JOHN BIERMAN May 29 1989



JOHN BIERMAN May 29 1989

Day after day, they flowed into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, a million marchers chanting slogans, beating gongs and demanding democratic reform. They were the ordinary people of China, inspired by the youthful idealism of student hunger strikers, one of whom declared, “We must search for a beautiful, perfect system. ” In 40 years of Communist rule, nothing quite like it had ever happened.

By any reasonable standards, reconciliation between the two Communist superpowers after 30 years of hostility was a major world event. But Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing last week to set the seal on their renewed friendship was almost totally eclipsed by the mass rebellion that swept the world’s most populous nation and disrupted his official agenda. It seemed that virtually every sector of society was involved: students, artisans, white-collar workers, civil servants, journalists, housewives, even soldiers and policemen. For some foreign observers, the demonstrations centred in Beijing’s 100-acre Tiananmen Square recalled the 1956 Hungarian uprising and the 1968 “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia. Unlike those aborted rebellions, there were no tanks on hand to crush the Beijing protest. But after seven days of mounting disorder, on May 20, China’s rulers banned further demonstrations, declared martial law in parts of Beijing—and ordered troops to clear the square.

Chaos: Until then, the five-member Standing Committee of the ruling Politburo had been locked in apparent paralysis. Despite the turmoil—and the loss of face over the body’s inability to exert control—the rulers held back until the departure of Gorbachev, whose own political reforms had in part inspired the protests. The committee had to resolve an internal power struggle that pitted the Communist party’s reformist general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, against the hard-line premier, Li Peng. But when Zhao capitulated—reportedly offering his resignation last Friday night—Li acted immediately. Even as he declared that conditions of “chaos” and “riot” could no longer be tolerated, motorized columns bearing thousands of troops converged on the capital. But the people power that had disrupted the city all week now deployed to stop the army. In a western suburb, a crowd of 10,000 civilians blocked a convoy of 100 army trucks and armored troop carriers bearing about 4,000 soldiers. “Don’t let them through,” chanted the demonstrators as they surrounded trucks.

By dawn on Saturday, many of the military vehicles had turned back, the soldiers waving in friendly fashion to the cheering civilians. And although the government announced the imposition of martial law “in certain areas” of the capital, thousands openly defied the decree. To avoid the crush of red-headbanded protesters in the streets, Chinese troops began moving into central Beijing on subway lines and through underground tunnels—built by chairman Mao Tse-tung in the 1960s in case of a Soviet nuclear attack. The army units were from outside Beijing, and one young recruit said that officers had told them that they were going to the city for military exercises; when they learned the truth, he added, some threw off their uniforms and melted into the crowd. Two generals in Liaoning province, northeast of Beijing, reportedly resigned rather than send in their forces.

Clashes: But there were isolated clashes between troops and demonstrators. And in western Beijing, students said that about 150 police assaulted protesters with electric cattle prods. “They attacked the girls first,” said student Zhu Bin. “We tried to protect them, and they hit us too.” Such reports filtered out of the capital despite a government order to foreign journalists to stop reporting events, as well as a complete cutoff of satellite transmissions by overseas television networks. And around the world, in cities as scattered as Hong Kong, New York and Ottawa, Chinese protesters took to the streets in support of the students.

The unprecedented wave of protest undoubtedly had caused chaos, as Li alleged. But there had been no reports of rioting before the crackdown, either in Beijing or in any of the regional and provincial capitals—at least 24 of them—to which the demonstrations had spread. In fact, Beijing’s protests had been noteworthy for an absence of violence and an even-tempered manner that amazed and moved many in a worldwide audience who watched events unfold live on television. Clearly, Li’s use of the word “riot” was intended to justify his use of force.

For many onlookers, last week’s rebellious scenes did not quite add up to a revolution. The students who initiated and inspired the protests demanded reform, not the overthrow, of the Communist system. They called for more press freedom and an end to bureaucratic corruption. They professed loyalty to the ideals of Marxism, and they often marched to the strains of the Communist anthem, The International. Struggling upright in his hospital bed, a leader of 3,000 hunger-striking Beijing students faced a visiting Zhao and affirmed: “To say that we want to overthrow the party is nonsense. Our intention is to rebuild the prestige of the party among the people.”

