The U.S. “Tiananmen Papers”New Documents Reveal U.S. Perceptions of 1989 Chinese Political Crisis

The U.S. “Tiananmen Papers”New Documents Reveal U.S. Perceptions of 1989 Chinese Political CrisisNational Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 47Published – June 4, 2001Edited by Michael L. EvansFor more information contact:
Michael L. Evans 202/994-7000 or [email protected]Print this page
More Archive Resources on U.S.-China Relations:Reconnaissance Flights and Sino-American RelationsThe United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960-1964Tiananmen Square, 1989: The declassified historyRecord of Richard Nixon-Zhou Enlai Talks, February 1972China and the United States: From Hostility to EngagementThe United States, China, and the Bomb
China and the United States From Hostility to Engagement, 1960-1998
The Digital National Security Archive
Available from Chadwyck-Healey
Washington, D.C., June 4, 2001 – In June 1999 the National Security Archive published Tiananmen Square, 1989: The Declassified History, an online collection of declassified State Department documents pertaining to the events surrounding the June 1989 massacre by the Chinese military of demonstrators gathered in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The National Security Archive’s continuing efforts have unearthed more documents from this episode, including CIA reports on the potential for political crisis in China as well as candid cables from the U.S. ambassadors in Beijing both before and after the crackdown describing their frustrations with the U.S. response to the crisis.Analysis of these new documents was aided considerably by the publication, in January 2001, of The Tiananmen Papers (New York: PublicAffairs, 2001), an extraordinary collection of hundreds of documents depicting the deliberations of China’s paramount leadership during this tense period. Smuggled out of Chinese Communist Party archives, the documents offer an unprecedented look at the decision-making processes of the Politburo’s Standing Committee, China’s premier political body, and the crucial role of the Communist Party’s elder statesmen, led by Deng Xiaoping, in the decision to use deadly force against the demonstrators. Most significantly, the documents show that the five-man Standing Committee was deadlocked over whether to impose martial law in Beijing, and that the issue was finally decided by the Party elders, led by Deng Xiaoping, who called on the People’s Liberation Army to restore order.1The Bush administration was similarly concerned with maintaining stability during the crisis, and was faced with a series of crucial policy decisions at a time when many questioned whether the strategic underpinnings of the U.S.-China relationship were still relevant. Even before the crisis erupted, the newly-inaugurated president – himself an old China hand from his days in the U.S. Liaison Office2 – tried to reaffirm the Cold War moorings of the U.S.-China relationship at a time when the common enemy of the past, the Soviet Union, was steadily moderating its international behavior and consciously improving its relations with both the U.S. and China. Indeed, improving Sino-Soviet relations complicated the ability of the Bush administration to devise an appropriate response to the Tiananmen crackdown—one that would both condemn the actions of the Chinese leadership, but not unduly strain an important bilateral relationship.  Moreover, improving East-West relations had, in the eyes of many in the U.S. Congress, markedly undermined the importance of the U.S.-China strategic partnership, making it increasingly difficult to gloss over China’s shoddy human rights record.Bush administration officials were also concerned with the issue of Chinese leadership succession. Even before the demonstrations began, policy documents highlighted the importance of nurturing close relationships with the PRC military leadership, noting that Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang did not appear to have the full support of this crucial element of the Chinese power structure – a weakness that would prove to be his undoing. Other documents predicted that Zhao might fall if economic and social problems continued to grow. Zhao was indeed removed from power after breaking ranks with Party elders over how to handle the student protests that were a direct result of these problems and frustrations. The power of the Chinese military was never more evident than on the night of June 3-4, when troops were deployed in Beijing against their own citizens. As Andrew Nathan points out in the Introduction to The Tiananmen Papers, the Party “learned from Tiananmen that democratization is not an irresistible force. . . [T]he lesson of Tiananmen is that at its core, politics is about force.”3 For the Bush administration, the importance of cultivating good relations with Beijing’s military leaders had become more important than ever. THE DOCUMENTSDocument 1: U.S. Embassy Beijing Cable, The President’s Visit to China: Suggestions Regarding What We and the Chinese Hope to Accomplish, February 6, 1989, SECRET, 15 pp.Shortly after his inauguration, the death of Japanese Emperor Hirohito provided President Bush with an opportunity to visit China. Bush’s trip took on added symbolic importance against the backdrop of improving Sino-Soviet relations and the upcoming visit of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to Beijing in May. While this cable covers a wide array issues and goals for the talks, it is clear that Ambassador Winston Lord and other Bush administration officials are concerned that stronger Sino-Soviet ties might compromise Sino-U.S. relations