All Commentary
Friday, September 1, 1989

Crackdown in China


Pujie Zheng graduated from Qinghua University, Beijing, China, in 1985. Currently a graduate student in physics at the University of Virginia, he visited China at the height of the student unrest and military crackdown in May and June.

Recent events in China have stunned the world. Since mid-April, the courage of the Chinese students who put their lives on the line to campaign for democracy, the self-restraint of the million Beijing citizens who staged a completely nonviolent demonstration, and the cruelty of the government that used tanks and machine guns against unarmed peaceful demonstrators have amazed and shocked people around the globe.

Background to Crisis

For the students, it is a political movement. But the common people went to the streets for economic reasons- -they were disappointed with the government’s inability to carry out the 10-year-old economic reform.

After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Hua Guofeng, Mao’s designated successor, arrested the so-called “Gang of Four” and took over the government. According to the people’s wishes, Hua Guofeng invited Deng Xiaoping to work in the government in 1978 to help him with the reform.

But Deng wanted the reform to go much further than Hua anticipated. For example, Hua insisted that whatever Mao Zedong had said should be kept as the Communist Party’s policy. Deng was against that. With the support of the people, Deng Xiaoping prevailed over Hua Guofeng in 1979 and took over control of the country.

Deng first changed the Party’s priorities. Against Mao Zedong’s thought, Deng said that the class struggle was no longer the Party’s top priority. The most urgent problem was the design of the socialist system. Deng’s slogan—“No matter whether the cat is white or black, as long as it catches rats, it is a good one”—hinted at his adoption of some capitalist principles.

Deng understood that he needed foreign help in his economic reform. Under Deng, the Sino-Japanese Friendship Treaty was signed and diplomatic relations with the United States were solidified. China started to encourage foreign businessmen to invest, which was symbolized by several special economic zones around China that suffered less from government red tape and attracted a lot of foreign capital. China also welcomed foreign scholars.

Inside China, Deng Xiaoping resumed the college entrance exam. Anyone who passed the exam could go to college free of charge. After the re-establishment of the exam, students across the nation began to put their time and energy into studying.

Deng allowed college students to have access to a wide variety of Western materials. When I was studying in Qinghua University in Beijing, I was permitted to read The New York Times, Trine, Newsweek, and many other foreign publications. Deng also allowed Chinese television to carry international news produced by foreign sta tions.

After the reform started, Deng found that the Party’s bureaucracy was his biggest enemy. The officials were too old and were experts only in “class struggle.” They didn’t have the experience or the knowledge to make their bureaus productive.

Deng forced all middle and low level government officials over 60 years old to retire, and replaced them with younger and better educated people. He promoted Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang to the central government to be his chief aides in the reform. He spent much of his time making sure that the military wouldn’t cause trouble for him.

Deng was unable to remove the senior high-level officials who were against his reform and were known as “old guard.” All he did was to put those old guards aside by giving them ceremonial positions in the government.

After these preparations, Deng Xiaoping started his economic reform. He accepted the idea of using the market as a feedback to stimulate economic productivity. (Note: There were no independent companies in China at that time. The government owned everything.) In this way, productive factories which made needed goods would have more money to pay their workers and, in theory, would find it easier to get loans from the Construction Bank that was in charge of investment. Deng’s reform changed the country’s economic structure to the greatest extent since Mao’s death. But there was one thing Deng Xiaoping did not want to reform—the structure of the government, He wanted to keep his absolute control over the country. For example, when the stock market was established, he did not allow stock prices to fluctuate freely, which largely reduced investors’ interest in the stock market and curtailed the market’s ability to put money into the most profitable and thus most efficient hands.

Deng did not understand that the success of the economic reform relied on the freedom of the players in the market. And the freedom of the players in the market depended on less government control.

By comparing China with foreign countries, the college students discovered this problem first. Besides their access to foreign publications, exchange programs sent many students abroad, which gave them firsthand knowledge of the Western world. When those students returned to China, they told their friends about what they had seen.

Also, the college students were the most faithful readers of the Western books which were translated and published in China. When books describing the idea of nonviolent protest were published, the students read them eagerly. The spirits of Mahatma Gandhi, Romain Rolland, Chinese translator Fu Lei, and others were planted deeply in the hearts of the people by those books.

As the economic reform went on, it became clearer to the students that it would have no chance of succeeding without democratic reform—the political leaders should be elected by the majority, and the minority (including students themselves) should have a chance to express themselves.

In 1987, the students went to the streets to express their thoughts. They had the support of Hu Yaobang. But they did not get much support from the common people because, in 1987, the economic reform was still heading in the right direction.

Deng Xiaoping did not want to lose any of his control. He fired Hu Yaobang as the General Secretary, moved Premier Zhao Ziyang to Hu’s position, and promoted Li Peng, who was a representative of the old guard and a stepson of the late premier Zhou Enlai, to the Premier’s position.

Although Zhao Ziyang was not as enthusiastic as Hu Yaobang in supporting the students’ drive for democracy, he understood that political changes were unavoidable, saying, “As the economic reform developed, the political reform became unavoidable.”

The unavoidable came in 1988, when inflation rose to over 30 percent. Living standards went down for the first time since the reform. Other problems, such as corrupt officials using their power to reap illegal gains (sometimes running into the millions of dollars) also irritated the people. In the face of those problems, Li Peng showed only his uselessness.