The students’ revolt began on a major but manageable scale following the death by heart attack on April 15 of Hu Yaobang, the 73-year-old ex-chairman of the Chinese Communist party. Hu had been dismissed from his party post in January, 1987, after hard-liners within the Central Committee criticized his failure to control earlier student unrest. Now, the students seized upon his death to foment new unrest. Carrying banners bearing the slogan “Comrade Hu, you are more precious in death than in life,” they criticized the regime headed by 84-year-old Deng Xiaoping (page 36). They alleged widespread official repression and corruption and, in protests that spread to other university towns across the vast country, demanded democratic reforms.

Publicity: The authorities promised to consider the students’ complaints once they returned to their studies. But the students redoubled their protests as the Sino-Soviet summit neared, plainly appreciating the potential for worldwide publicity. The movement was still essentially a student phenomenon until the start of their mass hunger strike in Tiananmen Square on May 13. The following day, inspired by the youngsters’ spirit of self-sacrifice, the dam of public opinion broke and thousands of ordinary citizens converged on the square. Suddenly—but too late to take action before Gorbachev’s arrival on May 15—authorities realized that the situation was out of control.

Maclean’s correspondent Louise Doder, who visited the square daily throughout the week, reported that the atmosphere was electrifying. With police nowhere in sight, students directed demonstrators and whatever traffic had been able to reach the city centre. Whole families hung out of their apartment windows, shouting slogans in support of the students. Many protesters wore T-shirts bearing such familiar Western slogans—in English—as “We shall overcome.” Even some uniformed policemen flashed the V-for-victory sign. One of them shouted, “The student movement is terrific”—and then added that he would not obey if the government ordered a crackdown. But the signs of labor solidarity with the students may have galvanized the regime’s weekend reaction. Symbolizing the newly forged alliance were banners bearing the character representing “workers” and the one representing “students”—joined in the middle by a heart.

Corruption: The demonstrators were by no means all young people. He Chunlei, a tiny 67-year-old woman, recalled cheering loudly in Tiananmen Square when Mao seized power in 1949, and again in 1979 when she joined hundreds of thousands of people calling for Deng to assume the leadership. Now, once more a participant in historic events, she said: “We need a new government. There is too much corruption. Deng Xiaoping is too old.” But last week, there was a significant difference from all the other times—including the so-called Cultural Revolution of the 1960s—when massive numbers of Chinese people have taken to the streets. No longer, it seemed, were they being manipulated by a political figure for his own ends. Instead, they were part of a spontaneous mass movement of the ordinary people themselves.

At the heart of the rebellion were the 3,000 student hunger strikers, who camped in the centre of the square under a giant black banner. One of their demands was for negotiations with the official leadership—talks that they insisted should be broadcast live on television. And they had spurned authorities’ pleas to call off the strike to avoid embarrassing the government during Gorbachev’s four-day visit. “It was not our intention that the government should lose face,” explained one 19-year-old history student. “But we cannot just be obedient as we have been in the past. We have to fight until we win.” That theme was echoed by one of the hunger-strike leaders, Wuer Kaixi. Standing, attached to an intravenous drip, at the foot of the Monument to the People’s Heroes, he shouted: “We will not give in until our demands are met.”

In a conciliatory gesture, General Secretary Zhao and Premier Li visited casualties of the hunger strike in a Beijing hospital on May 18. There, as cameras of the state-run television service recorded the scene, an unidentified student gave them a finger-wagging lecture. “The biggest problem is corruption among officials,” said the student. “To solve this corruption they must begin with their own sons.” That was a reference to widespread allegations that officials’ relatives get special privileges in everything from apartments to job opportunities. Pointing out the huge problems facing China—a nation with scant natural resources, poor overall levels of education and a population of 1.1 billion—the student leader conceded that “all these problems cannot be solved in one stroke.”

During the harangue, the hard-line Li looked on grim-faced. Later, at another meeting with student leaders in the Great Hall of the People, he had his say. Beijing had “fallen into a state of anarchy,” he declared. “We must defend our factories. We must defend our socialist system. I don’t care whether you are happy to hear this or not.”