and the carefully crafted strategic partnership vis-à-vis the Soviet Union that began under President Nixon. According to the message, a chief objective of the meetings should be to “obtain Chinese assurances . . . that the emerging Sino-Soviet dialogue will not undercut U.S. interests.” The ambassador also suggests that the president “deepen personal relations with older and younger generation of China’s leaders during political succession phase in China.” Conflict within the Chinese leadership over political succession and the pace of political and economic liberalization programs would ultimately lead to the violent crackdown of June 3-4. Document 2: CIA Directorate of Intelligence Report, China: Potential for Political Crisis, February 9, 1989, CONFIDENTIAL, 10 pp.By 1989 it had become apparent that there were serious problems with China’s ambitious economic reform package. Government corruption was rampant, and prices of consumer goods, which had been held fixed until 1984, were now skyrocketing out of control as the Chinese – many for the first time ever – were feeling the effects of inflation. Amidst the growing crisis, Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader, and his designated successor, Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, were being pressured, both from conservatives within the party, who wanted to slow down the pace of reforms, and from a younger generation of students and workers calling for corresponding liberalizations in the political arena and an end to official corruption.This heavily redacted intelligence report estimates the potential for a political crisis in China focusing on circumstances that could result in the removal of Zhao from power. The report predicts that Zhao “could become increasingly vulnerable and even fall within the next 12 to 18 months if China’s economic and social problems persist or worsen.” The analysts also doubt that Deng would have the willingness or ability to save Zhao if conservative party elders “join forces with senior military and security officials against Zhao in a crisis.” As it turned out it was Deng himself who joined with hard-line officials and against his own protégé.The document outlines three scenarios that could result in Zhao’s ouster.  One of these proved to be most prescient, envisioning a situation where “Popular discontent, already high because of inflation and growing official corruption, sparks widespread student and/or worker unrest that party elders perceive as a challenge to the party’s authority.” This is exactly what happened in the coming months, and, as predicted, Zhao was the scapegoat. Document 3: U.S. Embassy Beijing Cable, U.S.-PRC Military Relationship – On the Eve of the President’s Visit, February 10, 1989, SECRET, 10 pp.In this document Ambassador Lord reviews the important military aspect of the U.S.-China relationship. Lord stresses that the Chinese military leadership maintains effective control over important internal political questions, as well as arms control, the ballistic missile program and the proliferation of chemical weapons. “It is important,” he notes, “for the U.S. to nurture close relationships with the military as a key dimension of the internal power structure.” This has become all the more imperative in the current context since, according to Lord, Zhao “may not yet have established his credentials within the military and maybe will never be able to do so.” Deng, he adds, recognizes this problem and has been trying to “forge increasing ties between Zhao and the military.”Lord is also confident that the current bilateral environment is ripe for a significant expansion of military ties, suggesting that the U.S. encourage increases in military sales to China “for political and commercial reasons” but to “maintain a gradual pace so as not to be provocative” to U.S. allies in Asia. Document 4: Secretary of State James A. Baker, Memorandum for the President, Your China Visit, February 25-27, February 16, 1989, SECRET, 3 pp.Concerns about the normalization of Sino-Soviet relations are again evident in this briefing memorandum from Secretary of State James Baker to the president in the days preceding his Asia trip. The Soviets have grabbed the “spotlight” with the normalization initiative, he notes, adding that the May summit “could feed perception that strategic underpinning for U.S.-China relationship is eroding, an impression both we and Chinese with to counter.” Document 5: U.S. Embassy Beijing Cable, President’s Banquet – Chinese Guest List, February 18, 1989, LIMITED OFFICIAL USE, 4 pp.In an effort to reach an audience beyond the typical government and Communist Party cadres and establish U.S. credibility on human rights issues, U.S. embassy officials made a special effort to invite noted dissident intellectual Fang Lizhi and his wife Su Shaozhi to a banquet to be hosted by President Bush on his second evening in China. The invitation prompted a harsh reply from China’s Vice Foreign Minister Zhu Qizhen who told Lord that the entire delegation of Chinese leaders would boycott the event if Fang were allowed to attend. A compromise was soon reached by which Fang would attend the banquet, but sit in the back where he would not come into contact with either Bush or the Chinese leaders. In the end the Chinese security forces succeeded in blocking Fang and his wife from attending with a series of obstacles that prevented them from even arriving at the banquet before it was already over.4The incident effectively overshadowed the other themes of the trip and caused a furor within the Bush administration over who was to blame. While unidentified senior administration officials denied that the embassy had “flagged” the invitation of Fang, this embassy cable, written one week before the event, clearly highlights the fact that the embassy is “still planning to invite noted dissidents Fang Lizhi and his wife.” Lord was unhappy with the way Bush administration officials had handled the Fang Lizhi affair in February, and is reported to have written a highly secret back-channel cable addressed to Brent Scowcroft, President Bush’s national security adviser, protesting the fact that the administration had blamed the embassy for mishandling the matter.5 Document 6: U.S. Embassy Beijing Cable, Farewell and Hail, April 21, 1989, CONFIDENTIAL, 14 pp.Lord penned this overview of the state of U.S.