Although the conservatives had controlled the executive branch of the government since 1987, the Party was not in their hands. After Hu Yaobang was fired as the Party’s General Secretary, he was still a member of the five-man Politburo Standing Committee, which gave him the right to vote for reform on all the important issues.

The Demonstration

The breaking point was in early April, when Hu Yaobang had a heart attack during a debate at a Party meeting. He was hospitalized and died on April 15. After Hu’s death, the original balance of the Politburo Standing Committee was lost, and the reformers had virtually no chance of winning votes in the Committee.

On April 16, the students began to send floral wreaths to the Monument for People’s Heroes in the center of the Tiananmen Square. Millions of people responded in support of the students, which brought the city of Beijing to a standstill.

Deng Xiaoping lost his temper. He underestimated the strength of the students at this time, and he forgot what Mao Zedong had said: “The ones who suppress the students will not have a good ending in their lives.” With the support of the old guard and the army, Deng decided to crack down on the student movement.

On May 20, after Zhao Ziyang, who was then still the General Secretary, knew that a bloody crackdown was on its way, he insisted that Li Peng go to the Square with him and visit the students. After Li Peng had left the Square, Zhao Ziyang told the students, “We come too late . . . .

We are too old to see the day when China is strong. But you are young. You should stay alive.” The student leaders took Zhao’s hint and began preparing to leave the Square.

But the old guard didn’t want the students to retreat because they would lose their excuse to punish them. So before the student leaders took their vote on whether to leave the Square, the old guards broadcast Li Peng’s and Yang Shangkun’s speeches declaring martial law and describing the students as rioters. When the vote took place, the students who wanted to stay in the Square won by a small margin.

After Li Peng’s speech, troops were sent into Beijing to carry out the martial law. But the students were stronger than the old guards expected. Beijing citizens flooded the streets. They blocked the army trucks and persuaded many soldiers to turn back against their orders.

Yang Shangkun, the President of China and a military lord, whose brother, sons, son-in-law, and other relatives are in key army positions, moved in 350,000 troops to prevent Beijing’s 38th Army from interfering when the 27th Army under Yang Shangkun’s brother was carrying out the crackdown. After several days of preparation, on the night of June 3 and the morning of June 4 the Chinese government declared war against its own people. Tanks crushed anyone in their way. Machine guns shot unarmed civilians. Fearing that the soldiers wouldn’t shoot their countrymen, military leaders reportedly gave the soldiers injections of stimulant before they were sent to the city.

The command center designated the occupation of every street corner as a “military campaign,” the word normally used to denote a major battle in a regular war.

One doctor said during the massacre that he felt he was in great danger because he knew too much about the situation of the students and the soldiers.

Under the army’s pressure, the students decided to leave the Square. But the army poured into the Square before the students retreated. Then Tiananmen Square, the Square of Heavenly Peace, became a slaughter-yard in which Chinese butchered Chinese. Because of the government news blackout, the death toll couldn’t be confirmed.

Similar killing happened in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, the home of Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng, and Yang Shangkun.

The people’s voice was diminished after the army’s occupation of the Square. Some people stayed at home to listen to the Voice of America and BBC’s Chinese news programs, which might be one of the reasons there were shortages of short-wave radios in some areas. And many others were deceived by the government.

The Future

The government took over Beijing, but they did not win. This is the weakest regime since 1949.

First, it is afraid of the truth. Before and after the bloody crackdown, the government tried its best to mislead the people.

As a Chinese proverb says, one cannot wrap fire with paper. There are simply too many people who know the truth of this event. Through word of mouth, it is only a matter of time before people throughout China know the facts. The other reason that the news blackout won’t work is that this government is much less creative than Mao Zedong’s. Their methods had been used by Mao—but Mao’s techniques had been exposed to the public during the reform.

Second, Mao Zedong never paid people to demonstrate in support of him. But this regime had to pay the Beijing suburban people and bribe them with supplies of chemical fertilizer to demonstrate in its favor.

Last, before the military crackdown, the gov-eminent reportedly moved $80 million to foreign banks and prepared airplanes for the leaders’ escape. Mao Zedong never would have thought about escaping from China.

Such a weak regime, as described by one Chinese student, “The 80-year-olds are calling the 70-year-olds to decide which 60-year-olds should retire,” is not going to last. And the representatives of the old guard, such as Premier Li Peng and the new General Secretary, Jiang Zemin, do not have the ability to run such a big country against the overwhelming majority of the people.

Deng Xiaoping has miscalculated the strength of the people. The blood in Beijing and other cities scared some. But it wakened more. After the Beijing Massacre, many people who used to be friends of the Communist Party had a change of heart. As the president of Wen Hui Bao, the leftist Hong Kong newspaper, said, “I have been a friend of the Chinese Communist Party. I was so even during the Cultural Revolution. But today, I feel shame to be a friend of theirs.”

A government with no friend is weak. Such a weak government is not strong enough to turn back the economic reform measures which already had been carried out. So, the economic structure was not damaged by the student movement. And the day for people’s success is not too far away.

With no doubt, this is one of the darkest times in China’s history. But as a Chinese poem points out, “The darkest time has come. Is it going to be long before the dawn?”