Meanwhile, it was becoming increasingly clear that the supposedly state-controlled media had begun to support the students. The official leadership had refused permission for their talks with the students to be televised live. But the state television service defiantly—and repeatedly—replayed the entire hospital confrontation. And Chinese TV later reported that the students were demanding an end to “dictatorship by one individual”—an obvious reference to Deng.

Badges: With that kind of support, the student leadership exuded confidence. “We welcome the visit to the hospital, but it is not enough,” said one hunger striker. “MaoTse-tung and Chou Enlai met students. Even the military leaders of the 1920s met the students when they had grievances. This is supposed to be the people’s government.” In fact, although Mao had been widely regarded as dictatorial in his later years, he now seemed to be back in posthumous favor along with the Mao-era Premier, Chou. Some students wore Mao lapel badges and one banner bore the question: “Chou, where are you now?”

As the protest grew on May 18, Tiananmen—the name means Square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace—and the streets converging on it were jammed with over one million demonstrators. At the heart of the square, the hunger strikers sprawled on makeshift mattresses, many of them under awnings of plastic or canvas to protect them from the elements. Some received glucose drip, water and salt tablets. Others refused even to drink. From time to time, ambulances raced through, horns blaring, to take the worst-affected to hospital. After treatment, the students usually returned to continue their fast. After days without food, some seemed very weak. “If one of them should die,” said one diplomat, “the situation will become really explosive.”

After a torrential thunderstorm, fellow students carried the weakened hunger strikers into the shelter of a fleet of buses that sympathetic municipal authorities had brought into the square. And in a surprise move just before dawn on May 19, Li and Zhao ventured into the square to make a final plea to them to end their fast. With tears in his eyes, Zhao apologized for not having come sooner. “You have good intentions,” he said. “You want our country to become better. The problems you have raised will eventually be resolved. But things are complicated.” Li, however, took a much harder line. Later that day, he told a visiting Australian special envoy that the government would “with a responsible attitude, take measures to stop the chaos.”

Agitators: Meanwhile, apparently in response to Zhao’s tearful appeal, student leaders announced the end of the hunger strike—even though at week’s end some protesters continued their fast. But the students also said that they would remain in Tiananmen Square, turning the hunger strike into a sit-in. That did not satisfy Li. First, he ordered a ban on all demonstrations and warned that the square must be vacated by midnight on May 19. Then, he addressed a hurriedly called meeting of party, government and military leaders at the Great Hall of the People, the national seat of government on Tiananmen Square. Li accused “a tiny minority of agitators” of manipulating the protest movement and “using the hunger strikers as hostages to coerce the government into agreeing to their demands.” He added, “They have damaged production and social order, and our country’s international reputation.” There was no sign of Zhao during Li’s address—and although there was no official confirmation of his resignation, his absence strongly implied it.

Revered: Behind the weeklong tumult lay a situation reminiscent of the days of the Middle Kingdom, as the rulers of ancient imperial China referred to the country. Like many an aged emperor, Deng had seemed increasingly isolated from the people and even from the rest of the leadership. There appeared to be two factions in government: the reformists led by Zhao, a protégé of Deng’s, and the conservatives headed by Li. Supporting Li was a vast army of bureaucrats and party officials, concerned that their vested interests were threatened by reform. The 60-year-old Li lacks charisma, but makes up for it in personal connections. He is the adopted son of the much-respected Chou and a favorite of the revered surviving veterans of Mao’s epic Long March of the 1930s. As a boy, he sat on the knees of the leaders as they plotted the Communist insurrection from their headquarters at Yan’an in Shaanxi province. By contrast, Zhao is an extrovert who battled his way to the top as a forceful exponent of radical reform. He has advocated greater press freedom and parliamentary reforms that would make the National People’s Congress less of a rubber stamp.

Zhao’s ideas are more in line with those of the students, and he has largely been spared their ridicule. But among the population at large he is widely blamed, along with Deng, for the hardships caused by price reform—a greater source of popular discontent among workers than the absence of democratic institutions. China has been handicapped by the Marxist practice of using subsidies to maintain artificially low prices for most basic commodities. Last spring, Deng and Zhao abolished many of those subsidies, shouldering the risk of a sudden increase in prices. “It is better to have short, sharp pains than long, dull pains,” said Deng as he overrode conservative objections.

