Full Transcript Interview: Jeremy Brown on June Fourth

This is the full transcript, edited lightly for grammar and clarity, of an interview with Jeremy Brown, a historian at Simon Fraser University, on his book “June Fourth: The Tiananmen Protests and Beijing Massacre of 1989.” An abridged version of the interview, accompanied by an introduction to its themes, was published by CDT on November 17, 2021. 

China Digital Times
: So, let’s start out from a bird’s eye view. Why did you take on this topic? What gaps does it fill in the existing historiography, or lack thereof, of 1989? Why study June 4?

Jeremy Brown: I was 12 years old in June of 1989 and was aware of what was going on but with no idea that I would learn Chinese, that I would go to China, that I would devote my career to studying and explaining and understanding things about Chinese history. But I was aware at the time [of the protests], through a Western/American liberal framework, that this was a moment of great hope, and happiness, and joy. We saw that on TV from my home in Iowa, watching the news. Then we saw the tremendously tragic dashing of those hopes when the massacre occurred on June 3 and June 4. So for me, that was maybe the first time I’d ever paid attention to China. Although I had no real personal connection to it, I remembered it.

I went to China in 1997. I was interested in journalism at the time. I was editor of my college newspaper at Lewis and Clark College, so I was paired for a one-on-one tutorial with a journalism professor in a language program in CET Harbin. The professor who I was matched with was retired. I’m reflecting on it now for the first time in a long time, actually, because he clearly was a survivor of the Cultural Revolution. Journalists who cared about publishing what they saw (instead of what they were told to publish) had a moment when they actually could, for several weeks. There was freedom of the press in China in 1989. That must have actually been quite personal to him, but I didn’t know at the time. So I got a very bland, cautious lesson that was basically propaganda from the Communist Party’s perspective. Now, looking back on it, I can understand that I wasn’t really sensitive to the history there—and it must have made him quite uncomfortable. That was my first halting step of just talking to people. 

Once my Chinese got better, and I was able to understand things with more sensitivity, [I found that] you can talk to people inside China about 1989. In fact, people are waiting to tell their stories. They want to tell their stories, as long as you’re in a safe space. So I started hearing stories: what they saw, what they experienced, what happened. And you get all kinds of happy stories. I think that’s what’s missing from a lot of the historiography. One of the main gaps that I’m trying to fill is to highlight the hope of those 56 days of happiness and joy, camaraderie and comradeship, friendship and romance, music and debate—the basic elements of deliberative democracy among a group of people who hadn’t had the chance to practice that in real life. That was one thing that I wanted to capture. But in fact, that’s pretty well known if you read the materials from immediately after, the day-by-day or memoir accounts of the student movement. I wanted to bring that to the fore because the massacre and the forced amnesia about the massacre has drowned out a lot of coverage of that hopeful time. So that was one goal of mine: to remind people of why the massacre was so tragic. That goes back to how high people’s hopes had been raised, and how happy they were to really talk and think hard about how to improve the political system in China and the communication system and the education system. So that’s one gap. 

Then the other gaps in terms of historiography [and] scholarly work on 1989 would be: there’s very little about what happened outside of Beijing. There’s very little attention to what non-Han people experienced and what it might have meant for ethnic minorities. So I make a big point in the book of paying attention and looking for patterns and trying to explain what was happening outside of Beijing, and how that was in relation to what was happening in Beijing. So that’s a major gap that I am starting to fill. You could write a whole book about that, in fact, and I hope somebody does. I hope that the small amount that I was able to uncover will inspire others to study the broader history of what happened in 1989 outside of Beijing. 

The other new thing that I cover is really the aftermath of the massacre in the second half of 1989, going into 1990. Asking how people were punished, what kind of things they confessed to, how they protected themselves, how they protected others. There was such a letdown after the massacre. It was so depressing and so tragic. So many foreigners and observers had to leave China immediately after June 4. Because of that, they didn’t know what happened. They were concerned about their safety. So the story of the second half of 1989 is not very well known. I was able to get my hands on some documents and talk to people who experienced it and do some new things there. 

So the third part of your question: Why study June 4? I think that when a Party-state like the PRC led by the Chinese Communist Party spends so much money and time and labor-power trying to suppress the history and memory of an event, that makes it important to study for me. I want to look there. If you’re in power and you’re telling me I can’t look there, it makes me curious. It means, “Oh, this is important because you don’t want me to look there.” It’s not just me, right? It’s everybody. Something that a government says we’re not allowed to study and know about … that tells us that the truth about what happened: the details, the facts, the memories, are threatening or dangerous somehow. That’s worth studying. That’s worth understanding. I think “job one” for historians is to gather as much evidence as we can from as many angles as we can to get a narrative out there about what happened. So that’s one reason.

