Saturday was the anniversary of the suppression by the Chinese military of mass protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Twenty-seven years later, the death toll is still unknown. Beijing’s official estimate puts the figure at 241, but credible reports suggest that over 1,000 people may have been killed. Thousands more were arrested in the round-up of perceived dissidents that followed. The regime defended its actions as necessary to put down a counter-revolutionary plot, and insisted that lethal force was warranted.
Memorialization of the events at Tiananmen Square remains deeply contested. They are not mentioned in textbooks or official media, and the regime continues to arrest activists who attempt to commemorate them. In a recent open letter, 131 mothers of slaughtered Tiananmen Square protesters described an ongoing campaign of surveillance and harassment against them for their efforts to secure accountability for their loved ones’ deaths.
Because of the harsh reprisals against anyone who challenges the official story, the events at Tiananmen Square remain shrouded in mystery. I recently had the opportunity to read new, yet-to-be-published, work by political scientist Joseph Torigian that sheds new light on the massacre. Critically, he shows that the decision to use force against the protesters was extremely contentious—both military leaders and high-ranking party officials opposed a violent response. It’s fascinating research, so I asked Joseph to give us an overview of his findings. Here’s our conversation, edited lightly for clarity:
KCF: What’s the conventional wisdom about why deadly violence was deployed against the Tiananmen protesters?
JT: It depends who you ask. According to Beijing’s official historiography, the student protests were a counter-revolutionary plot that intended to overthrow the regime and were treated accordingly. For regular people in China, the topic remains extremely sensitive, and the younger generation has only a hazy idea about the incident. A surprising number of people believe that the students deliberately provoked a violent solution. In the west, a number of important scholars have emphasized an alleged consensus that existed within the party, especially at the very top and among the elder revolutionaries, about the need to use force. In any case, much of the western analysis has been based on problematic sources, like rumors out of Hong Kong or alleged primary sources with unclear provenance.
KCF: What was the first thing that tipped you off that this story of consensus might not be an accurate representation of events?
JT: My original intention was not to write such a revisionist account as I ultimately produced. I was aware of a number of crucial new available sources and wanted to do a sort of “brush-clearing” exercise, or in other words, to just organize the presently available evidence and make tentative connections to the most important puzzles. Although much remains mysterious about the crisis, the best evidence we have to date points to a surprising conclusion: an overwhelming number of military leaders and top-ranking party officials, and even a significant number of key revolutionary elders, were opposed to violence or had profoundly ambiguous feelings.
KCF: If that’s the case, how should we understand the origins of the decision to use force?
JT: Given the level of opposition to force that I just mentioned, then that is the real puzzle: why was violence ultimately used if so many people wanted a different outcome? The answer is that Deng Xiaoping wanted to use force, and his peculiar authority allowed him to engineer that particular solution. Judging why Deng felt so strongly is of course problematic, but the evidence suggests the following possibilities. First, his history as a communist agitator made him more likely to see the protesters as threatening and under the control of ‘black hands’. Second, the Chinese Communist Party had essentially conquered the mainland in 1949, which led some in the elite to subscribe to the old Chinese attitude of “he who conquers all under heaven rules all under heaven.” Many had sacrificed their lives for that victory, which created an almost holy attitude towards the PRC as a political project. Third, the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, which Deng had experienced firsthand, was a powerful historical memory. Fourth, it is possible that Deng understood that the protests could be defused without violence, but feared such a solution would have created an uncontrolled political space with unforeseen long-term implications. Deng was clearly afraid about protests becoming a regular feature of the political landscape and making the reform and opening up process more difficult.
It is important to emphasize, however, that these attitudes were not shared by most of the elite. While the success of the revolution had inculcated in some people a feeling that they had the right to rule China, for others the idealism of revolution had manifested in a different way: that the use of violence by the government against its own people in the streets of Beijing would be unthinkable. In other words, in the spring of 1989 a majority of the leadership believed the PRC could survive, and perhaps even become better, if it could defuse the crisis without force.
Deng, however, was able to ensure that the party did not get to make that decision in a democratic fashion. Tiananmen was therefore not just a massacre, but arguably also a sort of political coup d’etat. At the time, Deng’s only formal position was head of the Central Military Commission. He was not even a member of the five-man Politburo Standing Committee, the most important decision-making body. Although a decision had been made in 1987 that Deng would have the final word on issues of major importance, he clearly understood that use of that authority was politically problematic and would be seen as undemocratic.
