A fortnight before the June 1989 massacre of protestors at Tiananmen Square, the British government was alerted that the Chinese authorities had decided the student-led demonstrations could not be ended without bloodshed, according to a recently declassified diplomatic cable.
China crushed the protests by large crowds at the historic square in the centre of Beijing by sending in troops backed by helicopters and tanks on June 4, 1989. Official figures put the number of dead at 200 to 300 but some accounts have said thousands were killed.
A secret cable that was part of a file declassified last month by Britain’s National Archives showed Alan Donald, then the British envoy to Beijing, had warned officials in London on May 20, 1989 that the “Chinese government has decided that there is no way to avoid bloodshed”. The cable has been posted online by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation.
Donald’s conclusion was based on information gathered by sinologist Stuart Schram from a Chinese contact and intelligence gathered by the US defence section.
At a lunch on May 20, 1989, Schram told Donald that the Chinese contact had said that Communist leader Deng Xiaoping had commented: “Two hundred dead would bring 20 years of peace to China.”
“The implication clearly was that the sacrifice of a number of demonstrators lives now would stabilize the present situation and buy the time needed to complete the reform of China,” Donald wrote in the cable.
More ominous was the information gathered by the Americans.
Donald wrote that the US embassy’s incident room had learnt that the “Chinese government has decided that there is no way to avoid bloodshed” and that the “military has been instructed to do what is necessary to put down the situation”.
The envoy said some in the Chinese leadership were “counseling moderation” but the “frustration and anger at the way the students have made the government and (Communist) party lose face may now be bringing matters to a crisis”.