Discussing the “Last Secret”, 30 years after Tiananmen – Ian Johnson

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Ian Johnson

Despite desperate efforts by the government to push the events of June 4, 1989, at Tiananmen Square into collective amnesia, new documents have shed light on the events. Journalist Ian Johnson reviews the latest publication, The Last Secret: The Final Documents from the June Fourth Crackdown, for the NY Review of Books, and summarize what we have been learning over the past 30 years.

Ian Johnson:

One of the strange phenomena of modern academia and journalism is that they sometimes fail to publish the obvious. In this case that would be a readable, accessible, and complete account of the June 4 massacre. Many worthwhile journalistic accounts appeared shortly after the event,4 but they are now at least twenty years out of date, and thus weren’t able to take into account the flood of memoirs and secret documents that have come out since then. These include The Tiananmen Papers (a collection of internal party documents recounting the events), Zhao (Ziyang)’s memoirs, Li Peng’s diaries, and works by former Chinese political advisers Wu Wei and Wu Guoguang.

This makes Wu Yulun’s essay in The Last Secret of great value. It synthesizes much of this new material in trying to answer a basic question, encapsulated in the title of his essay: “How the Party Decided to Shoot Its People.” Like others, Wu argues that the massacre was the result of a series of mishaps that caused a manageable situation to spiral out of control. But Wu also makes a strong case that Deng favored some sort of forceful action from the start: this wasn’t an accident but an act of conviction.

When the protests started after Hu’s death, Deng initially yielded to Zhao, whom he had supported and promoted for over a decade. Zhao realized it would be wrong to crack down on people mourning a former general secretary of the Communist Party, and so he counseled negotiation. But Deng seems to have lost patience as the protests continued. He was able to push his less tolerant approach after April 23, when Zhao went to North Korea on a week-long state visit. Zhao left explicit instructions with Premier Li Peng to follow his moderate course. According to Li’s diary, which Wu cites to great effect, Li agreed, but he also wrote that another senior leader “encouraged” him to meet Deng.

Whether Li met Deng is unclear, but he seemed to have realized that Deng wanted a harder line. Li’s diary confirms that on April 24 he convened a meeting of leaders, making sure to exclude one of Zhao’s trusted lieutenants. The leaders ordered the party’s mouthpiece, People’s Daily, to issue a strongly worded editorial on April 26 condemning the protests as “turmoil.”

Famously, the editorial backfired, and the next day more than 500,000 people surged into the square—as Wu Yulun puts it, this was “an unprecedented event in the history of the People’s Republic of China. For the first time in the Communist Party’s reign, people willfully took action against the wishes of the paramount leader.” Zhao records in his memoirs that when he returned to Beijing on April 30, Deng refused to see him—clearly he felt that Zhao had been following the wrong course. On May 2, Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper, then a very reliable source of information on mainland politics, reported that Zhao was on his way out.

Much more in the NY Review of Books.

Ian Johnson is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers’ request form.

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