Tuesday, June 04, 2019

What I Witnessed in 1989 in Beijing

"It cost us 20 million lives to win the rivers and mountains of China.  Do the students believe they can take them from us without payment?"
Remark attributed to Wang Zhen after declaration of martial law in May 1989

"We love the students"
Message scribbled in my notes by a citizen of Beijing in May 1989

As will be apparent from the material I've archived in this post, I was on the scene at Tian An Men Square in Beijing for a good number of significant events in 1989, including June 4th and also May 19, which might have turned out to be even more significant.

A few weeks after I returned to the U.S., I wrote an account of my experiences, submitted it to a national magazine, and received a nice rejection letter stating that “at this stage it does feel a little out of date, considering the volume of testimonies that have been published’.

Considering the saturation coverage the democracy movement had received in the Western press, I couldn’t argue with that assessment, so I tucked my account and my notes into an envelope, where they resided untouched for thirty years.

However, I revisited my old typewritten/handwritten/faxed/photocopied archive yesterday and decided to convert them into digital form and post them here to provide a documentary alternative to the June 4th fetishism (now supercharged by the hope that the CCP will be swept into the dustbin of history as a challenger to US pre-eminence) that infects the Western press and intelligentsia...

...or as Nicholas Kristof put it in one of the endless series of June 4th 30th anniversary commemoratives run by the New York Times in its crusade to embarrass and delegitimize the CCP:

[T]hose of us who witnessed Beijing Spring are confident that eventually, unpredictably, the tide of freedom will roll in again.
Well, some of us who witnessed Beijing Spring harbor certain suspicions that 1989 witnessed a new birth of authoritarianism.

Western nostalgia for 1989 is understandable, because it was the apogee of pro-American sentiment in Beijing.  When I was in the square, locals were inviting the United States to send aid in the form of B 52 bombers, missiles, and even the Mafia (to assassinate Li Peng and Yang Shangkun).  

But in my opinion the simplistic narrative of a democratic movement temporarily balked by authoritarian power simplifies the forces at work, ignores the post-1989 evolution of Chinese sentiment, and encourages the false hope that those (pro-American, regime-shaking) conditions can be conveniently replicated in the 21st century.

The CCP has spent decades studying, developing countermeasures, and evolving to make sure 1989 (and for that matter Tian An Men) don’t happen again.  And the U.S. has spent decades screwing up: stuff like bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, cratering the prestige of liberal democracy through the Iraq War, Great Financial Crisis, Trumpismo, so on and so forth.

As preface to my 1989 material, I offer these observations concerning 1989 (and welcome correction since I have not immersed myself in the history of the movement):

Before the troops entered the city on the evening of June 3, the democracy movement had already been pretty much defeated.  The immense crowds had deserted Tian An Men Square, leaving it to a relatively bedraggled and disorganized group of dead enders.

When Zhao Ziyang visited the square on May 19 and told the students he had “come too late” he was probably expressing his regret that he had been completely outmaneuvered in the factional infighting in the Politburo and terminally botched his attempt, whether motivated by reasons of principle or ambition, to leverage the energies of the popular protests on behalf of his agenda.

I have not followed the minutiae of June 4th historiography, but I would be interested to learn who was the young man in military fatigues who hurried to the square on May 19 (but had his face shielded from cameras) to urgently announce Zhao Ziyang’s removal from the Politburo Standing Committee, thereby rallying the students who were poised to abandon the square that night. 
If Zhao dispatched the messenger, perhaps Deng Xiaoping was generous in simply putting Zhao in cold storage in Sichuan for the rest of his life.  And maybe history is generous in not condemning Zhao for encouraging the students to cling to the square and become a piñata for the PLA.

In my opinion, the 1989 movement was less of a “democracy movement” than a “populist movement” in keeping with the base meaning of the Chinese characters 民主 a.k.a. "rule by the people".  In its rhetoric it largely eschewed direct challenge to the CCP’s right to rule, and instead agitated for accountable rule, to be achieved through increased freedom of expression and association, not multi-party democracy and free elections. 

