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Tiannanmen & the Chinese Antigone

January 26, 2001

The leaked documents published in January 2001 as The Tiananmen Papers comprise a set of highly-classified materials detailing the deliberations of China’s key decision-makers during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and the evolution of those events. Jeremy Paltiel examines what the documents reveal about the nature of the current Chinese leadership and its priorities.




So, the unlettered superannuated comrade Wang Zhen unwittingly echoes the ordinance decreed by King Creon of Thebes. According to The Tiananmen Papers, this climactic utterance comes at an informal meeting of Party veterans on June 2, 1989, where the fateful decision was taken to use “all necessary means” to clear Tiananmen Square of the protesters who had by then been in occupation for weeks.

In the Greek Tragedy by Sophocles, Polynices, the son of Oedipus, lies in an open field, slain in combat against his brother Eteocles. Creon’s decree shames Polynices for fighting on the side of Argos against his native land, Thebes. The play pits the eponymous Antigone, resolved to bury her brother, against the implacable Creon determined above all to preserve the order of the state and uphold its laws. For 11 years, the corpses of those who died in and around Tiananmen have lain in the open field of collective memory. At last, someone among a small group of Party intimates has taken up the cause of a decent interment. Like Antigone, they risk the wrath of authority and the sentence of being buried alive. Zhang Liang, the pseudonymous author of The Papers, is the Chinese Antigone of our day.

Reading The Tiananmen Papers is an exercise in recovered memory. The published papers are not startling; they confirm much we already knew. Their authenticity, especially in translated form, cannot be verified, but what I read has the ring of truth. The recorded dialogue obviously has an edited quality, but this style of editorial transcription is evocative of the Dazibao (big character posters) I read at Peking University in the mid-1970s. Those posters, containing information leaked in the course of a late Cultural Revolution inner-Party struggle between Deng Xiaoping and the ideological coterie of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, (the so-called “Gang of Four”) also quoted Deng Xiaoping verbatim in an effort to undermine his credentials as a loyal servant of Mao. Speeches quoted in those posters later found their way into Deng’s Selected Works. Style alone gives no basis on which to establish either the authenticity or the falseness of The Papers.

Even when the full Chinese text appears, it will be difficult to ascertain what was left out, deliberately or because of lack of access. For example, the “body count” following the martial law troops’ assault on Beijing given in these materials - 241 dead, of which 218 were civilians - seems low. However, we are not told what methodology was used to compile these figures. Given the circumstances, relatives of the missing would be reluctant to share information with public security officials. Unlike the military order of battle which includes complete lists of everyone deployed in the operation, there is no list of civilian participants in the demonstrations. These figures are lower than those compiled unofficially by the Chinese Red Cross based on information from hospitals in the vicinity of the military operation. Without knowing how many civilian deaths were attributed to the military operation, it is impossible to trust the outcome. Furthermore, how much of the internal reporting was influenced by the general reluctance to use force and the strict orders that no one should be killed within the “sacred” precinct of Tiananmen Square? Any unit reporting deaths within the Square would have been subject to discipline for contravening explicit orders. Therefore, a full accounting of deaths and casualties would require a degree of immunity for all participants and their families which was unavailable then or now.

On the positive side of the ledger, The Papers reveal better than we knew before that the split within the Politburo Standing Committee was not so much over the way to deal with the protesters, but over the nature of Party rule. The Papers also inform us how Jiang Zemin got the nod as Zhao Ziyang’s successor General Secretary. The World Economic Herald issue proved to the Party elders that he defined Party discipline and Party rule in the same way they did. In April 1989, The World Economic Herald, the nearest equivalent to an independent newspaper existing in China, ran a symposium on the death of Hu Yaobang which displeased the censors. The publisher, Qin Benli, went ahead and published it anyway. For this he was sacked by Jiang, then party secretary of Shanghai where the paper was based, and the editorial offices of the Herald were reorganized. This demonstrated to the Elders that Jiang was “firm on principle.” The most intimate detail of The Papers is its insight into the Elders’ perception of Zhao Ziyang’s efforts to solve the crisis. Zhao’s rhetorical linking, even in closed Party councils, of student demands with his own program of political reform was viewed not just as flouting Leninist principles of Party rule but as a personal threat to their status as Party veterans.

