The Tiananmen Papers: the Chinese leadership’s decision to use force against their own people – in their own words
Edited by Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link
Ch.1: April 8-23: The Student Movement Begins
The death by heart attack of the popular pro-reform leader Hu Yaobang on April 15  fell like a spark into the highly flammable atmosphere of elite division and popular disaffection. For the Party leadership, Hu was a “loyal Communist fighter” and “great proletarian revolutionary,” but for students he was a symbol of liberal reform and clean government. They launched spontaneous mourning activities, using Hu’s death as an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with the pace of political change. These activities spread rapidly, surprising the leaders and eliciting much foreign attention.
At first, most of the students were careful to remain on the right side of the regime’s ambiguous ground rules for action and speech. They marched to mourn rather than to protest, and they focused their attention on Hu Yaobang’s contributions to the Party, the need to accelerate political reform, and opposition to corruption. But a minority raised more dangerous issues, such as democracy and press freedom, or voiced slogans with a hostile edge against the Party or certain leaders. The leaders were divided in their evaluations of the student movement’s threat.
Because officials in refused to meet student petitioners at the Great Hall of the People, a sit-in developed in front of Zhongnanhai’s Xinhua Gate starting the night of April 19. The security ministries and local governments provided almost hour-by-hour and campus-by-campus reports on student activities in Beijing and throughout the country. Two reports from Beijing municipal authorities to Party Central depicted the student movement as dangerous. The emergence of autonomous student organization sharpened the challenge to the regime. Opinion hardened among the elders.
When the leaders gathered for HU’s memorial service on April 22, they encountered a peaceful but vast demonstration outside the Great Hall of the People. Although the demonstration was extremely worrying, Zhao Ziyang nonetheless won the approval of the supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, and prevailed on his Politburo colleagues to take a relatively soft line with the students. The leadership seemed to assume that the students had made their point and would now be willing to go back to classes. It was a widely inaccurate assumption, but Zhao was confident that all would be well as he departed for a week-long state visit to North Korea. His absence from China was to prove crucial in the decisions to come.
April 8-15: the death of Hu Yaobang
At 9 a.m. on April 8, in Qinzheng Hall at Zhongnanhai, Zhao Ziyang charied a Politburo meeting to discuss views on a document called “Central Committee Decision on Certain Questions in Educational Development and Reform (Draft).” Hu Yaobang, although relieved of his position as Party general secretary in January 1987, remained as a member of the Politburo and attended this meeting. Commissioner of Education Li Tieying briefed the members.
Based on participants’ notes of an oral report given by Wen Jiabao, in his role as secretary of Party Committess of units under Party Central and director of the Party Central Office, to the senior working staff of those office, and of an oral report given by Luo Gan in his capacity as secretary general of the State Council and secretary of Party Committees in ministry-level state organizations, to senior staff of those offices
During this briefing, Hu Yaobang sat with a pinched look. Minister of Defense Qin Jiwei later recalled, “I sensed something wrong about Comrade Yaobang from the time the meeting opened. His face was ashen. But he was straining to keep up appearances.” About three quarters of an hour into the meeting, as Li Tieying was reviewing the education budgets of recent years, Hu appeared to be fading. He rose to request permission to leave. But as soon as he rose to his feet, he collapsed back into his chair.
“Comrade Ziyang…” His voice broke off as his hand faltered in the air, describing a semicircle. Everyone present, caught by surprise, stood up and stared at the ashen-faced Hu.
“It’s probably a heart attack…don’t move him!” someone said.
“Anyone have nitroglycerin?” Zhao Ziyang asked urgently.
“I do!” It was Qin Jiwei, who also had a heart condition. He took two pills from his briefcase and put htem into HU Yaobang’s mouth. Then to Hu Qili, who came rushing over, he said, “hurry and lay Comrade Yaobang on the floor.”
Hu slowly opened his eyes as staff members telephoned Liberation Army Hospital 305, which was only a block from Zhongnanhai. Paramedics were on the scene in about ten minutes. That afternoon, after hu’s condition had improved slightly, he was transferred to Beijing Hospital for observation.
Everyone was alarmed about Hu’s condition, but no one expected him to die. Beijing Hospital sent daily reports to the General Office of the Central Committee, and these were relayed to Zhao Ziyang and other members of the Politburo. All reports indicated that Hu was on the road to recovery.
Thus the news of his death on April 15 was much greater than a shock. Zhao Ziyang immediately summoned all Politburo members who were currently in Beijing to attend a meeting to plan arrangements for a funeral and obituary. He also instructed the General Office to “notify elder comrades such as Xiaoping, Chen Yun, Xiannian, Peng Zhen, Marshal Xu, and Marshal Nie.” The meeting was somber and yet rushed.
“We’re deeply saddened and shocked at Comrade Yaobang’s passing,” said Zhao Ziyang.
“Really a pity,” added Yang Shangkun. “Who’d think he’d go so soon?”
Then Zhao turned the discussion to practical issues, including the formation of a funeral committee. He began with his own brief assessment of Hu’s life: “Comrade Hu Yaobang was a loyal, tried, and tested Communist fighter, a great proletarian revolutionary and politician, an outstanding political worker for our amry and a prominent leader who held many important Party posts over a long period of time. His funeral should accord with the norm for standing members of the Politburo.”
“I entirely agree with Comrade Ziyang’s suggestion,” Yang shangkun offered.
“Comrades,” Zhao then asked, “are there any objections to the assessment or the funeral recommendation?”
When no one objected Zhao went on, “the assessment of Comrade Yaobang must ‘seek truth from facts.’ Let’s ask the General Office to forward the obituary draft to the [elder] comrades Xiaoping, Chen Yun, and Xiannian for comment. Comrade Qili and Jiabao, can you please consult with Comrade Li Zhao about funeral arrangements?”
Zhao Ziyang also raised the matter of social stability at the meeting, “Comrade Qiao Shi,” he said, “please keep a close watch on how Comrade Yaobang’s death might impact society.”
“At the moment, society’s in pretty good shape,” Qiao replied. “Things are fairly stable. There are no signs of any large or organized disturbances. Personnel at all levels of the security and legal systems will keep close tabs on responses in society to Comrade Yaobang’s death.”
“Consumer prices are rising fast,” Yao Yilin commented. “And the gap between rich and poor is getting bigger. We’d better watch that some people don’t use the mourning for Comrade Yaobang as an excuse to make their complaints.”
“Comrade Tieying,” continued Zhao Ziyang, “we should keep a close eye on the universities, especially ones like Peking University. College students are always the most sensitive.”
“Things are good at the universities,” Li Tieying replied. “It’s not very likely there’ll be any trouble.”
Li Ximing, Party secretary for the Municipality of Beijing, pronounced, “We absolutely must protect social order in the capital and guarantee social stability during the mourning period.”
[to be continued]