Jonathan Mirsky: The Long Shadow of Tiananmen

For Standpoint, Jonathan Mirsky writes about the repercussions of the violence of , 1989 and remembers what he witnessed in Beijing during the protests:

It is a measure of the significance of what happened that spring, that after 1989 and 1990, when communist regimes in eastern Europe began collapsing, China’s Communist Party remains in place, ruling well over one billion non-citizens and sitting on hundreds of billions of US dollars. To attract those dollars, Britain, together with the US, has issued demeaning statements involving Tibet and human rights. The debate about how to handle the demonstrations split the higher echelons of the party. Party general secretary argued with Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng for negotiations with the students and lost. He appeared in the square on 19 May, muttering through a megaphone, “I have come too late.” We didn’t know he was referring to the declaration of martial law the next day. Within a few days, Zhao, now deposed, became the focus of leadership wrangling about how much he should be blamed for the “disorder”. By 1991, he had disappeared into house arrest. He died in 2005. Zhao’s secret memoir, Prisoner of the State (Simon & Schuster), composed while he was detained and smuggled to Hong Kong, has just been published. It confirms his sympathy for the Tiananmen demonstrators and his misery as he heard the sound of gunfire from the square. “I told myself,” Zhao whispered into a hidden tape recorder so as not to be heard by his guards, “that no matter what, I refused to become the general secretary who mobilised the military to crack down on the students. The students are only asking us to correct our flaws, not overthrow our political system.”



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