MURRAY SAYLE. On Tiananmen Square – June 1989

Jun 10, 2019

On May 13, with Gorbachev’s visit imminent, the students began a hunger strike in seven-day relays. How did the regime react? The People’s Liberation Army sent one thousand quilts; the Chinese Red Cross brought water, salt, and sugar for the hunger-strikers; and Mayor Chen’s own Beijing municipality set up portable toilets. Students were taken to state- owned hospitals for treatment, unhindered by the authorities, and none died.

This official leniency gave many, perhaps most Chinese to believe that the student movement was not only being tolerated but was winning in its aim of making China a better place, by means never specified. Students and sympathizers were arriving by train from all over China, many allowed to travel free by the railway staffs. The students’ movement was fully and sympathetically reported by the Chinese state television and the very same People’s Daily that later carried Chen’s report. The numbers involved grew enormously – according to Chen, 200,000 students from other parts of China and “several hundred thousand other people” joined in the Beijing demonstrations. All of this was favourably reported in the West and no one, as far as I know, warned the Deng regime that it was playing with fire, although we have our own Kent State, Paris ’68, and Londonderry to remind us that soldiers and demonstrators make a dangerous mixture.

At this point Mayor Chen makes a damning admission. “For a time,” says his report, “it looked as if refusal to join in the demonstrations meant ‘unpatriotic’ and refusal to show support was equivalent to ‘indifferent to the survival of the students.’ Under such circumstances, the fasting students were put to ride the tiger and found it difficult to get off.” Chen here concedes the basic guilt of the Deng regime: it allowed the students and the rest of the Chinese people to believe that demonstrating and hunger-striking were now permissible political tactics, and that the students had official toleration and even backing for their campaign.

The students must take some blame for convincing themselves that sit-ins and hunger-strikes, fashionable imports from the more pliable West, were appropriate methods to use in extracting concessions from, let alone transforming, an embattled authoritarian regime with a record of ruthlessness in suppressing dissent. But there is something to be said for the students beyond youth and inexperience. Unpopular rulers had not long before been toppled in South Korea, Burma, and the Philippines by popular demonstrations. On more mature examination, however, these cases were very different from China’s; in each the army, the ultimate prop of all governments, supported the incomers, and none of the three has changed the basic status quo ante. Overturning the government of China with its three million active army and forty-nine million organized Communists is an altogether different proposition – unlikely if non-violent, hopeless if violent. But a sense of proportion is not to be expected from adolescents in student dormitories.

Back in the square, the students set up an “autonomous self-governing region” administered from a hundred commandeered buses (Mayor Chen says seventy-eight were sent by the municipality as a gesture of goodwill), a couple married on the Monument to the People’s Heroes, and the Goddess of Liberty arrived in segments from the Central Academy of Arts as a focus for impromptu dancing and concerts. Our own giddy 1960s, the politics of fantasy, had finally reached China.

On May 20 martial law was declared in Beijing, although the leadership still dithered about using force.On May 22 an army Gazelle helicopter dropped leaflets over Tiananmen Square warning that force would be used if the square was not evacuated – the Chinese equivalent of reading the Riot Act. Thousands of non-students – variously de- scribed either as citizens, workers, or China’s answer to the Hell’s Angels – and some students as well responded by building road-blocks and laying in supplies of knives, iron blocks and  iron bars, sharpened bamboos, gasoline and empty bottles in preparation for resisting the expected “invasion” of central Beijing by the Chinese army. Mayor Chen, after the event, labeled these protestors part of a gigantic counter-revolutionary conspiracy, but we can see them more simply as the dissatisfied, unemployed, and drifters, people marginalized by Deng’s economics for whom neither the state nor private enterprise had any use – in short, those alienated by the partial transition to capitalism. It is clear from the television films that many of the non-students had had military training, particularly in the disabling of tanks and other armored vehicles with makeshift weapons, as taught to Chinese militiamen. Certainly, by accepting their “protection” the student movement forfeited its non-violent status, a point which seems to have troubled some of the more responsible student leadership. The exiled lecturer Yan Jiaqi claims that the Chinese state had first lost its legitimacy by resorting to force, a flimsy argument which if generally applied would make government impossible.

