BEIJING — 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.
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 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 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.
Even after a quarter century, the night of bloodshed remains one of the most delicate subjects in Chinese politics, subjected to unrelenting attempts by the authorities to essentially erase it from history. Yet even now, new information is emerging that modifies the accepted understanding of that divisive event.
At the time, Deng Xiaoping, the party patriarch who presided over the crackdown, praised the military for its unflinching loyalty, and the image of a ruthlessly obedient army lingers even in some foreign accounts. But the military speeches and reports composed before June 4 that year, and in the months after, show soldiers troubled by misgivings, confusion, rumors and regrets about the brutal task assigned to them.
“The situation was fluid and confusing, and we underestimated the brutality of the struggle,’’ Capt. Yang De’an, an officer with the People’s Armed Police, wrote in one assessment found among military documents acquired by the Princeton University Library. “It was hard to distinguish foes from friends, and the target to be attacked was unclear.’’
Some former soldiers and officials who agreed to talk about their roles in the crisis said they were alarmed by the state-enforced censorship and silencing of witnesses that has left a younger generation largely ignorant about one of the most devastating episodes in modern Chinese history.
“I personally didn’t do anything wrong,’’ said Li Xiaoming, who in 1989 was among the troops who set off toward Tiananmen Square, “but I feel that as a member, a participant, this was a shame on the Chinese military.’’
While official secrecy makes it difficult to confirm elements of the new accounts, scholars who have reviewed the army’s internal reports, including unit-level descriptions of mobilization as well as detailed accounts about the violent confrontations with protesters, say they are authentic. An earlier attempt to pierce the party’s imposed blackout, “The Tiananmen Papers,’’ a collection of documents published in 2001, has been dogged by controversy about its intent and authenticity.
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.’’
There were fewer episodes of outright military defiance, like that of Xu. No dissident, he had written a letter in blood during the Korean War begging to join the army as an underage youth, according to Yang, the historian who was among the few people to interview him after 1989. The elite 38th Group Army, which Xu commanded from a base about 90 miles south of Beijing, was a bulwark protecting the capital.
Having witnessed the student protests during an earlier visit to Beijing, where he was receiving treatment for kidney stones, he feared the consequences of quelling them with troops trained to fight foreign invaders. Sending armed soldiers onto the streets, he warned, would risk indiscriminate bloodshed and stain the reputation of the People’s Liberation Army.
“If there was a conflict with ordinary civilians, and you couldn’t tell the good guys from the bad guys, who would shoulder responsibility for problems?’’ he later said, according to Dai Qing, a Beijing writer who had access to separate interview notes with the general.
In the end, Xu agreed to pass the orders to his officers, but not to lead armed troops into the capital. He was arrested, expelled from the party, and served four years in prison, Yang said.
In poor health, Xu lives in a sanitarium for military officials in Hebei province in northern China, according to another researcher who interviewed him and demanded anonymity for speaking. The general declined to be interviewed for this article.
According to an internal history of the army among the Princeton documents, his act kindled rumors among soldiers that officers of the 38th Group Army had resigned en masse and that the army had refused to enter Beijing. To counter the hearsay, officers of the 38th were assembled to condemn their former commander and pledge unyielding obedience in enforcing martial law, according to the army documents.
But Xu was not the sole dissenter within the military elite. Col. Wang Dong, a People’s Liberation Army officer and aide to a respected veteran commander, organized the petition of military leaders opposed to martial law, said Zhang, the former researcher. With Wang now dead, Zhang and others decided that the time had come to step forward with details of his role organizing the petition.
Deng and his allies were so alarmed by spreading misgivings about martial law that they disconnected many of the so-called red phones that allowed senior officials to speak with one another, Zhang said. But Wang offered to use his elite connections to organize a show of dissent from within the military.
Copies of the petition spread around Beijing that May, but its origins and authenticity were unclear, diminishing its impact. But Zhang, who had contacts with senior military officers, now says that he wrote down the statement and names during a phone call from Wang and then passed it on to friends who made copies.
In interviews, several of those who took part in back-channel efforts to defuse the crisis described how Wang held a secret meeting with Wang Juntao and Zhou Duo, two liberal intellectuals who were trying to avert a military assault, even as they chided protesters for disorganization and naïveté. Both men recalled a long night in Zhou’s home when they peppered Wang Dong with questions about attitudes in the army. He played down the risk of mass bloodshed, both men recalled.
“He said, ‘If the Communist Party fires on and kills ordinary people, then wouldn’t the Communist Party be committing suicide?’??’’ Zhou, who lives in Beijing, said in a telephone interview. He said they “absolutely never imagined it would turn out as brutally as it did.’’
Even as the petition circulated around Beijing, 180,000 to 250,000 troops from across the country were mobilizing to enforce martial law. Although the resistance by ordinary Beijingers is well established, the documents and interviews describe the dismay, frustration and rumors that unsettled the military when residents were galvanized into defiance, rather than being cowed by the rush of soldiers clutching guns.
Many Beijing residents were swept up by the idealism of the students and their grievances over corruption, inequality and inflation. From May 19, as word of impending martial law leaked, tens of thousands of them poured out of their homes to stop the troops at key intersections, pleading with them to understand the students’ demands.
