages”).”

In 1988, “a deep reflection on Chinese history was taking place,” and new questions were being asked about what Chinese identity and culture truly meant. In her piece, Sala recalls the way Link, the Princeton University scholar who worked on the Tiananmen Papers, described it: “in every field, every intellectual was raising these grand questions. It’s an enormous contrast to what is happening today,” Sala writes.

The possibilities seemed endless. On the campuses, “bulletin boards advertised language classes and dance classes, as well as discussion forums that allowed students to speak freely enough about a wide variety of topics.”

At the same time, the world of labor was in full upheaval.

From an economic point of view, the period of the reforms had created two clear trends: the proletarianization of enormous masses of the population, and the emergence of a new class of capitalists.

The process of proletarianization occurred, broadly speaking, as a result of three factors: the forced migration from the countryside to the cities, the collapse of state-run enterprises in the cities and the dissolution of local village businesses. The rural shift towards the cities was a vast undertaking, involving some 120 million people since 1980, arguably the largest migration in human history (see Walker R. & Buck D., “The Chinese road, Cities in the Transition to Capitalism,” New Left Review, August 2007).

A second factor responsible for the creation of a new wage class in China was the dismantling of state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

The SOEs had been the hub of Maoist industrialization, accounting for nearly four-fifths of the country’s non-agricultural production. Most of these giants were located in the cities, where they employed around 70 million people in 1980. The first stages of dismantling began in 1988, and the process continued at a rapid pace after the shock of 1989—the moment when a crackdown took place, in the context of an overheated economy marked by high inflation.

Further reforms were carried out during the following decade, confirming the significance of what had happened in 1989. In 1994, greater efficiency was encouraged through cuts in the workforce. This new management direction led to massive layoffs in the late 1990s, when Chinese capitalism experienced its first overproduction crisis, which marked a sharp transition from the old economy of shortage to a new economy of surplus. The result was dramatic: in the early 2000s, employment in state-owned enterprises had been reduced by half, as 40 million people found themselves without the traditional “iron rice bowl,” the symbol and guarantee of job security in the old state enterprises.

For this group of individuals, mostly middle-aged, the prospect of becoming a kind of “urban underclass” loomed, as Dorothy Solinger explained in her article “From Master to Marginal in Post-Socialist China: The Once-Proletariat as New Excluded Entrepreneur,” published in Social Exclusion and Marginality in Chinese Societies (Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Center for Social Policy Studies, 2003).

“Ironically enough,” she wrote, “in its march toward modernization and economic reform, even as the Chinese leadership has unleashed and encouraged the forces of the market, at the same time it has arrested the full unfolding of some of the chief social processes that generally emerge from marketization elsewhere. Thus in China, instead of the advancing affluence, rising levels of education, and embourgeoisment of a large section of the working class that took place in many societies along with economic development—and quite markedly so in China’s East Asian neighbors, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan—this informalization of the urban economy represents a regression, not an ascent, for quite a numerous portion of the urban populace.”

Moreover, this urban population was faced with the difficult task of social relocation in the field of labor, especially given its cultural origins: “The overwhelming majority of them were deprived of formal education from having been compelled to quit school and join in the Cultural Revolution (including, for most, a lengthy stint in the countryside) over a decade or so after 1966, and therefore lack any skills.”

These processes, which reached their climax in the ‘90s, were the direct result of what had happened in China in the late ‘80s. In October 1983, the People’s Daily wrote that Chinese workers had nothing to complain about: the recession that took hold in much of the capitalist world in the early ‘80s gave the Chinese authorities an opportunity to remind the country’s workers that they were better off than they had ever been, pointing to the high unemployment in the West as proof of “the superiority of socialism.”

The Chinese leadership saw this as the right time to tout their successes: as Jackie Sheehan writes in her book Chinese Workers: A New History (London, New York, 1998), this was a situation in which “some workers were already feeling the benefits of increased pay and bonuses under the reforms and all expected to benefit in the near future.”

But these expectations ended up belied by reality, because signs of blatant injustice were beginning to emerge: “There was very little acceptance among workers of Deng Xiaoping’s idea that it was all right if ‘a few people get rich first’; they saw this simply as unfair distribution.” Furthermore, “[m]any workers were deeply offended even by wage differentials which would not be considered very great by Western standards where these were nevertheless perceived as unfair […]. Particularly sharp resentment was generated by the widening gap between the bonuses paid to workers and those received by top management in the enterprise, which on occasion might be 20 or 30 times greater than the equivalent payment to workers.”