Undoubtedly for many activists the ultimate goal was to rot the CCP into oblivion through free speech, protest, and agitation and transition to a parliamentary system, but the formal mechanism was “petition” i.e. appealing to the better nature of the CCP’s better leaders to come up with solutions to the Party’s dysfunctional rule.  And Party rule in 1989 was pretty corrupt and pretty inept.

This approach produced a designation of "bad" CCP leaders (Li Peng, Yang Shangkun, Wang Zhen etc.) and the declared hope that "better" CCP leaders (Zhao Ziyang, Wan Li, Xu Xiangqian, Nie Rongzhen) would step up to champion Hu Yaobang's legacy and the student agenda.

Fatally, the ultimate "bad" CCP leader turned out to be Deng Xiaoping & he scotched any hopes of a favorable factional dynamic inside the CCP that would sideline the hardliners.

Tian An Men is very much Deng Xiaoping's bloody baby.

Student hopes of an elite-fracturing factional struggle within the CCP leadership elicited Deng Xiaoping’s otherwise inexplicable fear of a return to the Cultural Revolution and its mobilization of the entirety of Chinese society in political, social, and armed conflict.  

Perhaps for Deng, scuttling around in the caverns beneath Zhong Nan Hai and dreading confrontation with a factional mob reawakened unpleasant memories of his own experiences at the hands of Mao and the Gang of Four…and explained his anger and contempt at Zhao Ziyang for pandering to the students.

The message that Deng imposed on Zhao and the Party was the familiar one of unity of the elite core: hang together or hang separately.  It’s a lesson that the CCP has pretty much taken to heart after the near-death experience of 1989 and the calamity that afflicted post-Soviet Russia.  

And I believe Deng’s outlook determined the endgame of the protests: the bloody assault of June 3-4 and beyond.  The assault was massive and disproportionate so that every Party member was required to stand up, commit to the Party line with positive/extreme action, and share the responsibility…and the guilt.

The posted materials include the rejected magazine piece, Massacre of the Innocents, which I wrote in July 1989.

For historical interest I’ve also directly and completely transcribed the record I compiled immediately after the protests in my hotel from my scribbled notes made while out and about (sample of my field notes below with the statement in Chinese “We love the students” that a Beijing citizen emphatically wrote for me).

The record is reproduced without addition or correction (except for my tongue in cheek references of the protesters’ motorcycle auxiliary as “Deng’s Angels”; I provide the correction to “Flying Tigers”, the name they became commonly known by).  [Bracketed material] was written as part of the record in my hotel in 1989 immediately after the events to supplement and clarify my field notes.

Raw material of history, historians!

 The timestamped material is stuff I directly witnessed.  The other stuff either summarizes conversations with local interlocutors or presents my commentary at that time.

Final note: I am confident of the accuracy of most of my observations, except hearing the crowd sing “The Internationale” at 3:00 AM  on June 4.  When you’re tired and freaked out, your mind can play tricks on you.  I might have dreamed that one.

Massacre of the Innocents

I was on Chang An Avenue west of Tian An Men on the night of the massacre.  Shortly after midnight I walked beyond the XiDan Street barricade—two accordion buses pulled across the intersection.  Down the avenue toward the west I could hear the continuous popping of automatic weapons, and see muzzle flashes and the distant orange glow of a burning bus.  The broad avenue was dotted with anxious knots of people smashing paving stones and pulling apart traffic lights in a desperate search for weapons.  Suddenly, a young man fell in the middle of the street.  A crowd hurriedly gathered around him, picked him up amid shouted instructions, and rushed to a nearby hospital.  The gunfire grew in volume and intensity, and the scattered groups of people were swept off the avenue in a wave of panic.  Tear gas began to fill the air.

I turned and found myself looking into the eyes of a young woman.  She was in her best summer dress and awkwardly gripping two lumps of rubble torn from the sidewalk.  She was struggling to keep control of herself, but her eyes were filling with tears and her voice was cracking.  “Do you see what they’re doing?” she sobbed.  Can you imagine they would do such a thing?  Please, you must go back and tell what you saw.  Please.”  As a chorus of voices echoed her, I was led to the center of the avenue where the young man had fallen and saw the splash of fresh, crimson blood near the median.  Shortly thereafter, the authorities blacked out the western district and the military column began its assault on the intersection.