The second reason is it affected so many people’s lives and changed so many people’s lives and changed the course of Chinese history in such a major way, that it has to be a huge part of the story. The amnesia campaign, you know, was fairly effective. It’s not effective in terms of actually making people forget what happened. It’s the fear that is affecting the kind of topics that graduate students study for their thesis, the kind of topics that even tenured professors choose to pursue. The fear is what’s making the gap so prevalent. But that’s changing, too, right? I mean, I think enough people outside of China recognize that it was a major turning point in Chinese history, and so many people inside China remember that it was a major turning point in Chinese history. I had such tremendous encouragement from anybody I talked to in China, or any Chinese people outside of China, who said, “Please do write this book.” I have no fear. I don’t have family in China. I don’t have to worry about not getting a PhD finished because something falls through. So I was able to do it. And others are doing it too. On that note, Julian Gewirtz has written a book about the 1980s, and he has another one coming out. Joseph Torigian has a book coming out about elite politics. Yen-lin Chung in Taipei has been writing about the politics of the 1980s. I think we can expect more. That’s good. I think it’s good that June 4 will continue to be a topic of focus for scholars.

CDT: Let’s dive right in. The majority of this is not going to focus on the student movement in Beijing, but just to set our scene here: Why did students in Beijing protest after the death of Hu Yaobang? What were they protesting for, or against?

JB: There was a group of activists, students and scholars in Beijing and other parts of China who were unhappy about campaigns against “spiritual pollution” and “bourgeois liberalization.” These were code words for liberal thought and trends, and they became associated with Hu Yaobang, who was purged as General Secretary at the end of 1986, and the very beginning of 1987. There were a number of political prisoners who had spoken out for more liberalization and democratization. In the lead-up to the anniversary of the May 4 movement (May of 1989 would have been the 70th anniversary), students and professors in Beijing were getting ready to write letters to Deng Xiaoping, petitioning for more transparency and for the release of political prisoners. So there was already a movement happening; a lot of it was in reaction to the more repressive turn that China had taken since 1987. They just moved it up in time after Hu Yaobang died. That became a clear and obvious opportunity for activists to issue these demands. It was only half a month earlier than they had planned.

If you look at the earliest student demands in April after Hu Yaobang’s death, they’re partly about Hu Yaobang as General Secretary. They wanted his reputation to be restored and for him to be remembered as a great leader who was pushing China in the right direction. Probably the most interesting and the strongest demand was for freedom of the press and an end to censorship. Students were asking for newspapers independent of Party control and free of censorship. And that’s a big deal, right? That’s not what newspapers are supposed to be under communist control. Newspapers are supposed to guide opinion rather than report news in a sort of active way. Their other demands were about better funding for education and more respect for intellectuals. Then they also had demands about the protests themselves. As soon as the protests started, protests became about the protests. That’s a really important thing to think about. When we think about protests in Hong Kong in 2019, so much of those protests were about dissatisfaction with the way that the police or officials or leaders were handling or suppressing the protests. And that started happening very early on in Beijing in 1989. You see it consistently through those almost two months of protests. The students are upset that the government is making wrong assumptions about their motives, making accusations that they’re counter-revolutionaries, or that they’re causing turmoil. The students wanted to be listened to and respected as rational individuals who wanted the best thing for China’s future, and so much of the government response was not in line with that. That led to a lot of anger and actually a lot of support from other people in Beijing and outside of Beijing for the students because they saw that the students are not violent. They’re not chaotic. They’re asking to talk—why is the government responding in a not-so-receptive way?

CDT: So one thing that you just touched upon is the student demand for freedom of the press. You also have tons of survey data of what democracy means to students and they all said freedom of expression, of the press. Why did Beijing residents join in with what was originally a group of activists and students protesting? Why was this call so attractive? And when Beijing residents joined in, how did the entirety of the protest movement change?

JB: Beijing residents, like the students, and like everybody else in China, read and heard the April 26 editorial declaring the protests “turmoil”—basically Deng Xiaoping’s words saying we must take a clear-cut stand against turmoil. They hadn’t seen any turmoil yet. So that was an outrage for the students and it was an outrage for the people around them to see the government use this sort of black and white Mao-era class-struggle [language]: “You’re either a friend or an enemy of the Communist Party.” It was clear that the government was saying these students are an enemy of socialism. That’s exactly what the editorial says. There was outrage about that because nobody in Beijing had seen any evidence of turmoil or anti-socialist activity. They saw people mourning Hu Yaobang and asking for some things that sounded pretty reasonable and moderate. 

When the biggest demonstration, up to that point, happened on April 27, in reaction to that People’s Daily editorial, crowds lined streets, gave the students drinks and snacks and cheered them on. So that’s when the groundswell of support happens. It ebbed until the hunger strike declaration in May, when more than a million people in Beijing hit the streets to support the students who were hunger-striking because it was such a clear example of self-sacrifice in a non-violent way, asking for dialogue with the government. The cold response from the government was so offensive to so many people that people just wanted to go out. Journalists were protesting, officials were protesting, teachers, retirees, workers … the protests in May really did include a real cross section of Beijing society. It just became fun, right? It was a carnival. It was a fun carnival of “everybody’s going out.” It was this contagious positive energy—nervous energy, because people were worried about the students health—but positive in a sense of “Wow, if everybody …” It actually was not everybody. If I’m saying a million, the population of Beijing is much larger than that, so many people were still going to work, many people were too scared to go out. But the scale of that protest was quite large in May.

