On June 2, 1989, two days before the military crackdown on Tiananmen Square that would change the course of Chinese history, nine of the country's top leaders sat down to decide what to do about the weeks-long protests. The vast majority of Chinese citizens are today unaware of the meeting, much less the crackdown it produced. But that meeting may have been among the most significant in contemporary China's history, shaping that history beyond even beyond Tiananmen and its bloody conclusion.
Chaos made many things possible during the weeks of the student-led protests, which were also a moment of uncertainty and debate within the Communist Party. Voices within the Party called for political opening or for political tightening; for economic liberalization or a return to state-dominated socialism. The June 2 Politburo Standing Committee meeting, and particularly the words of leader Deng Xiaoping, helped set China on the course of not just that week but of the 25 years that following, in many ways shaping the politically authoritarian but economically open China that we know today.
Two debates about China's future converged on June 2, and Deng won both of them: what to do about the student protesters and whether or not to continue his program of economic liberalization. Many of Deng's political antagonists among Party hard-liners opposed his liberalization, blaming it in part for the unrest. While the now-famous June 4 military crackdown was almost certain by June 2, the survival of Deng's economic reforms was not. The June 2 meeting ensured that China's economy would continue to open, and that China would go from a very poor country to the economic giant it is today. But Deng's arguments also linked that opening to the Tiananmen crackdown, combining liberal-minded economics with at-all-costs authoritarianism in a way that remains central to China's political system today.
Two days earlier, on May 31, Deng had met with senior Communist Party leaders who were pushing for the crackdown, urging them to maintain his trademark economic reforms despite hard-liners pushing to end the reforms as catalysts for the protests. Deng argued that continued economic reform would be the only thing to prevent future unrest once the square has been cleared — an idea that was treated with hostility at the time but has since become Communist Party orthodoxy. The next day, on June 1, the Beijing Party Committee sent every member of the Politburo a report called "On the True Nature of the Turmoil." The report was ostensibly an investigation into the protesters at Tiananmen and elsewhere, which it alleged were Western-backed terrorists aiming to seize power by force, but in fact it was designed to build a legal and political case for a military assault against the peaceful demonstrations.
On the morning of June 2, six "Party Elders" — senior officials who wielded enormous power in their own right — met with the only three remaining members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the paramount decision-making body in China's government. This was China's top leadership and it was in crisis. The meeting's formal subject was on how "to put a quick end to the turmoil and restore order in the capital" and its conclusion was foregone; the previous day's report had made military force all but inevitable.
What was actually up for debate was how these nine Chinese leaders would justify the military crackdown and what this would mean for another weighty and not-quite-separate question: whether to continue or kill Deng's campaign for economic reform and opening-up. Deng wanted to push for the crackdown, but he rightly worried that the protesting students would become associated with economic liberalization — something the protests had indeed called for — and that the crackdown would be seen within the Party as a vindication of anti-reform hard-liners.
To get what he wanted, to maintain the economic reforms has saw as so essential to his nation's future, Deng needed to come out for violence in Tiananmen, as the hard-liners wanted, in a way that simultaneously argued for the economic reforms those same hard-liners opposed. It was not easy.
Li Peng, China's premier, spoke first. He presented the June 1 report in detail, especially its arguments the the protesters were foreign-backed agents seeking to sow chaos and overturn the Communist Party. That this was wrong was beside the point; Li was presenting the case for treating the peaceful protesters as if they were armed rebels, and of using military force to disperse them.
Two other spoke up to concur with Peng. One of them, former president and party elder Li Xiannian linked the protests to economic liberalization, arguing that both must be destroyed as the same enemy. "China will lose all hope if we let turmoil have its way and open the door to capitalism," he said. "The nature of this turmoil is extremely clear: its bottom line is death to our Party and state."
Then Deng spoke. While he at first presented himself as agreeing with Xiannian's case against economic reform, and made an explicitly hard-line case for cracking down, it was clear that he hoped to save reform as well. He got both of them, and reading his speech now may be one of the best documents for understanding how China became what it is today and how the Tiananmen crackdown that followed two days later shaped the country's course for at least the next 25 years. Here, from Deng's personal papers and collected in the 2002 primary source history The Tiananmen Papers, is his fateful speech in full:
Comrade Xiannian is correct. The causes of this incident have to do with the global context. The Western world, especially the United States, has thrown its entire propaganda machine into agitation work and has given a lot of encouragement and assistance to the so-called democrats or opposition in China — people who are in fact are the scum of the Chinese nation. This is the root of the chaotic situation we face today.
