Title

Vengeance in China

While China’s leaders try to assure the outside world and themselves that “everything is back to normal,” the national problems that existed before the June 4 crackdown have become much worse. China’s students and intellectuals were already demoralized by the periodic ideological campaigns against them and official corruption as well as by increasing inflation and low salaries. They have now become more disillusioned than ever with the Party, with Deng and Company’s leadership, and the Communist system itself. The political and military leaders who share power with Deng have become more deeply divided. Many of the city workers and the private entrepreneurs who owed their jobs to Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms recently have been complaining that inflation, corruption, wage reductions, and national economic controls have become worse. Such workers and business people, moreover, were the first to feel the force of the June crackdown, even before the intellectuals and students.

As soon as the army had established its control over Tiananmen Square, the leaders of the Beijing Workers Federation, a nonofficial union established during the demonstration, were arrested. So far only workers have been executed. Twenty-eight have been officially named as executed, but other reports suggest that more than one hundred people may have been killed. In earlier demonstrations during 1986 and 1987, students had not allowed workers to join the protests and, at the beginning of the spring 1989 demonstration, the students had physically locked arms to bar them from taking part. In both cases the students believed that participation of the workers would make repression by the government more likely; they believed as well that workers would be joining the demonstrations mostly for material reasons and could not be counted on as allies in the struggle for democracy. But by mid-May, as the movement began to run out of steam, the older intellectuals who joined the demonstration at that time urged the students to allow the workers to join them; and as Party bureaucrats, professionals, and even units of the military joined the movement, workers literally forced themselves into the demonstrations. On May 17, the demonstration expanded to over one million people, the largest number ever to have taken part in a mass protest in China. Along with the workers, other parts of the urban population also joined in, gaining the support of most of the Beijing population.

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The regime’s harsher treatment of the workers may be attributed not only to the higher status in China of students and intellectuals but to its fear that a movement resembling Solidarity will emerge in China. Since the early 1980s, Deng Xiaoping and the other elderly leaders who helped him suppress the students have worried that workers and intellectuals might form an alliance against the regime, as in fact did happen. But Deng’s speech on April 25, 1989, during the early days of the demonstration, showed him to be much more concerned about the contagion of the East European and Soviet reforms than of Western political ideas. “Those people who have been influenced by the free elements of Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary, and the Soviet Union,” he said, “have a reason to create turmoil. Their motive is to overthrow the Party.”

Deng seemed to console himself with the thought that, unlike Poland, China did not have to worry about the church and the workers and that China’s intellectuals and students could be handled relatively easily. But on May 19, Chinese workers established a new, autonomous union and the official Federation of the Trade Unions contributed 10,000 yuan to the students. The next day, Prime Minister Li Peng announced the imposition of martial law. In the view of many Chinese observers, he was prompted as much by the actions of the workers as by the fact that the Party’s reform-minded general secretary Zhao Ziyang had lost his struggle for power with the elderly conservative forces centered around Deng.

Since a number of private entrepreneurs, both large and small, had supported the student demonstrators from the beginning, many of them were rounded up immediately after the demonstration. Among those arrested were the “dare-to-die” motorcycle messengers—young men who made a living by delivering messages throughout Beijing on their motorcycles and who carried messages back and forth among the various student groups—and private peddlers who provided the students with food and clothing.

Undoubtedly the most important of the private businessmen supporting the demonstration was Wan Runnan, president of the Stone Group, China’s largest private computer company. The Stone Group, located near Beijing’s major universities, had been founded by a group of former Red Guards who had attacked the Party establishment during the Cultural Revolution. In Tiananmen Square, Wan and his colleagues were again taking part in a dramatic episode of protest, but this time in the name of democracy and not some undefined utopia. Wan gave the students much of the money they needed to finance the day-to-day costs of the demonstrations, as well as many of the power generators, electronic loudspeakers, Xeroxes, facsimile machines, and printers that held the movement together and kept it in contact with overseas Chinese supporters.

