25 Years Later, Lessons From Tiananmen Square Crackdown

A quarter century after democracy protests ended in bloodshed, Chinese still clamor for clean government and courts.

Last night I drove through a rain-swept Tiananmen Square. It was dark, silent, eerily deserted—a vast contrast to the unruly scene 25 years ago when I witnessed disheveled hunger-striking protesters sacked out in tents, creating a pro-democracy shantytown.

There was guitar music, and there were banners proclaiming: "I NEED FOOD BUT I'D RATHER DIE FOR DEMOCRACY," and a 33-foot-tall Goddess of Democracy statue erected defiantly at the north end of Tiananmen, staring down a gigantic portrait of Chairman Mao.

"We were so peaceful, so honest," recalled former student leader Wuer Kaixi last week. "So naive." (Related: "Tiananmen Haunts Photographer Brothers After 25 Years.")

Just off the square, I recall marveling at the colonial-style Bank of China building where I did my banking back then; from its roof hung a vast white vertical sign that warned: "Don't be a vault for corruption."

A quarter century later, Chinese are still not allowed to debate publicly what happened June 4, when soldiers gunned down pro-democracy protesters and tanks rolled through the square, their treads chewing up the paving stones stained red with blood. I and many others vividly recall the hot, zinging sound of bullets, the gut-wrenching sight of crumpled bodies.

A Rebellion Suppressed

But the regime's Tiananmen taboo cloaks in mystery the exact death toll even now. (Hospital records, albeit incomplete, indicated more than a thousand died). In advance of this year's anniversary, authorities detained activists, a lawyer, media workers, some Buddhists; most have been held in places unknown. (Related: Photographer Stuart Franklin Remembers Tiananmen Square.)

And yet, one thing remains very clear: Many Chinese still smolder with anger at injustices spawned by corrupt Communist Party cadres and tainted courts.

Just before the June 1989 crackdown, Tiananmen was a raucous festival of idealism and naïiveté. "I don't know what democracy is," one Beijing woman admitted to me as she marveled at the scene, "but China needs more of it."  In the crowds, I saw a Qinghua University student holding a poster with lyrics from a Joan Baez song scribbled on it; another's T-shirt read, "We shall overcome."

But the roots of the protest movement were also economic; inflation had surged in the mid-1980s. Sons of senior leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang were seen to have benefited unfairly from the rewards of Deng's free-market reforms.

"Without corruption, prices wouldn't rise," read the banners of protesters marching toward the square, passing long-haired student marshals wearing headbands who directed traffic alongside white-gloved police.

That innocence was shattered late on the evening of June 3. Walking at the edge of Tiananmen Square in darkness, I heard disembodied shouts, unseen bullets whizzing past my head. I saw a man near me sag, a red stain blossoming across his white shirt; he was tossed onto a three-wheeled cart by some rescuers who quickly dashed away.

People beat on the sides of an armored vehicle with clubs and metal rods. The grainy-gray light of dawn the next morning revealed rows of soldiers lying on their bellies on the ground, pointing machine guns toward yelling civilians. They fired. I ducked low. Loudspeakers mounted on streetlamps droned, "The rebellion has been suppressed."

Going After Corruption

President Xi Jinping himself has warned that corruption threatens the very survival of the Chinese Communist Party. His team is well aware that popular unrest has toppled authoritarian regimes all over the developing world—or in some cases set them wobbling precariously. Xi seems determined to avoid a similar fate.

Since becoming China's president in March 2013, he's kicked off an unusually intense anti-corruption drive and seems poised to put criminal courts on a more solid legal footing. Officials requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic reveal Xi will seek to improve rule of law and the court system at a major Communist Party gathering later this year.

"Xi wants to focus on the judicial system, especially in anti-corruption cases, so the public won't just think it all depends on party whim," says Chris Johnson, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The first high-ranking official to be convicted of corruption under Xi's watch was former railways minister Liu Zhijun, who received a suspended death sentence for accepting bribes worth more than ten million dollars (almost certainly a conservative figure).

