1989: Background Reading
As we mark the 30th anniversary of the 1989 protest movement in China, and the subsequent military crackdown, CDT editors have put together a list of books to provide more in-depth context and analyses of the movement, the political decision to use force, and the long-term repercussions for Chinese society. This list is by no means comprehensive but provides many firsthand accounts from both protesters and members of the political elite, which together present a more complete picture of the events of the spring of 1989.
The most recent example of history’s persistence is the publication in Hong Kong of The Last Secret: The Final Documents from the June Fourth Crackdown. It is the record of a meeting of roughly thirty party elders and senior leaders that took place two weeks after the massacre. Officially known as the Fourth Plenum of the Thirteenth Party Congress, it was called by China’s top leader, Deng Xiaoping, to force other party leaders to retroactively endorse his decision to use force on the protesters and to fire the Communist Party’s general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, who had opposed using the military to stop the demonstrations. The officials’ statements of fealty were read out loud and then printed up and distributed at another meeting a few days later for nearly five hundred party officials to “study”—in other words, to internalize as the truthful version of events. At the end of that meeting, the documents, all stamped “top secret,” were collected in order to maintain their secrecy.
Now, three decades later, one copy has surfaced in Hong Kong and has been published by New Century Press, whose publisher, Bao Pu, has made it his calling to explain the inner workings of the party. Over the past fourteen years he has published several important works on Chinese politics, including Zhao’s secret memoirs and the diaries of then premier Li Peng, who stepped in when Zhao refused to endorse force.
From the book blurb:
For over seven years, Liao Yiwu—a master of contemporary Chinese literature, imprisoned and persecuted as a counter-revolutionary until he fled the country in 2011—secretly interviewed survivors of the devastating 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Tortured, imprisoned, and forced into silence and the margins of Chinese society for thirty years, their harrowing stories are now finally revealed in this gripping and masterful work of investigative journalism.
The Washington Post reviews this posthumously published memoir by then Party Secretary, who was expelled from the Party and put under house arrest during the protests, where he stayed until his death in 2005:
Now, in “Prisoner of the State,” a book timed to appear precisely 20 years since his purge, Zhao speaks from beyond the grave. He flouts the unspoken rule against public blame of others of the group. He skewers Li Peng, Li Xiannian, Yao Yilin, Deng Liqun, Hu Qiaomu and Wang Zhen repeatedly and by name. He complains that the meeting at which martial law was decided was in violation of the Party Charter because he, the general secretary, should have chaired any such meeting but was not even notified of it.
The book is based on about 30 audiotapes he discreetly recorded at home during 1999 and 2000. Clips from the tapes are to be released simultaneously with the book, and a Chinese-language transcription is supposed to appear around the same time. The material is largely consistent with what is already known from the “The Tiananmen Papers,” an unauthorized compilation of government documents published in 2001, and from “Captive Conversations,” a Chinese-language record of conversations between Zhao and his friend Zong Fengming, published in 2007. But the up-close-and-personal tone of the present book stands out.
The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership’s Decision to Use Force Against Their Own People-In Their Own Words, by Zhang Liang, Andrew J. Nathan, Perry Link and Orville Schell (2001).
For the first time ever, reports and minutes have surfaced that provide a revealing and potentially explosive view of decision-making at the highest levels of the government and party in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The materials paint a vivid picture of the battles between hard-liners and reformers on how to handle the student protests that swept China in the spring of 1989. The protests were ultimately ended by force, including the bloody clearing of Beijing streets by troops using live ammunition. The tragic event was one of the most important in the history of communist China, and its consequences are still being felt.
Read Chapter One of the book via the New York Times.
Cries for Democracy: Writings and Speeches from the 1989 Chinese Democracy Movement by Han Minzhu (1990).
“Han Minzhu” and her assistant editor, “Hua Sheng,” both writing under pseudonyms to protect their identities, present a rich collection of translations of original writings and speeches from the 1989 Chinese Democracy Movement–flyers, “big-character” posters, “small-character” posters, handbills, poems, articles from nonofficial newspapers and journals, government statements, and transcriptions of tapes. Linked by a commentary setting the documents in the context of the movement’s history and of Chinese social and political life, these expressions–indeed, cries–of the participants in the passionate demonstrations in Beijing and other Chinese cities powerfully convey the atmosphere of this extraordinary protest. In the face of the ensuing campaign of intimidation and repression in China, this book enables Western readers to see through the eyes of Chinese students, intellectuals, workers, and other citizens the realities behind the reports and visual images that flooded the media during the spring of 1989.
