Communist Crowd Control

Communist Crowd Control

Mini Teaser: The secretly constructed record of the Communist Party decision to crack down on Tiananmen protesters rings true to an old China hand.

by Author(s): George Walden

George Walden, Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link, eds., The Tiananmen Papers (New York: Public Affairs, 2001), 510 pp., $30.

In the midst of the Cultural Revolution I once drafted a telegram from the British Mission in Peking, or what remained after the Red Guards burned it, suggesting that Deng Xiaoping was dead. It seemed a reasonable conjecture. The no-neck monster, as we diplomatic juveniles called him, had not been seen in public for some time, was portrayed in the wall posters we read as a leading capitalist-roader, and had begun featuring in caricatures at the wrong end of a rope. Plus we had procured a Red Guard newspaper containing a celebratory account of his actual death by hara-kiri. Getting hold of those newspapers was an operation in itself, so there was a tendency to overplay what was inside them. I suppose I was infected by a scoop mentality, and there were scarcely any pressmen left in Peking to confirm or contradict my words. Meeting Deng some years later, as principal assistant to British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, I inspected him for signs of simulation, but he seemed the genuine thing. No one else could smoke that much, or hawk and spit with such vigor.

Are The Tiananmen Papers genuine? With China, you never know. Even the endorsement of some of America's most respected sinologists is not conclusive. Van Meegeren's forgeries of Vermeer were accepted by the leading art historians of his day because they were designed to fill gaps in their knowledge, despite the fact that the women in them bore a curious resemblance to Marlene Dietrich.

Like those art historians, we want this material to be genuine, in our case for moral reasons. Moralism infects our behavior toward China more than toward the erstwhile Soviet Union, in Britain to compensate for our colonialist misdemeanors, in the United States because the history of American attitudes toward China is one of recurring evangelical hope followed by disillusion. This account of the Tiananmen massacre shows the hard men of Peking in a poor light, and when it is republished in Chinese and makes its way to the mainland, it could do much to strengthen the reformers' hands. That is why the anonymous leaker leaked it in excerpts designed to tell a story rather than as entire original documents. We must be especially wary of good intentions.

Enough caveats: if this is a forgery it is brilliantly done. To me, as to the editors, the voices in these extraordinary documents ring true. As I read the records of Chinese Politburo meetings and secret police reports, mentally I was comparing them with the documents now available from the Soviet period, notably in The Road to Terror (1999) covering the Moscow trials, but also later. For all the grim similarity of the Russian and Chinese official press, in private all communists do not speak alike. The Russian voice is a compound of ideology and gangster inflections, of Marxism-Leninism and mafia-speak, whereas the Chinese voice, while retaining a certain formality, is less intellectual, more pragmatic. If the subject were not the life or death of millions one might sometimes call it homespun. That is the timbre of some of the secret documents the Red Guards were fed by their Maoist mentors and reproduced in posters and leaflets, and in that sense, for me The Tiananmen Papers brought back old times.

Deng's voice is especially persuasive. At the start of the occupation of the square the position of this eighty-five year old indestructible was equivocal. At one point he insists, disarmingly, that he is not all that conservative for his age, and in Chinese terms it is true. The tough survivor of many a battle with Mao exhibits Hamlet-like qualities before resolving to do the deed. I know it is frowned upon to ascribe human attributes to Chinese leaders, but something of the enormity of turning the People's Liberation Army on the people seeps through these pages. If the army were a mere killing machine in the Party's hands, why did eight generals at first decline to follow orders? And why did Deng spend so much time rationalizing with himself? There are no reports of Stalin doing that.

In one of his soliloquies Deng tries to persuade himself of the necessity of repression in the interests of the world community. If he fails to keep order in China, the result could be civil war, with hundreds of millions of refugees flooding Asia and destabilizing the world. From a Chinese leader these are novel sentiments, a kind of communist internationalism, style nouveau. This philanthropic line was later to prove persuasive with many an Asian brother, not to speak of Western statesmen such as Sir Edward Heath.

