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Lecture Discussion: “Tiananmen Square Protests: An account by an Indian in China”

C3S Event Report No: 014/2019

The Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) organized a Lecture Discussion on June 10 2019 on the theme ‘Tiananmen Square Protests: An account by an Indian in China’. The event which was held at C3S, was led by Mr. Rajaram Muthukrishnan, Investor and Director, Voice Snap Services Pvt. Ltd, Chennai; Member, C3S. Cmde. R. S. Vasan, Director, C3S chaired the event.

The discussion topic was introduced through a power point presentation, which included a collection of rare photographs with their captions, sourced from the online publication RFI. The original print by the author Jan van der Made is titled ‘Thirty years on from Tiananmen: unpublished pictures of the student movement’ and can be accessed using the following link-

The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, culminating in the June Fourth Massacre, were a series of demonstrations in and near Tiananmen Square in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) between 15 April and 5 June 1989.

The lecture was based on first-hand accounts from Mr. Rajaram, who had lived in Hong Kong during the Tiananmen Square protests. He had started his career in 1989 with the then Commission for India (Indian Consulate) in Hong Kong and later held the position of Assistant Secretary General of the Indian Chamber of Commerce, Hong Kong. In this capacity, he has travelled extensively in China and been part of several international and national trade and business delegations. The speaker began by briefly introducing the socio-political climate in China during the years leading up to the Tiananmen protests. In the period during late 1980s, especially in Chinese cities of Shenzen, Guangdong and Shanghai, where there was an economic boom due to the opening up of China, there existed heavy state monitoring of entry and exit of persons. While the opening up of more cities and regions to a market based one, attracted rapid foreign investment, it also created a huge demand for labour leading to migration from rural and hinterland areas of China towards these centres. The Chinese system did not allow for free movement of people and this had caused an imbalance of prosperity from the opening up and resentment started growing.

Deng Xiaoping (Paramount Leader of the People’s Republic of China from 1978 until his retirement in 1992) had allowed for foreign media to flourish in China, in an attempt to nurture and attract foreign investment and also bring in more openness in society and governance. He felt that there was a need for foreign media to be provided controlled access to these newly open areas in order to present China as a global destination for business and investment. The period from 1978-1988 was also unprecedented, when the local Chinese media was encouraged to inculcate professionalism and there was room for critical views aimed at the eventual betterment of the country’s economy. However this liberty was neither extended to questioning the primacy of the Communist Party of China nor encouraged western notions, such as simply calling for an election.

Chinese news agencies including Xinhua particularly promoted economic journalism but without debating political dictatorship. With these developments specific to the Chinese media, and the manner in which they functioned, the Tiananmen Square protests during its actual unfolding also received global coverage. In 1989, CNN, BBC and other international media houses deliberately stayed back to cover the protests. Public gathering began on the streets of Beijing and universities in the surrounding areas. The large number of students who gathered were believed to be a radical fringe of the students’ movement and were all considered Marxists by the Chinese state, stemming from the general belief that capitalists would be much more influential than a mere student body.

The proximate cause for the events that unfolded was the death of Hu Yaobang, who  was a Chinese reformist official backed by Deng but ousted by the Eight Elders and the conservative wing of the politburo. The demonstration which had reached 100,000 protestors on Tiananmen Square, apart from principally being sparked by the death of Hu Yaobang (many people were dissatisfied with the party’s slow response and relatively subdued funeral arrangements) was primarily started by students but also had many Chinese calling for economic liberalization and a less centralized form of socialism joining in as the demonstrations grew in size and extended to several days.

During the same time a lot of hinterland was also struggling and the disenchantment and discontent found an outlet in these protests. Adding to the woes, were consequences of lack of opportunities, rising unemployment across China further leading to vast income gaps and fault lines in the government policy. During the demonstrations, Deng’s pro-market ally and General Secretary (Communist Party of China) Zhao Ziyang supported the demonstrators initially as a means to position himself as an undisputed leader in the backdrop of a power struggle between the conservatives, backed by a section of the Revolutionary Elders and Deng’s faction that was in control and wanted to open up China. As events unfolded, he distanced himself from the Politburo. He was also aiming to become popular and attain greater influence within CPC during Deng’s lifetime.

With Zhao Ziyang’s coming to Tiananmen Square and his support for the protesting students these groups were getting increasingly strident. Western journalists, through their live reporting provided greater confidence and promised no harm would reach the protesters, as the global audience was watching. The presence of foreign media such as CNN further bolstered morale of students. Zhao Ziyang was seen to be anti regime. He eventually lost power due to the reformative neoauthoritarianism and also because of his support for the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. These series of events, led to the top brass within the Communist Party of China to arrive at the decision of denying Zhao Zinyang a guard of honour upon his death.

