Wu Guoguang (吴国光): Power Politics, Institutions and Historical Tragedy: Reading Li Peng’s Tiananmen Diary

The following analysis is by Wu Guoguang, a former assistant to Bao Tong and now a Political Science Professor at the University of Victoria. Portions were published in Hong Kong’s Dongxiang Magazine and a longer version was intended to serve as an introduction to ’s Tiananmen Diary, the publication of which has recently been canceled:

Power Politics, Institutions and Historical Tragedy
Reading Li Peng’s Tiananmen Diary

By Wu Guoguang

Li Peng’s Psychology

Li Peng’s diary presents us with two important questions:
1- What were the factors that brought Li Peng so quickly to his position towards the student demonstrations?
2 – When and how did Premier Li Peng’s approach win out over the approach of General Secretary Zhao Ziyang to become the officially adopted approach of the government?

What Li Peng has written in this diary reveals his tendency to view social political situations in a pre-determined way and to act as though he were in a constant state of combat.

For the last half of the 20th century, the government used a battle mentality and military terms in its approach to criticism or expressions of dissatisfaction with the government. Critics were enemies, and as enemies were to be attacked. If criticism moved beyond words into action, for example by taking the form of a public protest or petition, it was viewed as a “combat charge” {April 18}

This diary reveals that, to Li Peng, even dialogue with the students was a form of struggle. { April 28} Students shouting slogans like “Support the Communist Party” were considered “incendiary ” {April 27} Along with this combat mentality towards public demands, Li Peng has also revealed that he was constantly on the alert for enemy activity in his political life. In his diary, he describes visiting Hu Yaobang’s family to express his condolences. {April 18th} When Hu’s widow Li Zhao expressed a wish to allow a public viewing of her husband’s remains, Li Peng immediately saw this opening an opportunity for “bad people” and thus found Li Zhao’s wishes incomprehensible, and herself suspicious.
When Zhao Ziyang went to North Korea as planned, Li saw it as Zhao dumping the mess on him and immediately suspected ulterior motives.

At the official memorial for Hu Yaobang on April 22nd, when student representatives attempted to present a letter to petition the Premier,
Li Peng first thought again was of conspiracy. He wondered why they didn’t address the letter to Zhao Ziyang. It must have been because
they wanted to use it to push him to the front lines, using the power of the masses to “stink up” Li Peng. {April 23}

Zhao Ziyang told Du Rensheng that since the students were demanding more political reform, he hoped he might use the student movement to add a popular boost to the political reform that had met such fierce resistance from the bureaucracy. Li Peng immediately interpreted this
as Zhao wanting to solidify or protect his position as General Secretary by using the student protests. {April 25}

Sometimes this mode of thinking made the Premier of China into a detective. In the afternoon of April 30th, Li Peng went to Zhao’s place and described his observations: “When I arrived, the room was empty of people, but filled with lingering cigarette smoke and ashtrays full of cigarette butts. That means that Zhao had already held a meeting, but with whom? Nobody knows!” From this description, it would seem that the highest level Party official in China did not have the right to hold a meeting, or that if he did so he ought first to inform the second in command, Li Peng. Otherwise, it would seem some conspiracy was at hand.

A Critical Omission

However, all of this above is insufficient to explain Li Peng’s stance towards the student movement. From what we know of the politics of the
Chinese Communist Party, in general, the power of the highest ranking official far exceeds that of the second highest. For the position of
the second to prevail over the first is highly unusual and indicates a powerful force behind the scenes. The question of when and how Li
Peng’s approach was adopted as the official approach over Zhao Ziyang’s becomes important here, and the factor becomes

According to all known public records, on the morning of April 25th, 1989, Li Peng met with Deng Xiaoping. At this time, Deng determined
that the student protests were aimed at overthrowing the leadership of the CCP, and constituted turmoil. {April 25} This set the official
approach towards the student demonstrations on the track towards the military crackdown. Li Peng’s diary also gives this impression.

However, there is an important problem here. On the afternoon of April 23rd, Zhao left Beijing for North Korea. On April 24th, Li Peng called
for an expanded meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) to determine that the student movement was “a political struggle, was
organized and planned and aimed at overthrowing the CCP. The PSC must take immediate action to stop the movement.”

According to Li Peng’s description, this was a “key meeting” where the participants were in “unprecedented uniformity.” There were three
decisions made: The People’s Daily would publish a “powerful editorial”; they would call for a cadre mobilization meeting that would include Party, administrative and military leaders; and a leading group was organized to deal with the student movement and consisting of: Qiao Shi, Hu Qili and Li Tiying.

That is, before they met with Deng Xiaoping on the morning of April 25th, and before Deng had expressed his opinion, Li Peng had already
elevated his negative appraisal of the student movement as intended to overthrow of the CCP into the collective view of the Politburo Standing Committee. In addition, this view had already been implemented on all fronts, mobilizing all, from the PSC to the Party’s official paper.

This is highly peculiar. Why didn’t Li Peng wait until the next morning for Deng’s opinion before taking action? On what did he base his confidence that Deng would back his approach? What power did Li Peng have to turn the PSC from mostly in support of Zhao’s approach to
suddenly in support of Li’s approach, enough to even mobilize them into action?

Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the power politics of this era will understand that this was too big of a political risk for Li Peng.
Even Zhao Ziyang would not have made such a move without Deng Xiaoping’s approval.

With this question in mind, we read Li Peng’s diary carefully and find an important lead. According to Li Peng, around 8:30 PM on April 23rd,
Yang Shangkun suggested to Li Peng that together they meet with Deng Xiaoping. Li Peng consents. However, did they go? Or did they wait
until April 25th? Li Peng does not say.

In Deng Xiaoping’s Official Chronology, April 23 and 24 of 1989 are both blank; no entries were made. On April 25th, it states that a meeting was held in Deng’s residence with Yang Shangkun and Li Peng and Deng expressed full support and approval for the decisions of the expanded PSC meeting. At this point, there is a footnote in very formal language describing the decision made by the expanded PSC
meeting on the night of April 24th. This only serves to highlight the fact that this important decision was made by the PSC that was previously divided on this issue without waiting for Deng to express approval. The person who accomplished this not only managed to avoid
Deng’s misgivings but even won his full support and praise.

This leads us to suspect that Li Peng and all official accounts have omitted an important event, and that is that on the night of April 23rd, Deng Xiaoping had a secret order either directly or indirectly passed to Li Peng to determine that the student movement was “counter-revolutionary” and “turmoil” aimed at overthrowing the CCP. The order must not only have determined the nature of the student
movement but also set up a series of hardline policies to handle it. Whether or not there still was a conversation on the morning of April
25th, or whether the official records and Li Peng’s diary intentionally shifted the conversation of the evening of April 23rd to
the morning of April 25th, we do not know. [Here the author lists seven references from different sources as
evidence to support the above assessment.]

Power Politics and Institutions

According to this finding, Deng Xiaoping made a decision first, and the expanded PSC accepted the decision in absence of the General Secretary, violating the Party Charter and the official decision-making process. In all official records, the Deng Xiaoping talk of April 23rd was omitted, emphasizing or forging the conversation on April 25th with Li Peng to make it appear as though the PSC made its own decision.

Some may ask, is the Party charter and legal procedure important to Deng or Li or the leadership? Why would they even care to take note of
them? The answer to this can be found in Li Peng’s diary, and for this, we must be thankful to Li Peng for providing such important information.

On the morning of May 19th, Deng Xiaoping announced that Jiang Zemin would become General Secretary. Jiang Zemin was not formally elected until more than a month later, on June 24th. According to Li Peng {May 31}, the delay was caused by Jiang Zemin’s insistence on conforming with the Party charter. “Comrade Jiang Zemin said to me numerous times that he absolutely would not accept the procedure by which Hu Yaobang was removed and Zhao Ziyang made General Secretary in contradiction of Party Charter.” {June 15} Li and Deng both agreed with Jiang, showing that they all realized that there was a procedural problem with the way Hu had stepped down.

According to Zhao Ziyang’s memoir, Deng Xiaoping “mentioned that the handling of Hu Yaobang’s case had resulted in criticisms both at home and abroad, so this time with Zhao’s case, we must follow proper procedures.” Though this was said at an informal talk, it is clear
that for Deng and other elders, this was a sore spot.

The Party charter is like a constitution for the party, so actions that do not abide by it are illegitimate. From April 15th and the death of HYB when the students began their commemoration of Hu, their actions were a constant reminder of the illegitimate manner in which Hu had been removed, touching on a raw nerve within. Given what we now know, the secret of the night of April 23rd and the official cover up is easy to understand when we consider why Deng Xiaoping and other elders might be so hostile, even highly alarmed, right from the very
beginning of the student movement. They saw the commemorating of Hu Yaobang as a criticism of their illegitimate behavior and demands for the reevaluation of Hu as a challenge to their illegitimate power.

Deng Xiaoping said, “During this time of turmoil, there has been an intra-party problem: there were two centers of command. Officially it
was Li Peng versus Zhao Ziyang, but in fact, it was me versus Zhao Ziyang.” {May 19} This sees Deng in a situation similar to Mao Zedong’s when Mao feared that Liu Shaoqi might overturn the case of Peng Dehuai. Liu had to be removed at any cost, even if it meant launching the Cultural Revolution. Now Deng Xiaoping, for fear that Zhao might overturn the case of Hu Yaobang, must have Zhao removed, even if it meant planning the violence of Tiananmen.

Supplementary Material

{May 28th} At night, I had a conversation with Ding Guan’gen, who was very close to comrade Xiaoping. Ding Guan’gen said to me, “Last year, at the meeting of All China Workers Representatives, while comrade Li Xiannian and comrade Deng Xiaoping were speaking about Zhao Ziyang, Deng was already clear that Zhao was doing liberalization, and sooner or later, must be made to step down. However, fearing too great of an impact and lacking an appropriate candidate at the time, he was not yet ready to make a decision.

{April 30th} I also heard some people say that during the Women’s Conference last year, in September, that comrades Deng Xiaoping and Li Xiannian in a private conversation in a side room of the Great Hall spoke about whether Zhao should step down, at which time Deng said that since there was not yet an appropriate candidate to replace him, he was not ready to make a decision.

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