Deng’s informal authority as a major revolutionary figure was clearly important. But many forget that Deng also enjoyed status as one of the key military heroes in the wars against the KMT and the Japanese. His strong personalistic relations with the top military hierarchy allowed him to persuade the military to act while preventing the Politburo, Central Committee, or even the state legislature from rallying to demand a peaceful solution.
KCF: What is the most crucial piece of evidence in favor of your interpretation?
JT: One of the most interesting pieces of evidence is Li Peng’s memoirs. Li was the premier who supported Deng against the general-secretary of the party, a man named Zhao Ziyang, who opposed violence to the very end and was put under house arrest for the rest of his life because of it. In his memoirs Li both admits that Deng was concerned about opposition within the military and deliberately opposed allowing formal political decision-making bodies to meet until violence was used. Deng told Li: “It is necessary to wait until after the military enters Beijing to open an enlarged session of the Politburo, in this way conflict and interference can be avoided, only then can the meeting be held with certainty.”
Li’s memoirs are also interesting when they lie. Li claimed that Beijing mayor Chen Xitong was a key figure in the execution of martial law. Chen later denied this in a way that suggested Li was trying to cover up the extent to which decision-making on violence was made by an exceptionally small and unrepresentative group of people.
KCF: If Deng could force this through over the objections of both party and military officials, what does this tell us about institutions in autocracies?
JT: Deng was able to engineer a violent solution because of the fragility of Chinese political institutions. Institutionalization consists of three key aspects: the ability for selection processes to convey ‘rational-legal’ authority to individuals, the presence of a clearly defined group enfranchised to make decisions, and the power of a non-arbitrary third party to enforce those decisions.
When those elements are lacking, we see the importance of the following sources of power. First, questions of personal prestige and legitimacy come to the forefront. As Zhao Ziyang later put it, “authority is formed under many historical conditions, it is not possible to confer authority and have it suddenly appear.” Deng’s informal relationships were necessary for him to stretch and break formal party rules. Second, the violent solution was not the outcome of debate within a single defined electorate, but was instead the outcome of a struggle about whether key decision-making bodies were allowed to meet at all. And third, the key enforcer of political decisions, the military, did not act apolitically, but instead followed Deng despite strong opposition among its own ranks and clear signs party bodies were being sidelined.
KCF: Does the relationship among power/leadership/institutions remains the same in China today? Could something similar happen again?
JT: The extent to which Chinese elite politics has institutionalized is a vigorously debated topic. The opacity of the political system makes it hard to judge. One lesson from my research on authoritarian regimes is that we should be cautious about sweeping generalizations. I’ve read or heard at least half a dozen different stories about the rise of Xi Jinping that differ on critical questions like the relative role of retired officials and the Central Committee.
In some clear ways, Chinese leadership selection has moved towards institutionalization and predictability. As Alice Miller points out, over the last four party congresses retirement from the PSC has followed a defined age limit (with one exception), PSC leaders have been chosen from Politburo members not retiring from that body, and appointments have been made on the basis of age. On the other hand, those rules have never been explicitly codified. Moreover, recent evidence suggests that Xi Jinping has arrogated so much personal authority that the durability of previous leadership norms might be under increased stress. The 19th Party Congress in 2017 will shed light on this question: if an obvious successor is not identified at that meeting, it will be a clear sign that crucial previous norms are being violated.
We have no evidence that mass protests like those in 1989 will happen again any time soon. The leadership has developed a greater capacity to manage public disturbances without resorting to the People’s Liberation Army. Having said that, the PLA is still a party army and its first goal is to maintain the current regime. Institutionalization has not eliminated the possibility the military would be used in a power struggle among the elite or against the citizenry of the PRC. The relationship between the Central Military Commission (chaired by Xi Jinping) and the PSC still remains somewhat ambiguous.
In December 2012, Xi gave a chilling speech to party insiders in which he argued:
“Why do we want to unwaveringly maintain the party’s leadership over the military? This is the lesson learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet military was de-politicized, de-partified, nationalized, the party’s weapon was removed. Some men who wanted to save the Soviet Union appeared, they dealt with Gorbachev, but before a few days passed it was reversed, because the tool of dictatorship was not in their hands. Yeltsin stood on a tank and gave a speech, the military was useless, they maintained so-called ‘neutrality.’ Finally Gorbachev said one word declaring the end of the CPSU, and a great party was lost. In terms of size, the CPSU was bigger than us, but no one was a real man, no one came out to resist.”
These words bear remembering on the anniversary of Tiananmen, as they show, 27 years after the incident, that we cannot exclude a similar event from occurring again.