There has been feverish interest in the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen incident, in Australia with some focus on repression in China, fuelling antagonism towards China. In this essay I want to provide context that is lacking: in the evolution of economic reform and liberalism in China, in the evolution of Sino-Soviet relations and regional strategy and China’s united front with the US (and Australia) against Vietnam and the Soviet Union.
On the morning of Sunday 4 June 1989 I was woken early in Canberra by a request from the Sydney Morning Herald to write their editorial page background article on why this event was happening right then in Beijing, focused in Tiananmen Square. So I did, for the 5 June issue, setting out background of the enormous transformation under way in China, indebted for perspective to a comment made to me some days earlier by a middle level Chinese official, a friend from Beijing, trailing behind a senior visitor, buttonholing me to press upon me not to be complacent as in his view (which in the SMH I adopted as my own view) the leadership in Beijing did not have the capacity to comprehend or manage the situation.
On 5 June, in my Parliament House office as head of the research service, I received a call from Stephen FitzGerald, first Australian ambassador to the Peoples Republic of China, to discuss holding a memorial service. I said it must be in Parliament House and presided over by the Prime Minister and that it would be best if the approach came from him, not from me working in the building. And so we found ourselves seated behind Prime Minister Hawke at that extraordinary memorial event.
I offer that personal story to affirm my deep awareness of it all, on the day. But nothing happens just in a day, ever.
The upwelling of protest and demand for freedom in Beijing in the months leading to 4 June followed the death of Hu Yaobang, purged by Deng Xiaoping in 1987 from his post as General Secretary of the Communist Party because of his projects to advance political and creative liberalism. Hu Yaobang visited Australia in 1985, accompanied by the head of the party secretariat Hu Qili. It was my great privilege to spend quite a lot of time with the two Hus before during and after that visit.
Years before, the two Hus became known to some senior party members in Beijing as the erhu literally meaning ‘two hus’ but also the name of that two-stringed traditional Chinese instrument that can dominate any concert performance.
Before the crackdown, there was a meeting of heavyweight leaders on 25 May.
Hu Qili attended that meeting and was alone or only one of two to vote against martial law, He was pushed into obscure work. Zhao Ziyang, who like Hu had made his first western country visit as Premier to Australia in 1983, had succeeded Hu as general secretary. Zhao had met with the protestors and pleaded for patience; he did not attend the 25 May meeting. He spent the rest of his days under house arrest. His memoirs Prisoner of the State are important reading for understanding the times. See also the Wikipedia entries for these three leaders to get a sense of the scale of history and struggle.
A Chinese vice minister said to me one night in 1984 as we endured a cultural performance together in Beijing that despite the battering days of the Cultural Revolution the very worst time was not then but after the death of Premier Zhou Enlai in January 1976, when leadership was uncertain and at risk of falling into the hands of the so called Gang of Four, drivers of the Cultural Revolution. We had come out of hell, he said, just for a few years…and here in front of us was very real prospect of falling back into it again. When Mao died in September 1976, the Gang of four were arrested and later tried.
Zhou had held the country together during and despite the Cultural Revolution. The death of this beloved leader, China’s ‘first son’, had been followed by an upsurge of popular feeling, quickly suppressed. A precursor to events in 1989.
It was Deng Xiaoping who, secured from prison after the death of Mao, led the often-ruthless push for reform that followed and continues. I had in an annex to a 1980 cabinet submission that shaped the modern relationship with China expressed the view that Deng was the second most divisive figure in modern Chinese history, after Mao.
My time as ambassador in Beijing was cut short by illness not to be diagnosed properly for decades. Lots of visitors got sick in China in those days. On my last day in Beijing, August 1985, I had lunch with Hu Qili. Sitting beside him among a few others I said it seemed that he was making progress with organising his special party conference that I knew was to deal with difficult issues. In his impeccable English and with his wry humour he asked: “why would you think that?” Lamely, I said I thought I had read something in the paper, whereupon he said with a grin, for all the table to hear: “Oh well, I suppose you could say I’m making as much progress as would be possible under the leadership of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.”
Emboldened, I ventured to compare him with Gorbachev, with this observation: “A year ago with the USSR stuck and China proceeding with reform, the question for any ambassador here was what would Sino-Soviet relations be like in ten years. But now China has its young leader and the Soviet Union also has its young leader and new questions arise as both pursue reform policies.” I had expected a gentle push-off at my comparison but no, he said this. “Your question is important. It is very important for the world that Gorbachev succeed. But I am concerned that whereas I have support from senior leaders, I am not sure whether Gorbachev has such support”.
Not quite as events would unfold.
That gives you a sense of the times. We were one evening Hu Yaobang’s guests at dinner in Mao’s sumptuous former rooms, a thank you for hospitality in Australia. The Hus were endeavouring to process and work out what to do, in the wake of an unprecedented outburst of English-style soccer hooliganism at the Beijing stadium the night before. Their only thoughts were in the direction of trying to understand and manage, none of the style of the Australian state premier riding with President Johnson in motorcade in Sydney, confronted by demonstrators, allegedly shouted “run over the bastards!” in 1966. Every day and evening in Beijing, dealing with senior people discussing very complex issues positively; to wake in the morning to the Radio Australia news which I described as mostly bottom-pimple comparing, feuding and unconstructive.