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Perhaps even more important, in late 1987 the Stone Group set up a private foundation, the Stone Institute of Social Development, which became one of the main factors in the power struggle that preceded the crackdown of June 4. The head of the foundation, the political scientist Cao Siyuan, helped to write China’s first bankruptcy law and had proposed ways of making the National People’s Congress a more open political forum so that it could act as a check on the Party’s political power, somewhat in the manner of the Supreme Soviet under Gorbachev. When the order announcing martial law was first issued in May, Cao Siyuan, through the foundation, organized a campaign to have it withdrawn. He remembered that a majority of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress had the right to call a meeting of the committee in a time of emergency. With the help of the prominent journalist Hu Jiwei, a member of the Standing Committee, the Stone Foundation circulated a petition calling for an emergency meeting and was able to get the needed signatures. Deng had come to power in 1978, saying he wanted to restore the standard political procedures abolished by Mao; but he regarded this petition as a direct challenge to his authority and that of the Party.

Although the Stone Group and its employees were a major target in the crackdown, Wan was able to escape abroad. He was to become one of the leaders of the Chinese Democratic Front, the organization founded in Paris this September to rebuild the democratic movement in China from abroad. Using his many personal connections and spending many thousands of dollars, he helped a number of the protest leaders to escape. But some of his associates including the head of his foundation, Cao Siyuan, and his assistant, Zhou Duo, have been arrested, and Zhou Duo is reported to have been brutally tortured. The Chinese press and television now denounce Wan Runnan and Cao as guilty of the corruption and the other evils now claimed to be characteristic of private entrepreneurs generally. By imposing higher taxes, reducing bank loans, and putting a limit on profits, the regime is trying to suppress private enterprise throughout China, and it is now committed to closing down one third of existing private businesses, even though it also claims that the economic reforms will continue.

Nine of the twenty-one student leaders on the government’s most-wanted list have been arrested. Of the two principal leaders, the fiery young Wuer Kaixi, who denouced Li Peng to his face on television, escaped, was recently elected one of the leaders of the Chinese Democratic Front in Paris. But Wang Dan, the most respected intellectual among the student activists, has been imprisoned and is reported to have been brutally beaten. During the past year, Wang organized a series of “democratic salons” at Beijing University to which he invited the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi and his wife, the physicist Li Shuxian, as well as other controversial intellectuals. Quite as much as Wang’s leadership of the student movement, the salons infuriated the leadership because they had been organized without the permission of the authorities and became forums for unorthodox views. As under Mao, students will now have to work in the countryside and factories after graduation. In August the government announced that students at Beijing University, where the demonstrations began, must also undergo military training before entering college, supposedly to prevent their becoming political activists. Deng’s regime has made it clear that such measures are intended to punish the students for the demonstrations.

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What is to be the fate of the university professors, senior scholars, and established intellectuals who gave the students encouragement? The leaders have been divided on how to treat them and their policies only began to emerge in July. Some of Deng’s colleagues in their eighties, particularly President Yang Shangkun and former general Wang Zhen, want to repress practically all intellectuals indiscriminately, seeing them as the source of the student demonstrations of last spring. Deng and the new leaders he has selected to replace Zhao Ziyang and Zhao’s ally, Hu Qili, in the Standing Committee of the Politburo, advocated a more selective approach, and they have been getting their way.

The new leaders—Jiang Zemin, mayor of Shanghai and now the Party’s general secretary; Li Ruihan, mayor of the economically dynamic city of Tianjin; and Song Ping, an economic planner—have drawn up the current policy toward intellectuals. Like Deng, they can be seen as being in the tradition of the “self-strengtheners,” the group of reformist Qing dynasty officials in the late nineteenth century who wanted to combine Western science and technology—which they called “yong,” the function—with the orthodox principle of Confucianism, called the “ti,” the essence. Deng and the new leaders seek a similar combination for the late twentieth century, although the “ti” has become orthodox Marxism and the Leninist political system, which they seek to preserve while remaining open to the West scientifically, technologically, and financially.