However, the negative effects of the reforms on the relations between workers and management would soon go “beyond disputes over increased inequality of income, serious though these were.”

In a time when greater and greater efficiency was being demanded from workers, during the hectic hours of May and June 1989, “the deficiencies of management became a more significant bone of contention than ever before,” Sheehan writes, an issue that Deng himself repeatedly highlighted. After they expressed their solidarity with the students, tensions soon began to simmer among the workers in the pressure cooker that was China in 1989.

The ‘riots’ and the final outcome

In this context, the presence of the students in Tiananmen Square began to be a cause of great concern for the Communist Party, afraid of a return of the period of mob rule during the days of the Cultural Revolution.

Deng himself expressed the growing sense of irritation, saying in a Party meeting in late April that “[t]his is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil.”

The same term would be used in the People’s Daily op-ed published on April 26, which condemned the student protests in sharp terms. This was the moment when the relationship between the Communist Party and the protesters deteriorated past the point of no return.

Since that moment, Deng would work alongside the Standing Committee until the dramatic vote on the declaration of martial law (which would only be revoked in 1990). In his report from China dated July 20, 1989, published in The New York Review of Books, Roderick MacFarquhar wrote, “Divided at the top, the Chinese Communist Party could no longer cope with the multiple pressures upon it and finally cracked. While Premier Li Peng acted as the hard-faced front man, it is clear that decisions were ultimately taken not by his State Council, or by the Politburo, nor even by its five-man Standing Committee, but by the duumvirate in charge of the Military Affairs Commission, Deng Xiaoping and President Yang Shangkun, cheered on by a fire-eating group of aged revolutionaries.”

The vote on declaring martial law was a clear example of the workings of the mechanism that had been set up: in essence, Zhao Ziyang was the only one in favor of listening to the students, even supporting something like a “retraction” of the April 26 op-ed (an idea that was rejected in clamorous fashion by Bo Yibo, one of the “Eight Immortals” and the father of Bo Xilai, of more recent fame).

Between April 26 and 27, the Standing Committee of the Politburo met to vote on the proposal to declare martial law.

The five members voted as follows: Li Peng and Yao Yilin voted in favor, Zhao Ziyang voted against and Qiao Shi abstained. At that point, the initiative was passed over to the Eight Immortals: there was no more turning back.

As The Tiananmen Papers states, “On the morning of May 18, the eight elders—Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, Li Xiannian, Peng Zhen, Deng Yingchao, Yang Shangkun, Bo Yibo and Wang Zhen—met with Politburo Standing Committee members Li Peng, Qiao Shi, Hu Qili and Yao Yilin and with Military Affairs Commission members General Hong Xuezhi, Liu Huaqing and General Qin Jiwei and formally agreed to declare martial law in Beijing.”

General Secretary Zhao did not attend this meeting, and was ousted from his position shortly afterwards. Before he was placed under house arrest, a condition in which he would remain until his death in 2005, on May 19, at 4 a.m., Zhao went out into the square among the students. Accompanied by the Director of the General Office of the Party, Wen Jiabao (who would later on serve as Prime Minister of the PRC between 2002 and 2012), Zhao told the students: “We have come too late.”

Earlier, on May 18, “Li Peng and other government officials met at the Great Hall of the People with Wang Dan, Wuerkaixi, and other student representatives. Li said that no one had ever claimed the majority of students had been engaged in turmoil, but that too often people with no intention of creating turmoil had in fact brought it about. He stood firm on the wording of the April 26 editorial and said the current moment was not an appropriate time to discuss the students’ two demands. Wang Dan had said that the only way to get the students out of Tiananmen Square was to reclassify the student movement as patriotic and put the student-leader dialogue on live television.”

There was no more room for compromise: the decision to “clear out” the square came directly from Deng Xiaoping, and “Beijing massacre” took place during the night between June 3 and 4.

It was a moment when people were literally being hunted down on the streets in China. Meanwhile, in the back rooms of the Communist Party, a clear idea was taking shape: what had just happened should never be allowed to happen again.

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