Friday, June 06, 2014

The General Who Said No

ALTHOUGH Chinese authorities were determined to prevent open commemorations this week, with a police presence on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, and reported jamming of social media, they could not prevent people in China or abroad from remembering what has come to be known variously as the "Incident of June 4" or the "Tianenmen Square massacre".

It was 25 years ago on June 4, 1989. that the Chinese People's Liberation Army opened fire on the people and crushed the democracy movement in China, enabling the ruling Stalinist bureaucracy to proceed along its path of capitalist development, with all its contradictions - except a critical press and political opposition, and of course, without free trade unions. 

Opinions differ as to just what happened, with the Chinese leadership naturally reluctant to allow free discussion or awaken new generations to awareness of their history. Even in the West though some reporters gave graphic descriptions of the soldiers firing into a crowd, others say the "Tienanmen Square massacre" description is inaccurate, because most of the killing was off the square, and indeed the repression took place in many Chinese cities. There are those - it seems George Galloway MP is one - who say there was no massacre, that it was all exagerrated, if not invented by Western media.

Certainly the figures given for the number of deaths have varied widely, and we might note that the fighting was not all one way. Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times wrote on 21 June that "it seems plausible that about fifty soldiers and policemen were killed, along with 400 to 800 civilians." Then-U.S. ambassador James Lilley said that based on visits to hospitals around Beijing, a minimum of several hundred had been killed. In a 1990 article Time magazine asserted that the Chinese Red Cross had given a figure of 2,600 deaths on the morning of 4 June, though later this figure was retracted.  A declassified NSA (US intelligence) cable filed on the same day estimated 180-500 deaths up to the morning of June 4. Amnesty International's estimates puts the number of deaths at several hundred to close to 1,000. Presumably the Chinese government could if it wished allow a commission of inquiry to settle the matter.

On June 19, Beijing Party Secretary Li Ximing reported to the Politburo that the government's confirmed death toll was 241, including 218 civilians (of which 36 were students), 10 PLA soldiers and 13 People's Armed Police, along with 7,000 wounded. (Wikipedia)

Coming from a city where we still commemorate the massacre of a dozen civilian demonstrators in August 1819, I think it reasonable that even the lowest estimate of what happened in China in 1989 should qualify as a massacre. Notwithstanding China's bigger population, we are talking about human beings here, not percentages.

The Chinese bureaucracy denounced the movement on the streets as a "counter-revolutionary riot", and it would naturally suit the capitalist media and politicians here and in America to describe what was happening as a rising against "communism", but was it?

According to a writer quoted by Wikipedia, "... the party's nominally socialist ideology faced a legitimacy crisis as it gradually adopted capitalist practices.  Private enterprise gave rise to profiteers who took advantage of lax regulations, and who often flaunted their wealth in front of the 'have-nots' of society. Popular discontent was brewing over unfair wealth distribution. Greed, not skill, appeared to be the most crucial factor of success. There was widespread public disillusionment over the country's future. People wanted change, yet the power to define 'the correct path' continued to rest solely in the hands of the government."

Against this background the students and workers called for social equality, a "Communist Party Without Corruption", freedom of speech and of the press, socialism and democracy. This hardly amounts to a demand for capitalist restoration.

In Shanghai and elsewhere university academics and Communist Party branches supported the student protests at the start of the movement. And in parts of Beijing workers and local residents came out to the aid of the students against the army. In some places they also rescued individual soldiers who had been surrounded by a mob.

In the military itself not everyone was happy with the order from politicians to crush the protests.  A report in the New York Times says newly available documents confirm the discontent voiced by one of the army's senior commanders when they were called to a meeting with the leadership to prepare the crackdown on demonstrators.

In a stunning rebuke to his superiors, Maj. Gen. Xu Qinxian, leader of the mighty 38th Group Army, said the protests were a political problem and should be settled through negotiations, not force, according to new accounts of his actions from researchers who interviewed him.

“I’d rather be beheaded than be a criminal in the eyes of history,” he told Yang Jisheng, a historian.

Although General Xu was soon arrested, his defiance sent shudders through the party establishment, fueling speculation of a military revolt and heightening the leadership’s belief that the student-led protests were nothing less than a mortal threat to the Communist Party.

Contrary to rumors at the time, the documents show that army units did not fight one another. But they show that General Xu’s stand against the threatened use of lethal force fanned leaders’ fears that the military could be dragged into the political schisms and prompted party elders to mobilize a huge number of troops.


At the time, Deng Xiaoping, the party patriarch who presided over the crackdown, praised the military for its unflinching loyalty, and the image of a ruthlessly obedient army lingers even in some foreign accounts. But the military speeches and reports composed before June 4 that year, and in the months after, show soldiers troubled by misgivings, confusion, rumors and regrets about the task assigned to them.