-China relations as he prepared to leave his post in Beijing and make way for the new ambassador, James Lilley. Lord recommends a standard prescription of policy positions, including the continuation of political dialogue, military-to-military contacts, the loosening of trade restrictions and economic engagement, but also offers a final warning about human rights and what he perceives as an alarming increase in “dissident activity” in response to economic woes and government corruption. China’s leaders, he suggests, “currently place their premium on stability,” adding that Deng and Zhao had said as much to President Bush. “They see the free expression of ideas as leading to instability rather than helping them find answers to complex questions.” Political reforms in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have raised expectations among Chinese intellectuals and concern Chinese leaders who, according to Lord, have a very narrow definition of stability: “the suppression of dissent.” Other warning signs are evident: “The Party’s image continues to deteriorate. Cynicism is rampant. There is a feeling that the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has lost its ideological bearings and flounders in uncharted waters.” Lord calls the Fang Lizhi episode only “a minor blemish,” but adds “it was a harbinger of serious tensions to come in the human rights arena.”  Document 7: U.S. Embassy Beijing Cable, Soviet DCM Asks about U.S. Ship Visit to Shanghai; Comments on Summit and Cambodia, April 24, 1989, SECRET, 6 pp.This cable relays a conversation between U.S. chargé Peter Tomsen with Soviet Deputy Chief of Mission Fedotov regarding the upcoming port call in Shanghai of three U.S. Navy ships in May, scheduled to coincide with the visit to China of Soviet President Gorbachev. According to the document, Fedotov asks Tomsen whether scheduling the ship visit during Gorbachev’s visit might not cause a “confrontation in the Sino-Soviet-U.S. triangle,” indicating Soviet concern that the U.S. may be trying to use the ship visit to overshadow the Sino-Soviet summit. A subsequent document (Document 10) confirms that this was indeed the case. Document 8: U.S. Embassy Beijing Cable, PLA Ready to Strike, May 21, 1989, CONFIDENTIAL, 3 pp.Early on the morning of May 22, as the People’s Liberation Army descended upon Beijing’s city center, U.S. Ambassador James Lilley tells Washington that, “A confrontation resulting in bloodshed is probable at this point.” While the crackdown did not actually begin until the night of June 3, it is worth noting that Lilley’s policy recommendation called on the U.S. “to distance ourselves from the Chinese authorities who appear to be getting ready to crack down on their own people.” Document 9: CIA Intelligence Assessment, Perspectives on Growing Social Tension in China, May 1989, SECRET, 21 pp.This document, using information available as of May 22, 1989, notes with some concern the dim prospects for continuation of China’s liberalization program after the current social unrest and warns ominously that reforms have limited the party’s options in the management of social crises. The document notes that, “the opening up of Chinese society—intended to win popular support for reform—has made it more difficult for Beijing to use coercion to impose its will,” and that, “In effect, the party finds itself with fewer carrots and only big sticks to use.” Under the current scenario, CIA analysts feel that the most visible threat to the current reform program “is that continued intractable discontent, combined with pervasive disillusionment and widespread indifference and passive resistance to government initiatives, will weaken reformers’ political position and provide ammunition to their opponents.” Document 10: CIA, China: Situation Report, June 10, 1989, TOP SECRET, RUFF/UMBRA, 5 pp.This intelligence document reports on the situation in China just six days after the massacre and following Deng Xiaoping’s public meeting with the military officers who had carried out his order to clear the square. Even before the crackdown U.S. officials believed it important to nurture close relations with the military “as a key dimension of the internal power structure (see Document 3). “As a result of the upheavals,” this document suggests, “the military has become an influential player in Chinese politics, and the military’s share of the state budget may increase markedly as the price of support.” Document 11: U.S. Embassy Beijing Cable, China and the U.S. – A Protracted Engagement, July 11, 1989, SECRET, 9 pp.In this unusually critical cable, U.S. Ambassador James Lilley, who arrived at the Beijing post just weeks before the crackdown, takes the Bush administration to task for its bungled approach to the U.S.