Clearing the Square

In any event there were un- doubtedly riots in the approaches to Tiananmen on June 3 when the government finally moved to clear the square by force. The first blood drawn seems to have been the army’s, that of soldiers dragged out of trucks, buses, and armored personnel carriers and beaten up, some fatally. Mayor Chen claims that 1,280 army, police, and civilian» vehicles were burnt, 6,000 soldiers and police injured and “several dozens” killed. Rumors, of course, travel as fast among soldiers as they do among civilians, so it is likely that the PLA troops were given highly exaggerated accounts of what they were up against.

On the night of June 3 a battalion of soldiers – unarmed and wearing civilian T- shirts – marched into Tiananmen, were instantly recognized and beaten up, some badly, by demonstrators. This strange maneuver must have been a kind of unarmed reconnaissance, a last desperate attempt to resolve the debate in the leadership about whether the demonstrations were really non-violent. From 1:30 a.m. the following morning, the demonstrators were warned by bull-horns to leave the square. Three hours of negotiations followed. By 3:30 a.m. most of the students had agreed to leave peacefully, and did so. At 4 a.m. the lights in the square were switched off and the remaining demonstrators lit prepared fires. An armored vehicle moved to clear the square and there was some resistance and fighting by die-hards, probably not students, which we saw in television reports. On close examination, most of the shooting in the square was, by angle of the tracer rounds, clearly into the air. Mayor Chen says that the troops who entered the square had instructions to use minimum force and the experienced eyewitnesses I have con- sulted confirm this impression. There was a lot of violence and a few deaths, less than a dozen, but nothing that could reasonably be called a massacre in Tiananmen Square itself. For what it is worth, on this point the Chinese government is right and the Western media generally sloppy or wrong.

The story was different in the wide streets around the square and in other parts of the city where troops used force to break through the roadblocks. People who dis-obeyed army instructions or resisted armored vehicles were shot down, and some bystanders were probably shot in a spirit of revenge or on the unsupported suspicion that they were armed. Amnesty International says that “at least 1300 were killed” in Beijing. From accounts I have heard or studied I put the figure closer to 700. Few of the dead were, in fact, students; Mayor Chen gives the figure of 36, and 87 students were reported missing from Beijing University, although many of these are known to have fled the country, some before the final showdown.

No doubt central Beijing could have been secured with less bloodshed, especially if the army commanders had been prepared to move more slowly and accept more casualties among their own troops. It is equally clear that by June 4, as Mayor Chen says, “the turmoil. . . had spread to the whole of society and to all parts of China.” The government was facing something like a spontaneous, unorganized general insurrection and had no realistic option but force to restore its authority. China had no alternative government waiting in the wings, and there was certainly none standing by in the dormitories of Beijing University. The regime’s real culpability lies not so much in using force at the end, but in letting itself drift into such a situation. Deng Xiaoping’s wistful remark on June 8, “it was bound to happen and was independent of man’s will,” can only be read as a pathetic confession of political failure.

The above is an extract from an article that Murray Sayle wrote for The National Interest (1989/90).

The late Murray was an Australian journalistic legend. He spotted Francis Chichester’s yacht rounding Cape Horn. He tracked down Che Guevara in the Bolivian jungle. He located Kim Philby in Moscow. In the 1970’s he was a war reporter in Vietnam. In earlier days on the Sunday Times he reported correctly that on Bloody Sunday the British paratroopers had not been fired on and not been provoked by the Republicans. He was much criticised for his report but was later vindicated.He lived in Japan for many years which was his base for extensive reporting on Japan and the region. His stories were carried widely around the world including by the Spectator and the New York Review of Books.Few journalists have matched his great skill,  rigour and integrity.

I knew him well for over 30 years. John Menadue

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