Jun 04

Six Four: A rational review of history

Written by Buxi on Wednesday, June 4th, 2008 at 5:26 am
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It is early June, and the minds of many Chinese again return to the tragic political upheaval of 1989. Over the next few days, we will translate a number of messages that tries to capture our conflicted feelings towards that violent summer. We especially welcome submissions from those with first-person memory of 1989.

This article comes to us from MITBBS, and represents just one of many personal opinions. Because of the great depth and well considered tone of this article, however, it has gathered great support (and of course criticism) from many other readers. I describe this opinion as the moderate view, embraced by many Chinese who have reviewed all of the historical material on this issue… without actually being personally involved.

During 6.4, I was in Beijing. I wasn’t an adult at the time, but I witnessed the entire process, and saw part of the actions of both the students and the government sides.

This is how I recall things. In the beginning, everyone went to memorialize Hu Yaobang; not just students, but many average citizens, people of all backgrounds. Everyone deeply respected Hu Yaobang’s political wisdom and clean approach to government, and this motivated our actions. At the time, I accompanied my father to Tiananmen, in order to express our own respects. The government at the time had no restrictions on this. On the final day when Hu Yaobang was to leave, it was an ocean of people, and many cried. After Hu Yaobang’s remains were removed, the crowd on Tiananmen began to change. Some, in the name of remembering Hu Yaobang, had commandeered Tiananmen. Some so-called student “leaders” began a series of criticisms of the problems in society; their criticisms of the actions of some princelings and government officials especially appealed to the crowd. There was also a few hints they had the intent of criticizing the government.

From that point on, a crowd of people begin to petition the government using various methods; fasting, speeches, organizing marches, strikes… The mainstream media began to lose its influence on public speech, and some media outlets were simply being ignored regardless of what they were saying. Other than Voice of America and BBC, at that point you were either “with” the students and a good person, or you were standing with those who opposed the students. But if you asked what the student movement was actually opposing, you wouldn’t be surprised if you got 100 different answers in return. But many of these answers had the same inner answer: the government can no longer be controlled by the Communist Party. During this period, the government held talks with student representatives, trying to resolve the issue peacefully, and even complimented the students as having the right hopes, as being patriotic. This wasn’t happening just with the central government in Beijing; many of the city governments in large cities were holding similar dialog, for example Shanghai. However, some of the student leadership again insisted that the dialogue was designed by the government, and they can’t accept the results, therefore insisting on a new dialogue. Even after the government agreed, the student leadership again announced they were no longer talking. Before Six Four, the government announced the army would be entering Beijing to maintain order, but they were blocked by student-organized groups of average city folks. These troops were chased back into the suburban areas of Beijing. After these troops were “successfully” blocked, the operation of Beijing was effectively controlled by the student organizations. This included arranging public transportation, etc; the student movement organized a number of small organizations to continue to run the city.

In my memory, it wasn’t just workers and sales-people; every industry showed up with their expressions of support. Even kids in elementary school and kindergarten were “organized” together and marched, forget going to school. Everyone was spending every day expressing their support, banging on drums and gongs… basically, you couldn’t hear what they were saying or calling for. I listened to a few speeches, and although I didn’t really understand the speech, I could tell they were all talking about totally different things. My impression is that it had become a chaotic scene at the end, and all of society was sliding into social anarchy. A lot of people were there to get famous, even if they knew nothing. My deepest impression was of seeing some 40-50 years old crying on the side of the street… they were saying, this wouldn’t be an improvement in things, it was a return of the Cultural Revolution. I never experienced the Cultural Revolution, but the stories I’ve heard of that period has certainly made me afraid of it… this is why my memory of that scene is so deep. Shortly after, the government issued its martial law order, and officially defined the movement as social turmoil.

When the army again entered the city, and perhaps they learned from their previous failure.. they clashed with the city people. I was at home at the time, and at night I could hear the shouts overwhelming the sound of radio speakers. The next two weeks, school was canceled. People spent the 3 days after Six Four buying food in bulk; some people felt that the country was about to sink into civil war. Certainly, those who were out there to show off were terrified.

This is how I see this whole thing.