-China relationship before, during and after the crisis. Lilley characterizes a May 19 visit by U.S. naval ships to Shanghai – a port call intended to distract attention away from the visit of Soviet President Gorbachev – as a serious miscalculation: “The Chinese declared martial law against their own people in Beijing the day we were cozying up to their military in Shanghai . . . Our attitude was a throwback to the early days of our relationship when common Soviet bashing was in vogue. We were not coping with or anticipating current realities.” Lilley refers to Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi, who had sought and found refuge at the U.S. embassy compound shortly after the massacre, as the “man who came to dinner. . . A living symbol of our conflict with China over human rights.” Lilley also suggests that the president’s decision to suspend most of the U.S.-China military relationship, including especially the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, was “particularly galling to the Chinese after all the hype that went into glorifying the relationship.”While the ambassador supports certain economic sanctions, he does not wish to interrupt the regular flow of U.S. business ventures in China, particularly in the case of commercial aircraft sales and satellite launch services. Despite congressional concerns, he notes, “we are not rewarding the murderers of Tiananmen by selling Boeing aircraft for hard cash. Let a thousand points of business decisions work in China based on our own businesses’ realistic assessments of economic and political prospects for China.” Lilley also suggests that the administration, “Consider formats for quiet, high-level dialogue” with the Chinese, like the planned visit of former President Nixon, despite the formal ban on such meetings.Lilley does not mention the highly secret visit to China by U.S. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Laurence Eagleburger that had occurred just ten days earlier on July 1 – a mission that remained secret until the two made a similar trip again in December. A State Department document describing the “Themes” of the July trip, obtained by reporter James Mann, is included in the Archive’s 1999 Electronic Briefing Book, “Tiananmen Square, 1989: The Declassified History.” Despite these concessions, the Bush administration soon realized that their secret diplomactic efforts had not borne fruit. Scowcroft later recalled their disappointment:After the Chinese released only a handful of dissidents … it became apparent that the entire, slow process was grinding to a halt–and we had no significant steps to point to in order to justify any normalization of our strained relations.6 Document 12: CIA Directorate of Intelligence, China’s Military: Fragile Unity in the Wake of Crisis [Deleted], August 25, 1989, SECRET, 14 pp.The Tiananmen Papers reveals that CIA’s post-crisis assertions about continuing fissures within the Chinese military were probably incorrect. This intelligence memorandum, prepared jointly by the CIA’s Office of East Asian Analysis and Office of Leadership Analysis, characterizes the Chinese military leadership as deeply divided over the appropriateness of the internal crackdown of June 4, with many officers concerned about using the military to quell civil unrest. Others, the analysts believe, are suspicious that the hard-line position of Li Peng and Yang Shangkun was part of “a ploy” developed “to stage a coup against General Secretary Zhao Ziyang” and his program of economic and political reforms. Some of the military commanders are thought to have withheld their support for the crackdown until it became apparent that Zhao had lost the power struggle and that Deng would remain in control. Despite the apparent unity of the military in the wake of the crisis, analysts believe that these divisions persist, and that Deng “can count on the unqualified support of few military officers.”The Tiananmen Papers shows, however, that despite minor flare-ups of opposition from within the military the decision imposed by the Party elders to clear the square was obeyed without much dissent, and that Yang took pains to insure that military commanders followed orders. Xu Qinxian, for example, commander of the 38th Army, refused to carry out the martial law order and was relieved of his command. The most serious opposition came on May 20 from eight generals whose opinions on the matter had never been solicited, but Deng and Yang were able to bring them back into line. As Andrew Nathan suggests in the introduction to the book, “The split was only at the top . . . not a fissure that extended all the way through the system. Bureaucratically, the Chinese system proved to be a strong one.”7 Document 13: CIA Research Paper, The Road to the Tiananmen Crackdown: An Analytic Chronology of Chinese Leadership Decision Making, September 1989, CONFIDENTIAL, 24 pp.Three months after the crackdown, this document is an early attempt to understand the decision-making processes of the Chinese leadership, from the death of Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989, through the fall of Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang on June 23-24, and assess the impact of the Tiananmen crisis on the concurrent leadership succession struggle within the Communist Party. Written without the benefit of The Tiananmen Papers, CIA analysts did their best to estimate the deliberations and intra-Party conflict that produced the martial law order of May 20, the crackdown of June 3-4, and the fall of Zhao, based largely on press reports, but supplemented with other sources not disclosed in this redacted copy. The analysis in the CIA document is largely correct, and its conclusion that “Deng, Yang, and the Standing Committee – minus Zhao – largely determined the regime’s course,” is confirmed in The Tiananmen