Interview: Jeremy Brown on June Fourth

In China, 2021 has been a year for the history books or, more precisely, their revision. In March, the launch of a hotline to report “historical nihilism” presaged a broader campaign against challenges to the Party’s version of history. The pièce de résistance was the publication of an official list of illegal “rumors” not to be repeated. The campaign penetrated daily life: a renowned journalist was detained for “defaming heroes and martyrs” after panning a Korean War-themed blockbuster; a regional TV provider was banned from posting on Weibo after sharing a recipe for fried rice, an inadvertent act of culinary nihilism; and a professor raised academic hackles by throatily defending the Party’s headlock on history. 

In November, the push to define the past culminated during the 6th Plenum of the 19th Party Congress in a new resolution on the Party’s history, only the third of its kind. The full text of the resolution, released on Tuesday, is primarily an exercise in the elevation of Xi’s personal glory, but deals with real history as well. It defends Mao, embraces Reform and Opening, and points bluntly at the Party’s endemic corruption in the new century. Yet one episode remains glaringly absent from the great machinations of CCP history-making: the 1989 Beijing Massacre. 

Referred to euphemistically as the “political turmoil” of the spring and early summer of 1989 in this latest resolution on history, the nationwide pro-democracy movement and the Beijing Massacre on June 4 were seminal moments in modern Chinese history that continue to resonate in Chinese society and politics. The Party endeavors to stifle all discussion of the events of that year. Social media sites—including Western sites operating in China—censor all mention of the protests and crackdown. Such forcible amnesia is increasingly encroaching on Hong Kong, which has previously been a bastion of commemoration. An annual June 4 vigil in Hong Kong has been banned. The University of Hong Kong ordered the Pillar of Shame, a sculpture commemorating the victims of the massacre, removed from campus. Despite such suppression, the memory of 1989 persists on both the mainland and in Hong Kong.

Jeremy Brown, a historian at Simon Fraser University, joins us to discuss his new book, “June Fourth: The Tiananmen Protests and Beijing Massacre of 1989,” and to provide insight into the events in China in 1989 and why they still matter today. See Jeremy Brown’s earlier interviews with CDT on how the Party handles accidents and the CAC’s list of historically nihilist rumors.

This interview was edited for both length and clarity. An unabridged transcript of the interview will be published soon on China Digital Space, containing further discussion of the workers’ movement, student elitism, protests by Muslims over the book “Sexual Customs,” the Tiananmen Mothers, and the post-massacre editorial purge at People’s Daily and Xinhua. 

China Digital Times: Why did you take on this topic? What gaps does your book fill in the existing historiography, or lack thereof, of 1989? Why study June 4?

Jeremy Brown: 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, debate and argument—sort of the basic elements of deliberative democracy among a group of people who hadn’t had the chance to really practice that in real life. The other gap in scholarly work on 1989 is 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. The other new thing that I cover is 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, and how they protected others. There was such a letdown after the massacre; it was so depressing and so tragic. The story of the second half of 1989 is not very well known. 

Why study June 4? I think that when a Party-state like the PRC, led by the Chinese Communist Party, spends so much money, time, and labor trying to suppress the history and memory of an event, that makes it important to study. 

CDT: Let’s dive right in. Why did students in Beijing protest after the death of Hu Yaobang? 

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. 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. They just moved it up in time after Hu Yaobang died. That became a clear and obvious opportunity for activists to issue these demands. 

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. Their other demands were about better funding for education and more respect for intellectuals. And 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. 

CDT: Why did Beijing residents join in? When Beijing residents joined in, how did the protest movement as a whole 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. That was an outrage 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. 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. 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 was this contagious positive energy—nervous energy because people were worried about the students health—but positive.

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 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.

CDT: 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.” I had internalized the student movement’s version of that incident, which said that these guys might have been saboteurs sent by the government to incite a crackdown by vandalizing Mao’s portrait. The students actually seized them and brought them to the police station and those three egg throwers, including Lu Decheng, suffered greatly. I thought, “What, a book about these guys who threw the eggs, who actually had no impact on the movement at all?” 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 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. 

Chai Ling is also really useful to think about. 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.” Her memoir is a Christian tract that is attempting to convert the reader to Christianity, so it’s quite difficult as a scholar using it as a primary source. But you can’t dismiss the book because of Chai Ling’s pain at the effects of the one-child policy on her life—and by one-child policy, I mean, kind of what you call the sexual and reproductive politics of the 1980s. 

There was basically no sexual education. A university student might not even know what a condom is or what it’s for. Or they’re scared to get one because they’re going to get shamed by the pharmacist if they look like they’re a university student because university students are not even supposed to be dating, let alone having sex. But of course, they are having sex. Chai Ling discusses those details. Because of her strong Christianity, 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. Unwanted pregnancies were unimaginable. First of all, they’re illegal. Second of all, they’re considered shameful. These were secrets that she confesses in her memoir. The delay [Chai’s memoir was published in 2012] 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? She experienced tremendous traumas and sadness that she chose to share in her memoir. That helped to explain why she wanted to get involved in changing a system that had been so harmful to her. 

When I sent this proposal to Cambridge University Press, I put the one-child policy front and center because I think [it] helps to explain why people were upset in the 1980s, and 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. So many people who I’ve talked to about their experiences as a human being in China would tell me, “I’m a victim of the one-child policy.” “Oh, what do you mean?” I would say. They say, “I wanted to have two children, my child never got a sibling.”  When you think about [it] you can start to understand the incredible trauma, and in many cases violent trauma, of the one-child policy, that’s a huge part of the story of the 1980s. 

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.

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. 

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 shoot through crowds and barriers and then actually strafe fairly indiscriminately into buildings. That was totally unnecessary because there were already 25,000 troops inside the Great Hall of People. They could have cleared the square without shooting and without bloodshed, if that was really the goal.

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 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.

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: 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 a armored personnel carrier, who Liao Yiwu interviewed—amazing work that Liao Yiwu did to talk to these rioters and understand just 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.” 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 and 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.

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. 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. 

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: 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, just 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 re-victimized 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, sort of 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.