In this essay I comment on “Tienanmen Papers” by Vijay Gokhale. Mr Gokhale was India’s top diplomat, serving as Foreign Secretary until his retirement in February 2020. He served three stints in China, ending up as Ambassador, and has the distinction of also serving as India’s top diplomat in Taiwan (as head of the India-Taiwan Association in Taipei that serves as India’s unofficial embassy).
Vijay Gokhale’s “Tienanmen Papers” is a wonderful read. It shows the depth of understanding Indian diplomats have of the People’s Republic and the undercurrents of Chinese politics. They have a level of expertise as good as the best western commentators when it comes to China. This is good to know and augurs well for India.
In his book, Gokhale states that the death and destruction on the night of June 3 is highly exaggerated and nowhere on the scale that has been reported by the Western Press. Accounts in the Western media stated that thousands of students were run over by tanks and massacred by PLA troops on the night of June 3. While he will not be drawn into comparisons of scale, and he is not hewing to the official Chinese line, he believes it was not as big as reported. Western diplomats and their media chose to see and hear what they wanted to see and hear, he says, and hence would believe any account without cross-verification. He accuses journalists of the same crime.
Why these conclusions need to be taken seriously is because of his impressive credentials and his scholarship. Gokhale was a junior foreign service officer in the Indian Embassy in Beijing in 1988-89 when these events took place. He was lucky enough to be allotted diplomatic accommodation at the Qijiayuan Diplomatic Enclave, with a balcony that opened on Chang’An Avenue. If you step out of the Enclave and walk west on Chang’An Avenue, you will reach Tiananmen Square in a couple of kilometres. This gave him a ring-side view as events unfolded. His fluency in written and spoken Putonghua meant he could follow what was said and written at that time. He supplements his first-hand accounts with deep scholarship on Chinese history, and he helps explain the chain of events that led up to this seminal punctuation point in Chinese politics. He says he had to wait until he retired as India’s top diplomat to write this book and one can understand why.
He correctly observes that during any kind of turmoil, rumours and innuendo fly around and it is the job of serious diplomats to winnow the chaff and wait for verified facts to emerge. This, he says, American and British diplomats failed to do and their media doubled down on it. He quotes specific cables sent by the US Embassy back to the State Department and now unclassified, and contrasts them with the reality of what was actually happening.
American and British commentators, as observed, chose to see these events through tinted glasses. The result is that the liberal West thinks in terms of Chinese human rights. As he points out, after the dust had settled down, none of these liberal views were a factor in subsequent hard-headed American economic and strategic diplomacy with respect to China.
His description of events over the previous decade that culminated in Tienanmen is masterly. The spark of the student protests, as we know, was the death of Hu Yaobang in April 1989. Hu Yaobang was the man handpicked by Deng Xiao Ping to succeed Hua Guofeng as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party – the most powerful of positions in the Party and hence the State. Hua was the man chosen by Mao as his successor. Getting rid of Hua was essential to Deng’s vision of getting rid of the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, modernising China’s economy and bringing China into the 20th century. Deng was always very clear that nothing or nobody could compromise the supremacy of the Communist Party. For him, the Party was everything. Within the broad supervision of the Party, Deng wanted to introduce economic pragmatism which involved liberalisation. However over the years Hu started to talk of political liberalisation instead of focusing on economic liberalisation, and this message was heard by youth who were anyway unhappy with lack of opportunity. As a result Hu was ruthlessly removed from his post of General Secretary by Deng in 1987. And his death in 1989 caused youth to come out on to the streets and squares in Beijing to mourn someone who seemed to advocate for change.
Deng had Hu Yaobang replaced by Zhao Ziyang as General Secretary of the Party in the belief that Zhao would also keep the focus on economic liberalisation without compromising on the hold of the Party. However Zhao Ziyang had his Prime Minister Li Peng, who was supposed to handle the economics agenda for Deng, to contend with in a power struggle.
The power struggle lead to a number of missteps and miscommunications on the real intent of the Party which were misread by Western observers and diplomats as an unraveling of the one Party state. It led to the embarrassing situation in the middle of May 1989, when the head of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev was supposed to visit Beijing to end thirty years of rivalry and bad blood with the Chinese. It was one of Deng Xiaoping’s personal objectives and he was going to meet and talk to Gorbachev to rejuvenate relations between the two Communist giants. Tienanmen Square and most of central Beijing was reduced a squalid mass of students squatting there. Instead of being swept to Zhongnanhai via the grand Chang’An Avenue, Gorbachev had to be taken via a bunch of back roads. It was hugely embarrassing for the Chinese and for Deng in particular.