Papers. But several significant developments, revealed in the book, do not appear in the study and are worth noting:The document cites Zhao Ziyang’s refusal to cancel a planned trip to North Korea during the week of April 23-30, thus removing his “conciliatory touch” from the Politburo meetings. Zhao’s absence was surely a factor, but The Tiananmen Papers makes clear that before he left Zhao had set forth three principles in dealing with the students, calling for the Party to use only “persuasion” and “legal procedures” to get them to cease demonstrations. At the time Deng Xiaoping, Yang Shangkun and Li Peng all voiced support for Zhao’s principles.The CIA paper reports how Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong, in a June 30 speech denouncing the ousted Zhao Ziyang, claimed that neither Deng nor the Party had approved the draft of his May 4 speech to the Asian Development Bank (ADB)—the moderate tone of which contrasted with an editorial, approved by Deng, published in the April 26 People’s Daily. The Tiananmen Papers, however, indicates that Zhao had at least circulated a draft of his speech to Party members, including Chen himself, at a May 1 meeting of the expanded Standing Committee.8Zhao’s speech also does not appear to have aroused as much immediate opposition among members of the Standing Committee as the CIA report suggests. At meetings on May 8 and 10, for example, the CIA paper says that “The split between Zhao and the hardliners grew quickly,” and that only National People’s Congress Chairman Wan Li supported Zhao’s proposals for ending the crisis. By contrast, The Tiananmen Papers shows that at those meetings many members—particularly Party officials from the provinces—appeared to agree with Zhao, and sympathize with the protestors’ demands that the Party do something about government corruption. PRC President Yang Shangkun even suggests that “[Zhao] Ziyang’s notion of pacifying the student movement through democracy and law is good and seem quite workable right now.” The only discernable dissent from Zhao’s proposals at these meetings comes from Li Peng and Yao Yilin.9The paper also fails to mention a key May 13 meeting between Zhao, Deng and Yang, the same day that the student protestors began their hunger strike. The Tiananmen Papers reveals that the three generally agree that, in Deng’s words, “a tiny minority was stirring up the majority,” but differ somewhat over how to handle the situation—a decision made all the more urgent with the impending arrival of Soviet President Gorbachev on May 15. Zhao is more optimistic; believing that the majority of students will realize the importance of the Gorbachev visit and will “not disrupt the welcoming ceremony” scheduled to be held in Tiananmen Square. “I think,” he adds, “we should grab the chance to build a socialist democratic system that suits China’s unique circumstances.” But Deng cautions that, “With this small handful mixed in with so many students and masses our work becomes much harder. . . [T]his is not just between the students and the government.” Nevertheless, the meeting indicates much less disagreement among the three leaders than expressed in the CIA report, suggesting that subsequent developments – the disruption of the Gorbachev welcoming ceremony, Zhao’s comment to Gorbachev that important decisions are still referred to Party elders, the student hunger strike, and Zhao’s continuing insistence on the official retraction an April 26 editorial attributed to Deng denouncing the student movement – tipped the balance away from Zhao during this period.10The Tiananmen Papers also contains a revealing conversation between Deng and Yang on the morning of May 19, the day that martial law was formally declared. While praising China’s successful economic reforms, Deng admits that the country requires corresponding political reforms.  But—in what may be the key to understanding Deng’s reasoning during the crisis—he adds that “you have to consider how many of the old comrades in the Party can accept it right now.” Deng, however, seems to regret his position as the final authority: “I have to give the nod on every important decision. I carry too much weight, and that’s not good for the Party or the state.”11The Tiananmen Papers also confirms the belief of CIA analysts that, despite rumors about his whereabouts, Deng was in Beijing making key decisions during the crackdown. Additional DocumentsFor more documents on the Tiananmen Square crisis see “Tiananmen Square, 1989: The Declassified History,” a National Security Archive Electronic Briefing book from 1999. Footnotes1.  Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link, The Tiananmen Papers (New York: PublicAffairs, 2001), pp. 191-93. The Standing Committee has five members. Of these, Zhao Ziyang and Hu Qili opposed martial law, while Li Peng and Yao Yilin were in favor. Qiao Shi abstained from voting, and the decision was brought before the Party elders for resolution.2.  The U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing operated between May 1973 and March 1979 during the period after bilateral dialogue had been renewed but before the formal reestablishment of diplomatic relations.3.  The Tiananmen Papers, p. xxxix.4.  For more information on the Fang Lizhi affair see James Mann, About Face: A History of America’s Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), pp. 175-83.5.  Ibid., pp. 180-183.6.  George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), pp. 178-179. 7.  The Tiananmen Papers, p. xxxiii.8.  Ibid., p. 108.9.  Ibid., pp. 126-29, 131-38.10.  Ibid., pp. 147-152.11.  Ibid., p. 218. 


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