For four days, more than 400 of China’s brightest political minds gathered in smoke-clouded halls at a Beijing hotel, vigorously debating the nation’s future.
It was April 1989, and after a decade of economic transformation, China faced a clamor for political liberalization. Days later, protests erupted in Tiananmen Square, and the lives of those at the meeting took radically different turns. Several are now national leaders, including Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強). Others ended up in prison or exile, accused of supporting the demonstrations that shook the Chinese Communist Party and ended with soldiers sweeping through the city on June 4, shooting dead hundreds of unarmed protesters and bystanders.
“The atmosphere at the meeting was to let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend,” said Chen Yizi (陳一諮), who helped organize the conference. “Afterward, it was impossible to hold a meeting like that where everyone was willing to debate different points of view.”
This year is the 24th anniversary of the bloodshed, and the first under a party leadership dominated by officials with such intimate and ambivalent ties to the events of 1989. Many top leaders served their political apprenticeship in the 1980s, when the boundaries between the permissible and the forbidden were not as stark and heavily policed as they are now. Their careers and friendships, and sometimes their viewpoints, overlapped with intellectuals, officials and policy advisers who were jailed or dismissed after the June 4 crackdown.
Few expect China’s new leaders, installed in November last year, to overturn the official verdict that the protests were a counterrevolutionary rebellion that had to be crushed. However, the immersion of today’s leaders in the political experimentation of the 1980s raises the question of whether they will be more open to new ideas and discussion than their immediate predecessors in high office.
Chinese leaders openly debate competing approaches to the economy, but their calls for political liberalization have become increasingly rare. For now, at least, any potential embrace of the more freewheeling spirit of the 1980s appears to be hindered by the conformism demanded of those who have ascended in the hierarchy — and their dread of being accused of ideological heresy.
Yet the lessons of June 4, 1989, and its repressive aftermath may weigh on the new leaders, especially if they are confronted by another political uprising, said Wu Wei (吳偉), a former aide to Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), the reform-minded party leader ousted shortly before the crackdown.
“For those in power now, it’s still a heavy political burden, even if it’s one that they can never openly discuss,” Wu said. “Now the people who took part in that time are middle-aged or older, and it’s still a knot in their hearts.”
Li, now 57, was one of six current members of the elite 25-member politburo who attended the meeting, according to Zhong Dajun (仲大偉), an editor for Xinhua news agency at the time.
Others included Chinese vice president Li Yuanchao (李源潮); Wang Qishan (王歧山), the chief of anti-corruption investigations; and Yu Zhengsheng (俞正聲), who deals with policy toward religious groups, ethnic minorities and non-party groups.
Many of these future Chinese leaders were among the hundreds of thousands of students who crowded into universities beginning in the late 1970s, eager for knowledge after years of rote learning Mao Zedong (毛澤東) Thought during the Cultural Revolution, when colleges were mostly shut or paralyzed by ideological campaigns.