How Tiananmen Changed China

Remarks to the Commonwealth Club, entered into record at Congressional-Executive Commission on China hearing, “The 20th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Protests: Examining the Significance of the 1989 Demonstrations in China and Implications for U.S. Policy”

June 3, 2009


IThe Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera tells the story of an official who falls from power in Communist Czechoslovakia, is executed and airbrushed from history. Because he gave his hat to another official on stage with him, his hat was not airbrushed from history. Whenever people saw the hat, they remembered the man. Kundera gives voice to the hope of those who would erase history and those who would remember it: “Before long the nation will forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster. The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

By that measure, the struggle that began in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago continues today. It lives in memory and in legacy. It gave birth to an era of protest and the rise of a human rights consciousness among the Chinese people. For the first time in history, the Chinese government faced massive international criticism for its human rights record. Pressure from abroad and rising dissent at home have together helped bring about significant developments in the area of human rights, though much work remains to be done.

During the last two weeks there has been an outpouring of memories of June 4. We have heard from many of the June 4 protest leaders, including Bao Tong, Wang Dan, Chai Ling, and Wu’erkaixi, as well as many more lesser-known dissidents who went to prison for what they did in the square and in hundreds of cities across the country. (Zhejiang prisoners have eloquently spelled out what it means to be branded as a June 4 prisoner: “We are waiting to die.”). The New York Times devoted an entire page to remembrances of June 4 by four Chinese artists. Ma Jian, author of Beijing Coma, has written a particularly moving testimony of what he went through in June 1989. I recommend it to you.

Ding Zilin and the Tiananmen Mothers, those who lost children in the suppression of the protests, have released another in a series of calls for the government to take responsibility for the large number of civilian deaths in Beijing. In Hong Kong – the only place administered by China where June 4 is remembered publicly – a huge candlelight vigil is to take place in a few hours. Hong Kong University students overwhelmingly condemned the killings and subsequent repression, even voting out the student body president for attempting to take a softer line on Tiananmen. Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule almost 12 years ago, but the memory of Tiananmen lives on

Striking from the grave, ousted party secretary Zhao Ziyang has provided fresh and vivid reporting in his recently published memoirs of how the crackdown against protesters came about. His book is flying off the shelves in Hong Kong and is doubtless already available in some form or another inside China itself.

After years of seeming apathy among China’s students, there are signs that China’s youth are taking more interest in what happened on June 4. In a recent article in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, the story is told of a lecture by 83-year-old Professor Zhang Sizhi to a rapt audience of 300 students at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. Professor Zhang, who is also a criminal defense lawyer, spoke openly of his work defending leading June 4 dissidents, including Wang Juntao and Bao Tong, and admonished the students to face truth and history with courage.

While the professor spoke, security agents hovered around the perimeter but never actually intervened. There have been small – no, tiny – signs that Beijing is willing to allow a little more leeway for discussion of June 4. Private memorial services are held with the knowledge of the police. A proxy for the government writes an op-ed in which it is acknowledged that “mistakes were made.” Mention is made of June 4 in an official newspaper, Global Times.

Chinese police have reacted in familiar fashion to those identified as trouble-makers in the run-up to June 4, hustling dissidents out of town, detaining them for brief periods, or inviting them to “drink tea” – a euphemism for a mild form of interrogation, cutting off their access to outsiders. Yet, so far, Beijing has shown relative restraint, at least when compared to the past. Interference with media, extending to shut-downs of Twitter, Flickr, hotmail, and numerous websites is intensifying and monitoring of emails is at an all-time high. But the days when the Chinese government can effectively control the access of its citizens to information and opinions not sanctioned by the state are coming to an end. As China’s citizens become wealthier and have more time to debate and ask questions, travel more and enjoy more ways of finding out information, interest in what happened 20 years ago will grow, not subside. China has produced many of the world’s great historians. The history of Tiananmen is yet to be written.