Throughout the 1980s, such capitalistic risk-taking had paid off, stimulating China’s gross national product to a dramatic average annual increase of nearly 10 per cent. This time, though, the pain proved sharper than Deng had expected. Within weeks of removing the subsidies on several basic commodities, China was in the grip of an inflationary spiral not experienced since 1949. At a Communist party Central Committee meeting last September, Li and his old-guard allies struck back, scrapping price reform and putting Deng and Zhao’s other capitalist-style projects on hold. But it was too late to undo the damage. Market forces were now setting roughly half of all prices, while the state was arbitrarily setting the other half, creating a chaotic two-tier economy. To make matters worse, three bad harvests in a row added to an inflation rate that is now officially computed at 30 per cent a year in urban areas, but that most independent experts say is much higher.

Meanwhile, some of Deng and Zhao’s other strategies to open up China’s economy to market forces have contributed to a growing gap between rich and poor. In Beijing free-spending entrepreneurs flash their money around in private-enterprise restaurants, where the waitresses are often poor country girls exploited by their employers. Education is increasingly neglected, especially in poor country districts, where, as in days of imperial China, families are sometimes driven to sell their offspring as child labor. According to official figures, some 250 million Chinese—almost one-quarter of the population—are illiterate. And health standards have declined, especially since the breakdown of Mao’s so-called barefoot doctor scheme to provide care for the peasantry.

Despite such recent setbacks, the living conditions of most Chinese have improved appreciably over the decade since Deng came to power. But by failing to introduce political reforms to match his new economic thinking—and turning a blind eye to growing evidence of corruption—he forfeited the loyalty of the students and intellectuals. And now that things have turned sour economically, he has earned the hostility of the workers as well.

For the students, Gorbachev—despite the shaky condition of the Soviet economy—has become a hero by insisting that political reform must precede economic reform. But from the moment of his arrival until his departure, the mass demonstrations overshadowed his historic visit. His official welcome had to be staged at the airport instead of in Tiananmen Square. He had to cancel a wreath-laying ceremony in the square the following day, as well as a visit to the Forbidden City—the ancient compound of the Chinese emperors, which is located at one side of the square. And he had to hold his official news conference in a government guesthouse on the city’s outskirts instead of in the Great Hall of the People, which also faces the square.

Neutrality: The student-led uproar followed him to Shanghai on the last day of his visit. There, more than 100,000 demonstrators took control of the city centre, showing virtually no interest in the Soviet leader. Looking increasingly irrelevant, and maintaining a scrupulous neutrality for fear of offending his official hosts, Gorbachev flew directly from Shanghai to Moscow on the evening of May 18 to face internal troubles of his own. He left behind him a China which, despite Li’s call to order, would surely never be quite the same again.


Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev declared that his summit meeting with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping—after 30 years of mistrust, rivalry and open hostility between their nations—had “epoch-making significance.” Deng summed up Gorbachev’s historic visit to Beijing in a Chinese expression: “Close the past and open up the future.” A joint communiqué on May 18 outlined the summit’s formal accomplishments:

• The two leaders declared that “neither side would seek hegemony of any form” in any part of the world.

• They re-established full diplomatic relations as a contribution to “the maintenance of world peace and stability."

• They agreed “to take measures to cut down the military forces along the Sino-Soviet boundary to a minimum level commensurate with the normal, good-neighborly relations between the two countries.” During the summit, Gorbachev proposed complete demilitarization of the 7,500-km border, which is now guarded by about 600,000 Soviet troops and one million Chinese soldiers.

• They will upgrade the status of talks on territorial disputes to the foreign minister level.

• On Cambodia—a serious obstacle to improved Sino-Soviet relations over the past 10 years—the two sides agreed to disagree. China repeated its support for a provisional government led by Cambodian resistance leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the head of a three-party guerrilla alliance, and including both the resistance and the Vietnam-backed regime of Prim Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh. The Soviet Union—which has supported the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia—said only that internal problems, including preparation for general elections under international supervision, should be solved by the Cambodians themselves. However, the two sides agreed that, with Vietnam promising to unilaterally withdraw all its troops from Cambodia by next September, civil war should be avoided and outside parties should gradually end military aid to the warring factions.