They have decided, in short, that they need the help of China’s scientific and technological intellectuals if China is to “modernize.” Consequently, some of the punitive measures they have announced make exceptions for students of science and technology. For the current academic year, the number of Chinese university students is to be cut by 30,000 generally and, at the prestigious Beijing University, the center of student protest, the number of students is to be cut by eight hundred.

The cuts, however, will apply mainly to students of the humanities and social sciences. In some fields, such as history, political science, sociology, and international relations, there will be virtually no entering class at Beijing University. The “bourgeois liberalism” that is regarded as inherent in these disciplines, officials have said, must not be allowed to contaminate Chinese society. But among the student leaders, as many as 40 percent majored in the sciences. Students from the science and technological departments and universities participated in the demonstrations in nearly as large numbers as those from the social sciences and humanities.

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As the example of Fang Lizhi suggests, there is no reason to believe that scientists desire democratic reform any less than nonscientists. Many scientists remember that during the 1950s and 1960s, the Party said that it would treat them more favorably than nonscientists, but almost inevitably the scientists were swept up in the persecution along with nonscientists. It is unlikely the Party’s effort to discriminate between scientists and other intellectuals will be any more successful this time than it has been in the past.

In choosing which intellectuals should be persecuted by arrest and denunciation, the regime has singled out two groups for attack. One is associated with the economic and political think tanks set up by Zhao Ziyang during the 1980s with the aim of improving the efficiency of Chinese institutions. The think tanks, while attracting some of China’s brightest technocrats, were seen by many Party officials as a threat to their power. Such intellectuals as Yan Jiaqi, the former head of the Institute of Political Science of the Academy of Social Sciences, are charged with using the students to back Zhao in the power struggle against Deng and his elderly colleagues; and it is true that during the demonstrations Zhao’s closest advisers were leaking information about his conflict with Deng to the protestors in the hope that action in the square might give Zhao more leverage in inner Party circles.

This strategy, however, had the opposite effect. It only strengthened the resolve of the octogenarian Party leaders such as Yang Shangkun to take forceful action for fear that the street demonstrations might turn into another Cultural Revolution in which they once again would be the victims. One recently circulated explanation of the violent response of the octogenarians has a plausible sound: because the demonstrations had become a central element in the controversy between Zhao and Deng and his elderly allies, Zhao Ziyang’s advocacy of more moderate measures in dealing with the students was therefore in itself seen as a threat to the old guard. The violence used against the students was equally directed against the political power of Zhao himself.

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The other intellectual group singled out for “manipulating” the students consists of the writers and political thinkers who had formed a kind of coalition around Hu Yaobang, the former Party head and protégé of Deng who was dismissed in 1987 and replaced by Zhao Ziyang. Notable among the members of this “democratic elite” have been the physicist Fang Lizhi and the forthright journalist Liu Binyan. It was made up largely of former victims of the Anti-Rightist campaign against intellectuals in 1957 and 1958 and of political activists who took part in the Cultural Revolution. From the start of the Deng regime in 1978, the intellectuals identified with this group emerged as the major critics of Mao’s policies. They tried to reinterpret Marxist doctrine in order to adapt it to the modern Chinese economy, and they proposed reforms to restrain the Party’s political power. During the late 1970s they helped to popularize the slogan, “Practice is the sole criterion of truth,” which was the first direct attack on Mao and his ideology.

Despite increasing opposition from party conservatives, this democratic elite called for changes in the political system throughout the eleven years between 1978 and 1989 when Hu, and then Zhao, became leaders of the reform-minded group within the government. Initially Deng had also allied himself with the members of the democratic elite in order to get rid of the remaining Maoists in the leadership, to give his regime legitimacy among intellectuals, and to prevent the conservatives from obstructing his economic reforms. But under increasing pressure from his octogenarian colleagues, Deng came to see not only the democratic elite but his own designated successors, Hu and Zhao, as threats to the Party and his own authority.