Neither Gods Nor Emperors : Student and the Struggle for Democracy in China, by Craig Calhoun (1994)
“We want neither gods nor emperors”, went the words from the Chinese version of The Internationale. Students sang the old socialist song as they gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in the Spring of 1989. Craig Calhoun, a sociologist who witnessed the monumental event, offers a vivid, carefully crafted analysis of the student movement, its complex leadership, its eventual suppression, and its continuing legacy.
Black Hands of Beijing: Lives of Defiance in China’s Democracy Movement, George Black and Robin Munro (1993)
From Foreign Affairs:
This is a largely descriptive account of the lives of three of the leaders of the Chinese democracy movement who were jailed for their participation in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The authors provide some limited new sources of understanding of the origins and course of the democracy movement and help to place it in a meaningful analytical context.
See also “Who Died in Beijing, and Why,” by Robin Munro in The Nation (1990).
Quelling the People: The Military Suppression of the Beijing Democracy Movement, Timothy Brook (1992)
Eyewitness reports, hospital records and student documents buttress this authoritative study of the birth, development and sudden death of the 1989 Democracy movement in China. The book’s centerpiece is a detailed reconstruction of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 3 and 4, 1989. Brook explains the catalytic effect of General Secretary Hu Yaobang’s death, defines the rationale behind the student hunger strikes and the goverment’s imposition of martial law, and describes the styrofoam statue of the Goddess of Democracy as a “brilliant gesture” on the students’ part. Brook establishes that between two and three thousand citizzens of Beijing were slaughtered by the People’s Army, which was acting on orders from the highest civilian authority (i.e., Deng Xiaoping), and that at one point China was on the brink of civil war as army units threatened to turn against one another. Brook has uncovered detailed material revealing how government propagandists attempted to whitewash the bloody events of Tiananmen Square even as the long process of arrests and repression began. Brook is associate professor of history at the University of Toronto.
Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China (Palgrave Studies in Oral History), by Rowena Xiaoqing He and Perry Link (2014)
This moving oral history interweaves He’s own experiences with the accounts of three student leaders exiled from China. Here, in their own words, they describe their childhoods during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, their political activism, the bitter disappointments of 1989, and the profound contradictions and challenges they face as exiles. Variously labeled as heroes, victims, and traitors in the years after Tiananmen, these individuals tell difficult stories of thwarted ideals and disconnection that nonetheless embody the hope for a freer China and a more just world.
The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, by Louisa Lim (2014)
In The People’s Republic of Amnesia, NPR’s award-winning China correspondent Louisa Lim offers a new account of this seminal event, detailing the enormous impact the tragedy had on China and the reverberations that followed. Interweaving portraits of eight individuals whose lives have been shaped by the events of June 4–including a soldier who took part in the suppression, a diplomat at the scene, a student involved in the protest and a young student in China today–Lim provides a window into Tiananmen Sqaure unlike anything written before. Based in Beijing, Lim conducted hours of first-hand interviews and on-the-ground research into materials that have only recently come to light. With fluid prose and an eye for detail, she presentsTiananmen from the perspective of the survivors and student leaders; discusses the quarter-century campaign on the part of Chinese officials to control memory of the event; and considers the legacy of Tiananmen in China today.
Tiananmen and After spans the nearly twenty-five year period since the standoff between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), then led by Deng Xiaoping, and student protesters, which resulted in the death of hundreds of civilians. The nineteen articles range from real-time analysis of the events that fateful June, to recent assessments of the protests’ long-term impact, to China’s ascension as a geopolitical and economic superpower, to what the future holds. The collection includes the landmark “Tiananmen Papers,” originally published in 2001 in Foreign Affairs, which exposed for the first time leaked CCP documents of the secret debate inside the party over whether to use violence against its own citizens.
[This post was first published in June 2014, and was updated on June 2, 2019]