Fear and uncertainty gripped Chinese government and military prior to Tiananmen massacre

Twenty-five years ago tomorrow is the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. New documents that have emerged in recent years, as well as eye witness accounts never before heard, paint a picture of a frightened political leadership in China at the time, and a military uncertain and rebellious in attacking the square.

One general actually refused to lead his troops to the square. He was cashiered, arrested, and jailed for 4 years.

A fascinating article in the New York Times:

On a spring evening in 1989, with the student occupation of Tiananmen Square entering its second month and the Chinese leadership unnerved and divided, top army commanders were summoned to headquarters to pledge their support for the use of military force to quash the protests.

One refused.

In a stunning rebuke to his superiors, Maj. Gen. Xu Qinxian, leader of the mighty 38th Group Army, said the protests were a political problem, and should be settled through negotiations, not force, according to new accounts of his actions from researchers who interviewed him.

“I’d rather be beheaded than be a criminal in the eyes of history,” he told Yang Jisheng, a historian.

Although General Xu was soon arrested, his defiance sent shudders through the party establishment, fueling speculation of a military revolt and heightening the leadership’s belief that the student-led protests were nothing less than an existential threat to the Communist Party.

The new details of the general’s defiance and the tremors it set off are among a series of disclosures about the intrigue inside the Chinese military preceding the bloody crackdown in Beijing on June 3 and 4, 1989, some contained in army documents spirited out of China in recent years, and others revealed in interviews with party insiders, former soldiers and other people directly involved in the events 25 years ago.

Contrary to rumors at the time, the documents show that army units did not fight one another. But they show that General Xu’s stand against the threatened use of lethal force fanned leaders’ fears that the military could be dragged into the political schisms and prompted party elders to mobilize an enormous number of troops.

What I found most intruiging is that after years of indoctrination and propaganda directed against the students and workers in the square, there were still plenty of independent thinkers in the ranks and among junior officers that the Chinese Communist leadership should fear their own military:

The interviews and documents show that even at the time few in the military wanted to take direct responsibility for the decision to fire on civilians. Even as troops pressed into Beijing, they were given vague, confusing instructions about what to do, and some commanders sought reassurances that they would not be required to shoot.

In an interview, a former party researcher with military ties confirmed the existence of a petition, signed by seven senior commanders, that called on the leadership to withdraw the troops.

“The people’s military belongs to the people, and cannot oppose the people,” stated the petition, according to the former researcher, Zhang Gang, who was then trying to broker compromise between the protesters and the government. “Even less can it kill the people.”

We only had a hint at the time of any resistance from the military to the crackdown. But as the internal military documents show, there was very little pushback from the soldiers. Apparently, their biggest complaint was when the order to fire live rounds came, there was no direction. Should they fire into the air? Into the crowd? It was left to each individual commander to decide.

Read the whole thing for some interesting background on an historical event mostly shrouded in mystery.

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