On the fateful days leading up to June 4, 1989, Zhao Ziyang frantically tried to halt a looming bloody crackdown. He sought an audience with one man, in whose hands the future of China’s liberalization teetered.
But Deng Xiaoping wasn’t listening.
He might’ve been nearly deaf, but at the age of 84, Deng understood how to keep the reins of power perfectly. Zhao, in his just-published posthumous memoir - Prisoner of the State – made it clear that the events on June 4 and beyond were conducted according to the exact wishes of the most powerful man in China.
In order to understand the bloody crackdown and all its consequences, it is first necessary to understand Deng Xiaoping the man. Deng had a decision to make, and it was nearly his alone. In this critical hour, Deng proved that he was unable to overcome his own personal history and obsession with power.
The student protests began on April 15, 1989, initially as a gathering to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, and to voice their displeasure at the government’s corruption. Hu was Zhao’s predecessor as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and the leading reformer of his time. He had been purged by Deng and the reactionary faction in the CCP because, as a true reformer, Hu wanted China’s liberalization to go beyond just economic transformation.
China had opened its doors to the outside world for a decade at this point, but politically, it was nearly as repressive as it had been under Mao. Rampant corruption plagued the CCP at all levels, and public discontent was growing fiercer.
The students extended their protest for over a month, both during and after the visit in May by Mikhail Gorbachev -- a reformer himself and the architect of Glasnost. The protest now featured a hunger strike and a demand for direct dialogue with party officials. Over 100,000 students and workers occupied Tiananmen Square, despite repeated orders to disperse.
The scenes of students in a state of near anarchy haunted Deng.
In 1968, at the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, it was Deng himself who had been purged and banished to work in a factory in Jiangxi Province. His children were rounded up by Peking University students and forced to denounce their father and “expose his crimes.”
As detailed in Mao – The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Deng’s 24-year-old son Pufang tried to commit suicide by throwing himself out of a window, only to survive and was paralyzed from the waist down. Deng and his wife were not even told of his condition until a year later and not allowed to see Pufang until 1971. It was the single-most traumatic event in Deng’s turbulent personal and political life.
Now, seeing the same Peking University students nearing yet another riot, Deng was not going to heed Zhao’s pleas to go soft and slow. In his mind, he had come too far to allow his grip on power to be loosened by the same kind of radicals.
Deng had regained his political footing in the waning days of Mao’s life. With a country nearly shattered by the Cultural Revolution, Mao needed someone competent to restore order, so he freed Deng from his house arrest and political exile of nearly a decade. After Mao’s death, Deng outmaneuvered Mao’s widow and her “Gang of Four” to become the party chairman and the ruler of China.
Though Deng – an economist by trade - favored economic liberalization, he was hesitant to bring about rapid political reforms. He had allowed reformers such as Hu and Zhao to become party chiefs, but in the face of hardline opposition, he always backed down rather swiftly.
Deng purged Hu following a massive student demonstration in late 1986. The same fate befell Zhao, who was ousted days before the crackdown, and lived under house arrest until his death in 2005.
On June 4, 1989, the nascent movement toward political accountability was ruthlessly crushed by guns and tanks. But the bloodshed didn’t stop in Tiananmen Square and its immediate vicinity, as executions, prison sentences and purges were carried out throughout China. There has not been any political mass protest in China since.
After Tiananmen, Deng consolidated his power and remained the “paramount leader” of China for the remainder of his life. No doubt he gained certain satisfaction at the outcome of the crackdown. Merely five months later, the Berlin Wall fell and the communist stranglehold on Eastern Europe collapsed. Yet 20 years later, the Chinese Communists’ grip on China in all facets of life is as firm as ever.
Most of China’s young today know little to nothing about the Tiananmen Massacre. June 4 will come and go as any other day on the calendar. But just to be sure that absolutely no one will be talking about the incident, the Chinese government has taken care to shut down Twitter, Flickr and other social networking sites for the moment.
Today’s Chinese leaders are thus true disciples of the CCP. Just like Mao and Deng before them, these kindred spirits can agree on one thing: Power grows from the barrel of the gun.