CDT: Why did the May 20 declaration of martial law propel the workers’ movement, where others were deterred?

JB: You have to think about what types of workers got involved more actively after the declaration of martial law. They were overwhelmingly younger workers, who had brash and loud personalities, who felt personally offended that the government would declare martial law. At least half of it was just anger at martial law and wanting to support and protect the students from what the government was threatening, which was a violent end through military force. There had been an autonomous workers’ organization on the corner of the square, just outside the square, since April, that provided a place for workers to go read their independently written handbills or posters and talk to each other. Those were overwhelmingly young, activist workers who were unhappy with how impotent the All-China Federation of Trade Unions had been, and wanted a more independent voice in factories. Workers had a pretty loud voice in factories up until the mid-1980s. Reforms in the factory leadership structure in the mid-1980s put a lot more power into the hands of factory managers and Communist Party officials. [Previously] there had been more consultation in these staff and worker congresses. Joel Andreas has a book about this called “Disenfranchised” where he charts this change to the mid-1980s. So I think that led to some grievances that probably led workers to get involved. But overwhelmingly, when students thought about workers, they thought about them as not central to the movement, [but rather as] maybe supporters who they would need. If students wanted to escalate the movement, they could have called for a general strike and hoped that workers would get involved in that. 

Large-scale ties between students and workers didn’t materialize in the short course of the movement. They might have if there had been more time for students to build those ties, but older workers were very reluctant to get involved and did not want students to come into their factory compounds. My reading of the newspapers, and most of these newspaper articles are actually after the crackdown, so you have to understand that workers are saying, “We didn’t want the students to come to our factories,” but we don’t see any evidence of successful organization inside factories on a scale that would be really notable, but you see just a gradual growth of worker involvement over time. 

I think martial law was a key turning point there, just because it seemed like an outrageous overreaction on the part of the government, and workers with fiery personalities were mad. They were angry. Elizabeth Perry and Li Xun have a book called “Proletarian Power” in which personality is one of the key explanatory factors for why workers became rebels [during the Cultural Revolution]. That’s persuasive to me. And you can see it in 1989 as well. Prickly personalities, energetic personalities that are quick to take offense at injustice. Those are the kind of folks who got really active in 1989. It’s usually not a majority of the worker population, right? But because they’re loud and they’re interesting, we can see what they had to say.

CDT: A theme in the book is that, due in part to the short duration of the movement, the students were unable to build coalitions across class boundaries. You pick out a scene from “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” when Wang Dan and a group of rural petitioners arrive at a leadership compound to petition at the same time, but Wang does not interact with them. The students were able to win national sympathy, but they weren’t able to translate that into broader collective groups. Why was that?

JB: It’s true that the students were elitists. It was an elitist movement. They were the elite of China, so they weren’t wrong to think of themselves as special. In order to get admission to the best universities in Beijing, you have to be the top student in your high school of several thousand people, likely the top student in your county or in your city of a million people, right? That’s who’s getting into Peking University, into Tsinghua University, into Renmin University. Even the less famous universities in Beijing are quite competitive and don’t have that many seats. So the students were elite and the Beijing residents supported them because they saw them as special and smart and worth listening to. [They thought] the future leaders of China are going to come out of these universities. But that led it to be a quite insular movement, not receptive to listening to or asking what other sectors of society thought about what they were doing, and that included factory workers. It included villagers, who [had what was called] a feudal agricultural mentality, which had been the official explanation, the intellectual explanation, for why China had suffered so much during the Mao period and needed to cast that aside in the 1980s. There was a sort of anti-rural ideology in the 1980s that definitely affected the students and made it difficult for them to imagine that they would want to have a democracy where one person had one vote. Because if China’s 80% rural at that time, that’s not what the students wanted, right? They were not calling for every farmer in China to get the vote, and not even imagining that. The democracy that the students were imagining was what they saw as a meritocracy, in which there would be freedom of the press but students would be respected. 

I think the key issue is they just ran out of time. It was such a short movement and so much of the movement was dedicated to reacting to everything that the government did. That means you don’t have time to think about, “What kind of rural outreach are we going to do?” Or: “We really need to focus on reaching out to the workers.” When you look at the memoirs of student leaders like Shen Tong and Wang Chaohua, you see that they were thinking about such things. They were originally opposed to the hunger strikes because they saw that it was a real provocation and a radicalization of tactics that would make it difficult to sustain the movement longer-term. I think the main split in the student movement was between those like Shen Tong and Wang Chaohua, who wanted to think longer-term and build coalitions strategically and slowly, and students like Chai Ling who thought, “This is our chance. We have to take it right now, really quickly, otherwise we’re not going to get anything. We’ll just go back to the way things were.” You see the logic and the value of each of those approaches and you can see why the radical approach won out. It’s easier to excite people to escalate [than to say], “Slow down, be careful.” It was such an emotional time and you have to account for people’s emotions when you’re analyzing their choices. It’s harder to convince people if you’re saying, “Slow down, be careful.” I think that context is key to explaining why there weren’t coalitions more broadly. There might have been if the movement had been able to last longer …

CDT: … if it hadn’t been violently repressed. I would like to talk about the sexual, or reproductive, politics of the 1980s because I think it ties Chai Ling [a student protest leader] and Lu Decheng [who threw an egg at Mao’s portrait in Tiananmen Square] together. What is the similarity between a “working class rabble rouser” like Lu Decheng and Chai Ling? 