The best clue to the motives of those who leaked The Papers may be found in the transparent discussion of the “two roads” presented by Deng and Zhao. Deng wishes to pursue economic reform and economic opening without giving up any of the principles of Leninist Party rule (the so-called “Four Cardinal Principles - to persist with CCP leadership; the socialist road; Marxist-Leninism - Mao Zedong Thought; and the dictatorship of the proletariat) while Zhao sees the protests as an opportunity to open up the political process, license a freer press and permit the airing of multiple voices through multiple public channels. His opponents saw this as an abandonment of the Party’s leading role. In every respect, the political program followed by Jiang Zemin follows precisely the platform championed by Deng Xiaoping and carefully avoids any of the political reform gestures favoured by Zhao. Yet the emphasis on economic reform is also apparent in the personnel choices that emerged from the crisis. As Andrew Nathan points out in his introduction to The Tiananmen Papers, the post-Tiananmen settlement deliberately avoided giving any credit to Li Peng. When this was not enough to restore the impetus towards economic reform under Jiang, Deng undertook his 1992 “Southern Tour.”

Most of those who directly participated in the drafting of Zhao’s political program are either exiled or, like Bao Tong, under a form of political surveillance almost akin to house arrest. However, memories of his political program are still kept alive by those who escaped criminal sanctions for the Tiananmen “turmoil” such as Cao Siyuan and Hu Jiwei. We do not know how widely shared these ideas are within the higher councils of the Party, but we do know that the eternal flame of Party reform seems to glow brightest at the Central Party School. It is there that the notion of transforming the CCP rule in a “social democratic” direction seems to be mooted, and it is also there that the interest in something analogous to the “Third Way” proposed by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton appears keenest.

The problem for these would-be reformers, as it was for Zhao Ziyang himself, is that inner-Party reform, like that advocated in The Tiananmen Papers by Zhao himself, is still predicated on the maintenance of one-party rule (or one-party leadership with the eight “democratic parties” assisting). This rules out any institutionalized form of opposition. In the final analysis, while Zhao Ziyang did defend his views, he could not maintain a platform of opposition either inside or outside the Party. In conformity with the Party constitution, but not its rites of self-abnegation, he maintained his views and eschewed the ritual of self-criticism despite the fact that a Central Committee Plenum was called to criticize and sack him on June 23-24. Therefore, when he was expelled from the leadership it was precisely over the fact that his views did not accord with those of the Elders and the “majority” they manufactured in the Politburo. It strains common sense to think that any political party would ever allow institutionalized opposition inside it, and therefore this kind of inner-Party reform is doomed unless a future political crisis like the one at Tiananmen is resolved in precisely the opposite manner. Extra-Party opposition is not a threat to political reform; instead, political reform is inconceivable in its absence.

For this to happen, the Party and state must agree to the legalization of spontaneous organizations while the self-organized civil society groups agree to conduct political action according to agreed constitutional norms, thereby moving the political process from the street to the legislature. It is clear both from The Tiananmen Papers and what we know of the autonomous student movement itself, that in April-May 1989 neither side actually advanced to that stage. Zhao never quite advocated legalizing civil society groups, not even within the cloistered confines of the Chinese leadership’s compound, Zhongnanhai. Indeed, The Papers leave the impression that Zhao was even more circumspect in the closed meetings of the Politburo than he was in public. For their part, the students in the Square never agreed to link up with political activists struggling inside state institutions (such as “The Association of Beijing Intellectuals” headed by Bao Zunxin, or the efforts of Yan Jiaqi at the Academy of Social Sciences) nor would they even accept the discipline of the Autonomous Students Federation. Both sides stopped short of what would be necessary to institutionalize civil society.

To be fair, the tragic conclusion of the movement ultimately bears out the suspicion and scepticism of the students in the Square. Zhao Ziyang was never able to offer anything more than a vague promise of upcoming reforms at the next session of the National People’s Congress, and all the inner-Party discussion always stopped short of granting Zhao a mandate for anything more concrete. His efforts to make political reform the first item on the agenda were always trumped by Li Peng’s efforts to place the problem of dealing with the “turmoil” first. Even Deng, who was inclined at first to give Zhao broad leeway, consistently treated political reform as a parallel or side issue.