Tiananmen lives on in memory, but it also lives on in legacy. What happened in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago changed China in big but as yet undetermined ways. When asked more than 50 years ago for his assessment of the French Revolution, Zhou Enlai replied that it was too early to say. We should bear Premier Zhou’s wisdom in mind as we seek to understand how China changed and is changing because of Tiananmen. In trying to assess how Tiananmen changed China, we not only lack the benefit of time – 20 years in the sweep of Chinese history is, after all, not a long time – we also lack key information on the events in Beijing and the subsequent uprisings all over the country.

Vitally important questions remain to be answered before the history is written and verdicts passed. What was the decision process whereby martial law was declared? Zhao Ziyang says that the decision to send in the troops violated Party procedure. Was martial law itself legally declared? In terms of operational responsibility, which units did what under whose command?

What is so striking to me as someone whose human rights career spans the entire 20 years since Tiananmen is that we still don’t know the answers to critical questions such as these.

How many died in the massacre? The Chinese government has released a figure of 241 dead and 7,000 wounded. I go with Nicholas Kristof’s estimate of 800 deaths in Beijing; Kristof won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the 1989 protests. It is increasingly accepted that students were not shot in the square itself. The majority of deaths occurred throughout the city as enraged citizens took up arms and fought with soldiers.

How many were executed? In Beijing, we know of one dozen executions shortly after Tiananmen. There were also executions in the provinces. All told, fewer than 100 people were probably executed.

How many were detained? The Dui Hua Foundation keeps track of statistics on political cases discovered and solved by China’s political police, the First Bureau of the Public Security Ministry. Estimates based on statistics covering 11 percent of China’s population show that political cases quadrupled in 1989 from 1988’s total to reach a level of 13,500 cases, of which about 10,000 were solved. If we subtract cases not related to June 4, and assume two individuals per case, we arrive at an estimate of at least 15,000 people detained in political cases arising from June 4. It is possible that not all instances of rioting were classified as political cases, so the number of people detained post-June 4 around the country could be higher.

Whatever the number is, it is staggeringly high. Dui Hua maintains a database on individuals arrested in political cases since 1980. We have records on 2,125 individuals detained for the actions they committed on or around June 4. We add names all the time. Recently, a Chinese NGO released a report with new names of people detained. Based on this report, we will add 100-200 names to the database, but we still probably know fewer than 15 percent of the names of people detained.

How many places were affected by the protests? This is where it gets really difficult. I was in southern China on June 4, within range of Hong Kong TV, which broadcast footage of the suppression of the protests. I would hazard a guess that every township of any size in the Pearl River Delta witnessed protests in the aftermath of the bloodshed in Beijing. The number of places affected by protests certainly exceeds a thousand nationwide. About a quarter of political cases from June 4 apparently went unsolved, a percentage much lower than 90 percent solution rate for other periods. Like today, China’s police simply couldn’t cope with the number and intensity of protests.

As with our work uncovering the names of those detained, Dui Hua records accounts of local protests in China’s police records about June 4. Recently, we discovered a detailed account of the protests in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. The city witnessed protests that began in April and lasted for nearly a week after June 4. Marches before the killings already exceeded 30,000 participants. Citizen organizations arose to manage the protests. According to official statistics, there were 68 incidents of industrial unrest, 130 street protests, and 51 hunger strikes. Seventeen cases of “counterrevolution” were solved. A total of 61 individuals were detained, of whom 25 were formally arrested and brought to trial, 16 sent to “reeducation-through-labor,” and 20 handled through other methods. This in a city of more than two million inhabitants.

Three Observations

Despite the difficulties in assessing how Tiananmen changed China, I would like to offer three observations on how the 1989 protests and their suppression impacted the Chinese government and the Chinese people.

