Gorbachev's 1989 China visit—a flicker of hope for Tiananmen Square protesters

Updated on Aug 31, 2022 09:01 AM IST

China’s uneasiness with Gorbachev’s legacy is understandable given that he is seen to be responsible for the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the other Communist stronghold

Mikhail Gorbachev. (AFP)
Mikhail Gorbachev. (AFP)

Official Chinese news agency Xinhua’s report on the death of former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev on Wednesday morning was terse. “Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev died this evening after a serious and long illness,” the report said, quoting the Russian Central Clinical Hospital. “Gorbachev was born in March 1931, and served as president of the Soviet Union from March 1990 to December 1991.”

Nothing warm, nothing glowing for a world leader whose influence on global politics is undeniable. China’s uneasiness with Gorbachev’s legacy is understandable, given that he is seen to be responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union, the other Communist stronghold.

Gorbachev also spent four fully awkward days in China amid the large-scale pro-democracy protests, which rocked China in 1989, ending in a bloodbath.

China looks at Gorbachev and his legacy as a lesson on what not to do in the name of reform. For four days beginning May 15, 1989, Gorbachev was in Beijing and Shanghai for the first high-level Sino-Soviet summit in 30 years.

Gorbachev’s high-profile visit took place right in the middle of protests at Tiananmen Square -- and elsewhere in the country -- led by students and factory workers, demanding economic and political reform in China.

The official Chinese narrative will not mention it but, according to experts and international media accounts of the time, Gorbachev was a symbol of reform and hope for the protesters: A young leader at 58, compared to the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, 84, and his old comrades. Whether Gorbachev and his entourage liked to be that symbol or not is a different question.

The Soviet leader’s Beijing visit became a major embarrassment for the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) as there were a huge number of protesters at the Square and his ceremonial welcome at the venue had to be changed to avoid them.

For the students, Gorbachev’s visit meant more international focus on their demands for reform. Gorbachev was accompanied by journalists whose reports and photos of the visit – and the protests -- went out globally.

“The students have admitted that they are using the Gorbachev visit as an opportunity to air their grievances,” a Washington Post report dated May 15 said. “They [the students] are gambling that the government will not crack down on them in the midst of such an important visit because it would convey a negative image to the outside world, just as the world’s media converge on Beijing to cover the summit.”

According to a PBS report, Gorbachev’s cavalcade was blocked on literally every street of Beijing and turned out to be a big loss of face for Chinese leaders. “… They were aware of what was happening in the Soviet Union — and so were the Chinese people — that the Communist Party in the Soviet Union was more or less imploding. [The Party leaders] were very frightened in China,” wrote journalist Jan Wong for PBS.

“Gorbachev represented youth, openness, flexibility, political change--things the Chinese students yearned for, things their own leaders seemed to them incapable of delivering,” the Los Angeles Times said in a report on his visit in late June 1989.

The timing of the visit turned out to be more awkward than historical, as it was billed to be, for both sides. “Both sides clearly were embarrassed and uneasy about events, the Chinese because of their inability to control the people and the Soviets because the student demonstrators held up Soviet political reforms as a model for Chinese leaders to follow,” a report from UPI said of the visit.

The Soviet leader left China on May 19 after visiting a special economic zone in Shanghai. Two weeks later, the army and tanks were deployed at Tiananmen Square to quell the protests. It is still unknown how many died on the Square or in the rest of China in the first week of June.

Gorbachev’s legacy remains troubled for China. “Former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev wrote a famous book, New Thinking for Our Country and the World. He was idealistic and bookish, believing political reforms can naturally promote constructive changes in the country,” wrote columnist Hu Xijin for the state-run tabloid Global Times last year. “The West praised him so much that made him lost. And the Soviet Union fell into chaos in a fundamental way, and could no longer be integrated.”

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Sutirtho Patranobis has been in Beijing since 2012, as Hindustan Times’ China correspondent. He was previously posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he covered the final phase of the civil war and its aftermath. Patranobis covered several beats including health and national politics in Delhi before being posted abroad.

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