When the West stirs up turmoil in other countries, in fact it is playing power politics — hegemonism — and is only trying to control those other countries, to pull into its power sphere countries that were previously beyond its control. Once we're clear on this point, it's easier to see the essential nature of this issue and to sum up certain lessons. This turmoil has taught us a lesson the hard way, but at least we now understand better than before that the sovereignty and security of the state must always be the top priority. Some Western countries use things like "human rights," or like saying the socialist system is irrational or illegal, to criticize us, but what they're really after is our sovereignty. ...
Two conditions are indispensable for our development goals: a stable environment at home and a peaceful environment abroad. We don't care what others say about us. The only thing we really care about is a good environment for developing ourselves. So long as history eventually proves the superiority of the Chinese socialist system, that's enough. We can't bother about the social systems of other countries.
Imagine for a moment what could happen if China falls into turmoil. If it happens now, it'd be far worse than the Cultural Revolution. Back then the prestige of leaders like Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou [Enlai] still loomed. We talked about "full-scale civil war," but actually no large-scale fighting took place, no true civil war ever happened.
Now it's different, though. If the turmoil keeps going, it could continue until Party and state authority are worn away. Then there would be civil war, one faction controlling parts of the army and another faction controlling others. If the so-called democracy fighters were in power, they'd fight among themselves. Once civil war got started, blood would flow like a river, and where would human rights be then? ...
On the topic of mistakes, we indeed have made them. I said two years ago that our biggest mistake was in education. we haven't educated our kids and students enough. A lot of thought work has been neglected, and a lot of things have not been made clear. Some people, like [former Chinese premier who visited the protests] Zhao Ziyang, have even joined the side of the turmoil, which makes it even more our own faults that people misunderstood.
We must cast a sober and critical eye upon ourselves, review the past while looking to the future, and try to learn from experience as we examine current problems. If we do this, it's possible a bad thing could turn into a good one. We could benefit from this incident.
A majority of the people will sober up, too. After we put down the turmoil, we'll have to work hard to make up all those missed lessons in education, and this won't be easy. It'll take years, not months, for the people who demonstrated and petitioned to change their minds. We can't blame the people who joined the hunger strike, demonstrated, or petitioned. We should target only those who had bad intentions or who took the lead in breaking the law. Education should be our main approach to the student, including the students who joined the hunger strike.
This principle must not change. We should set the majority of the students free from worry. We should be forgiving toward all the students who joined marches, demonstrations, or petitions and not hold them responsible. We will mete out precise and necessary punishments only to the minority of adventurers who attempted to subvert the People's Republic of China.
We cannot tolerate turmoil. We will impose martial law again if turmoil appears again. Our purpose is to maintain stability so that we can work on construction, and our logic is simple: with so many people and so few resources, China can accomplish nothing without peace and units in politics and a stable social order. Stability must take precedence over everything. ...
No one can keep China's reform and opening from going forward. Why is that? It's simple: without reform and opening our development stops and our economy slides downhill. Living standards decline if we turn back. The momentum of reform cannot be stopped. We must insist on this point at all times.
Some people say we allow only economic reform and not political reform, but that's not true. We do allow political reform, but one condition: that the Four Basic Principles [of Marxist ideology and Communist Party rule] are upheld.
We can't handle chaos while we're busy with contradiction. If today we have a big demonstration and tomorrow we have a great airing of views and a bunch of wall posts, we won't have any energy left to get anything done. That's why we have to insist on clearing the square.
Several others at the meeting expressed their agreement with Deng, for military action to end the protests and for his plan to restore long-term order nationally through firm state control, ideological indoctrination, and apparent contradictions be damned, economic reforms. While former President Yang Shangkun tried to argue that the square could be emptied bloodlessly, Deng's argument for a forceful and final military operation won out.
Deng closed the meeting by asking President Yang Shankun to order the military declare martial law that night and to "finish it within two days." The meeting ended and, within 48 hours, the military had killed an estimated 2,600 of China's citizens in emptying Tiananmen of the protests once and for all.
Deng was politically bruised and weakened from the internal fight, though, particularly among hard-liners. It was not until three years later, when anti-reform party elder Li Xiannian died, that Deng was able to cultivate the case for economic reforms he had so carefully built into the decision to crack down. He made his famous "southern tour" that fall, in cities such as Shenzhen and Shanghai, which he argued should be made in special, economically liberalized zones.
Deng got his economic opening, first in the south and then elsewhere, greatly enriching China's economy in ways that have transformed it. But, true to his June 2 speech intertwining economic reforms with harshly enforced public order, China never surrendering its tight-fisted controls on public discourse and assembly and dissent that defined China on June 4, 1989, and that still define it today.