What started as a mass mourning for Hu Yobang became a public conduit for anger against perceived nepotism in the government, the unfair dismissal and early death of Hu Yaobang, and the behind-the-scenes role of the top brass within the Communist Party of China. Given the media coverage and students protestors’ heavy presence, many attempts towards mediation and restoring normalcy were made by the Chinese Government. This was the time, when the Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev was making a state visit and the Chinese government was not able to accord a formal welcome at the Tiananmen Square. The protests that were slowly ebbing away, got fresh impetus as some of the student leaders and other dissidents sought to use this opportunity to press for dialogue and pressurize Chinese government to accept democracy. The intervening period through the month of May and June saw heavy involvement of western agencies and western media in trying to push for a democratic putsch against Chinese Communist party and government. The original Marxist slogans started getting replaced by calls for democracy and accountability along with elections.

While the protests lacked a unified cause or leadership, participants raised the issue of corruption within the government. However the student demands were lacking a clear aim or vision. Over time, with the influence of the foreign media and western agencies, the movement morphed into a call for Democracy and a quickly made statue of “Godess of Democracy” came up. In order to cap and roll back the protests, the Chinese Government deployed senior party and government leaders to have talks with the student leaders. Several government and party officials tried to pacify and have discussions with the Student leaders. This included the then powerful Beijing Mayor Chen Xi Tong.

Inside the Chinese leadership the Zhao faction which was for dialogue lost the argument to the conservative faction led by Li Peng and supported by Deng era leaders. Deng finally lost patience when Zhao started to speak up for students and cast his vote in favour of clearing the Square and crushing this uprising. He had come to the view that it was an attack to bring down the government and replace communist leadership with western style democracy. This was seen when the Beijing Mayor was not treated well by Student Union and was sent back. The highlight here was also the nearing retirement of Deng and Zhao Ziyang being the main person who shared the students’ thoughts. During attempted talks, the General Secretary of CPC (for Beijing) was also insulted and sent back (this was seen live on TV). Further, Zhao Ziyang- came himself for the 4th consecutive time. He finally shed tears, a scenario that is uncommon among Chinese politicians. (Chinese leaders are known to have a straight face, who do not display emotions publicly).

Despite attempts by senior state official, protesters started resorting to violence. Small bottles (Xiao pingzi) were used for breaking and damaging property along with their heavy use for also making Molotov cocktails. These instances had angered the conservatives within CPC. Further, Zhao Ziyang also did not issue orders for dispersing the media, as he thought it could be considered anti-China. The Mi5, CIA became highly active towards encouraging mass reporting. There was still no clarity on demand of students. When the protestors’ anti-government sloganeering (seen offensive by the CPC) ultimately touched Deng Xiaoping, Zhao Ziyang made a last attempt to restore order.

Despite this when violence among protesters increased, it led to the mobilization of the first unarmed column of People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The army made attempts to disperse the people and break up protesters’ massive gatherings. This led to heavy retaliation from the protesters. The army was attacked and some were known to have even been killed by the protesting students. At this stage even, trade unions starting joining the protests. When situation started worsening and getting out of hand, Li Peng himself (served as the fourth Premier of the People’s Republic of China from 1987 to 1998) called for the first time at the Great Hall of People, a meeting with the student union leaders. The student leaders were also given the same seats as are offered to  heads of states.

The speaker observes, “At first sight their demeanor was of arrogance, with unshaven beard and crossed legs the student representation had not respected the Prime Minister’s position”. Notwithstanding the manner put forth by the students, Li Peng asked what the students wanted, while appealing to them not to fall prey to the western media and their ideologies, given the students were the future of China. The student leader (Wuerkaixi) however in his response insulted Li Peng in an assembly packed with senior officials and members of media.

This was deemed as unacceptable, something never happened before with any former Chinese premier. Li Peng then gave an admonishment and very strictly told these students, that if they fail to disperse and do not stop the protests, it will leave him no option but to use military force. Following the meeting and the continued status quo between protesters and government, the very first armed PLA troop was deployed and water canons were used. The students in turn had burned all buses and resorted to violent stone pelting along with heavy use of Molotov cocktails. All this was happening on the main avenues leading to the Square, while the Square itself was under the control of students. Many Red Cross and Doctors from Beijing Hospital put up camps there and started treating the wounded.

Meanwhile, there were workers and others who tried to stop the army from getting to the Square and some buses were burnt to stall them. There was also an assault on some Army Personnel Carriers (APCs) and soldiers were injured. Doctors and students tended to them. However, the Army that was attacked started to shoot. The first casualties happened in Cheng An Avenue and it was some of thee blood stained students who carried the news to the Square. Some of the student leaders who were negotiating were told of the orders to clear the square and they negotiated a safe passage on the night of 3 June. As the night progressed, there was once again shooting in the surrounding Avenues and the Soldiers opened fire at protestors.