A movement that spontaneously out of the masses, at the very beginning it’s always based on logical thought; something leads to a popular consensus, and people organize a movement. But, this is often led by some sort of social focal point… and once this focal point is gone, these crowds will automatically dissolve. But if it doesn’t dissolve, or if they’re used by others with a strategy, their attention will erupt again and again with every new focal point. And at each of these following eruptions, the people’s thought processes will become gradually less and less logical. And instead, the thought patterns that existed after the previous eruption dominates… and gradually, destructive impulses becomes stronger and stronger. Finally, it can lead to complete social turmoil. The Cultural Revolution, this incredibly painful period in which all of Chinese society became abnormal, in a sense happened because the masses were receiving unrestrained encouragement.

On Six Four, what I saw was a rational movement while we were memorializing Hu Yaobang. But after that point, this became an excuse for saying other things. I remember that those of my student “elders” were all patriotic, but many of them didn’t know how to love their country. I’m not speaking of their patriotic actions, but rather many of them lacked their own thoughts and were simply blindly following. It was opposition for the sake of opposition, and as far as what they were actually opposing… a complete mess. My opinion is that describing that period as “turmoil” is really appropriate, considering the state of social thought at the time. When I look back, many of the city folk participating were really there to show off and have some fun. Just imagine elementary school kids participating in daily marches; were these little kids really born with political awareness? And there were also those who came to Tiananmen on their honeymoon… basically Tiananmen, the heart of the country, had become a place where government had no way to maintain order.

I don’t think the government was a very hard authoritarian force. The government tried to resolve things peacefully and proceed with dialog, proceed with a peaceful entry into Beijing. But this didn’t succeed, in my opinion, because those student “leaders” always had the goal of pushing the country into chaos. They never put any sort of constructive goal as their priority, or perhaps they never had any constructive goals at all… most of those patriotic students were used. It’s not enough to say they were used by those so-called student leaders, they were used by Western forces that wanted to overthrow the Chinese government. Even now, if you talk to the average city folk that lived through Six Four, and ask them to describe what the students wanted to achieve… some will tell you they wanted a clean government, some will say they wanted faster economic reforms, some will say political reforms, some will say it was a democratic movement, and some way say it was dissatisfaction with reform, and some will say dissatisfaction with the rule of law, and some will say they wanted the old Revolutionaries to give up ruling power to a younger generation…. a mess.

Thinking back, regardless of the Communist Party’s reform faction led by Deng Xiaoping, the moderates led by Wang Daohan, or the conservatives led by Chen Yun, the student movement was against them all. Basically, the government and Communist Party didn’t have a single good person. As far as support for Zhao Ziyang, this only started after Zhao expressed sympathies for the student movement; at the time, the student movement’s motto was unifying with supportive forces in the government. I remember a cartoon; Zhao Ziyang is pulling a cart, and Deng Xiaoping is seated in the cart. Ziyang asked: “Where are we going?” Xiaoping answered: “We’ll go based on feel.” This cartoon was an attack on the reformers. There were also cartoons mocking Chen Yun and Deng Yingchao… and of course Li Peng. There were those who held up pictures of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, with banners reading: “the people wanted to see the people’s servants”. With people holding these signs, can you really say they were looking to “push forward Westernization”? At the time I really didn’t understand this stuff, but even then I sensed that a lack of goals, and opposing the government for the sake of opposing the government really defined the Six Four movement.

Based on my personal experience, no one really cared about dialogue with the government. They were against the government, and against the Communist Party. Let’s talk a little about the social context. Reforms had only been proceeding for about 10 years, and society hadn’t really recovered from the Communist mental state from the Mao Zedong era. Some people didn’t understand, and basically opposed reform; Deng Xiaoping’s reform route was very difficult. The fast changing of lanes by society meant the destruction of all previous assumptions, and society was stuck in a self-contradicting, self-conflicted mental state, and completely lost about China’s future direction. Deep at the heart of Chinese culture is a need to respect our ancestors, and we’re always seeking a previous example from either our history or even international history to act as our reference guide. But China was about to go on its own road, and was about to reject its previous path; combined with a broad ignorance of the world at large, society sank into a crisis state of confused beliefs. At that point, regardless of the reality of China, there were some calling for a complete copy the Western experience; in the absence of other ideals, there were those who saw the West in an idealized way, and began to blindly follow along; out of a fear of what the future might hold, some hoped for a return to the Mao Zedong era; some also believed one step at a time, whatever happens will happen; and some Red Guards who actually enjoyed the Cultural Revolution’s era of chaos, some who were nostalgic over the feeling of stepping over the country’s leadership and elite… they were only afraid the country wouldn’t descend into chaos. So, all of these erupted alongside criticism over problems associated with the reform period, and transformed into general anger and dissatisfaction with the government. And this became more and more fierce, all the way until Six Four.