JB: I’m really indebted to Denise Chang, who wrote “Egg on Mao,” who interviewed and got to know Lu Decheng quite well, and told his story in a really effective way in her book. Her book blew my mind. The publisher sent it to me for free to my office. I looked at it and I thought: “Why does this book exist? Why is there a book about these guys who vandalize Mao’s portrait?” I had internalized the student movement’s version of that incident. That version said that these guys might have been saboteurs sent by the government to incite a crackdown by doing such an outrageous act—by vandalizing Mao’s portrait. The students actually seized them and brought them to the police station. Those three egg throwers, including Lu Decheng, suffered greatly. I had internalized that narrative. I thought, “What, a book about these guys who threw the eggs, who actually had no impact on the movement at all?” I didn’t understand why anybody would want to throw eggs. But I cracked the book open and I’m glad I did. 

A lot of thought went into [Lu and his two friends’ decision] to go to Beijing. Their plan was not to throw eggs. Their plan was to try to persuade the student movement to be even more radical and overthrow the Communist Party. Lu Decheng hated the Communist Party because of the one-child policy and the way that it affected him personally. His child died because he was in an illegal marriage that was not sanctioned. They had to lie about their age in order to get married, and they didn’t have permission to have a baby. They were too young. They didn’t have the approval. You had to get a certificate in order to have a pregnancy approved and give birth. They couldn’t get that. They had to have the baby underground and they were afraid to bring their sick child to the hospital, and they brought him too late and the baby died. That was the source of Lu Decheng’s anger. It went back to the unimaginable choice that you have to make when you want to have a child but you’re not allowed to. So he blames the Communist Party for that, and you can see why he did. 

Chai Ling is also really useful to think about, and so I give her a ton of credit for writing her memoir in the way that she did. Her memoir is called “A Heart for Freedom.” She sent it to me and many other Chinese history professors. Her memoir is less an attempt to rehabilitate herself—there is some of that, of course, every memoir is self serving and she wants us to accept her truth as the truth, which you can’t do in any memoir because it’s one person’s perspective—but her memoir is a Christian tract that is attempting to convert the reader to Christianity if they haven’t yet accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. That’s what the book is trying to do at the beginning and at the end, and that theme runs all the way through it. So it’s quite difficult, as a scholar, using it as a primary source. As an interested reader, if you’re not into that or you don’t want to be confronted with that, it’s easy to dismiss the book. But you can’t dismiss the book, because of Chai Ling’s pain and the effects of the one-child policy on her life. 

By one-child policy, I mean what you call the sexual and reproductive politics of the 1980s. There’s basically no sexual education. There are not condoms in every hallway of every dormitory at the universities like there were at Lewis and Clark College when I went. University students might not even know what a condom is or what it’s for. Or, if they do, they don’t know how to get one or they’re scared to get one because they’re gonna get shamed by the pharmacist if they look like they’re a university student who wants to have sex. Because university students are not even supposed to be dating, let alone having sex or thinking about sexual relationships. Of course, they are having sex. So Chai Ling discusses those details. Because of her strong Christianity at the time she’s writing that book, she feels compelled to confess and tell the full story of her multiple pregnancies followed by multiple abortions, because abortion was basically used as birth control in China during the 1980s as a way to end unwanted pregnancies that were, you know, unimaginable. First of all, they’re illegal. You’re not allowed to give birth to a child without permission. Second of all, they’re considered shameful. These were secrets that she confesses in her memoir. 

You can understand why she does and she has a goal to talk about the one-child policy in a really personal way. She’s formed an NGO called All Girls Allowed. That goal led her to write things in her memoir that she would not have written if she had written it in 1991 or 1992, like many student leaders did. The delay and her evolution as a person, as a religious person, as a thinker, I think led to tremendous insights that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Why was she upset? What grievances did she have? What traumas had she experienced? Tremendous trauma, right? She experienced tremendous traumas and sadness that she chose to share in her memoir that I think helped to explain why she wanted to get involved in changing a system that had been so harmful to her. 

When I sent this book proposal to Cambridge University Press, I said, “I’m writing about the 1980s and I’m going to put the one-child policy front and center because I think the one-child policy helps to explain why people were upset in the 1980s.” If you’re upset, you might want to join a protest movement that wants to change the system and make it more responsive and transparent. One of the anonymous referees on that proposal said, “No, you can’t. There’s no causal relationship between the one-child policy and the protests of 1989. You can’t do that.” So I thought, “Well, I think I can [based on] the testimony that we get from Lu Decheng and Chai Ling and from so many people who I’ve talked to about their experiences as a human being in China in the 80s, 90s, even 2000s, all the way through the mid teens, 2015.”

