COVER

THE TERROR NOW

PURGES BY CHINA’S HARD-LINE RULERS ARE ONLY PART OF THE AFTERMATH OF BLOODY SUNDAY

JOHN BIERMAN June 19 1989
COVER

THE TERROR NOW

PURGES BY CHINA’S HARD-LINE RULERS ARE ONLY PART OF THE AFTERMATH OF BLOODY SUNDAY

JOHN BIERMAN June 19 1989

Five days after the massacre in Tiananmen Square, the secret policemen went to work. Their hunt for leaders of the prodemocracy rebellion was heralded by the emergence from the shadows of Deng Xiaoping, China’s 84-year-old senior Communist leader. He had not been seen in public for more than three weeks while the country was racked by popular upheaval followed by military violence. And when he and other members of his hard-line faction appeared on television on the night of June 9—to honor the troops who had slaughtered demonstrators and innocent onlookers in the streets of the capital on Bloody Sunday, June 4—China and the world knew for sure that the short-lived Beijing Spring was over.

As Deng—smiling broadly but looking his age—eulogized the soldiers for suppressing “counterrevolutionaries attempting to overthrow the Communist party,” heavily armed troops ringed central Beijing’s Academy of Social Sciences. There, and at the other centres of learning that had spawned the student-led prodemocracy movement, the purge was under way. Under the guns of the army, plain-clothes police began arresting those student activists who had not already fled. “Those who refuse to turn themselves in shall be brought to justice and punished severely,” warned official state radio. At week’s end, the admitted arrests totalled more than 600. Charges included stealing ammunition, burning vehicles and spreading rumors. Meanwhile, messages of support poured in from commanders of all the country’s seven military regions, squelching speculation that elements among the three-million-strong People’s Liberation Army were on the brink of armed revolt because of the killing of civilians—and that China was heading for civil war.

Governments around the world condemned the Tiananmen Square massacre, but stopped short of cutting diplomatic ties to China (page 29). At the height of the midweek panic, they also helped hundreds of Canadians, Americans, Britons, Scandinavians and other foreigners to flee the country. About 250 Canadians—out of an estimated 600 living and working in China—flew from Beijing to Tokyo on June 7 aboard a government-chartered plane, bringing with them vivid accounts of the massacre. One of them, Diana Lary, a China specialist and history professor at Toronto’s York University, said, “What matters so much to me is the killing of the most talented youth, the most patriotic and courageous youth. It’s just a total disaster.” Meanwhile, Chinese students in Canada and around the world mounted impassioned protests against the Beijing government—despite fears of reprisals against friends and family back home (page 28).

Purge: In fact, the TV appearance of Deng and the victorious hard-line faction signalled the start of what observers predicted will be a thorough nationwide purge. It also helped to clear a dense political fog. Rumors had been rife that Deng was either dead or dying of cancer. Another rumor had Premier Li Peng, 60, shot in the leg by an assailant, but students later admitted that they started that story to try to flush Li into the open. The failure of any leaders of the dominant faction except Li to appear publicly until the end of the week fed speculation that a power struggle was continuing behind the scenes. And amid the anger, fear and confusion, even governments with large embassy staffs and intelligence services had no more idea what was going on than the Chinese people themselves.

As late as June 8, President George Bush—an old China hand who headed the U.S. diplomatic mission to Beijing in 1974 and 1975—admitted at a televised news conference that he did not know who was in charge of the Chinese government. “I simply cannot tell you with authority who is calling the shots there,” he said. Bush added that he tried to phone a Chinese leader. “The line was busy,” he said. “I couldn’t get through.”

Three days earlier, in the wake of Bloody Sunday, Bush had made what he called a “reasoned, careful” response by halting scheduled military sales to China worth more than $700 million and suspending mutual visits by Chinese and U.S. military delegations. At his June 8 news conference he declared, “We can’t have totally normal relations unless there’s recognition of the validity of the students’ aspirations.” In Ottawa, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark condemned the Beijing massacre as “unacceptable.” But the most emotional response came from Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke. At a memorial service in Canberra on June 9 for Chinese victims, Hawke burst into tears as he read out eyewitness reports of tanks and armored personnel carriers running “backwards and forwards over the bodies of the slain until they were reduced to pulp”—and then incinerating them with flamethrowers. “To crush the body and spirit of youth,” said Hawke, “is to crush the very future of China itself.”

