For four days, more than 400 of China’s brightest political minds gathered in smoke-clouded halls at a Beijing hotel, vigorously debating the nation’s future.
It was April 1989, and after a decade of economic transformation, China faced a clamor for political liberalisation. Days later, protests erupted in Tiananmen Square, and the lives of those at the meeting took radically different turns. Several are now national leaders, including Li Keqiang, China’s prime minister. Others ended up in prison or exile, accused of supporting the demonstrations that shook the Communist Party and ended with soldiers sweeping through the city on June 4, shooting dead hundreds of unarmed protesters and bystanders.
“The atmosphere at the meeting was to let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend,” said Chen Yizi, who helped organize the conference. “Afterwards, it was impossible to hold a meeting like that where everyone was willing to debate different points of view.”
This year is the 24th anniversary of the bloodshed, and the first under a party leadership dominated by officials with such intimate and ambivalent ties to the events of 1989. Many top leaders served their political apprenticeship in the 1980s, when the boundaries between the permissible and the forbidden were not as stark and heavily policed as they are now. Their careers and friendships, and sometimes their viewpoints, overlapped with intellectuals, officials and policy advisers who were jailed or dismissed after the June 4 crackdown.
Few expect China’s new leaders, installed in November, to overturn the official verdict that the protests were a counterrevolutionary rebellion that had to be crushed. But the immersion of today’s leaders in the political experimentation of the 1980s raises the question of whether they will be more open to new ideas and discussion than their immediate predecessors in high office. Chinese leaders openly debate competing approaches to the economy, but their calls for political liberalization have become increasingly rare. For now, at least, any potential embrace of the more freewheeling spirit of the 1980s appears to be hindered by the conformism demanded of those who have ascended in the hierarchy - and their dread of being accused of ideological heresy.
Yet the lessons of June 4 and its repressive aftermath may weigh on the new leaders, especially if they are confronted by another political uprising, said Wu Wei, a former aide to Zhao Ziyang, the reform-minded party leader ousted shortly before the crackdown.
“For those in power now, it’s still a heavy political burden, even if it’s one that they can never openly discuss,” Wu said. “Now the people who took part in that time are middle-aged or older, and it’s still a knot in their hearts.”
Li, now 57, was one of six current members of the elite 25-member Politburo who attended the meeting, according to Zhong Dajun, an editor for the official Xinhua news agency at the time. Others included Li Yuanchao, the vice president; Wang Qishan, the chief of anti-corruption investigations; and Yu Zhengsheng, who deals with policy toward religious groups, ethnic minorities and nonparty groups.
Many of these future Chinese leaders were among the hundreds of thousands of students who crowded into universities beginning in the late 1970s, eager for knowledge after years of rote-learning Mao Zedong Thought during the Cultural Revolution, when colleges were mostly shut or paralyzed by ideological campaigns. Photographs showed them dressed in the blue or green cotton coats of the Mao era, a reminder of the drab conformity they yearned to escape.
Throughout the Tiananmen upheaval, Xi Jinping, the nation’s current president, was a local official in Fujian province in China’s southeast, far from the protests in Beijing. But his father, Xi Zhongxun, a veteran Communist turned supporter of economic reform, had been a friend of Hu Yaobang, the Communist Party leader demoted in 1987 for his liberal tendencies and whose death in 1989 sent thousands swarming into Tiananmen Square to voice their grief and demand steps toward democracy.
There are some indications that the elder Xi obliquely signaled opposition to martial law but stepped into line after June 4, said Warren Sun, a historian at Monash University in Australia.
At the time, China had abandoned the ideological zealotry of Mao’s era and pursued market reforms under Deng Xiaoping that allowed farmers, factories and traders to escape state fetters. The economic changes were accompanied by a ferment of new ideas and calls for political opening and cultural renovation, despite counteroffensives against “spiritual pollution” led by conservatives.
“What we all shared was the belief that China had to reform, and to do so urgently,” said Chen Ziming, a writer. “The only real division among students and scholars was whether to reform the economy first, or take on political reform first, or do both at the same time.”
Many of China’s current leaders started climbing the political ladder in this febrile atmosphere, when it was not unusual for officials to mix with advocates of more radical change, and even to show some sympathy for them. NYT