I had been in and out of Beijing on business several times in the month prior to June 4.  Every time I came back to the capital, I would follow the thousands of people who would stream into Tian An Men Square to visit the students there, read the banners, and gather under the streetlights for excited discussions of politics and strategy.  Every night the city shared a mood dictated by conditions in the square—exhilaration, exhaustion, indignation, or anxiety.  The citizens glowed with pride and self-respect, and the democracy movement acquired an aura of predestined success.

In its earliest stages, the student demonstrations were characterized by a high degree of discipline and organization.  During the hunger strike, direction of traffic in the center of the city was for all intents and purposes surrendered by the police to the students’ Marshals’ Committee, headquartered on the steps of the History Museum east of the square.  Roadways were demarcated by lengths of white cord and reserved for the ambulances carrying a continual stream of hunger strikers to the hospitals. Captains were identified with white headbands and dispatched to the intersections to clear the way and maintain order.

As the scope of the demonstrations grew, the students were joined by workers marching under the banners of their factories , and “independent business men” on their motorcycles forming the famous “Flying Tiger” squad.  With the students receiving open and sub rosa support from the media, government bureaucracy, and even the CCP, it seemed the square was becoming the fulcrum for a truly national political movement.  The enthusiasm probably reached its apogee on May 19, the night martial law was declared.

On that night, it appeared the students were prepared to abandon both the square and their hunger strike.  Around midnight the marshals formed a human chain leading out of the southeast quadrant of the square and began directing the withdrawal of hundreds of students.  One after the other, various university delegations dissolved their distinct, tightly knit encampments, and streamed out of Tian An Men Square.

In the middle of this process a three-wheeled pedicab, several young men balanced precariously on its bed, jounced into the square near the Monument to the Martyrs of the Revolution.  One of their number, dressed in military green, pulled out a battery-powered megaphone and announced to the crowd what he identified as “most correct news”.  His face shielded from TV cameras by the arm of a colleague, he proceeded to details the events of that afternoon’s meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee—the rejection of Zhao Ziyang’s conciliatory approach, his removal, and the ascendancy of Li Peng’s hardline clique.  Moments later, as if to confirm this extremely accurate and timely announcement, the government loudspeakers crackled to life and began booming out the government’s declaration of martial law.

A buzz of indignation ran through the crowd and the squads, which had been leaving, hesitated and returned.  The square became a hive of activity, with a stream of speeches over the students’ PA at the Monument, and spontaneous parades around the perimeter of the square on foot, under banners, or on bicycles with arms linked  Meanwhile, factory trucks filled with defiant workers flashing the V sign began rumbling and down the avenue.

Within the hour, reports were received that the army was attempting to enter the city from the west.  Student teams began to rush off in trucks and bicycles, and the Flying Tigers raced along the avenues unrestricted by the traffic police.  The streets filled with excited people exchanging news and rumors, and hitching rides on trucks headed west.  Sometime trucks pulled away with stragglers trapped in the grasp of passengers on the flatbed, forcing them to do a frantic quickstep to get on board.

Their objective was twenty four army vehicles stopped about 6 miles west of Beijing, around a floodlit traffic circle called Gong Zhu Fen.  I arrived to find the glum and hapless soldiers surrounded by crowds of hectoring students reading statement for their benefit, and for the TV cameras.  The surrounding crowds surged with excitement and energy.  Truckloads of students and Flying Tigers performed ecstatic victory donuts around the circle and roared back into the city.  As dawn filled the east, the residents of Beijing began to appear, walking, jogging, doing Tai Qi, or airing their thrushes in cloth-hooded cages.  The first morning bus lumbered down Chang An Avenue was stopped by a crowd of students imploring the driver to join the general strike—and he did.

Walking homeward, I reached the official party residence—Zhong Nan Hai, west of the square—as the soldiers trooped out to the great flagpole in the cool, pale morning for the daily raising of the colors.  The doorway was hung with tattered student banners and a press of haggard young people surrounded the squad.  An expressionless captain fixed the PRC flag to the lanyard and hoisted it.  He stiffly snapped a salute, and the students joined in a ragged rendition of the Chinese national anthem.  It seemed as if a great and fundamental change had occurred.