I would have friends tell me, “I’m a victim of the one-child policy.”

“Oh, what do you mean?” I would say.

They’d say, “I wanted to have two children. My child never got a sibling. That’s wrong. I wanted them to have a sibling.”

So just at that level, anybody who has a sibling in the world, or anybody who has been a sibling or anybody who’s ever been a parent … I’m a parent now, so when you think about, “I guess I would only have one child,” you can start to understand the incredible trauma and, in many cases, violent trauma of the one-child policy in terms of invading the bodies or doing harm and doing violence to the bodies of so many people. That’s a huge part of the story of the 1980s. 

CDT: How could it not be connected to the protests, right? This is probably the single most determinative national policy experienced by people across the country, both men and women, especially women. Let’s take it outside of Beijing. In May 1989, there were massive protests across a lot of the Muslim areas of China about the book “Sexual Customs.” You have a great anecdote about a protest march with two banners: one reading, “Support the Communist Party,” and the other reading, “Execute China’s Rushdie.” So can you tell me a little bit more about these protests among China’s Muslims and how they were, and were not, related to the student protests? Or pro-democracy protests at the time?

JB: “Sexual Customs” was written by two authors. I don’t know who they are. They published under pseudonyms—it sure would be interesting to find those authors and ask them what they were thinking because it’s a book that is insulting to Muslims. I suppose that’s not surprising, because there’s a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment in many countries in the world, including the countries that you and I are in right now, and including in China. That was quite inflammatory to Muslims who are officially recognized as an approved religion and able to make demands for respect. When they saw students marching in the streets, it seemed like a good idea—or certainly acceptable—for Muslims to march in the streets and demand the punishment of those authors, to demand the pulping of that book, the banning of that book. That’s exactly what happened. The book was pulled from circulation and pulped. The authors were punished fairly lightly, not to the satisfaction of Muslims who were angry about it. 

There was not a whole lot of cross-pollination or contact between the student protesters and the Muslims. It was just protesting almost simultaneously in the same towns in the same places. Although in Urumqi in Xinjiang, that’s where you see larger protests by Muslims who were angry about the book, and also a lot of people who are protesting for the same things that the students were protesting. There was vandalism of a Communist Party compound in Urumqi, and the Uyghurs who were caught were punished way more severely than college students who did the same things in other towns and cities throughout China.

CDT: Let’s talk about the massacre of hundreds of Tibetan protesters in Lhasa in March of 1989. How did that inform the party’s decision to use violence in Beijing and Chengdu? Why did Beijing citizens and protesters generally discount the possibility of similar violence being deployed against them?

JB: There were protests by Tibetans in March of 1989, the anniversary of the uprising in Tibet in 1959, when the Dalai Lama was forced to flee. So [the protests were] really a commemoration of that traumatic event in Tibetan history. The Communist Party declared martial law in Lhasa, Li Peng signed off on it, and all the citizens of China could read about it in the pages of People’s Daily. There was no secret that shots were fired and that people were killed. That was reported in People’s Daily. We know from eyewitness reports that several hundred people died. It looks like security forces, police, were doing the shooting in March. When the PLA came into Sichuan to impose martial law in Lhasa, the shooting was done by that point. The army was coming in and arresting people and taking them away. That’s a difference from what happened in Beijing. [In March in Lhasa,] the security forces, police with guns, were doing the shooting and the army was doing the imposition of control after that. 

What happened in Lhasa follows a pattern that the Communist Party and the PLA have been following since the 1950s. When ethno-religious groups in frontier regions rise up to make demands, and sometimes use violence to make those demands by occupying party compounds or taking control of local areas that they are indigenous to and had control of before the Communists came, the PLA would come in and use violence and guns to put down that unrest. That happened in Tibet. That happened in Guizhou. That happened in Yunnan in 1975, when the Hui town of Shadian was leveled by the PLA, and thousands of people were killed in a clash between the PLA and Muslims who wanted to practice their religion. There’s a pattern of the PLA using violence in frontier regions. 

That just seemed unimaginable to Han people in Beijing, in China proper, in coastal regions, because that’s really on the periphery of their attention. Many Han people supported martial law in Tibet, to the extent that they paid attention to it, because they were convinced that Tibet is a part of China, that Tibetans should be thankful for the development that the Communist Party has brought to them, that the Dalai Lama is supposedly trying to secede, and that foreigners are trying to interfere. For all those reasons, there was no sense that Han people might want to sympathize with or listen to the demands of Tibetans, and certainly no sense that this might happen to us. [Violence] was part of the Communist Party’s playbook when they didn’t know what else to do and when they ran out of options. Sending in the PLA has always been a last resort for Communist Party leaders. They don’t like to do it. They don’t want to do it. That was what happened in Lhasa and that was what happened in Beijing. So it’s not that surprising from the standpoint of Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng, who had seen how martial law seemed to work fine for them and helped them to meet their goals in March of 1989. So why not try it again when things seem out of control in Beijing? I think if Han people had thought more empathetically or with more curiosity about why Tibetans were protesting or why Muslims were protesting, the use of real bullets wouldn’t have been so surprising to them when the bullets started to fly in June of 1989.