As far as whether Six Four has had some sort of effect on democracy or the acceleration of reforms, based on what I’ve seen… absolutely not. In fact, it’s only had the opposite effect. Deng Xiaoping was forced into discarding his primary heir on economic reforms, Zhao Ziyang. He was forced into allying with Wang Daohan in order to resist the conservatives who had grown stronger with the Six Four riots. As a result, he had to select a moderate in Jiang Zemin, who had to work with the conservative’s appointee in Li Peng in pushing forward China’s development. China’s reform slowed, and even missed its opportunity to join the WTO as an original signatory… it had to instead join later (in 2000). Reforms finally did continue, but it was basically a marathon race between Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun that Deng eventually won years later. What history has told us, is that this impulsive student movement brought with it a painful cost that every single Chinese person had to bear; it brought our entire country, our people a painful cost.

In terms of public discussions on how this incident should be defined… the Western political world is always looking to use this an excuse, hoping to bring China to another anti-government era. That was an era in which China’s consciousness was confused, in which social strata were turned upside down; an era of muddied waters in which all thoughts existed. The more you discussed, the more social consciousness became confused social structure disintegrated. We can really argue our country upside down; that’s what that era represented, and if we return to that level of debate, that’s what will follow. This result would lead China further and further away from the steady reforms, the people-focused construction we’re currently engaged in.

As far as the deaths and injuries suffered during martial law, since this was the first time the Chinese government in its post-reform period had to face this sort of national incident, making mistakes during the handling process is understandable. (I believe that everyone involved, government/army/citizens, wanted to avoid injuries and death.) As a result, this has become a sore spot in Chinese society. But what I know is that at Tiananmen itself, there were no violent confrontations. But as the army was entering the city, a crowd tried to block the military, and even attacked these troops, leading eventually to clashes between the military and these masses; casualties followed from these clashes. Soldiers and average citizens were injured and lost, but almost no students became casualties. This heavy cost should have been borne by those Western forces that stirred up this rebellion, as well as those so-called student “leaders”. In manufacturing this scene, they have a responsibility that can’t be pushed aside. They should pay a price along with those innocent compatriots who died.

Should we open up public discussion on Six Four? I don’t think there’s a need. Defining it as turmoil is appropriate, regardless whether we take a superficial social view, or if we consider all of the immature and distracted ideologies we saw at the time. And if we take a look at historical development in recent years, its effect of slowing the pace of opening up and reform, its effect of limiting China’s international space, its effect of slowing China’s development in general is obvious. In terms of whether history will eventually render some new conclusion, at least from today’s practical social view, I can’t see any changes or developments that would lead to that. But one thing is clear: it can only be used as a historical lesson for research and discussion, but it can not be used as a topic of discussion for society at large. Any sort of broad social consideration not only doesn’t have any meaning, but it will be used by people with other objectives to disrupt China’s social environment!

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13 Responses to “Six Four: A rational review of history”

  1. JL Says:

    I’m not sure that the notion that “Western forces that stirred up this rebellion” counts as “a rational view of history” or one indicative of someone who has “reviewed all of the historical material on this issue.”

    Perhaps I have missed something?

  2. Nimrod Says:

    JL, a “rational view of history” is the title given by the original author. Same with the other translated articles here today. People do feel consonance with it though, so apparently they also believe it is rational.

    Whatever 6-4 is, it is not for naught. It was an important inflection point for China and Chinese people all learned a lot, although what lesson they took away can be very different. A generation grew up, and China grew up. Chinese people today are more sophisticated than 20 years ago and seem to have concluded that nobody but themselves will have their interests at heart.

    It would be an exaggeration to say the Western forces “stirred up the rebellion” particularly if we mean single-handedly, but they certainly fanned the flames because they weren’t accountable to Chinese people.

  3. Buxi Says:


    Perhaps the better translation would be “fanned” the flames. At the very least, I’ve heard second-hand from those who were in Beijing remember with bitterness what they (now) consider false messages coming from Voice of America.