1. Tiananmen delayed economic reform and growth by at least three years, probably more.

It took Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour in 1992 to affirm the export-driven, wealth-generating model developed largely by the purged Zhao Ziyang. Wherever China is today economically, it would have gotten there sooner and with much less sacrifice had Tiananmen not taken place. Tiananmen also stifled legal reform. Perhaps the best example is the removal of counterrevolution as a crime. It was well on track to be removed in 1988. Tiananmen, labeled a counterrevolutionary riot, put paid to the idea of getting rid of counterrevolution. It wasn’t until 1997 that China removed counterrevolution from its criminal code. At that time, there were just under 2,000 counterrevolutionaries in prisons under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice. Today, 12 years later, there are still more than 100 counterrevolutionaries in prison, including several convicted of counterrevolutionary sabotage during the June 1989 protests. Their continued incarceration has affected China’s ability to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Another area where Tiananmen might have affected legal reform is with regard to the death penalty. Unfortunately, we have too little data on the number of executions in China to draw firm conclusions. The only county for which detailed statistics have been found is Maguan County in Yunnan. These numbers show a big jump in the number of executions in 1989 and thereafter.

China has recently made great strides in reducing the number of executions nationwide, from about 15,000 a year a decade ago to around a third that many in 2008. However, what strikes me about this fact – other than the sheer numbers involved – is that it took over a decade after Tiananmen until serious reductions in the use of capital punishment began to take place.

2. Tiananmen ushered in the era of “mass protests,” and gave rise to a greater human rights consciousness among the Chinese people.

The Chinese government has, since Tiananmen, had to contend with mounting protests covering a wide range of grievances, including some of the very grievances, many economic, that led to the 1989 protests. Dui Hua keeps track of mass incidents in a database that currently holds information on nearly 1,400 incidents over the last three years – a small fraction of the total. Not only are protests erupting every day somewhere in China, the vast majority are peaceful expressions of discontent and more often than not they are resolved without recourse to violence. When violence takes place and offenders are sentenced by courts, the sentences are less harsh than those imposed on the 1989 June 4 protesters.

China’s police are more sophisticated and less heavy-handed in dealing with mass incidents today than they were in 1989, and to some extent this appears to be the case with dissent by intellectuals (witness the relatively lenient treatment of “Charter 08” drafters, at least thus far). The exception to this lighter touch is in Tibet and Xinjiang. In these autonomous regions and in other areas of the Tibetan plateau, a severe crackdown is underway. In 2008, there were more than 1,600 arrests for “endangering state security” crimes in China, more than double the number in 2007. Large-scale arrests in protests classified as endangering state security have taken place in Tibetan areas and in Xinjiang, accounting for well over 50 percent of all ESS arrests.

3. For the first time in Chinese history, a Chinese government had to contend with an outpouring of negative international public opinion after the suppression of the 1989 protests.

Perhaps the best illustration of what happened to China’s favorability rating in the United States is a graph of results obtained by the Gallup Poll’s annual survey of American opinion towards foreign countries. Before Tiananmen, China was viewed favorably by more than 70 percent of the American people. After Tiananmen, only half that number still had a favorable impression of the country. Although there has been movement up and down over the years, the percentage of American people who view China favorably has never exceeded 50 percent since Tiananmen, and today stands at 41 percent. (I am very concerned by data that suggests that China’s unpopularity has metastasized in the US. Three separate polls released so far this year have a majority of Americans holding negative views of China.)

Of course, it is not only American public opinion that was badly affected by Tiananmen; opinion elsewhere in the world was equally negative. The EU imposed an arms embargo that it has to this day refused to lift because of Tiananmen. As in North America, there is little to suggest that opinion towards China has changed in European countries and in other democracies. A BBC poll taken in January this year shows a sharp drop in China’s popularity across the board in the last 12 months.