Mobs: For their part, Chinese authorities played down the scale of the killing. Officials said that deaths totalled more than 200, about equally divided between students and soldiers. That was far lower than most other estimates. U.S. embassy sources calculated that at least 3,000 people died, and estimates by other diplomats range much higher. The true figure will probably never be known.

In the government’s attempts to portray the nationwide popular upheaval as the work of a few “counterrevolutionary bandits,” state-run television screened over and over scenes of civilian mobs attacking troops and setting their vehicles afire. But other eyewitnesses said that mob attacks took place only in angry response to the brutality of the now-reviled 27th Army, based in Inner Mongolia, which spearheaded the onslaught of June 4 and subsequent days (page 30). Among onlookers, that onslaught provoked unforgettable responses. “We cannot cry anymore,” said a woman after seeing two people shot dead by troops near her home. “It is too evil for tears.” One man shouted at a group of soldiers outside the Beijing Hotel, “You have killed our sons. May you all be sterile.” And a message scrawled in blood on the side of a police observation post near Tiananmen Square said, “Li Peng, you will never be able to find any peace.”

Throughout the three weeks of Deng’s absence from public view, both foreign and Chinese observers maintained that Li was merely a front man for Deng and President Yang Shankung, his octogenarian fellow veteran of the armed struggle that brought the Communists to power in 1949. In his June 9 television appearance, Deng was flanked on one side by Yang and on the other by Li. Also present was Wan Li, chairman of the National People’s Congress—China’s rubber-stamp parliament—who was on a visit to Canada when martial law was declared on May 20 and who had originally opposed a military crackdown. The hard-liners had clearly either won him over or had coerced him. Conspicuously absent was party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, leader of the defeated moderate faction, who was rumored to be under house arrest.

Died: Zhao was shunted aside after sympathizing with students who had been demonstrating since April 15 for political reforms that would match Deng’s more liberal economic policies. The demonstrations intensified during a visit to Beijing in May by reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Last week, with Zhao’s moderate faction in decline, Deng and his coterie stood in silence for a few moments in memory of the soldiers—not the students—who died on Bloody Sunday. As chairman of the Central Military Commission, which is in overall charge of the armed forces, Deng delivered the tribute to the fallen troops. His voice was indistinct, but a television commentator quoted him as saying, “Our officers and troops, in face of mortal danger, did not forget the people, did not forget the guidance of the party and did not forget the interests of the country.”

The Tiananmen Square massacre had been carried out largely by troops of the 27th Army, one of four armies—each with 40,000 to 45,000 men—deployed in Beijing. Eyewitnesses said that officers and men of another of those four armies, the 38th, refused orders to fire on the populace. In fact, they added that men of the 27th shot down their comrades of the 38th when they failed to fire on the students. Like so much else, those reports could not be verified, but clearly there was tension between the two army groups, leading to rumors of an impending civil war.

Spearheaded: At midweek, those rumors were heightened by unexplained crisscross movements of men, artillery and armor in and around the capital. Then, late on June 7, the hated 27th—reportedly commanded by a nephew of President Yang—appeared to leave the city. Three huge convoys, spearheaded by tanks, moved out toward the east. As they passed the huge Jianguomenwai compound, housing large numbers of foreign embassy officials and journalists, the troops opened fire with automatic weapons. Inhabitants of the compound dived for cover. One U.S. diplomat counted 50 bullet holes in his apartment, but no deaths or injuries were reported as a result of the incident. Later, soldiers said that they were returning the fire of a sniper, hidden somewhere in the compound, who had killed one soldier and wounded three more.