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One soldier, Chen Guang, then 17, from rural Henan province, said his unit was enveloped by students after its convoy of 10,000 soldiers was halted on Chang’an Avenue on May 20.
For three days, as the weary, marooned soldiers clutched their rifles in the wilting sun, he recalled how residents and students brought them food and escorted them to toilets, all the while bombarding them with the message that theirs was a just cause. “Even in the restroom, there was no reprieve,’’ Chen said in an interview. “If one student would go hoarse yelling, another would take his place.’’
Rattled by the impasse and worried that troops might waver in their loyalties, the commanders ordered their withdrawal, the documents say. “We wrote our names and addresses in their notebooks and there were quite a few tears as we pulled out,’’ Chen said, recalling makeshift banners that hung from windows hailing their loyalty to the people. “It felt like a victory after a battle.’’
Over the next 10 days, several former soldiers said they were fed a confusing diet of indoctrination at their encampments on the outskirts of Beijing. They studied the speeches of Deng and were told the demonstrations were the work of a subversive minority bent on toppling the Communist Party.
Even as the troops imbibed the propaganda, the notion that they might have to shoot the demonstrators appeared remote, recalled Li, who was then 25 and a radar operator in the 39th Group Army. “Our unit was educated that we mustn’t fire the first shot at students, and if we fired the first shot at the public, we’d be responsible to history,’’ he said in an interview from Australia.
Even after over a week of such training, commanders worried about the commitment of the troops to take the square.
“They’re baffled why so many members of the public have taken part in the demonstrations,’’ Gen. Yang Baibing, whose older brother was a confidant of Deng’s, told military officers on May 31, according to a compilation of party and military speeches at Princeton. “Some comrades have all kinds of views and doubts about stopping the turmoil.’’
The messages of restraint were jettisoned on June 3, when the troops received orders to retake the square by early the next day “at any cost,’’ former soldiers said.
“Reach Tiananmen or die,’’ party members from one battalion declared in a ceremony before they set off, according to one entry. In some units, troops recorded their determination with oaths signed in blood. But amid the bravado, there was also fear and confusion, magnified by rumors of mutinous units who might turn on other armies, according to soldiers who were there and the military documents.
“At that moment, some officers and soldiers experienced some mental turmoil,’’ read an account by the 63rd Group Army, based in Shanxi in northern China, which was one of the principal forces mobilized for the crackdown. “Some felt the situation was grim and experienced some panic. Some felt that they had already tried to go in twice, and going in this time would be perilous.’’
When troops from the 39th Group Army’s 116th Division left its temporary base in far eastern Beijing, Li, the radar operator, recalled his biggest fear was that they might have to fight the 38th Group Army, whose loyalty had been thrown in doubt by Xu’s defiance and rumors of wider defections. He grabbed a semiautomatic rifle and extra ammunition just in case.
As the troops set out with their orders to take the square and other important positions, they lacked standard tools for crowd control as well as clear instructions about how and when to use their guns.
“There was a lack of protective equipment and nonlethal weapons,’’ read one People’s Armed Police assessment of the crackdown in the documents. “Imagine if they had tear gas, flash grenades, shields, helmets and other protective equipment.’’
Li said he was spared the decision of whether to fire by his divisional commander, Xu Feng, who ignored instructions to plow toward Tiananmen. Instead, after learning of the unfolding bloodshed, Xu kept his troops in the eastern suburbs, where the turmoil was less intense, and pretended his battalion’s communication radio had malfunctioned. Li can still recall the frantic calls: “Division 116, Division 116, where are you?’’
In the precincts where there was large-scale killing, confusion dogged the troops at every turn, the documents suggest.
Chinese leaders approved the use of live fire around 9:30 to 10 that night, according to Wu Renhua, a scholar who took part in the protests. He has written two books in Chinese about the military crackdown and now lives in Los Angeles. Passed down orally, he said, the directive lacked guidance on when or how to shoot and it most likely did not reach all units.
“Whether the shooting should be into the air or into the crowd was left unclear,’’ he said in a telephone interview.
Wang Yongli, who was riding with the 38th Army, described how some civilians threw bricks and bottles at the troops and then attacked military vehicles with iron bars. He said that the soldiers, shaking with fear and rage, first shot into the air, but at some point, the rifle sights were aimed at the crowds. “No one said to shoot, but it was, like, ‘We’re going to teach them a lesson,’ and then those soldiers unleashed their fury,’’ he said. “You pulled the trigger and bang, bang, bang, it was like rain, the noise shaking the heavens.’’
Although an accurate death toll may never be known, estimates of the number of civilians killed by gunfire or crushed by tanks range from the hundreds to more than 1,000. The government estimated that 300 lives were lost, many of them soldiers.
The next day at dawn, Yang, the historian, then a reporter with the Xinhua news agency, made his way to Muxidi, a neighborhood west of the square that was the scene of some of the fiercest resistance to the military attack.
He saw a tangle of abandoned bikes, charred vehicles and drying pools of blood. “Everywhere you looked there were bullet holes,’’ he recalled. But perhaps the most chilling sight, he said, was the crimson-colored graffiti slathered across a wall. “People’s Blood!’’ it read. “People’s Blood!’’