    I wasn’t listening to Voice of America, so I don’t have a detailed list of what was said. Perhaps AC or someone else that was there can tell us. But I’ve heard it passed on (started?) rumors claiming Deng Xiaoping had died, that civil war had erupted… only rumors that had the effect of inflaming passions.

    And there are still numerous questions about the student movement’s budget…

  4. overseaschinese Says:

    “It would be an exaggeration to say the Western forces “stirred up the rebellion” particularly if we mean single-handedly, but they certainly fanned the flames because they weren’t accountable to Chinese people.”
    Ever thought of any other entity that was not accountable to the Chinese people at this time? Perhaps the CCP, whose army was sent into Beijing to kill civilians? Or is that accountability in your mind?
    You have really earned your name, nimrod.
    Buxi has again showed his outrage against “Western distortions” (any evidence that such distortions existed on the VOA?- sincerely the first time that I have heard such claims about Deng dying, which leads me to believe that what you say is false- this evidence game can go two ways, you know).
    However, are you equally outraged at the distortions of the Chinese media? just watch the Xinwen lianbo from 6/4/1989: where’s your outrage at that?

  5. BMY Says:

    As a then uni student in Beijing and witnessed the whole event, now I share most of the views of the author except the last part of his article.

    I think he misunderstood the terms of “public discussion on Six Four” . the discussion of most of his views has been public since even before June 4th 1989 something like the culture revolution style and language of the movement, domestic/international political elements behind the movement, the “students leader’s budgets, some calling for a complete copy the Western experience etc etc .

    My understanding of the “public discussion on Six Four” is about that day: what happened and why it happened in that bloody way in that day.

    It has been 19 years, my memory dose not keep everything. For sure , the hungry strike, the months long protest, the personal attacking slogans, the months long illegal occupation of the square, the months long class stopping would go nowhere .But I do remember the protesting peak time has past before the end of May. The time of all the workers, element school kids came out to protest had gone. There was no protesting in other cities in early June. There were no mass gathering in Tiananmen. There was once or twice about over a million people in Tiananmen. However they were in April or May I can’t remember exactly but not in June. The majority of the students in Tiananmen in June were traveled from other cities and they were not that many in numbers. It was chaos in some stage and some area of Beijing. But all the work units,the government institutions, the army, the police, the peasants all over the country were all under control. In the most part of Beijing, the police still controlled the traffic. Tiananmen was just a tiny place occupied by teenager students. The students were not smuggling guns into the square to prepare a armed rebellion.
    So why needed send solders with machine guns and tanks . Would possible the protesters been driven out without firing live bullets? Would the lost of lives of both civilians and soldiers can be avoided even the students didn’t want to leave? I did see bodies and blood pool in Changanjie and I did see one soldier was chasing up by a group of civilians close to MuQuDi in the early morning of 6/4.

    It was a big tragedy. The civilians might need to learn how to protest properly and rationally and the government might need to learn how to deal with protest even riot properly without sending machine guns and tanks. We all need learn from the tragedy and avoid it happens again in our nation.

  6. Nimrod Says:

    overseaschinese Says:

    “It would be an exaggeration to say the Western forces “stirred up the rebellion” particularly if we mean single-handedly, but they certainly fanned the flames because they weren’t accountable to Chinese people.”
    Ever thought of any other entity that was not accountable to the Chinese people at this time? Perhaps the CCP, whose army was sent into Beijing to kill civilians? Or is that accountability in your mind?

    Thanks for making my point for me, overseaschinese. Does the CCP being accountable or not at the time (I don’t to argue this here) make a difference to my argument? How does jumping from one unaccountable host to another make sense? The high cost of revolution demands the highest reward. Was that kind of reward there? It is a high recognition of civic values when you realize that you yourselves hold the first and ultimate responsibility for your welfare, not the CCP perhaps but also not some foreign country. It is too bad that in 1989, too many were so enamored with the West that they thought the West to be saviors, and were ready to jump from the frying pan into the fire.

  7. Roy Says:

    very good translation.

  8. AC Says:

    If you want to know what VOA was like back then, all you need to do is listen to RFA (or read wooser’s blog) on Tibet today.