Liu received kickbacks for contracts that had a negative impact on testing and safety procedures in China's multibillion-dollar high-speed rail network. The system was plagued by safety scandals, including the crash of a high-speed train near Wenzhou in 2011 that killed 40 people and triggered a national outcry.

Will Xi's reforms be too little, too late? Public anger has not exploded openly on the scale of 1989, but China still sees thousands of localized protests every year. They tend to focus on two main targets: official abuses and China's elite "princelings." These are younger relatives of revolutionary elders who helped Mao Zedong claw his way to power in 1949.

With their "red pedigrees," princelings have enjoyed more than their fair share of China's economic miracle, openly flaunting their wealth and defying the law.

Critics often focus on princelings driving flashy imported cars—ten years ago they were BMWs, more recently Ferraris—and invoking their powerful fathers' names to get out of trouble. (Trouble, as in running over a pedestrian.)

President Xi—himself a princeling—has tried to remedy that image by targeting what he calls "tigers and flies"—meaning both high- and low-level officials—in the drive against official abuses. Sources inside the party say Xi also has set his sights on the unholy alliance between princelings and bosses of China's vast state-owned enterprises—fiefdoms such as the key energy sector—which oppose some of the economic reforms that Xi deems necessary to keep China's slowing economy ticking along.

Politburo Power Play?

By publicly targeting crooked cadres, high and low, Xi has several aims: shore up public confidence in the system, consolidate his own power, and silence critics who might derail anticipated economic, judicial, and military reforms.

Is Xi's campaign real or just part of another Politburo power play? "It's both," concludes exile Wang Juntao, now based in New Jersey. "Xi knows he needs a serious anti-corruption campaign to save the Communist Party. But he also wants to defend some high-ranking families' interests and crush his political rivals."

In 1989 Wang was a prominent activist-scholar who sympathized with the student protesters. After the bloodbath, Chinese officials accused him of being a mastermind behind the Tiananmen unrest. In 1991 he was sentenced to 13 years—an unusually harsh jail term—on charges of intent to overthrow the government and spreading "counterrevolutionary propaganda." Wang was released in 1994 and allowed to travel to the U.S. on medical parole.

China's economy has surged at double-digit rates over most of the past three decades, lifting millions out of poverty but also making a lot of the rich even richer.

During the tragic Beijing spring of 1989, many citizens and bureaucrats alike yearned for clean government out of "a sense of morality," says Wang. "But now it involves powerful vested interests. Today people hate corruption if it hurts their interests. It's interest-based—not idea-based the way it was back then."

Money as a Core Value

Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping declared, "To get rich is glorious" nearly a quarter century ago, overturning communist orthodoxy. Over the years, money took over from Marxism as a motivating force.

"People's mind-set changed. Their value system got twisted," explains Hou Xiaotian, who after June 4 was detained four times for seeking to improve the plight of Chinese political prisoners, including then husband Wang Juntao.

She continued her lobbying after emigrating to the United States. But after Wang was released in 1994, she began focusing on her job as a Wall Street financial analyst. She formed her own company and in 2012 returned to Beijing to open its office there. Hou was saddened by what she describes as a moral vacuum in Chinese society, and she welcomes the current anti-graft drive. "Money had become the core value," she recalls. "People were bragging about how corrupt they were."

The dynamics of Chinese corruption are often misunderstood, insists former student leader Wuer Kaixi. A charismatic and impassioned speaker, Wuer was named number two on Beijing's "most wanted" list after the June 4 bloodletting. He escaped from China and now lives in exile in Taiwan.

Before the crackdown, Wuer and other student leaders shot to fame when the motley group—with jeans, headbands, and long hair—met Li Peng, then China's prime minister, in the Great Hall of the People on May 18, 1989, for a rare televised dialogue. They were supposed to negotiate an end to the protests. Dressed in hospital pajamas, Wuer chided Li for being late. ("Thousands of hunger strikers are waiting," he famously told him.) The talks fizzled when neither side would budge.

