POLI 422 - Tsou: The Tiananmen Tragedy
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Tsou – The Tiananmen Tragedy: The State-Society Relationship, Choices,
and Mechanisms in Historical Perspective
Features of note:
1) “Winner takes all” tradition of the CCP prevented leaders from seeking overt
2) Despite Zhao's attempt to offer a tacit compromise, tendency of students to
adopt the mores of the regime prevented them from accepting it
3) Lack of autonomous civil society prevented formation of responsible
oppositional organizations, and allowed only for inherently radical mass
4) Structure of communication within party and between party and society
ensured that regime could not make credible promises nor credible threats
The Rejected Option and the Inaccessible Alternative
Street protests began April 17th, 1989, two days after Hu Yaobang died. The protests
were spontaneous, unorganized, and followed in the wake of the CCP's
cultural/ideological decline, the loosening of political control, the opening up of
public spaces, the emergence of networks of liberal thought, the general
acceptance among intellectuals of democracy and freedom, and the loss of
confidence in the party.
Students were the forefront of a struggling fledgling civil society.
Prior attempts to set up secret organizations to build student movements had been
quickly discovered and broken up by authorities. Thus, the movement began with
no coordination, barely any leadership, and was knit together with small code
words, eye signals and gestures.
Undergraduates took the lead, while sophisticated and cynical graduate students
remained behind the scenes.
“There is no evidence whatsoever that the party reformers instigated the students'
Views on Zhao's opinion towards the student demonstration is still a matter of
debate. It is possible that he was opposed to it, or that he had shown sympathy
through the exercise of restraint by the police. Another view was that all leaders
had thought a show of restraint would mean that students would eventually
“The student demonstration was relatively orderly and was kept within certain
limits. The specific demands were mild, the most significant being freedom to
publish their own newspapers.”
After finding safety in numbers, the sympathies of Beijingers, and the attention of
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the world media, the students began to organize. They formed autonomous
associations on campuses, which turned into citywide coordinating committees,
then declared a boycott of classes. Leadership slowly shifted to those who
advocated more radical actions. Moderates were marginalized. Students asked for
direct dialogue with the government as a condition for ending their activities.
Li Peng was leading the standing committee in charge of overseeing the student
movement while Zhao was away (April 23-29). Li persuaded Deng that the students'
demands should not be met, and the movement was denounced in an editorial on
April 26th, with Zhao's approval.
The student reaction to the editorial was swift, and 150 000 protested in Tiananmen
on the 27th. The speed suggested an effective system of communication. It is said
that this was the most successful demonstration in Chinese history, because of its
scale and popular response.
Zhao arrived back on the 30th to reassess the situation. Zhao had two options in an
attempt to change the government's policy. The first was to persuade Deng to
modify or even repudiate the April 26th editorial. On May 1st, Zhao attempted to
argue that the editorial had incorrectly characterized the student movement.
Unfortunately, Deng was not persuaded. Not only did he personally value political
orthodoxy, but due to the CCP system of politics, once the paramount leader had
made a decision, it was extremely difficult to reverse it; reversal would have been
an admission of a loss of authority, and could have resulted in a battle to the death
between the two factions.
In addition, recognition of the students' associations would mean the beginning of a
change in state-society relationship. It would have been seen as a betrayal by the
party to those officially recognized associations.
Deng left Beijing; it is said that he left “to give serious thought to the forthcoming
summit with Gorbachev. It seems more likely that he allowed Zhao and Li to fight it
Zhao's second option was to find a position acceptable to the students without
repudiating the April 26th editorial. Subsequently, Zhao never repudiated the
editorial in public, although he substantially altered its emphasis.
Zhao made this case in a speech to representatives of the Asian Development Bank
on May 4th, and without having prior shown the speech to any other high ranking
CCP member. This was extremely risky, as Zhao abandoned the rule of “keeping in
step with the party center.” One reason for the rule was to prevent an individual
from bypassing the party organ to achieve popular support for himself, and thus, a
degree of independence from the party, which could lead to factionalism.
This was a turning point, in that from then on the existence of different opinions
within the party was an open split that all could see.
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