In part to counter the bad image that arose after Tiananmen, the Chinese government has, in a sense, “ discovered human rights.” To my way of thinking, this is one of the most significant changes originating from what happened in Tiananmen 20 years ago. China now takes into account what the world thinks about it, not as much as the world might want, but far more than in any other period, certainly within the life of the People’s Republic. Chairman Mao didn’t give a damn about what foreigners thought, and he presided over far greater horrors than Tiananmen. Consider what China has done in human rights policy and diplomacy since 1989:

  • Sharply reduced the number of executions (a development especially popular in Europe);
  • Passed a new labor law that increases protections for workers;
  • Reduced use of reeducation-through-labor from more than 300,000 inmates in RTL camps five years ago to roughly 170,000 today (China has yet to carry out the promised “fundamental reform” of RTL);
  • Established a network of rights dialogues and exchanges;
  • Held talks with the Vatican and Tibetan exiles;
  • Hosted UN rapporteurs, and taken a leadership role in the UN Human Rights Council;
  • Published a National Human Rights Action Plan;
  • Signed but not ratified the ICCPR; and,
  • Released and reduced the sentences of hundreds of political prisoners presented on lists to the Chinese government.

It should be remembered that, prior to Tiananmen, the Chinese government had never released a political prisoner as a result of international diplomacy, public and private. In the years since Tiananmen, the practice has become commonplace. I myself have been involved in hundreds of what I call “transactions” in this area.

Polling data suggests China’s image has improved when prisoners are released. In my opinion, China’s international image could benefit from a large-scale special pardon on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China this fall. This proposal is being vigorously debated in China, and I am told that some senior leaders have shown an interest, but it is too early to say if Beijing will in fact issue a 60th anniversary special pardon, and if it does, who will benefit.

What took place 20 years ago today in China not only changed China, it also changed the world.

It presaged the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Governments faced with mass protests decided against using force, in part because of the revulsion so widely felt after the killings in Beijing.

It fueled the rise to power of a San Franciscan congresswoman who led the fight against the renewal of China’s Most-Favored-Nation Status. Had she succeeded in imposing conditions that the Chinese government refused to meet, China would have lost its access to the US market. It is no exaggeration to say that, had that happened, there would have been no Chinese economic miracle.

It ushered in the era of cable news. A fledgling network by the name of CNN covered the protests live, and gave us pictures which remain vivid in the memory of the world, including that iconic picture of a man facing down a tank on Chang An Jie, or the “Avenue of Eternal Peace.”

Tiananmen changed my life forever. Twenty years ago, I was a successful businessman, a business leader in Hong Kong. Today, I run The Dui Hua Foundation in San Francisco, a group promoting respect for human rights in China and the United States. My first intervention in May 1990 was on behalf of a Tiananmen protester. The last release Dui Hua announced was of a June 4 hooligan, maybe the last person convicted of hooliganism for his involvement in the protests. (Hooliganism, like counterrevolution, was removed from Chinese law in 1997.) In all, I have asked the Chinese government about more than 250 prisoners convicted of June 4 related offenses. The great majority have been released before the end of their sentences.

Dui Hua estimates that there are about 30 people still in prison for offenses committed on or around June 4, 1989, in China. They are now mostly middle-aged men who were once young workers swept up in a tide of anger and destruction, youngsters like Wang Jun in Xi’an, who at 18 was sentenced to death, suspended for two years and ultimately commuted, for burning two police motorcycles and stealing a policeman’s calculator. All of those who remain in prison for June 4-related offenses have received sentence reductions. They have served more than half of their sentences, in most cases at least 80 percent. Several are serving sentences for crimes removed from the criminal code 12 years ago. They no longer represent a threat to society.

When I first pleaded for the release of a prisoner at a business dinner in May 1990, I fumbled to express sentiments not yet completely formed, even in my own mind. As I struggled to find the words that I needed to convince the Chinese official to release the young protestor, I found myself quoting what Shakespeare said about the quality of mercy: “It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. Tis mightiest in the mightiest.”

China today is not the China of 20 years ago. It is a mighty country, full of success on many fronts and justifiably proud. It should shed its insecurity about June 4 and boldly face its history. To start the process of healing the country’s deep wounds, I hope the Chinese government will temper justice with mercy, and release those still serving sentences for what they did in the Tiananmen protests of 20 years ago.