Iconic image. A lone demonstrator blocks the path of a tank convoy along the Avenue of Eternal Peace near Tiananmen Square in June 1989. (Getty Images)
Iconic image. A lone demonstrator blocks the path of a tank convoy along the Avenue of Eternal Peace near Tiananmen Square in June 1989. (Getty Images)

Review: Tiananmen Square; The Making of a Protest by Vijay Gokhale

By describing the political landscape leading up to the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, Vijay Gokhale details the nuances of the decision making process of China’s party-state system
By Suyash Desai
PUBLISHED ON JUL 23, 2021 06:12 PM IST
200pp, ₹499; HarperCollins
200pp, ₹499; HarperCollins

It’s been over a year since the start of the ongoing China-India stand-off in eastern Ladakh that resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian and at least four People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers. The Indian strategic community is still struggling to comprehend the motivations behind the Chinese aggression on the northern border. India’s China scholarship generally suffers from a firebreak between linguist and strategic studies but Vijay Gokhale, former Ambassador to China, bridges this gap. His scholarship, Chinese language skills and diplomatic experiences help in understanding the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) internal politics, which shape its foreign and security policy decision-making.

Gokhale’s book on Tiananmen Square offers a view of the factionalism within mainland politics and breaks the myth that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a monolith with leadership having a whip over every aspect of the party. By describing the political and geopolitical landscape leading up to the June 4 Tiananmen Square incident, he details the nuances of the party-state system’s decision-making process. This is the biggest takeaway from the book as scholars often interpret the party’s decision-making processes subjectively due to the opacity surrounding the regime.

Tiananmen Square; The Making of a Protest can be divided into three parts. The first introduces the principal and supporting characters in the Chinese party-state system and protesting groups. While Deng Xiaoping was the central figure, Li Peng, Zhao Ziyang, Hu Yaobang, the party elders and Jiang Zemin from the establishment, student leaders like Wu’er Kaixi, Chai Ling and Feng Congde and liberal intellectuals like Liu Shaobo and Fang Lizhi played equally important roles during the unfolding of the protests. The second part builds the context within the party-state system that led to the protests. Unlike the western media’s portrayal of the protests as being a pro-democracy movement, in the initial stages, the student groups primarily protested for basic issues like education, employment opportunities, against nepotism, corruption, and inflation, and for greater responsiveness to citizens by the government and some personal freedoms. But the immediate trigger for mobilisation leading to the incident was Hu Yaobang’s death on April 15, 1989, two years after he had been sidelined from national politics. Interestingly, the author claims that the economic crisis which led to these protests brewed because the CCP machinery focused on sidelining Hu instead of addressing mounting economic challenges in 1986 and 1987. The third part dwells on the reasons for the escalation of the protests into a movement and the CCP’s role in managing it.

The author’s narration of the unfolding of events compels the reader to think of two aspects that haven’t changed in China even today: The immunity to the top-level leadership and the problems associated with political reforms in the PRC. Throughout the book, Gokhale repeatedly focuses on how Deng Xiaoping remained above the fray and weighed in on issues as the final arbiter. This helped him to command power and authority on relevant matters. But it also made him largely bulletproof by enabling him to pass the blame if required. In today’s China, although Xi occupies three important positions as the head of the party, military, and state, the principles that were borrowed from Deng have not changed. They manifest in different forms: Xi still has the final word, and the accountability for failure in policy governance is passed to other members within the system. Similarly, principles about political reforms within the party have largely remained unchanged. The author highlights that Deng’s red line for Hu Yaobang was the determination to allow freedom for intellectuals to engage in discussion on political reforms. Xi has continued with a similar philosophy, and he has only tightened the CCP’s hold on the Chinese polity.

Author Vijay Gokhale (Courtesy the author)
Author Vijay Gokhale (Courtesy the author)

The author observes that public messaging in Communist China happens in two ways. First, by leaking information without attribution to the press in Hong Kong or Taiwan. Second, by discussing the issue with foreign leaders in the presence of the Chinese press. The author made this observation about Zhao Ziyang’s speech in the Great Hall of People in Beijing, when China hosted an annual meeting of the board of governors of the Asian Development Bank. This is an important lesson for scholars studying China as it provides a lead on how to follow China’s strategic communication. The author also highlights the Western media’s portrayal of the Tiananmen Square incident as a pro-democracy movement and recalls reading stories about a PLA split in Australian and Western media outlets. There is no way of confirming if there was indeed a split within the PLA. But the author highlights that western diplomats and media selectively ignored the public appearances of the PLA’s two deputy Secretary-Generals and the head of General Staff on May 29 and 30. This was a signal that the army was united and firmly with the party. Similarly, Gokhale asserts that the Tiananmen protests were much more complex than a simple pro-democracy movement, as the west preferred to read it. This is another important lesson for India’s China scholarship on not dovetailing the western narrative about China in their analysis.

The author claims that there was no massacre at the Square. (The CCP) “regained its control over Tiananmen Square, likely without firing a shot inside the square,” he writes. However, he notes that violence did occur in other parts of the city where students resisted martial law. His fluid narration of the intra-party events leading up to the protests and the CCP’s crisis mishandling gives a clear idea of how students’ protests snowballed into an international event.

Perhaps a chapter on the changes to China’s internal politics, foreign and security policies, and the CCP’s crisis management system post the Tiananmen Square incident could have been a fitting conclusion. Irrespective of this, Vijay Gokhale’s book is an important contribution to understanding the CCP’s functioning and will inspire scholars to develop a nuanced view of China’s party-state system.

Suyash Desai is a research associate in the China Studies Programme at The Takshashila Institution.

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