CDT: Let’s move back to Beijing. Not all PLA units complied with presumed orders to use lethal force. What does this tell us about the inevitability, or otherwise, of the massacre?

JB: One of my main arguments in the book is that the massacre was not inevitable. The use of violence and the use of the PLA was not necessary at all. The way [the military] took control of the square was for the 38th Group Army and for the 15th Airborne to use their machine guns to shoot through crowds and barriers and then actually strafe fairly indiscriminately into buildings. That was totally unnecessary. There were already 25,000 troops inside the Great Hall of People, stationed right near the square, that could have easily cleared the square. In terms of just the numbers, if you’ve got 25,000 against a couple of thousand people in the middle of the night, they could have cleared the square without shooting and without bloodshed—if that was really the goal. I don’t think people who were sympathetic to the student movement would be happy with that, but for those who lost their loved ones, I’m sure they would rather have had a less brutal crackdown that didn’t just shoot people who were out and about trying to watch what was happening, or not even involved at all. There were innocent bystanders who were shot. 

But I’m not quite answering your question. There were many military units that did not actually open fire. Most of the troops did not do so. In some cases, commanders, like the commander of the 39th Group army, just pretended that he didn’t get the order. They wandered around the outskirts of Beijing and didn’t get to the square. On the morning of the Fourth, after the square had already been cleared, the two commanders of the 28th Group Army had a face-off with angry civilians, and they were ordered to advance at all costs by a helicopter that was hovering above them. They decided not to. So you can sense that inside the PLA, commanders did not want to shoot at civilians. We also know that the original general who was commanding the 38th Group Army, Xu Qinxian, refused to obey the martial law order and was removed from command. I think [the reason] why the 38th Group Army shot and killed so many people, and was so energetic in using deadly force to make it to the square, is that their leader got his position by replacing somebody who refused, and therefore knew what his job was going to be. It actually could have been a lot worse. If you have almost 200,000 troops with tanks and machine guns and armored personnel carriers, facing off against large crowds of angry protesters trying to protect the students and block the way to the square and then, after the shooting starts, just engaged in a battle for survival and totally outraged that the military is shooting … it could have been a lot worse. It’s really sad to think that so many soldiers felt compelled to shoot and it’s quite heartening that some decided they weren’t going to shoot.

CDT: The anecdote about the two 28th Group Army commanders who ask each other, “Do you want to go in front of the military tribunal, or should I go?” after refusing to shoot is quite a story. 

You take on one of the central myths of Party propaganda, which relates to Feng Congde and [the vote to leave the square], that nobody was killed in the clearing of the square, that everyone left peacefully, and that the army exercised the greatest of restraint. What actually happened during the clearing of the square and then how does [your account] contradict the accounts of the Party and non-Party related eyewitnesses?

JB: I have to give a lot of credit to the Tiananmen Mothers who did the research to discover the names of victims, and where they were and what they were doing when they died. I also have to give a lot of credit to Wu Renhua, an independent researcher who has written three books on 1989. Putting together the testimony from the Tiananmen Mothers and Wu Renhua’s research, also his eyewitness report—he was there until the end in the square with the students, he was a teacher—tells us that students died inside the square as the military was arriving at the square. As the 38th Group Army arrived from the west, and as the 15th Airborne arrived from the south, they were shooting. That’s how Li Haocheng, Dai Jinping, Cheng Renxing, Zhou Deping, and Huang Xinhua [died]. Those are the names that we have of students who were shot inside the square. We have testimony that those five individuals died inside the square close to midnight or just past midnight as those soldiers were approaching the square. That was not during the final clearing of the square, which happened closer to dawn when the army forced people to leave. The 27th Group Army was inside the Great Hall of The People. They came out and they were prepared to use force, but Hou Dejian and other late-stage hunger strikers did go to negotiate a withdrawal of the students. They got an agreement that the students could leave the square, but they were moving too slowly for the Army’s liking. As those students were retreating from the square, they were being beaten and hit and kicked and hit by weapons and injured and bloodied. It was not a quiet peaceful retreat. 

I use the term “Beijing Massacre” in the title of the book because I think it’s more accurate. I think it respects the victims who were killed on the way to the square, between Muxidi and the square, and in the Qianmen area. Those were overwhelmingly workers and ordinary civilians, and I think it’s really important to recognize that most of the people who died, died outside of the square. But I’m okay with [the term] “Tiananmen Massacre” because we do have evidence that those five students did die inside the square, and I think it would be disrespectful to their memories and to their families to accept the claim that nobody died inside the square. That’s just not accurate. 

CDT: I’d like to ask about connecting with the Tiananmen Mothers and their work doing historical research on who passed away, and what sort of role they’ve played in getting to the truth about Tiananmen. 