My only doubt about the authenticity of Deng's voice arose fleetingly when he says something that summarizes his world-view so neatly that one wonders for a second whether it has been cooked up to tickle our palates: "Of course we want to build a socialist democracy, but we can't possibly do it in a hurry, and still less do we want that Western-style stuff. If our one billion people jumped into multiparty elections, we'd get chaos." And of course it is gratifying to hear him insist time and again that whatever happens there can be no return to the policy of isolating China from the world, which he rightly sees as the root of many of its problems.

Listening to these legendary figures talking is like seeing waxworks come to life. Sometimes their caricatural aspects are confirmed, sometimes not. Any reader who imagined that Chinese communist leaders are cloned in the cradle will be disabused. The range and interplay of characters--which is to say the human element--is greater than we might have thought. And doddery though some of them are, their antiquity is not always the problem. The youngish but widely disliked Politburo member Li Peng, an adopted son of Zhou Enlai, conforms satisfyingly to his reputation. A pernickety ideologue when it came to doing down Zhao Ziyang, the general secretary who wanted to compromise with the students, he plays on Deng's fears of disorder on the scale of the Cultural Revolution to nudge him toward a crackdown. And when, fearing they would all wake up under house arrest, Deng succumbs and orders martial law, Li Peng insists his every word is gospel.

Though the Party "Elders" all curse and revile the "tiny minority of counter-revolutionaries", Wang Zhen is the only one who is consistently vitriolic: "These people are really asking for it. . . . These kids don't know how good they've got it! When we were their age we lived in a forest of rifles and a rain of bullets. . . . No appreciation!" For all his malign intent, here at least this barnacled eighty-one year old, the old salt of the Party, is speaking no more than the truth. The students come across as moderate and sophisticated, but the effect of their actions is to make China's gerontocrats feel they have been backed into a corner. And when he complains of the soft life of youth, and their lack of gratitude, Wang Zhen, like any irascible father, is factually correct. By 1989 there was more freedom and prosperity in China than at any time since the 1949 revolution. And, naturally, the students and their supporters wanted more.

As the French Revolution, or for that matter the fall of Soviet communism, confirms, it is often when things are gradually improving that expectations grow exponentially and patience snaps. The logic is to dam up those expectations by curtailing freedom, and, despite their lip service to Deng's policies of reform and opening up, that is what Wang Chen and his fellow brutalists wanted to do.

Yang Shangkun, the president, a year older than Wang Zhen at eighty-two, emerges as a prudent figure. He is initially averse to force and balks at appointing Li Peng as Party chairman when Zhao Ziyang is on the way out for having failed to persuade the students to call off their demonstration. Zhao Ziyang himself, alas, appears to have been ineffectual, as well-intentioned people caught up in crises often are, and the tears he shed over the hunger-striking students inspired as much disgust in his more coarse-grained colleagues as they did surprise in the West. Yet despite his failure Zhao's analysis remains, as they say, correct. The hardliners insisted that reform (a highly relative term in their usage) could only proceed in an atmosphere of stability. Zhao insisted that without democratic reform there would be perpetual instability.

But Deng was convinced that instability would result from anything approaching democracy, Western-style. So the discussion in the Party turned and turned in a vicious circle; the only way out the leaders could see was to crush the students. The Greek tragedy aspect of the affair emerges with somber clarity. Given their fears that everything they had fought for all their lives (a powerful, proud, independent new China to them, a communist tyranny to us) was under threat, and given the tenacity of the students, for the old men of Peking there could be no halfway house. The same was true of the means of repression. For them, killing was the only way. For communist autocrats, crowd control has no meaning. Water cannon and riot police are democratic appurtenances, insofar as they assume that demonstrations that may get out of hand are allowed. Logically enough, China had neither. (It is interesting, however, that, when martial law was first declared, a last-minute attempt was made to equip the troops with batons, and at that stage they were ordered not to open fire on the students even if they came under attack, for example, from Molotov cocktails.)

Essay Types: Book Review