To say that even the reformist wings of the CCP are anti-human rights is not the same as saying that they are inhumane. They are not opposed to humanity or even, as in the days of the ideology of class struggle, to humanitarianism (rendaozhuyi), but they are opposed to individual rights consciousness in so far as this may be claimed from or against the state. The claim that they value “collective rights” is a complete red herring, since there is no evidence of the Chinese state recognizing any collective right of any group within Chinese society. The only “collective rights” that the Chinese regime appears to recognize are those “rights” vested in the state itself. Since there is no one against whom these rights may be claimed, or more seriously, since these so-called “rights” are claimed by the state against the individual, these are properly not “rights” at all. While there may be a cultural element in the effort of the CCP regime to embody the interests of the people within the state, the fundamental line of resistance towards human rights is not cultural but structural and ideological.

Traditional Chinese notions of legitimacy require that the regime or ruler place the interest of the people first, and therefore the language of rights, which juxtaposes the interests of the people against those of the state, poses a problem of legitimacy for any ruler. Nevertheless, the CCP’s failure to fully recognize any regime of human rights enforcement stems from its own concept of “leadership” in all areas of Chinese society rather than any cultural reluctance to take on rights claims. Relative acquiescence in the area of property rights adjudication demonstrates that the Chinese culture is not inalterably opposed to the language of rights. Instead, the ruling party is opposed to institution of a regime of universal claims against the state and its rulers.

The mainstream lesson drawn from Tiananmen by the Deng-Jiang succession is that civil society should at all costs be pre-empted, co-opted or repressed. “Wending shi yadao yiqiede” (stability overrides everything) is Jiang Zemin’s cardinal slogan. This means deploying paramilitary forces, such as the People’s Armed Police, who are prepared to ride roughshod over civil society, and constructing a legal system designed to support this. Zhang Liang is among those who envision a different sort of stability. The Papers quote Zhao as telling Deng Xiaoping on May 13: “When we allow some democracy, things may look ‘chaotic’ on the surface; but these little ‘troubles’ are normal inside a democratic and legal framework. They prevent major upheavals and actually make for stability and peace in the long run.”

While Deng and most of the Elders preferred solving problems peacefully with persuasion, they persisted in believing that public demonstrations only took place because the masses were manipulated by die-hard troublemakers who were linked up with foreign interests determined to overthrow the communist system. The symbolic tussle between the student protesters and the Party leadership led by Deng over the characterization of the movement as “patriotic” had a profound basis. Deng, together with conservative members of the Party leadership, including Li Peng, could not conceive of a “loyal opposition.” For them, any opposition to the Party leadership was tantamount to opposition to Party leadership generally and to oppose Party leadership meant to oppose the regime and the socialist state. Even when the Party Elders express sympathy with protester calls to control corruption, they do not see themselves in any way accountable to the body politic. Indeed, the slogans attacking Deng and accusing some Party leaders of corruption are used by Li Peng as evidence of the subversive intent of the demonstrators. Instead, they view Zhao Ziyang as “disloyal” for placing the interests of society ahead of Party discipline and Party rule. Deng, however, persisted in believing that democracy is an ultimate goal that will be achieved “gradually” only in the context of the kind of “stability” that excludes organized opposition. This fantasy is a will-o’-the-wisp. Opposition can only become legitimated when it occurs, not in its absence.

In the end, “stability” was achieved only under the weight of armored vehicles. It has been maintained by a growing economy and the emergence of limited freedoms afforded by a market economy. For instance, there may be the possibility, though not necessarily the right, to change one’s job or residence. However, bayonets and uniforms are never too far in the background. Even a snowman in Tiananmen Square is considered a threat to public order. The dead still lie unacknowledged, and by the evidence in this book, remain unaccounted for. Only time will tell whether the martyrs of Tiananmen will receive the burial they deserve. Until then the “rule of law” in China is Creon’s:



These are my principles. Never at my hands
will the traitor be honored above the patriot
but whoever proves his loyalty to the state—
I’ll prize that man in death as well as life....
But whoever steps out of line, violates the laws
or presumes to hand out orders to his superiors,
he’ll win no praise from me. But that man
the city places in authority, his orders
must be obeyed, large and small,
right or wrong.
show me a greater crime in all the earth!



Jeremy Paltiel is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. specializing in the politics, government and foreign policies of Asia. His most recent publication is: “Jiang talks politics, who listens? Institutionalization and its limits in market Leninism,” The China Journal, January 2001.