Although the Chinese government and Deng Xiaoping, in particular, bore unmistakable responsibility for labeling student demonstrations at the Tiananmen Square as “turmoil” and for later sanctioning the use of deadly force to disperse them, there was sufficient blame to go around. With the benefit of hindsight, it was evident that mistakes had been made on both sides.
The Student Leaders
In the escalating moral theatrics that led up to the bloody Tiananmen Square end-game of June 3 and 4, some hard-line confrontationists among the student leaders engaged in provocative behavior of their own.
Filled with righteous indignation and apparently relishing their own newfound media star-power, they had brashly rejected the entreaties of well-meaning government emissaries, sent by Zhao Ziyang, to urge the students to compromise with the government and thereby avert a potentially catastrophic confrontation.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Misplaced Political Idealism
Most tragic of all, perhaps, was the death of political idealism in China. Millions of college students had naïvely believed that by throwing themselves under the wheels of a corrupt, autocratic political machine, the machine could be forced to stop or at least to change direction. They were wrong. The high cost of this misplaced idealism was borne by all.
In May of 1989, Wang Chaohua, a Beida student, had tried to mediate between Communist Party moderates, representing Zhao Ziyang, and student hunger strikers in Tiananmen Square. But her efforts to arrange a negotiated settlement on behalf of Zhou were blocked by the intransigence of some of the students.
After the crackdown on June 4, Wang’s name had appeared on the Chinese government’s ‘Most Wanted’ list of counterrevolutionary fugitives. However, she evaded arrest and, with the aid of an interesting underground railroad organized in Hong Kong, she was eventually smuggled out of China.
Later, in an interview, Wang confided that shortly after June 4, she began to experience deep feelings of guilt, along with a crushing sense of personal remorse for her inability to prevent the bloodbath. Even twenty years after the fact, she continues to be haunted by recurring nightmares in which she hears the screams of Chinese students.
“Where,” she asks, “does the responsibility of an arrogant, imperious government end, and that of immature, self-righteous students begin?”
Learn more about Deng’s proposed legal and political reforms.
Even by the end of August, the political situation was extremely tense, almost surreal. Tiananmen Square was closed to all pedestrian traffic. Soldiers armed with AK-47s, stationed in pairs always, patrolled the perimeter of the square as well as major intersections and bridges throughout the city. Moreover, armed martial law troops were posted at the entrances to all local universities and research institutes.
Angry Beijingers had continued to commit sporadic acts of violence against martial law troops throughout the summer of 1989. There had been a series of sniper attacks, and at least one Beijing resident had attempted to kill a squad of soldiers by offering them drinking water laced with poison.
Post-Tiananmen Stress Syndrome
Throughout the city, a sort of a “post-Tiananmen stress syndrome” was in evidence. For one thing, there were ubiquitous signs of intensive political surveillance. It also seemed that a substantial numbers of civilians had, in fact, been killed—something the government of China has steadfastly denied.
Throughout the last half of 1989, the Chinese government made a massive effort to suppress any questions or criticism of its behavior during the ‘Beijing Spring’. Deng Xiaoping personally praised the ‘heroic’ actions of the PLA in putting down the ‘counterrevolutionary turmoil’ in Tiananmen Square.
Subsequently, Zhao Ziyang was officially condemned and stripped of all of his posts for having ‘split the party’ through his show of support for the students.
Although Zhao was never formally charged with any criminal offenses, he remained in disgrace and under house arrest for the next sixteen years, until his death in 2005.
But even in death, his memory was dishonored by the Chinese Communist Party, as his passing was all but ignored by the party-controlled media.
On the day of his funeral, several well-known Chinese dissidents were warned not to leave their homes. Outside the gates of the Babaoshan cemetery, however, a group of defiant mourners gathered anyway. Silently, they unfurled a hand-lettered banner: “Zhao Ziyang’s spirit will live forever.”
It was a bittersweet epitaph for a true Chinese hero.
Learn more about the events of Tiananmen Square.
Conservatives in the Driver’s Seat
In the aftermath of the Tiananmen trauma, conservatives were clearly in the driver’s seat. Hu Yaobang was dead; Zhao Ziyang was in disgrace; Li Peng was in Deng’s good graces; and political reform had been taken off the table indefinitely.
The delicate balance that Deng had maintained so carefully throughout the 1980s was now destroyed. To put it charitably, the party’s liberal wing was in total disarray.
Sensing an opportunity to press their advantage, the hard-liners went on the warpath. Not content with having removed Zhao and his associates from power, they now went after Deng’s market reforms.
By the end of 1991, they had succeeded to force Deng onto the defensive, to the point where his entire reform program was in serious jeopardy.
Common Questions about the Aftermath of the Bloodbath at Tiananmen
Some hard-line confrontationists among the student leaders had brashly rejected the entreaties of well-meaning government emissaries sent by Zhao Ziyang. They were filled with righteous indignation and were apparently relishing their own newfound media star-power.
After the Tiananmen Square massacre, throughout the summer of 1989, there had been a series of sniper attacks. Also, at least one Beijing resident had attempted to kill a squad of soldiers by offering them drinking water laced with poison.
The Tiananmen Square massacre led to the conservatives becoming powerful. Hu Yaobang was dead; Zhao Ziyang was in disgrace; Li Peng was in Deng’s good graces; and political reform had been taken off the table indefinitely. The party’s liberal wing was in total disarray.