Thursday, June 20, 2019

Inside the Secret Meeting That Changed China

This is really good.

At Foreign Affairs, "The New Tiananmen Papers":

On April 15, 1989, the popular Chinese leader Hu Yaobang died of a heart attack in Beijing. Two years earlier, Hu had been cashiered from his post as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party for being too liberal. Now, in the days after his death, thousands of students from Beijing campuses gathered in Tiananmen Square, in central Beijing, to demand that the party give him a proper sendoff. By honoring Hu, the students expressed their dissatisfaction with the corruption and inflation that had developed during the ten years of “reform and opening” under the country’s senior leader, Deng Xiaoping, and their disappointment with the absence of political liberalization. Over the next seven weeks, the party leaders debated among themselves how to respond to the protests, and they issued mixed signals to the public. In the meantime, the number of demonstrators increased to perhaps as many as a million, including citizens from many walks of life. The students occupying the square declared a hunger strike, their demands grew more radical, and demonstrations spread to hundreds of other cities around the country. Deng decided to declare martial law, to take effect on May 20.

But the demonstrators dug in, and Deng ordered the use of force to commence on the night of June 3. Over the next 24 hours, hundreds were killed, if not more; the precise death toll is still unknown. The violence provoked widespread revulsion throughout Chinese society and led to international condemnation, as the G-7 democracies imposed economic sanctions on China. Zhao Ziyang, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, had advocated a conciliatory approach and had refused to accept the decision to use force. Deng ousted him from his position, and Zhao was placed under house arrest—an imprisonment that ended only when he died, in 2005.

A little over two weeks later, on June 19–21, the party’s top decision-making body, the Politburo, convened what it termed an “enlarged” meeting, one that included the regime’s most influential retired elders. The purpose of the gathering was to unify the divided party elite around Deng’s decisions to use force and to remove Zhao from office. The party’s response to the 1989 crisis has shaped the course of Chinese history for three decades, and the Politburo’s enlarged meeting shaped that response. But what was said during the meeting has never been revealed—until now.

On the 30th anniversary of the violent June 4 crackdown, New Century Press, a Hong Kong–based publisher, will publish Zuihou de mimi: Zhonggong shisanjie sizhong quanhui “liusi” jielun wengao (The Last Secret: The Final Documents From the June Fourth Crackdown), a group of speeches that top officials delivered at the gathering. New Century obtained the transcripts (and two sets of written remarks) from a party official who managed to make copies at the time. In 2001, this magazine published excerpts from The Tiananmen Papers, a series of official reports and meeting minutes that had been secretly spirited out of China and that documented the fierce debates and contentious decision-making that unfolded as the party reacted to the protests in the spring of 1989. Now, these newly leaked speeches shed light on what happened after the crackdown, making clear the lessons party leaders drew from the Tiananmen crisis: first, that the Chinese Communist Party is under permanent siege from enemies at home colluding with enemies abroad; second, that economic reform must take a back seat to ideological discipline and social control; and third, that the party will fall to its enemies if it allows itself to be internally divided.

The speeches offer a remarkable behind-the-scenes look at authoritarian political culture in action—and a sign of what was to come in China as, in later decades, the party resorted to ever more sophisticated and intrusive forms of control to combat the forces of liberalization. Reading the transcripts, one can see serving officials closing ranks with the elderly retired officials who still held great sway in the early post-Mao period. Those who had long feared that Deng’s reforms were too liberal welcomed the crackdown, and those who had long favored liberal reforms fell into line.

The speeches also make clear how the lessons taken from Tiananmen continue to guide Chinese leadership today: one can draw a direct line connecting the ideas and sentiments expressed at the June 1989 Politburo meeting to the hard-line approach to reform and dissent that President Xi Jinping is following today. The rest of the world may be marking the 30-year anniversary of the Tiananmen crisis as a crucial episode in China’s recent past. For the Chinese government, however, Tiananmen remains a frightening portent. Even though the regime has wiped the events of June 4 from the memories of most of China’s people, they are still living in the aftermath.

Participants in the enlarged Politburo meeting were not convened to debate the wisdom of Deng’s decisions. Rather, they were summoned to perform a loyalty ritual, in which each speaker affirmed his support by endorsing two documents: a speech that Deng gave on June 9 to express gratitude to the troops who had carried out the crackdown and a report prepared by Zhao’s hard-line rival, Premier Li Peng, detailing Zhao’s errors in handling the crisis. (Those two documents have long been publicly available.)

It is not clear who, exactly, attended the Politburo meeting. But at least 17 people spoke, and each began his remarks with the words “I completely agree with” or “I completely support,” referring to Deng’s speech and Li’s report. All agreed that the student demonstrations had started as a “disturbance” (often translated as “turmoil”). They agreed that only when the demonstrators resisted the entry of troops into Beijing on June 2 did the situation turn into a “counterrevolutionary riot” that had to be put down by force. Each speech added personal insights, which served to demonstrate the sincerity of the speaker’s support for Deng’s line. Through this ceremony of affirmation, a divided party sought to turn the page and reassert control over a sullen society.

In analyzing why a “disturbance” had occurred in the first place, and why it evolved into a riot, the speakers revealed a profound paranoia about domestic and foreign enemies. Xu Xiangqian, a retired marshal in the People’s Liberation Army, stated:
The facts prove that the turmoil of the past month and more, which finally developed into a counterrevolutionary riot, was the result of the linkup of domestic and foreign counterrevolutionary forces, the result of the long-term flourishing of bourgeois liberalization. . . . Their goal was a wild plan to overturn the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, to topple the socialist People’s Republic of China, and to establish a bourgeois republic that would be anticommunist, antisocialist, and in complete vassalage to the Western powers.
Peng Zhen, the former chair of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, echoed those sentiments:
For some time, an extremely small group of people who stubbornly promoted bourgeois liberalization cooperated with foreign hostile forces to call for revising our constitution, schemed to destroy [Deng’s] Four Cardinal Principles [for upholding socialism and Communist Party rule] and to tear down the cornerstones of our country; they schemed to change . . . our country’s basic political system and to promote in its place an American-style separation of three powers; they schemed to change our People’s Republic of democratic centralism led by the working class and based on the worker-peasant alliance into a totally westernized state of capitalist dictatorship.
Others put an even finer point on this theme, evoking the early days of the Cold War to warn of American subversion. “Forty years ago, [U.S. Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles said that the hope for the restoration [of capitalism] in China rested on the third or fourth [postcommunist] generation,” railed Song Renqiong, the vice chair of the party’s Central Advisory Commission. “Now, the state of political ideology among a portion of the youth is worrisome. We must not let Dulles’ prediction come true.”
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