Reappraising Tiananmen Square

When I met with a former co-worker today for lunch in Beijing, the first thing he asked was whether I heard the latest big news from Beijing: Dr. Jiang Yanyong, the whistleblower who tipped off the Western media to the SARS cover-up last year, had demanded the CCP turn the spotlight on the Tiananmen Square massacre and reappraise what occurred.

The story has already been covered nicely by Water, Joseph and Andrea.

My friend seems to think the doctor’s fame and reputation will help win support for his request, and that it has the potential to further push China along the road to greater transparency and accountability. It could also be a good test of who’s really pulling the strings in Beijing, the reformers or the hard-liners. This is one to watch carefully.

More posts about Tiananmen Square:
Tiananmen Square revisited
Tiananmen Square re-revisited
The story behind the Tiananmen Square “tank man” photo

The Discussion: 16 Comments

At that age, 72, I’d be thinking, hmm ain’t done much with my life, prolly going to kick the bucket in a few years, hey I know, I’ll give the party a bit of a blast. A good way to go out, far better than most.

March 9, 2004 @ 7:08 pm | Comment

There’s clearly been division within government circles for the last few years over Tiananmen Square. I’m thinking especially of the release of papers that were published in the west in the book known as Tiananmen Papers … It purports to be a genuine recount from government papers of the lead up to the decision to send the tanks in. Certain leaders come off decidely worse off than others, and the timing of the release showed it was probably part of the jockeying for position that preceded the retirement of that generation of senior leadership.

I see the release of stories about the plight of the peasants and this story in much the same light … there are people within the government who are pushing for a certain policy. However, they don’t have the numbers to get it accepted, but they do have sufficient influence to get it highlighted in the media … nothing is straight forward in Beijing … the term “byzantine” could have been invented for them …

March 9, 2004 @ 7:37 pm | Comment

Ok. I dont know if this is an extended metaphor. Perhaps I am too dense. Regardless, it is gross. If it is an extended metaphor, just say what you mean. Otherwise, I am sure there are other, more appropriate places to talk about defacation and sex.

March 9, 2004 @ 10:23 pm | Comment

I saw the PBS documentary regarding the Tianmen Square incident and came to the conclusion that the protesters were at least as responsible as the hard-liners in affecting the subsequent catastrophe.

Reformers in the Communist Party leadership like Zhao reached out to the students during the early phase of the protests, but when they did, it soon became clear that the students had no cohesive leadership and no viable negotiating position. When the students failed to rally to the reformist elements in the party, Deng Xiao Ping and other senior members threw political and military backing to the hard-liners, who ordered dispersion of the crowd with any means.

Well, the PLA doesn’t train for crowd control and were only armed with lethal weapons, so there’s little wonder that they went into battle mode. That the supposed army of the people did not show more restraint was, I think, heartbreaking for a lot of Chinese people, including myself, to watch.

In summary, I have to make the following conclusions.

1. During the early phase of the protests, there was a chance to accomplish real political reform had the students united behined Zhao and the reformists and offered viable, cohesive negotiating positions.

2. The students and other protestors were completely disorganized with incessant internecine fighting. Towards the end, the protests were degenerating into a riot. The official position was correct on this point.

3. The subsequent hardliner response was a direct consequence of the students’ failure to respond to outreach by reformist elements of the party leadership. When it became clear that the reformists had no support, the “stability at all cost” bulk of the party leadership threw their support behind the hardliners.

4. The hardliners had little regard for the lives of their fellow Chinese. The same for the PLA unit that dispersed the crowds ( earlier units had been withdrawn because they refused to fire on the crowd ).

5. A critical mistake on the part of the PLA was the lack of crowd dipersal training and equipment purchase when it was obvious that some of them might be asked to take this role.

To actually get China onto the path of political reform, the reformers need a road map on doing this incrementally. People who wish to see democracy in China need to support the reformist elements of the party every step of the way by responding positively to the correct reformist steps. Those overseas will be far more effective if they concentrate on getting knowledge about democratic governance into China rather than asking for sanctions from the Congress.

March 9, 2004 @ 10:30 pm | Comment

I have read that in fact no students (or very few) were actually killed *inside* Tiananmen square, and that the “student massacre” is a fallacy caused by sloppy journalism.

Instead, many people, primarily non-students, were killed outside the square at road blocks in the surrounding streets, when the city was under martial law.

It is very difficult to find an objective account of the events that is actually backed up by facts — does anyone know any more about what really happened? Is it reasonable to assume that the student protests were just the focal point of a larger struggle, that did not receive much press in the West, due to the journalists focusing on the square? (and trying not to get shot…)

March 10, 2004 @ 9:10 am | Comment


there are plenty of people and people who were there as protesters and as journalists who corroborate that many were killed inside the square.