The first week of martial law began with a flush of optimism.  Citizens gathered in the square every night to protect the student demonstrators, and the streets were filled with the thunder of the Flying Tigers, which had grown into an immense squadron of nearly 250 Hondas, Suzukis, and mopeds.  So long as the army didn’t enter the city, every sunrise was a victory, and the downfall of Li Peng was predicted daily.

However, it is easy to see in retrospect that the students’ cause was lost on May 20, at the declaration of martial law.  The hunger strike was abandoned and the students were left without a concrete program or strategy to oppose a government which refused to engage in any sort of dialogue.

Meanwhile, the government consolidated direction of the army during meetings in Wuhan with the commanders of the military districts.  PLA forces were stationed in TV and newspaper offices to reestablish control over the media.  It was common knowledge that troops were infiltrating into the center of the city through a honeycomb of tunnels which connect the Forbidden City, Great Hall of the People, and History Museum to secure locations outside the city.  Enormous military forces—estimated at well over 200,000 strong—were rushed to Beijing and massed in the suburbs.

In the city, work units began to tighten control over their personnel and their vehicles, and compiled detailed records of pro-democracy activities.  The Flying Tigers were crippled by arrests (informants had joined their nightly processions and noted their license numbers) and thus the students lost their reassuring thunder—and mobility.  A temporary tax of 200% on inward remittances cut off most of the demonstrators’ funds from Hong Kong, and petty harassments such as interruption of water supplies to the square further drained their strength and resolve.  Finally, the government made its first overt move against the movement, arresting three members of the workers’ independent union on June 3. 

The tragedy of June 4 was rehearsed the night before—as farce.  At 2:00 AM I was awakened by somebody bicycling under my window shouting “Comrades! Get up! Get up!”   Moments later I heard the synchronized slap of thousands of tennis shoes as an immense column of soldiers trotted down Chang An Avenue.  They were without rifles or military jackets, and extraordinarily young-looking.  In fact, I first mistook them for a contingent of Young Pioneers, the communist party youth corps.  I ran ahead toward the Beijing Hotel and saw that an excited crowd had gathered at the Dong Dan intersection.

As the column approached the people frantically began to pull the median dividers across the street to block the troops’ advance.  At first they tried to erect their barricades across the road too close to the head of the column, and the troops brushed them aside.  The citizens ran down the road and repeated the process fifty yards onward—with the same result.  Finally, in front of the Beijing Hotel, two municipal vehicles drove up to block the road to the accompaniment of excited cheers from the crowd.  At the same time the vanguard of the troops allowed themselves to be herded into the bicycle lane and sandwiched between its divider and the sidewalk fence.  They were enveloped by a crowd of shouting, grasping people and their discipline quickly cracked.  Young soldiers broke from the column either to join the people or escape the harassment, and others, trapped in the center of the column, began pitching their hats and gear into the air.  Some clambered over the fence and began straggling out of town on the sidewalk. Finally, someone from the square appeared with a megaphone and began shouting instructions, which were universally ignored.  As the column dissolved, the crowd roared in unison “Go back! Go back!”  A pedicab drove off toward the square with a meagre pile of trophies—hats, jackets, and so on—for a victory lap.

There was immediate speculation that this fiasco had been organized by the government in order to discredit the unreliable units of the Beijing Military Command which had taken part in the march.  Less attention was paid to the fact that this inept thrust had demonstrated the tactical helplessness of the student movement.  After the fall of Zhao Ziyang, the students were clearly bereft of information concerning government actions and troop movements.  The streets had been cleared of the Flying Tigers and commandeered trucks, and student messengers had to traverse the vast distances of Beijing municipality by bicycle.  Students from the local colleges had, in large part, returned to their campuses, leaving the square to arriving students from outlying cities—who were perhaps more extreme, less organized, and with no clear strategy other than to cling to the square until a hoped-for meeting of the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress and a presumed political solution.  Finally, the students and the people of Beijing were exhausted, worn down by tension, exhilaration, and an endless succession of sleepless nights.  The next night brought the whirlwind they were totally unprepared for.