Wuer says he's frustrated by the Western perception that official corruption is just bribery committed by crooked high-level individuals. "In China, the whole system is corrupt," he insists.

The nexus of princelings and their wealthy patrons ensures them virtual monopolies in key sectors of the economy. "Imagine the system as a tree that looks healthy and beautiful; Western investors want to nurture it. But actually the whole tree is poisoned," says Wuer. "If someone goes out of their way to loot a little more than the others, the system will cut off that ugly branch. Some might call this an anti-corruption drive. But in fact, it's just trimming."

Some quite large, ugly branches have fallen in recent years. China was rocked by the sensational 2012 purge of then Politburo member Bo Xilai, a charismatic Chongqing party secretary who became famous for inventing Mao-style socialist ditties and ruthlessly cracking down on what he said were underworld gangs.

Today Bo is serving life in prison, accused of corruption and abuses of power. His crackdown turned out to be politically motivated. His wife, Gu Kailai, apparently thought she was untouchable in her excesses; she's also behind bars, convicted of murdering a British businessman.

Using Corruption Charges to Undercut Political Rivals

Now the rumored purge of an even more prominent Politburo power player—domestic security czar Zhou Yongkang—is the talk of the town. An erstwhile defender of now purged Bo, Zhou is believed to be under virtual house arrest.

Reuters has reported more than 300 of his allies and relatives have been detained or questioned as part of China's biggest corruption scandal in six decades. By undermining Zhou's influence, Xi not only shows he is indeed nabbing corrupt "tigers" but also conveniently removes the last important stronghold of high-level support for Bo.

Using corruption charges to undercut political rivals is a familiar tactic. Two years ago, controversial former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong declared in a newly published book that he was made a "scapegoat" for Tiananmen and unjustly sentenced to 16 years on corruption charges. (He was released early on medical parole in 2006.)

Chen is best known as a hardliner who'd exaggerated the threat posed by the 1989 student demonstrations, in order to prod China's aging strongman Deng to crack down. In Conversations with Chen Xitong, authored by Chinese scholar Yao Jianfu, Chen claims his trial was a miscarriage of justice, lays out reams of evidence, and calls for a retrial. The book's Hong Kong publisher, Bao Pu, said one message of the book was that "in these purges—including that of Bo Xilai—the law is not playing a role in the judicial process. It's politics."

Paradoxically, publisher Bao's father is Bao Tong, a former policy adviser to the late Chinese Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang, who was himself purged 25 years ago for showing sympathy to the demonstrators. (Bao Tong was the first person arrested during the Beijing Spring.)

His boss Zhao had desperately tried to avert a violent crackdown. On May 28, Zhao and other officials had visited convalescing hunger strikers in a hospital. (One patient wanted to debate. "It's your duty to fight corruption!" he told Zhao. "You should start with your own sons!")

The following morning around dawn, Zhao tried to persuade demonstrators to leave. He materialized in Tiananmen Square, gripping a red loudspeaker and pleading with the protesters to go home: "You're still young. Think of the future."

Tearfully, he muttered, "We've come too late," but the respectful students didn't know what Zhao apparently knew already—a crackdown was looming. They asked for Zhao's autograph, and he left after 20 minutes, never to be seen in public again. He died under house arrest in 2005.

Flipping through my tattered notes and yellowing photographs of June 4, I was reminded of a grim joke my Beijing friends had related before the crackdown. It reflected the public's distaste for high-handed princelings and referred to the power struggle that pitted Deng against the more moderate Zhao.

The joke goes like this: Deng says, "All we need to do is kill a few young people, and this unrest will be finished." Zhao is aghast and asks, "How many? Twenty?" Deng shakes his head no. Zhao presses further. "Two hundred?" Again Deng says no. "Two thousand?" asks Zhao, now agitated.

Finally Deng answers, "No, only two." Relieved, Zhao then asks, "Which two?" Deng answers: "Your son and my son."

All of China is now watching to see how well Xi and his team have learned from Tiananmen's bitter lessons—or whether vested interests and political inertia doom them to make the same mistakes all over again.

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