As the 27th moved out, they were replaced by troops who said that they belonged to the 63rd Army. Suspicious civilians said that they no longer believed anything authorities told them. Whoever they were, those troops had clearly been given instructions to try to restore relations with civilians. When taxed by civilians with horror stories of the massacres that had taken place, they gave what seemed a well-rehearsed reply, “Judge us by our actions.” On their way through the capital to Tiananmen Square, the newly arrived troops removed roadblocks and the burned-out buses, armored cars, tanks and other vehicles from the population’s earlier clashes with the 27th.

But as comparative calm fell over Beijing, there were reports of unrest and violence in several of the vast country’s 21 provincial capitals. In Shanghai, the nation’s largest city with a population of 12.3 million, more than 40,000 people demonstrated peacefully in People’s Square on June 9 to mourn the victims of Beijing’s bloody crackdown. Earlier in the week, students and workers’ leaders had blocked Shanghai streets with overturned trucks and buses—both to stop a possible army invasion and to disrupt industrial production by denying workers transport to their factories. In such provincial capitals as Nanjing, Chengdu, Lanzhou, Guangzhou (formerly Canton) and Xian, tensions were reportedly high as people nervously watched for developments in Beijing. The State Council, China’s cabinet, had authorized the use of “all methods” to put down unrest anywhere in the country.

Gutted: In south central Chengdu, capital of Deng’s home province of Sichuan, residents said that an armed police invasion of university campuses followed three days of serious rioting. Hundreds of people were unofficially reported killed in the Chengdu riots, which left much of the downtown area gutted and fire-blackened. Meanwhile, troops reportedly surrounded the coastal city of Xiamen in the Formosa Strait west of Taiwan; and 1,800 km northwest at Lanzhou, student activists went into hiding after the provincial governor likened prodemocracy demonstrators to “rats that should be exterminated.” Following the military crackdown, hundreds of foreigners crowded airport terminals at Beijing, Shanghai and other cities, anxious to get out of the country. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, when the atmosphere was still very jittery, there were scenes of pandemonium at Beijing international airport as foreign nationals scrambled to get seats on the few flights available. But as the week wore on and various governments, including Canada’s, arranged charter flights, evacuees passed calmly through customs and immigration checks. Some even removed their shirts and sunbathed as they waited for their flights.

About 300 Canadians had been living and working in Beijing, with a further 300 elsewhere in the country, according to External Affairs estimates. There were also an unknown number of Canadian tourists and business visitors. Among those who flew out on the first Canadian government-chartered plane on June 7 was Madleine Rivest, a teacher from Quebec City. She described a “terrible massacre” in the capital and added, “Students who had seen their best friends run over by tanks, cut down by machine-guns, became very, very angry and very, very hurt.” Two additional planes brought out more Canadians from Shanghai. At week’s end, more rescue flights were planned.

Bob Nixon and Scott Simmie, two former CBC reporters from Saskatchewan, witnessed the massacre in the capital. Simmie, in China to research a book, said that he was in Tiananmen Square when “one guy very close to me was shot in the head.” The trees lining the Avenue of Eternal Peace were set ablaze by the troops, he added, apparently to stop demonstrators hiding behind them, and the city “looked like an inferno.” Nixon, who had been helping to train journalists at Beijing’s China Central Television, said that he was near Tiananmen Square on the day after Bloody Sunday, when “we heard some gunfire, and everyone hit the dirt. Not two minutes later a three-wheeled cycle came by carrying a young guy who had been shot in the head above the left eye.” After the massacre, Nixon resigned from his job in protest and flew to Hong Kong. Another Canadian journalist, David Halpin-Byrne, a former researcher-reporter at Maclean’s who now works as an editorial adviser at the official Xinhua news agency, described violence perpetrated by civilian demonstrators. He said that last Wednesday a friend saw a soldier “who had been lynched, disembowelled and strung up alongside a wrecked bus downtown, apparently as an example to others.”

Iron: On the morning of June 10, a long military column—consisting of 124 tanks and armored personnel carriers, plus a score of trucks—rumbled out of central Beijing along the Avenue of Eternal Peace and headed southeast toward Tianjin. The martial law commanders were reducing the size of the Beijing garrison, previously estimated at up to 300,000 men. Clearly, the authorities were convinced that they now had the capital under iron control.