JB: The Tiananmen Mothers have endured the unimaginable. They’re mothers, they’re fathers, whose children died—and they’re treated as enemies. They’re punished. They’re forced to leave Beijing every May of every year. They’re surveilled. They have plainclothes policemen outside of their doors. They’re not allowed to talk to the press. Imagine having a child die because of a military invasion of your hometown, and then imagine that your child who was maybe just going out to see what was happening, maybe a protester, is then labeled a counterrevolutionary rioter. Your family’s going to have that scar over you for your entire life. 

The way that the victims’ families reacted is quite diverse. I think that’s why we don’t have more names of victims. We only have a few more than 200 names of victims, even though it seems clear that more people died—could have been 700+, could have been 1000+, maybe even up to 2000. But we only have 200 names. I think that’s because a lot of families chose not to talk about it. It just sparks the trauma over and over again if you’re going to be harassed and arrested and detained for remembering the death of your loved one.

Ding Zilin and some of the other mothers didn’t care about that. They cared about the memory of their children and letting the world know what their child was like, what their child was doing, and where their child died. I think that’s one of the things that my book does that’s different from previous accounts of the massacre. Because of the work of the Tiananmen Mothers, I’m able to look at patterns and who died, what they were doing, where they died. The patterns that we find are: people with cameras seem to be targeted, people who didn’t get the memo that they shouldn’t go outside. People commuting to work or peddlers trying to sell things, people who felt like their job was so essential, they had to go to work, encountered the army and got shot and killed—not protesters at all. That was a pattern that the Tiananmen Mothers exposed. As the massacre continued, people were getting shot and killed on June 5 and June 6—the Tiananmen Mothers uncovered that as well. 

What they’re doing is considered anti-Party, anti-socialist, but they got permission from families to tell their stories and a lot of their sources and interviews are available online. Human Rights in China has archived a lot of that material. There’s interviews on YouTube with the parents of the victims and it’s just tremendously valuable. I’m really grateful for the work they’ve done, and the work Liao Yiwu has done in amplifying the voices of the Tiananmen Mothers, and Liu Xiaobo as well. Liu Xiaobo looked at the victims and saw the same patterns that I saw as well, so I should give him credit. He wrote an essay in tribute to the Tiananmen Mothers and had tremendous survivor’s guilt himself, as Chai Ling did as well. Without the Tiananmen Mothers’ work and without Liu Yiwu’s compiling and republishing of their work in his book “Bullets and Opium,” I wouldn’t have been able to write that massacre section with the same comprehensive view of seeing those patterns. 

CDT: How did a movement that at one point had a million people marching, and earned the sympathy of probably even a broader section of society, become taboo? How did work units move to impose the Party’s version of events in Chinese society? 

JB: After June 6, the police and army worked together to identify and arrest those who were identified as rioters, people who fought back against the soldiers and inflicted harm on soldiers. There’s one guy who urinated on an armored personnel carrier, who Liao Yiwu interviewed. Amazing work Liao Yiwu did to talk to these bàotú (暴徒), these rioters, and understand the rage that they felt, the instinct that took over the overwhelmingly working-class young men to fight back and light military vehicles on fire. Those folks were arrested and sentenced to very long prison sentences for counterrevolutionary violence or arson. But that was a fairly small group of people. 

A much larger group of people, starting in July and then August of 1989, had to go through “purging-and-sorting-out work” (qīnglǐ qīngchá gōngzuò, 清理清查工作). This is happening not only in Beijing but in any place that so-called “turmoil” occurred. Students in universities and people in work units where lots of people went out to march were asked to confess. There were standardized forms that every work unit in Beijing had to have every employee fill out, and they had to confess what they did. Often, this included: “Well, I went out to look,” or “I went out to march,” or “I thought the students were patriotic at first and then I realized that I was wrong, that they were actually rioters.” 

I was able to see a few of those forms from one work unit: those are held at the Stanford East Asia Library. They’re really interesting because nobody really confesses to doing anything meaningful, anything that could have actually gotten them in trouble. If you protested, or even gave a little bit of your own money or shouted some slogans before the imposition of martial law, before May 19, you just confess and you’re fine. If you had done those things after the imposition of martial law, then you’re going to be punished more severely. That’s what the rules and documentation governing this “purging-and-sorting-out work” say. 

The other part of this purge work was the re-registration of every Party member at the provincial or central level, and in any city where turmoil supposedly occurred, including all the urban districts of Beijing. Every Party member had to re-register as a way to reaffirm their loyalty to the Party. It’s interesting because what all of these people said was, “I didn’t do anything and I support Party center.” That was the minimum that you had to say and many people were unwilling to say anything in more detail than that. If you had to say that it was a counterrevolutionary riot or rebellion … it so clearly wasn’t, that many—especially the students who were there—were unwilling to write anything like that. It was very much a pro forma performance to just recognize that the Party had won, Deng Xiaoping had won by sending in the military, by terrorizing people, because if you stood up loudly and protested against that, you would be arrested. Fear ruled the day. Deng Xiaoping won by [using the army to] terrorize the capital city of China. 