From then on, Deng asserted his authority. He had Zhao pushed aside, and got the party elders to pick the relatively unknown and colourless Jiang Zemin (from the Shanghai unit of the Party) to become the General Secretary. Zhao was later dismissed and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Li Peng was punished for his powerplay by being denied the big job of General Secretary. Martial Law was declared on May 20 and all demonstrations were banned. The troops surrounding Beijing entered the city and moved towards the Forbidden City. The Army slowly and relatively peacefully, cleared Beijing of the students. Most of the moderate students, who did not want to topple the government but were making simple demands like more jobs and more opportunities, had anyway been side lined by extreme radicals, who were attacking the Party and its leaders with personal remarks.
This was observed by Gokhale and Indian embassy staffers when they drove around the city on May 24 after the initial clean-up had taken place. They noted that Radio Beijing had started referring to Deng as “Chairman Deng” and they took this as a sign that the Party had reasserted control, and informed New Delhi as such. They did not believe the Chinese Government was going to fall. By the time the night of June 3 arrived, only the Tienanmen Square had students. According to Gokhale, there was some firing, and in other parts of Beijing, clashes between students and the troops. Indian Embassy officials saw a line of destroyed PLA armoured personnel carriers, and assumed there must have been some fightback or perhaps a clash between PLA troops.
Without hazarding numbers or estimates, he does not believe the killings were on a scale shown in the documentary “The Gate of Heavenly Peace” or in any of the documents and books written in the years since. If there had been, he implies, he would have seen it. He dismisses the “Statue Of Liberty” erected out of plastic material facing the Heavenly Gate, and does not refer to the famous man in front of the tank.
As we know, the real significance of the events of April and May 1989, culminating in whatever happened on Tienanmen Square on the night of June 3rd, is that cemented in place the trade-off that the Chinese have lived with since then. Since that day, the Chinese GDP went up from US$500bn to US$14trn today. Per capita incomes are approaching middle-income levels at around US$12,500 per annum. The Chinese have the ability to travel freely, get wealthy, enjoy their money and their lives. Gone are the drab days of the 1980s – even in 1993 I could see ten bicycle lanes on the wide Chang’An Avenue and two car lanes. Today you cannot spot a bicycle on Chang’An Avenue.
But there is no political liberty. Given that the Chinese Government drew a curtain of lead on the entire happening, there is no possibility that any truth will emerge. Even the heartfelt observances in Hong Kong have been snuffed out. The relentless march of Xi Jingping to take on the mantle of Mao and Deng means that there is no chance of any form of coming to terms.
Democracy, human rights, individual freedoms – these are values that underpin the way the West sees itself ever since the end of World War II, and chooses to judge the rest of the world on these benchmarks. These are indeed universal values and everyone is entitled to choose his leader, enjoy his individual freedoms and have his basic rights to life, liberty and property protected. But other societies need not see things the same way. In post 1991 China, as long as individual economic liberties coincide with the objectives of the State, there is no conflict. But there can be no political liberty for individuals because the Party will never give up control.
The Chinese people have had a long and unhappy history ever since the humiliations began in 1840 at the hands of the opium-selling British. Since 1979 they have made huge advances towards education, opportunity and economic freedom of a kind that is unprecedented. The way ahead is going to be harder. Geopolitics and financial mismanagement may limit the rate at which wealth increases. An aging society will impose additional care costs on younger people. Will this lead to rising dissatisfaction, and a fresh push for a greater say in how the State is run?
After all Chinese youth activism is not new. They go back to May 4 1919, when Chinese youth burst into the streets protesting the supine manner in which the Republic of China acquiesced to the handover of German colonies on the Chinese mainland to Japan as part of the Versailles peace settlement.
What about his claim that the disturbances were not as bad as CNN and the NYT made them out to be? It could well be so. But as he implies, the real confrontation is what took place between April 15 1989 (when the mourning for Hu Yaobang’s demise began) to May 20 1989 (when martial law was declared). There was a genuine demand for political freedoms of a limited nature. These demands were amplified beyond their original intent due of a power struggle within the Party, in which Zhao and his allies were fully complicit in leading the West to believe that a fundamental reworking of the Chinese state was underway. This was music to Western ears in the context of what was happening in the USSR at the same time. There was a genuine danger that the Party could lose control. And once Deng stepped in and took charge, the Party reasserted supremacy. And that, he says, is how things will stay.