Gorbachev had launched two programs, glasnost meaning political and cultural liberalism and perestroika, economic reform. Deng was in charge of economic reform in China, as supreme leader above party and state structures, with Zhao as premier, he who pioneered the ‘responsibility system’ in agriculture in Sichuan in 1978, a shift from every brick, chook and egg belonging to the state and the peasant world of 900 million eating from the iron rice bowl, to a system where the farmer met a quota for the state and everything else he produced was private property. Hu Yaobang as party general secretary sought to command a program of liberalisation, or as the Hus were to style it in 1986, sankuan, the party’s three [san] principles for ideological-cultural affairs, development of “generosity, tolerance and relaxation.” [see an explanation of how this evolved in a document I have pasted here:
As Hu had experienced in 1984 at a conference of writers and artists, and as Zhao Ziyang was to experience at Tiananmen, the lively response from the proponents of liberty to this sankuan was a chorus of don’t be absurd, you are not speaking of liberty, you are speaking of lengthening our chains. You have no right to define and limit liberty. As encountered in other societies, idealists grasping defeat from the jaws of victory by fervent adherence to rigid principle. On the other side of the situation, in 1986 as in 1989, dinosaurs in the party did not want to be disadvantaged by any favours to the liberal crowd and brought their venerable and disgruntled case against Hu to Deng, who removed Hu from office in 1987.
In the land of the hardnosed, especially in Washington, Hu was just Deng’s puppet anyway and Deng was the one to open the economy and deliver business opportunity. This perspective, while commonplace in uglier dynamics of international relations ignored the real volatilities in China, the rising urban ambitions as the economy rose but rose more slowly than in the countryside. Historical family aspiration for the “two things that go round and the one that stands up” (sewing machine, bicycle, transistor radio) were no longer enough. From around 1984, children had been swung higher, walking with parents. The sea of uniform blue and green Mao jackets were modified by coloured socks. Couples cuddled on the Bund, by the river in Shanghai, in the evening. Young people asked to practice English they had learned on the radio. The China Daily, first English language paper, whose editors had trained and whose first dummy issue had been printed at The Age in Melbourne, with scepticism printed material to support Radio Australia language programs; sold instantly. Radio Australia conducted calligraphy contests, one for China, one for Japan. 200 entries arrived in Melbourne from Japan. Ten thousand from China, posted airmail. An artist in residence at the ACTU knew that modern art would unfold much more vigorously in China than Japan. He dreamed of murals on the Beijing subway, but we never got to that. A society coming alive. I said to a senior person, a friend that I would believe China safe, the people unbruised, when the apples in the Friendship Store were not bruised, which they always seemed to be. Care, respect, safety, society, culture, warmth, confidence.
Deng had form as ruthless with force against party ructions in the mid-1970s. In 1978-79 he first encouraging the Democracy Wall movement https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Wall to achieve leverage among his party opponents: to get to Washington, get relations with the US normalised (the US embassy from Taipei to Beijing), get a united front with the US (and Australia) against Vietnam and the USSR… then to smash the Democracy Wall movement and launch a small invasion of Vietnam.
In early 1989, Deng and others in the leadership were confronted by unmanageable pressures created by the frustration of social demand, gagged with the purge of Hu Yaobang—old leaders, with their fibres and fears shaped by other great upheavals, times of war and destruction, including the struggle with the Gang of Four mentioned above.
Deng had been working to normalise relations with Moscow but that was now running in difficult directions. They were aghast at what Gorbachev had done. Gorbachev was coming to Beijing in mid-May 1989. Gorbachev, whose country was obviously about to fall apart. Gorbachev: whose empire in Eastern Europe was about to evaporate. Gorbachev: who was about to lose his job. Gorbachev who thus represented everything that China historically and now fears most, disintegration of a giant and diverse nation… and everything dinosaur party leaders fear: disemployment, disentitlement and retribution.
But above all else, the states of affairs in other big places (the US, USSR, India, Japan, etc.) provided no leads, no pointers; no models for running a giant country through dramatic change. China was on its own and at grave risk.
Gorbachev could not be given the normal welcoming ceremony in Tiananmen Square, occupied by demonstrators. But he did go out to meet the demonstrators. Then he went home, to lose job and country in half a year. Then three US warships made a friendly visit to Shanghai and departed. Then the bunch of most powerful in the party met on 25 May, declared martial law and set in train what was to happen on 4 June.
Our Cabinet-approved policy framework for relations with China from 1980, when China’s reforms had begun, was to assist China to build institutions to establish civil society and responsible government. Lots of practical things were done. But…it is in the nature of Australian political leaders that they do not like difficult issues on the table in discussions with the mighty. The elephant in the room was that warm public opinion in Australia would, as relations became more complex, depend upon people-to-people relations and evaluations and especially how Australians saw the rights of people in China. My suggestions that this be gently flagged were not entertained.
At that time Australians were per capita the most numerous visitors to China. There was warmth of substance.
Our desire was to build a relationship valued by whatever prospective government in China. But then, just as Chinese leaders could not cope with the 1989 rebellion, so we could not, government-to-government, cope with the aftermath. Except that when Howard became prime minister all the broad scope of relations launched by Fraser in 1980 disappeared from view in preoccupation with the money, the waterfall of income from resources sales to China, thrown largely into tax breaks whereas it could have modernised infrastructure. From which time the absurd mantra: we have a great ally over there, a great trading partner over here. How inadequate and disrespectful.
In the absence of Australian leaders building wider understanding of China and the importance of our relationship with China, and in the absence of leaders articulating an independent Australian view of the world, we arrive now at a point where public opinion seems driven by ancient hostilities and shallow current affairs reports.
Dennis Argall was Australia’s ambassador to China in 1984. From 1970 variously, among other jobs, China desk officer, head of the China and Korea Section, head of the North Asia Branch and acting head of the North and South Asia Division of Foreign Affairs.