Until May 1989, the democratic elite had kept apart from demonstrations as if they were a disreputable form of political activity. They preferred giving advice to the reform leaders, expressing themselves in speeches, articles, and forums. In 1978 and in 1979, when a group of ex-Red Guards including the young activist Wei Jingsheng called for democratic reforms to match the regime’s economic reforms, the elite intellectuals kept their distance for fear that the benefits they had recently gained from the Deng regime might be taken away. In any case they did not agree at the time with Wei’s criticism of Marxism as irrelevant to China’s problem and of Deng as dictatorial. Consequently, when Deng made an example of Wei and imprisoned him in solitary confinement for fifteen years, none of them protested, even though some may have questioned the harshness of Wang’s punishment.

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By early 1989, however, in view of Deng’s continuing campaigns against them and the increasing influence among them of Western ideas of pluralism and human rights, the members of the democratic elite had lost all hope in Deng’s good intentions and began to organize themselves publicly for the first time. Fang Lizhi led the way in January 1989 by writing a letter to Deng requesting a pardon for Wei Jingsheng. In February, a petition signed by thirty-three famous literary intellectuals called for his pardon and asked the leadership to subscribe to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The group included a number of well-known apolitical intellectuals, many of whom were in their seventies or eighties, suggesting that age may make hard-liners out of Party leaders, but not necessarily the rest of the population. In late February, forty-two intellectuals, mostly scientists, who were led by Fang’s close colleague, the historian of science Xu Liangying, organized a similar petition to the Party leadership. They demanded as well that the democracy and freedom of speech guaranteed in the Chinese constitution be made a reality. Later, in March, forty-three of China’s most talented younger intellectuals sent a similar petition; among the organizers was Dai Qing, one of China’s most outspoken and admired woman journalists, who writes for the official Quanming Daily in Beijing and has been working for years on a book that exposes the long history of the Party’s repressive activities against Chinese intellectuals.

Even though the members of this prestigious group were speaking out for the first time in an organized, public manner, they were not responsible, as Deng’s spokesmen now claim, for instigating the student demonstrations. Undoubtedly however, they had helped to create an atmosphere favoring pluralism; and their advocacy of democratic practices such as freedom of speech and representative government as the best ways to curb corruption and abuses of power were echoed on college campuses throughout China. Fang Lizhi’s article in The New York Review of February 2, 1989, in which he first called publicly for the pardon of Wei Jingsheng, was translated and hung as a wall poster at Beijing University. Throughout most of the 1980s, the members of the democratic elite had acted as advisers to the reform leaders, much as the traditional literati of the dynastic period had advised the imperial court; but when their ideas provoked increasing opposition and repression from the Party elders, some of them concluded that intellectuals, acting by themselves, had no real power. They felt they had to join with other groups, such as the emerging private entrepreneurs, the more liberal-minded professionals, students, and workers, in order to provide a broader social base for their demands.

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Thus, by mid-May 1989, a number of the more prestigious intellectuals joined in the student protests for the first time. One was the former director of the Institute of Political Science, Yan Jiaqi, who since the early 1980s had been demanding that political officials serve limited terms in office and that the powers of the National People’s Congress be strengthened. Another was Su Shaozhi, the former head of the Marxist-Leninist Institute, who had been advocating reforms similar to those instituted in Hungary. Perhaps the best known internationally was Su Xiaokang, a writer of the controversial television program The River Elegy, which though it took a critical view of traditional culture was regarded by the octogenarian leaders as a critique of the party.1 Like the students, they established their own autonomous organization, the Federation of Beijing Intellectuals. Although they were among the main targets of the crackdown, Yan, Su Shaozhi, and Su Xiaokang were able to flee abroad, but some of those who helped produce The River Elegy have been arrested.