March 10, 2004 @ 10:06 am | Comment

I believe it was pretty clear that the Square was the major part of the event. There were pro-democracy showings and protests of various sorts in many of the major cities, but they were not at Tianmen scale.

March 10, 2004 @ 11:05 am | Comment

citanon, I was referring to activity in other parts of Beijing, rather than in other cities. In particular, the most common story I’ve heard regarding people who were killed is that they were going to the square, or leaving the square, or going somewhere else entirely through a street near the square, and were shot at road blocks. It seems hard to find balanced coverage of this, though. (Also, didn’t the army suffer casualties in other parts of the city?)

boy, do you know what is the most authoritative timeline of events, available on the web? It’s supremely frustrating to me that something involving so many people should be shrouded in such mystery.

March 10, 2004 @ 11:22 am | Comment

I’ve read the Tiananmen Papers and saw the documentary Gates of Heavenly Peace and can confirm that the vast majority of the deaths were of non-students and occurred west of the Square, along Changan Jie between Xinmudi (??. forget the name exactly, it’s one of the stops on the subway line) and Xidan. They were mostly Beijing residents trying to stop the oncoming tanks. Some of the residents were flinging rocks and Molotov cocktails at the tanks, but for the most part the soldiers were shooting at unarmed people.

By the time the tanks got to the Square, the few remaining students had already fled south, along Qianmen Jie.

March 10, 2004 @ 12:01 pm | Comment

wayne, that puts the protests in a very different (and more significant?) light than presenting it as just a student protest. Any idea why that aspect is drowned out by the emphasis on the square itself? More symbolic? Looks better on tv?

March 10, 2004 @ 12:18 pm | Comment

It’s Muxidi you’re looking for, Wayne. I was here during the demonstrations but by pure coincidence left Beijing on the morning of June 3 and didn’t learn about what had happened until 3 days later, in Qiqihar, when I got off a train. Wish I could lend an eye-witness account of where stuff went down.

March 10, 2004 @ 1:33 pm | Comment

I also heard the same thing, about the bulk of the shootings occurring in the streets to the west. I also heard there was at least some shooting in the square, and that bullet holes were all over the place afterwards.

There are many differing versions of what went on on June 4th. Jan Wong, in Red China Bluies, describes the killings in detail as an eyewitness. John Pomfret and Nicholad Kristoff also offer first-hand accounts that are not generous to the army. No matter who was “right,” no matter how dishonest and power-drunk and disorganized and ruthless some of the students may have been, the qestion I’d like to see addressed are, was the amount of force used that night appropriate? Were people who were actually leaving the square and returning home among the victims? Was there justification? Were the soldiers attacked or provoked?

I saw the same PBS documentary one of the commenters alludes to, and no where do I recall it saying or implying the students were equally to blame as the soldiers. He may be right; I’d like to know what he’s referring to.

Anyway, the good thing about the doctor’s request is that it would help shed light on these murky topics. For now, too much is up for speculation.

March 10, 2004 @ 5:08 pm | Comment

Well, towards the mid to late May, it definitely became something more than a student protest. All sorts of worker groups started showing up in Beijing. Sort of ironic that by this time, most of the students began returning to class.

I’m wondering whether this doctor’s timing is right. I have a sneaking hunch that Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, and other hard-liners have a lot more control behind the scenes than they appear to. If Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao (who showed up at the Square himself to support the students) are forced to make some public statement on 6/4 now, I have a feeling that they’d echo the official party line that it was a counter-revolutionary movement so as not to lose influence in their byzantine power struggle.

And if the supposed reformers say that the movement was anti-patriotic or counter-revolutionary or whatever, that might set the date for a true reappraisal of the vents back a couple of decades.

March 10, 2004 @ 5:25 pm | Comment

I always saw it something that began as a student protest, but soon became almost a social outing for people of all walks of life, with policemen and businesspeople all joining in. That was how the media showed it,although the emphasis was always on the students, as they were the ones making the demands, and they were the ones that the others were joining to support. They were, for better or worse, the stars of the show.

March 10, 2004 @ 5:59 pm | Comment

Well, this is pure hearsay, but I had heard that the majority of those killed weren’t from Beijing at all. The locals had got wind that something was up and had gone home. It was the students etc from elsewhere who had come into Beijing during the late stages of the protests who got stuck … they had no homes to retreat to.

March 10, 2004 @ 8:38 pm | Comment

Completely out of context humourous comment from yesterday, upon hearing that the Australian government is going to spend $550 million buying *tanks* from America: “Tanks? What for? We don’t even have a Tiananmen square to run protestors over in!”

March 11, 2004 @ 8:37 am | Comment

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