It was mostly pro forma in universities and work units but in the media organs, especially Xinhua and People’s Daily, there was a much more rigorous purging, because so many of the journalists and editors had reported sympathetically on the protests and had protested themselves that there was a major reshuffling of the leadership of the media in the aftermath.

CDT: You wrote that, “While the survival strategy of lying persisted in 1989, another vestige of the political movements of the Mao years–informing on others–was remarkably rare during the purge.” However, in the People’s Daily newsroom, it was a political knife fight. That brings us back to freedom of the press, which was one of the [protesters’] key desires. Was it viewed as much more dangerous because even the official media had begun to indulge in freedom of the press? Why was it so much more intense in official media, when you could imagine that in work units, where you had tons of people participating, it could have been just as intense?

JB: It was an amazing impulse, among people who had protested, to protect each other. That’s heartening to me. I think it says something about the legacy of the positive, hopeful aspects of the protests–that people remembered that and didn’t want to get their friends in trouble. That was just really pervasive, people protecting each other. 

The stakes were quite high in these central press agencies, like People’s Daily. There were a few folks in each of those offices who refused to protest, who refused to support the protest. Maybe they were just scared, maybe they genuinely thought the protests were a bad idea. There were folks like that, who then saw their opportunity to denounce their colleagues and get promoted. So they were the big winners. The people who hadn’t protested or who took advantage of the purge to criticize other people, they would then get promoted and rise up the hierarchy of the media, and in the military as well.

CDT: Final questions. You write that the post-June 4 purge was a bridge between Maoist campaigns and 21st century stability maintenance. How does it reverberate in the governance of China today? 

JB  The purge in People’s Daily and Xinhua was like a Maoist campaign, or close to it, in terms of the fear and the denunciations. I suppose in a really high-stakes environment like Xinjiang, where there are these campaigns against “two-faced officials,” and where even Han officials might be sympathetic with Uyghurs and not like the internment camps—that kind of high-stakes environment—you might say there’s something Maoist about those campaigns of just utterly destroying your rival. [ASPI’s recent report “The Architecture of Repression,” which CDT translated into Chinese, further explores Maoist “campaign-style governance” in Xinjiang.] I think that’s one characteristic of Maoist campaigns: dehumanizing them, and making sure that they fall so low that it’s gonna be really hard for them to come back. You see that in Xinhua, People’s Daily and, sadly, we’re seeing that in Xinjiang today. But overwhelmingly, that’s not really the way the Communist Party maintains control, or runs its politics and China. 

Now we have stability maintenance—spending a huge amount of money and resources on domestic security to surveil and censor and impose fear on people. The most obvious example connected to June 4 is that people who talk about June 4, or try to commemorate June 4, are arrested and sentenced, like Pu Zhiqiang was a few years back. He tried to hold a commemorative seminar, along with several other people, and he was arrested after that. The Tiananmen Mothers are detained and taken away in Beijing. There’s a woman, who I talked about in the book, who is a villager living on the outskirts of Beijing and her husband was a driver who got killed. She gets visited and harassed and told to stop talking every year in May. So that’s stability maintenance—the government security organs coming to you and telling you that it’s really not in your interest to raise this, that if you do, it will affect your livelihood and your freedom. Victims are revictimized every year.

CDT: You say one of the reasons you wrote this book was that you want to tell stories about “the happiness, and joy, camaraderie and comradeship, friendship and romance, music and debate, argument, the basic elements of deliberative democracy” that pervaded Beijing [and the country] in the first half of 1989. How does that legacy continue today, both in China and globally, among the global diaspora?

JB: It’s hard to see it in China today because it’s so dangerous to discuss or organize in a democratic way. But I see it among Chinese students who come to study with me at Simon Fraser University or come to other universities in North America and Europe to study Chinese history. Just the fact that they’ve come means that their families see some value in an education outside of the Chinese system. The fact that they sign up for a Chinese history course means that they want a version of history that is different, that is not subject to the same censorship and amnesia. There’s a hunger among students to know what happened and I think a lot of those students are influenced by their parents, who may have given them a more critical take on Chinese politics and Chinese history privately inside the household. That’s happening inside many Chinese households—just as inside many other Chinese households, there’s just immense caution and a genuine nationalism that leads people to not criticize the Party or to support the Communist Party. That diversity is reflected in the students who come and take Chinese history classes in Canada. But what a wonderful opportunity to talk and debate and just lay the evidence out in front of people and try to spark their curiosity. Once that curiosity is sparked, students want to learn more. So that gives me a lot of hope that when spaces do open up for learning and for looking at evidence, I’m confident that the smarts and the curiosity of students will lead them to want to learn more and remember the hopefulness of that time, and think about what hopeful paths they might have in their futures or in their futures connected to China.


Subscribe to CDT


Browsers Unbounded by Lantern

Now, you can combat internet censorship in a new way: by toggling the switch below while browsing China Digital Times, you can provide a secure "bridge" for people who want to freely access information. This open-source project is powered by Lantern, know more about this project.

Google Ads 1

Giving Assistant

Google Ads 2

Anti-censorship Tools

Life Without Walls

Click on the image to download Firefly for circumvention

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.