On the afternoon of June 3, I walked down Chang An Avenue and through the square.  The main road was extensively barricaded and virtually impassable to motorized traffic.  Near the Zhong Nan Hai party compound there were unsettling signs of violence from a skirmish an hour before: three smashed vehicles, a traffic kiosk with its windows knocked out, glass littering the intersection—and seven anxious police trapped in a van by an angry crowd.  One man came up to me and showed a blunt, grey-brown trophy—a tear gas canister.  It was the first time force had been used in the city center.

In front of the Great Hall of the People, I came across a hollow rectangle of several hundred determined-looking troops in full battle dress.  A young man wandered through it with blood streaming copiously over his face and shirt from a scalp wound, his mouth gaping and hands raised in a universal gesture of lamentation.  A murmur ran through the crowd but no one spoke or stepped forward.

That night around midnight, having heard a report on CNN of new troop movements, I made my way past the barricades to the square once more.  There was a swirl of disassociated activity going on, with the main student PA at the monument competing with another, in the northern quarter, which was ineffectually attempting to interest the crowd in the dedication of “Democracy University”.  I paid my final respects to the Goddess of Democracy and followed a stream of angry young people striding westward on Chang An Avenue toward the Zhong Nan Hai compound.  For the first time I saw people carrying clubs—actually pathetic switches torn from the sapling by the road—and gathering piles of broken bricks. The entrance to the compound was ringed by tense and angry people confronting a line of troops in battle dress.

I was waiting for a shout, a push, or a slogan which would send the crowd surging against the troops, but it never came.  Instead, we watched two young men engage in a painstaking and farcical attempt to drape a ripped sheet over the security camera mounted on a lamp pole across from the compound entrance.  Shortly after midnight they succeeded in clambering up the pole and stuffing a plastic pail over the lens, and were rewarded with a half-derisory, half congratulatory cheer.

In the next moment we hear a distant wave of rumbling and popping which might have been summer thunder, but turned out to be the first sounds of the army assault from the west at Mu Xi Di.  Twenty minutes later I found myself outside the barricade at Xi Dan Street as the armed column began sweeping down the avenue to crush the democracy movement in the center of the capital.

June 4 was not the triumph of age over youth, or the past over the future.  It was the victory of the party elders led by Deng Xiaoping—creators and masters of the party-state juggernaut, with decades of revolutionary experience—over naïve students and untested second generation party bureaucrats.
Declaration of martial law hamstrung the students’ movement while concentrating authority and effective control in the hands of the hardline Martial Law Command.  But bringing the army to Beijing served a broader purpose.  It created an atmosphere of intense political crisis which enabled Deng Xiaoping to initiate an extensive and draconian purge of Chinese society which is still going on today.

This opportunity brought with it a historical conundrum—how to mobilize the army and still maintain control of it.  Addressing this problem, Deng Xiaoping also showed that the innocent patriotic optimism of the students was no match for the old men who had created and manipulated the PLA for half a century.  As the democracy movement learned to its bitter cost, in China, the Party—despite its ideological impotence and the bankruptcy of its political and economic leadership—is the only organization capable of exacting obedience from China’s fractious military.

The traditional approach—splitting the PLA into competing armies isolated in garrisons far from Beijing—would not serve, since units had to be brought into the capital.  Instead, Deng Xiaoping allowed the Martial Law Army to become a vehicle for the ambitions of President Yang Shangkun and his family, while bringing in dozens of neutral or hostile armies and creating a welter of competing loyalties and ambitions to be manipulated by Deng’s Central Military Commission.

The massive mobilization effectively neutralized the threat of unilateral PLA action but in the process virtually assured a violent and costly military solution to the unarmed civilian occupation of Tian An Men Square.  It was rumored that the 27th Army—commanded by Yang Shangkun’s son-was designated to lead the assault and threatened with 2 years’ imprisonment as a unit if it did not carry out its orders and reach the square on the morning of June 4.  In the event, it took something more than six hours and well over 2000 lives.