Many of the intellectuals who have been arrested so far participated in the demonstration or were signers of the petitions calling for Wei Jingsheng’s pardon, or both. Some, such as the journalist Dai Qing, tried to act as moderators between the regime and the students, and urged the students to leave Tiananmen Square in May and turn to other ways of expressing their views. But Dai Qing apparently outraged the Party leaders by openly resigning from the Party in protest when soldiers came into the square. Among the others who were arrested and are reported to have been tortured are the poet Ye Wenfu, who publicly resigned from the Party last June and ten years earlier had criticized the military for trampling on people’s rights, and the non-Marxist literary critic, Liu Xiaobo, who had returned home from the United States in order to take part in the demonstrations.

Some of the prestigious democratic intellectuals who have been arrested are being criticized more for the ideas they expressed earlier than for taking part in demonstrations. For example, since the late 1970s the well-known political theorist Yu Haocheng has been calling for the rule of law as the only way to prevent another Cultural Revolution. In December 1988, on the fortieth anniversary of the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights, Yu urged China’s leaders to subscribe to the universal code of human rights. If they did not, he warned, China would continue to suffer from despotic leaders—a prescient warning of Deng’s forthcoming repression. Yu himself was arrested in June.

Another intellectual arrested as much for his ideas as for his participation in the demonstrations is Li Honglin, a Marxist-Leninist theorist since the 1950s who was treated harshly during the Cultural Revolution and joined the democratic intellectuals in the late 1970s. His articles had repeatedly pointed out that the tradition of “self-strengthening,” by which he meant Deng’s concept of modernization, was unworkable. It is impossible, he argued, for China to import only Western science and technology and keep everything else out; science and technology are bound to be accompanied by Western political and economic ideas that helped to make Western science and technology possible.

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If such ideas seem to Westerners to verge on the self-evident, Deng and his current allies regard them not only as a challenge to their Leninist principles but also as threats to the kind of Party-controlled modernization they want to carry out. Yet there are good reasons to doubt whether they can carry out even their limited view of modernization in the present political situation. Unlike the nineteenth-century self-strengtheners, the three new members Deng has placed on the Politburo Standing Committee lack the connections with the military that have been so important in deciding the outcome of struggles for power in China.

It now seems clear, for example, that both Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang were defeated largely because the leaders of the armed forces distrusted them. Although the three officials who were already on the Standing Committee in 1987—the prime minister, Li Peng, the public security official Qiao Shi, and the economic planner Yao Yilin—also do not have direct ties to the military; their elderly patrons in the Party do. Li Peng, for example, is closely allied with the president of China, Yang Shangkun, who, through his family connections, can exercise control over major military units. Moreover, Qiao Shi, as the “Party policeman,” is in command of the People’s Armed Police, a 500,000-member paramilitary force with the best modern weapons, artillery, and helicopters. This force acted no less brutally on June 4 than the army did.

Most likely, the real power in the Standing Committee will not be held by Jiang Zemin, the relatively ineffectual former mayor of Shanghai who was appointed as Party general secretary last June, but by those members of the committee with close connections to the military and the secret police. While Deng has always tried to act as a balancing force between the reformers and conservatives, switching back and forth whenever either group pushed too far in one direction, now, with his physical powers waning, he may well find it increasingly difficult to support Jiang in the Standing Committee and at the same time control the other Party leaders and particularly the military. There is increasing friction between President Yang Shangkun and the minister of defense, Qin Jiwei, who, along with the commanders of the Beijing, Nanjing, and Guangzhou military regions, was reluctant to suppress the demonstrations violently.

In addition to being increasingly divided among contesting factions, Deng’s regime faces an intellectual class engaged in passive resistance. Even though the crackdown has hitherto been limited to intellectuals directly involved in the demonstrations and in signing petitions, many scientists, technicians, and engineers who were not involved are appalled by the spectacle of their dissident colleagues being arrested and treated brutally; yet Deng’s plans for modernization depend on the willingness of such scientifically trained individuals to cooperate with his regime.