    Back then, VOA and BBC were the only “creditble” sources we had. We had very limited knowledge about the west, we only knew that the west was much richer and advanced, and many in China at the time thought democracy must have something to do with their success. I think what happened in China and Russia after 64 has proved that theory to be wrong.

    It would be naive to think that the west has nothing to do with 64. The Soviet Union was about to collapse, why would the west stop there?

    How “Color Revolution” is done? Here is a Japanese documentary.

  9. Nimrod Says:

    Thanks, AC. At the time, the Cold War was ending so China’s strategic value to the West deteriorated rapidly. Its independent path was becoming more evidently a liability rather than an asset to the world order envisioned by the Cold Warriors (basically the neo-cons today). The West definitely cheered on in 1989 in the hopes that China would fall firmly into the Western orbit and become an ideological and political dependent, i.e. not a potential threat. 6-4 gave the perfect opportunity to do a slew of things that were in the pipeline anyway, like downgrading of economic relations and canceling of high technology and weapons exports.

  10. Opersai Says:

    A very interesting article, though I do not agree on all points of the author.

    I was not old enough to participate June 4th, but I talked to my parents and elderly in my family who participated. There were many interesting things I heard from their perspective.

    At the time, my mother was an graduate student in Nanjin, a city in southern China; and my father was working in our hometown, in northern part of China. They both participated the protests and marches in cities they were in. One common theme I hear, and resonate with this article, is the June 4th movement was not about democracy! At least to many outside Beijing. My mother recounted that period: everyone at her university was excited – her schoolmates, her friends, her professors! “Let’s fight the corruption!”, they yelled. She and her friends didn’t understood democracy, they didn’t care either; they want clean up corruption. That’s all! “Why won’t they let us? What’s wrong with that?!” The movement was not exactly about democracy; it was about anti-corruption; it was not dissatisfaction of unfilled reform promises. It was about many, many things that closeful concerned the average citizens of the China then.

    Also to BMY:
    So why needed send solders with machine guns and tanks . Would possible the protesters been driven out without firing live bullets?

    Another interesting perspective, which I had not heard much in discussions around June 4th. The government’s greatest fear was not the students, though it originated from them. Their greatest fear was that the top officials were beginning to divide in factions amongst themselves about how to lead the country. The military was divided in support of different factions. There was a fear of a civil war!

    Some of my mother’s schoolmates from undergrads worked in the navy then. Soon after June 4th, they warned her to fled the South. “Go back to home before it’s too late! There might be a civil war between the North and South, and a lockdown!” She explained, her friends in navy leaked to her that in usual (peaceful) times, the military isn’t loaded with real ammunitions. But after(or around) the June 4th, the navy was fully loaded. Indeed, soon after she left for home, commute between North and South was broken off. There was a undercurrent of a civil war. THAT, was the greatest fear of the party leaders, of Deng XiaoPing.

    Deng feared the rebellion from the military.
    Right before the June 4th, there were alot of scaffolding of the army. Part of the army from one province would be sent to a far away province, and that province’s army sent to yet another province. Back forth. If the trouble was just the students, or average citizens alone, BMY, you said, they didn’t had any weapons, was there really a necessity to order tanks to come in? The fear was deeper and something more dangerous than that. The fear of a civil war lead by military heads, dangerous undercurrent within the party, a rebillion from the army.

    Do I wish there had been a different ending? Do I wish that there was a less so bloody way to deal with the protest? HELL YES! But, above is my understanding of the reasons why the party sent in heavy military in June.

  11. Opersai Says:

    it was about anti-corruption; it was not dissatisfaction of unfilled reform promises. It was about many, many things that closeful concerned the average citizens of the China then.

    Crud! Should proofread more than once. I meant:

    it was about anti-corruption; it was about dissatisfaction of unfilled reform promises. It was about many, many things that closely concerned the average citizens of the China then.

  12. Charles Liu Says:

    BMY, the PLA was ordered to not use force, and they were initially unarmed. I’ve posted declassified document from US intelligence that proves this.

    Force was necessary subsquently because of the violent riot and mini-civil war ensued when the students wouldn’t clear the square.

  13. Charles Liu Says:

    For many years I did not know the Six Four student leaders were trained by the CIA in Hong Kong.

    The man’s name is Col. Robert Helvey. I’ve posted links elsewhere.

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