It was these series of events that ultimately forced the state to initiate bullet fire, immediately followed by a volley of machine guns.  Live telecast stopped and martial law was imposed. If the people there did not run in the first 15-20 minutes, they were either killed or gravely injured. Amidst the chaos student leaders escaped, and went into hiding for more than six months. It was much later some of these, like Wang Dan went on to pursue academic roles in Harvard, and settled in the US.

In the subsequent crackdowns Zhao Ziyang was also put on house arrest. Li Peng assembled a post funeral committee, during which he pledged to hunt down every single dissenter in an attempt to book all such traitors. Mr.Rajaram added that, “All media outlets in China were shut, universities were closed down and a massive six months of state hunt began. Within China, people advocating liberal ideologies were put into jail. Re-education camps were set up, that included very harsh Marxist conditions. Every single youth leader among the students was picked up especially those specializing in subjects of artistic freedom such as anthropology, cultural and psychological studies, social sciences and law which were considered taboo, in China. Complete education re-structuring was taking place. Across China (including Shanghai, Shenzen, X’iang) all the dissident labour leaders were purged from the party.

Traitors considered harmful by the state were shot in football fields, as part of public executions in front of 50,000 to 60,000 people, with the bill of the bullet sent to the family of the shot ‘traitor’”. This massive planned out exercise of legalized state sponsored purging is what controlled the rise of anti-government sentiment and to some extent cleared the negativism around the Chinese power. Ultimately, Li Peng consolidated the party and political stability was restored, he was replaced later by Zhu Rhongji (Former Intelligence head of Communist Party of China who tactfully stayed neutral for a long time and then came in the side of conservatives when Zhao lost Deng’s support). China’s new premier enjoyed the clean image of not being directly involved with the Tiananmen Square tragedy and had launched the clarion call of China’s economy opening up to the world, signaling that China was now open for business.

The successor to Zhao Ziyang was the Shanghai Party boss, Jiang Zemin who successfully put down the revolt there without much use of force. It was his efficient handling that made him the choice of Deng to succeed Zhao Ziyang.  He and Zhu Rhongji mobilized Chinese diaspora overseas, especially in the US, making them representatives of Chinese culture and influence. International chambers of commerce joined together, and China was trying to get in the WTO. The locally established Indian chamber of commerce in Hong Kong was also lobbying together with the US senators to re establish economic linkages with west and remove trade barriers when China had previously clamped them down. Similarly, in the aftermath of the transition of power and return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, where the ‘One country, two systems’ regime had been in place in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, the British also wished to test the waters with regards to their role and influence over these territories post independence.

The four years immediately after Tiananmen protests in 1989, led to the most terrible accounts of state authorized purging. However the then US preside Bush Sr and Bill Clinton ensured, that the top Chinese leaders who were given suspended death sentences in China, were released and sent on exile. To further avoid Tiananmen-like protests in future Deng Xiaoping visited US, post the consolidation of state power and bringing stability in governance that was brought about through a complete re-structuring of party and government.

Deng had established three cardinal principles – Collective Responsibility so that power is not concentrated in the hands of one individual and establishing a term of office, so that transition happened smoothly from one generation to the other and the third was to have a professional technocratic leadership that is held accountable on the basis of performance and loyalty to the party and ideology.

He re-established the support of Chinese youth, thereby dissolving any anti-national and anti-government movements. Western ideas of liberal democracy, constituting free and fair elections and a representative non-authoritative government were not acceptable to the elder cadre within the CPC. Tiananmen Square as per Chinese state stories focused on the students mistakes (it highlighted perceived dangers when students are believed to fall prey to western ideas, leading to what is thought of as a loss of prosperity). As per local observations made by the speaker, “Negative examples are still made out of them, and people are now told, China has become quite successful, by the purging of such anti-national elements from society. Some of the later movements like the‘Falun Gong’ (which was a quasi spiritual movement) advocating for personal and spiritual freedom were also subsequently diluted in influence by the Chinese state”.

Finally the speaker concluded, and put forth that in present times the current Chinese President Xi Jinping has challenged the three cardinal principles of Deng. These included-to train technocrats who are people of merit, and that appraisals are based on performance but loyalty was to him personally. Xi Jinping has also done away with Deng’s second cardinal principle towards a term of office, having established complete control and successful consolidation of power in himself in the government and within the Communist Party of China.

The event was concluded with an interactive session, followed by the vote of thanks by Cmde. R. S. Vasan.

(Compiled by Shubham Swaroop, B.Sc Economics, University of London, ISBF Delhi; Research Intern, C3S.)

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