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The present crackdown, in my view, is not to be compared with the Cultural Revolution, which was an emotionally charged ideological crusade pitting Red Guards against the Party bureaucracy in order to create a new society; it recalls instead the Anti-Rightist campaigns of 1957 and 1958, which systematically stamped out dissident ideas and actions. The current wave of repression is in many ways a retreat to the China of the 1950s, when the country followed the Stalinist model imported from the Soviet Union, stressing technology, thought control, and ideological conformity. Even some of the methods are similar, such as forcing the urban population to spend long hours in ideological indoctrination sessions and in writing self-criticisms.

As in 1957 and 1958, moreover, some work units are now being told that at least 5 percent of their members must be singled out for criticism. In practice, people are “designated,” to use the official term, as much because they are the object of personal vendettas as because of their ideological views. At the time of the Anti-Rightist campaigns of 1957 and 1958, no specific figure was given for the number of victims, but after Mao died the regime admitted to having persecuted over 500,000 intellectuals.

Once the regime discovered that its parading of manacled demonstrators before television cameras caused disquiet throughout the world, it has been secretive about its arrests. It is very difficult to get reliable information, and estimates of the numbers arrested in the current crackdown have ranged from 10,000 to 120,000. One problem with such estimates is that it is not clear what is meant by arrest. It can mean being confined in China’s terrible prisons or military camps, or in less harsh prisons, or short-term detention, or just house arrest. As in earlier campaigns against intellectuals, the confusion over the number of victims adds to the intimidating effect on the entire intellectual community, scientists as well as nonscientists.

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In fact, the intellectual stagnation that continues to plague revolutionary China began even before the Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957. It started in 1955, with a much smaller campaign against some twenty or so nonconformist writers and their literary mentor, Hu Feng, who was imprisoned. For the most part, the members of the intellectual community are so aware of their vulnerability to a shift in the political winds that they tend to take cover whenever the political leadership blows even a “cool breeze” in their direction. Thus the best-educated Chinese of the 1950s were crushed by the Anti-Rightist campaigns and could not take part in China’s efforts to modernize. The Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 demoralized and decimated another generation of intellectuals. Now the regime is taking similar vengeance on a third generation of intellectuals.

This time, however, there is a difference. Whereas in the past it was possible to mobilize local officials and Communist party colleagues against the designated victims, it has been increasingly difficult to do so since the Cultural Revolution and it is very likely to become even more difficult now. The faith in the leadership, the Party, and the system that made it possible for many thousands and even millions of people to take part in such attacks has been shattered by the June 4 crackdown. This lack of cooperation may explain the less than fervent tone of the government campaign against dissent now under way. Behind the façade of forced outward compliance, prominent intellectuals who in the past would once have denounced their colleagues under attack have become conspicuously silent.

Another difference from the Maoist period is that many intellectuals and student leaders have escaped abroad. That they have been able to do so not only reflects a loss of faith in the system and greater access to the outside world, but also the willingness of colleagues and local officials to help them escape, or at least allow them to do so. In these cases the government also found that it could no longer rely on informers throughout the population to identify fugitives to the police.

By forming the Chinese Democratic Front in Paris, moreover, reformers and student leaders who took part in the 1989 demonstrations are presenting a new possibility for China. The three top leaders were among the principal leaders in Tiananmen Square. The president is Yan Jiaqi, the former head of the Institute of Political Science in Beijing; the vice-president is the student leader Wuer Kaixi; and the secretary general is Wan Runnan, the former head of the Stone Group. They all see their organization as eventually presenting an alternative to the Communist party. They envision the day when the death, failure, and bankruptcy of the current leaders will allow them to negotiate their return to the mainland.

Obviously they are still far from being able to carry out such a possibility; but the basic argument they are making is bound to have a widening response at home. China, they say, has an intelligent, hard-working population with the potential to make China once again into a great nation and culture; but there will be no way to fulfill this aspiration within a tightly held Party system that regards any talented and active independent mind as posing a threat to its political power.


  1. See Frederick Wakeman's review in The New York Review, March 2, 1989.