Tiananmen: Could It Happen Again?

Today, like a quarter century ago, discontent is growing in China. Could history repeat itself? 

Twenty-five years ago, Deng Xiaoping was having a hard time finding a general to carry out orders. Then, China’s paramount leader, facing more than a million protesters occupying the center of his capital, was determined to teach the Chinese people a murderous lesson. Yet senior officers of the People’s Liberation Army were reluctant to march through Beijing to clear out Tiananmen Square. The willful Deng, as we now know, eventually got his way, and the army put down what Communist Party leaders termed—but what few others actually believed to be—a “counter-revolutionary uprising.”

The use of force during the Beijing Spring of 1989 irrevocably changed the Party’s relationship with the Chinese people. China’s ruling organization lost devotion and respect, but, as Deng understood, it did not matter. Fear replaced legitimacy, and he regained what he had temporarily lost, control of his country.

Today, like a quarter century ago, discontent is growing in Chinese society. Xi Jinping, the current supremo, is trying to rebuild legitimacy, but at the same time he is implementing a prolonged attack on civil society, a clear indication he understands that the primary basis of his rule is, as Deng understood it to be, intimidation. Therefore, the critical issue for him is whether the military in today’s China would follow orders he might give to impose another brutal solution.

On April 15, 1989, students began gathering in Tiananmen Square, in the center of the Chinese capital, to mark the death that day of Hu Yaobang, a reformist official who had been previously dismissed by Deng. Soon, a small crowd in the center of the Chinese capital became a spontaneous movement there and in 370 other cities across the country.

That popular movement, in Deng’s view, challenged the Party’s authority to rule, and he was determined to reassert control. When conciliation with student leaders did not work and threats failed, Deng decided to show the “violent power” of the state. “Don’t be afraid to spill blood,” he said to officials and soldiers.

Not everyone was so enthusiastic about killing. Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, for instance, refused to order a massacre. On May 17 of that year, after being summoned by Deng to a meeting in his home, the reformer realized his political life was over. “It seems my mission in history has already ended,” Zhao said to a Party elder just after the powwow. “I told myself that no matter what, I would not be the general secretary who mobilized the military to crack down on students.”

Zhao’s defiance, which resulted in the confinement to his home until his death, ultimately did not matter; Deng eventually found more compliant subordinates. Yet that was just the beginning of the diminutive leader’s problems. Deng, after all, would have to get a senior officer to lead the charge.

That responsibility was to fall to General Xu Qinxian, the commander of the 38th Army, the largest, best trained, and most mechanized unit in China. On May 17, while Zhao was realizing his fate at Deng’s home, Xu was recovering in a Beijing military hospital from an operation to remove kidney stones. On that day, he received a visit from a fellow general officer, Li Laizhu, the deputy chief of the Beijing Military Region. Li ordered Xu to move his troops into the capital in accordance with a mobilization. Xu, who had been following the country-wide protests from his bed, refused, demanding to see a written order. “Today there is no written order, that will come later.” Li reportedly said. “In times of war, it is like that.”

“Now is not a time of war,” Xu replied. He then told a friend he was ready to be executed for his defiance. “I would rather be beheaded than be judged guilty in the court of history,” he said. Xu managed to escape death. He was, however, taken from his hospital bed, court-martialed, stripped of Communist Party membership, and given a five-year prison term, which he served. He was then exiled to military barracks in Shijiazhuang, in the neighboring Hebei province.

Deng and Yang Shangkun, another Party elder, were stunned by Xu’s decision not to fight, but his was not the only instance of disobedience at that time. Later, soldiers refused to advance or shoot. Some quickly hoisted white flags, and others abandoned armored vehicles and trucks. Many deserted, and a few soldiers even joined the protesters. Whole units, disregarding orders, retreated in the face of opposition of citizens blocking streets. According to an internal Communist Party count after the slaughter, “1,400 soldiers ‘shed their weapons and ran away.’”

Most soldiers, however, stood fast, shooting at citizens and sometimes fighting troops who had switched sides. Xu’s 38th Army, under new leadership, participated in the sweep of Beijing, perhaps shedding the first blood of June 3. The main burden fell on other units considered to be more reliable, especially those from out of town. They moved from the suburbs of the capital and fought their way to Tiananmen, block-by-block, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of Beijing residents defending neighborhoods.

Yet the killing of citizens was not the end of the turmoil. After the army took back the city and the Square, there were firefights between troops loyal to different commanders. Some saw the possibility of civil war. “China may have come closer to a Romanian-style military revolt than is generally recognized,” wrote human-rights researcher Robin Munro, who witnessed some of the horrendous events in Beijing.