The column advancing into Tian An Men Square from the west was a lethal motorcade of armored personnel carriers and transports filled with troops.  It rammed through the barricades at Xi Dan and established a strong point at the intersection, continually spraying the approaches with automatic rifle fire in the air, at the feet, and at chest height.

I took cover in an alley parallel to Chang An Street.  It was filled with people sheltering from the continual hail of gunfire outside.  A pedicab creaked by on the way to the hospital, with a man lying on the bed in the back.  He was naked from the waist up, and very still.  A white towel pressed against the center of his chest showed a brilliant red dot.

I spent the next two hours huddled in a tiny courtyard near the intersection with a group of grim young Chinese.  Some embraced silently, others murmured in an undertone beneath the continual crackle of rifle fire about casualties, tactics, and the future.  Two were wounded, and the group tried to turn its concentration to treating them.  We watched under flashlight as a foot with an arterial wound pulsed and bled slowly through its bandages into a porcelain basin.  An old couple brought out a minute bottle of iodine, which was diligently inspected for its expiration date and conscientiously applied.  Finally, one of the residents took a door off its hinges to serve as a stretcher and the wounded young man was sent off with bearers and guide on the perilous journey to the local hospital.

About 3:00 AM, a powerful chorus filled the air—a mass of people on Chang An Street were singing the “Internationale”.  The gunfire rose in a crescendo to meet it and after a few minutes the voices fell silent.  I thought, this is what the end of the world must sound like: choirs and machine guns.

Shortly thereafter, the two-hour barrage of gunfire ceased and quiet filled the intersection.  There was a gentle ‘whump’ and the sky over the rooftop in front of us filled with orange fire and black smoke.  We ventured outside and found the intersection deserted except for three burning buses and a few onlookers.  I struck out on the two-hour walk back to the hotel.

As I crossed the Bei Hai bridge to the northwest of the Forbidden City, I could faintly hear the government loudspeakers from Tian An Men echoing across the lake, ordering the students to obey the martial law army.  Hardfaced old men and women had appeared on the sidewalks on the back streets, perched on miniature bamboo stools.  Passersby warned me in anxious whispers to “Be careful!” since I was being followed, and directed me down alleys and side streets.

Dawn broke over a fearful and subdued city.  A pedestrian told me 3000 were dead.  I ducked into my hotel through the garage entrance at 5:00 AM, just as dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled past its door.  The democracy movement was crushed and the massacre of the innocents, for that night, at least, was over.

It is eerily appropriate that very few students died inside Tian An Men Square.  The real targets were outside—not only the thousands who died on the roads leading into and surrounding the square, but the hundreds of thousands of students, workers, and small-time businessmen, the bureaucrats, intelligentsia, and reporters who dared to challenge the party’s hegemony.

As the depth and extent of the purges becomes clearer, the suspicion grows that the bloodshed of June 4 was not born of accident, panic, or military necessity.  Through gross provocations, whether by incompetence or design, the authorities preserved a nucleus of defiant young people in the center of the city, which could justify the assault and the cynical post-facto discovery of a counter-revolutionary conspiracy.

Certainly, Deng Xiaoping had to avoid the hollow triumph of peacefully occupying an empty square; very possibly he had to move up the timetable for the final assault to prevent his army’s advance from being outpaced by the retreat of the rapidly ebbing democracy movement.  The unpopular and isolated hard-line junta needed martial law in order to consolidate its control over the party and state organs.  It needed victims, and found them, young and eager, on the streets of Beijing on the morning of June 4, 1989.

Little more than a month has passed, and the Chinese government is trying to bury the memory of the tragedy in Tian An Men Square beneath a mountain of words.  Nevertheless, it is doubtful that the tautological perfection of Communist propaganda will make the people forget that their government failed them so completely—and so needlessly.  If the students were the soul of China, that soul is now scarred and embittered.  

During that final night, as we watched the laden stretcher wind away down the alley, an old woman turned to me and said bitterly, “Without the students, China has nothing.  Come back in two years and you will see.  No civilization, no nation.  There will be nothing left.  Nothing.”

Below my notes from mid-May to early June 1989