“The situation was fluid and confusing, and we underestimated the brutality of the struggle,” Capt. Yang De’an, an officer with the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary force, wrote in one assessment found among military documents acquired by the Princeton University Library. “It was hard to distinguish foes from friends, and the target to be attacked was unclear.”

Some former soldiers and officials who agreed to talk about their roles in the crisis said they were alarmed by the state-enforced censorship and silencing of witnesses that have left a younger generation largely ignorant about one of the most devastating episodes in modern Chinese history.

“I personally didn’t do anything wrong,” said Li Xiaoming, who in 1989 was among the troops who set off toward Tiananmen Square, “but I feel that as a member, a participant, this was a shame on the Chinese military.”

The interviews and documents show that even at the time, few in the military wanted to take direct responsibility for the decision to fire on civilians. Even as troops pressed into Beijing, they were given vague, confusing instructions about what to do, and some commanders sought reassurances that they would not be required to shoot.

In an interview, a former party researcher with military ties confirmed the existence of a petition, signed by seven senior commanders, that called on the leadership to withdraw the troops.

“The people’s military belongs to the people, and cannot oppose the people,” stated the petition, according to the former researcher, Zhang Gang, who was then trying to broker compromise between the protesters and the government. “Even less can it kill the people.”

There were fewer episodes of outright military defiance, like that of General Xu. No dissident, he had written a letter in blood during the Korean War begging to join the army as an underage youth, according to Mr. Yang, the historian who was among the few people to interview him after 1989. The elite 38th Group Army, which General Xu commanded from a base about 90 miles south of Beijing, was a bulwark protecting the capital.

Having witnessed the student protests during an earlier visit to Beijing, where he was receiving treatment for kidney stones, he feared the consequences of quelling them with troops trained to fight foreign invaders. Sending armed soldiers onto the streets, he warned, would risk indiscriminate bloodshed and stain the reputation of the People’s Liberation Army.

“If there was a conflict with ordinary civilians, and you couldn’t tell the good guys from the bad guys, who would shoulder responsibility for problems?” he later said, according to Dai Qing, a Beijing writer who had access to separate interview notes with the general.

In the end, General Xu agreed to pass the orders to his officers, but not to lead armed troops into the capital. He was arrested, expelled from the party, and served four years in prison, Mr. Yang said.

Copies of the petition spread around Beijing that May, but its origins and authenticity were unclear, diminishing its impact. But Mr. Zhang, who had contacts with senior military officers, now says that he wrote down the statement and names during a phone call from Colonel Wang and then passed it on to friends who made copies.

In interviews, several of those who took part in back-channel efforts to defuse the crisis described how Colonel Wang held a secret meeting with Wang Juntao and Zhou Duo, two liberal intellectuals who were trying to avert a military assault, even as they chided protesters for disorganization and naïveté. Both men recalled a long night in Mr. Zhou’s home when they peppered Colonel Wang with questions about attitudes in the army. He played down the risk of mass bloodshed, both men recalled.

“He said, ‘If the Communist Party fires on and kills ordinary people, then wouldn’t the Communist Party be committing suicide?’ ” Mr. Zhou, who lives in Beijing, said in a phone interview. He said they “absolutely never imagined it would turn out as brutally as it did.”
While the government and loyal commanders tried to fill the soldiers with propaganda about facing foreign-backed counter-revolutionaries, where they had any prolonged contact with the demonstrators they got a different message:
"For three days, as the weary, marooned soldiers clutched their rifles in the wilting sun, he recalled how residents and students brought them food and escorted them to toilets, all the while bombarding them with the message that theirs was a just cause. “Even in the restroom, there was no reprieve,” Mr. Chen said in an interview. “If one student would go hoarse yelling, another would take his place.”

Even as the troops imbibed the propaganda, the notion that they might have to shoot the demonstrators appeared remote, recalled Mr. Li, who was then 25 and a radar operator in the 39th Group Army. “Our unit was educated that we mustn’t fire the first shot at students, and if we fired the first shot at the public, we’d be responsible to history,” he said in an interview from Australia.

“They’re baffled why so many members of the public have taken part in the demonstrations,” Gen. Yang Baibing, whose older brother was a confidant of Mr. Deng’s, told military officers on May 31, according to a compilation of party and military speeches at Princeton. “Some comrades have all kinds of views and doubts about stopping the turmoil.”

The messages of restraint were jettisoned on June 3, when the troops received orders to retake the square by early the next day “at any cost,” former soldiers said.



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