Behind the Scenes of China's 1989 Student Movement

A commentary by Wei Pu
2014-05-23
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Well-wishers hold up a banner in support of Zhao Ziyang at his family home in Beijing, Oct. 17, 2013.
Well-wishers hold up a banner in support of Zhao Ziyang at his family home in Beijing, Oct. 17, 2013.
Photo courtesy of Hu Jia

During the time of the 1989 student movement, then-premier Zhao Ziyang parted ways irrevocably with the de facto leader of the Chinese Communist Party for good, following a 10-year honeymoon period of reform.

Zhao Ziyang was stripped of his post, put on trial, and then placed under house arrest until his death because he opposed Deng Xiaoping's bloody suppression of the student movement.

Some of the reasons for the split between Deng and Zhao are publicly known, while others are not. It seems to me from my reading that while the reasons we know about are important ones, the ones that we don't know about are probably more important.

The open conflict between Deng and Zhao came about over the April 26 editorial [in the People's Daily], over Zhao Ziyang's comments to [visiting Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev, and over the imposition of martial law and the order for the military crackdown.

There were other, less public, reasons apart from these, including the evaluation of [late former premier] Hu Yaobang, and Deng Xiaoping's suspicions.

The April 26 editorial  described the student movement as a "planned conspiracy to plunge the whole country into chaos with the aim of overturning the leadership of the party and the socialist system."

An incorrect appraisal

Zhao Ziyang thought this appraisal of the student movement was incorrect. He believed it to be a patriotic movement. But Deng Xiaoping stuck to his guns, saying it was correct.

Zhao had wanted to revise and soften the tone of the editorial, but Deng insisted it be left as it was. The differing opinions between the two men later formed the basis of the evidence for the charges that Zhao was "splitting the party."

The Chinese Communist Party spent three years and four months investigating Zhao, during which time Wang Renzhong, head of the investigation team, met with Zhao five times and wrote him three letters. The investigation centered on three main points.

One was establishing whether or not Zhao had played a direct part in the 'turmoil,' and whether he leaked information to the outside world.

The second was to find out why Zhao had taken a different point of view and action plan from Deng's. What was his motivation?

[The third was] to establish Zhao's reliance on bourgeois liberalism during the years he was in power.

Eventually, the party charged Zhao Ziyang with "supporting rebellion and splitting the party," in a charge sheet with 30 items on it. Among them was a charge linked to the April 26 editorial.

Deng's role revealed


The second major conflict between Deng and Zhao centered on Zhao's conversation with Gorbachev.

The secretary general of the Soviet Union met with Zhao Ziyang on May 16, 1989. Zhao told Gorbachev that ever since the 13th Party Congress, the leadership was to report back to Deng Xiaoping on all major issues, and for him to take the helm.

The very next day, the students began putting up placards saying "Down with Deng Xiaoping!" and "Oppose the Invisible Hand!"

Deng and his family were very angry, believing that Zhao was deliberately trying to drive a wedge between the government and the students, and sacrificing Deng while refusing to take responsibility.

Deng Xiaoping's daughter Deng Rong cursed Zhao Ziyang out over this for nearly an hour.

Many people don't understand why Zhao Ziyang alluded to Deng Xiaoping's behind-the-scenes role at a time like that. Critics have said that Zhao misjudged the situation, and took the opportunity to play a trump card in front of the international media with the intention of toppling Deng and replacing him.

In a book published last year titled Behind the Scenes of Chinese Politics and Reform in the 1980s, Wu Wei describes the scene in detail, saying that Zhao's comment was a routine reply to uncertainty expressed by the Soviet Embassy.

Shifting the blame?

But all those involved in the preparation of the conversation with Gorbachev, including Bao Tong and Wu Wei and Zhao Ziyang who made the comments, were shocked at subsequent developments.

In his June 4 Diary, [then vice-premier] Li Peng said that Zhao was clearly telling the truth, but that his intentions suggested Zhao wanted to blame the current unrest on Deng Xiaoping.

Zhao's original intention was probably to protect Deng Xiaoping. Apart from the doubt expressed by the Soviet side, there was a lot of criticism of Deng Xiaoping's autocratic style and abuse of power among workers in Beijing, who said he shouldn't continue to control the Politburo Standing Committee if he wasn't a member, and so on.

On May 28, 1989, Zhao Ziyang wrote a letter to Deng Xiaoping explaining that his remarks were intended to be entirely protective of Deng. But the message clearly never found its mark, and his "faux pas" regarding Deng Xiaoping was to follow him to the grave.

The third area of conflict between Deng and Zhao was to do with martial law and the military crackdown. Zhao never accepted Deng's approach to the student movement, and he didn't want to be the premier who put down the students.

But Deng thought that the Chinese Communist Party had no other option but military suppression and martial law. During Zhao's house arrest, Deng Xiaoping sent people to his home twice, hoping that Zhao would speak out in support of the central government's decision regarding June 4.

Zhao told them: "Xiaoping may wish that I would accept the central government's ruling regarding June 4. I hope that the central government will overturn its verdict on June 4."

These are the two bottom lines for both sides. The Chinese Communist Party kept Zhao Ziyang under house arrest for the rest of his life because he stuck to his bottom line. And the fact that Zhao stuck to it is a monument to his achievements in Communist Party history, and in Chinese history.

Zhao Ziyang always believed that Deng Xiaoping trusted him. If it hadn't been for the April 26 editorial, and if it hadn't been for June 4, there would have been no parting of the ways between them.

As Zhao wrote in his book Prisoner of the State, Deng told him in January 1989 that he had been considering relinquishing his post as chairman of the Central Military Commission and letting Zhao take it over. On April 22, on the eve of Zhao's visit to North Korea, Deng told him: "Zhao Ziyang will continue as the next general secretary."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

Wei Pu is a U.S.-based economist and a regular contributor to RFA's Cantonese Service.

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