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.
Photographs showed them dressed in the blue or green cotton coats of the Mao era, a reminder of the drab conformity they yearned to escape.
Throughout the Tiananmen upheaval, Xi Jinping (習近平), the nation’s current president, was a local official in Fujian Province in China’s southeast, far from the protests in Beijing. However, his father, Xi Zhongxun (習仲勳), a veteran Communist turned supporter of economic reform, had been a friend of Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), the Chinese Communist Party leader demoted in 1987 for his liberal tendencies and whose death in 1989 sent thousands swarming into Tiananmen Square to voice their grief and demand steps toward democracy.
There are some indications that the elder Xi obliquely signaled opposition to martial law, but stepped into line after June 4, said Warren Sun, a historian at Monash University in Australia.
At the time, China had abandoned the ideological zealotry of Mao’s era and pursued market reforms under then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) that allowed farmers, factories and traders to escape state fetters. The economic changes were accompanied by a ferment of new ideas and calls for political opening and cultural renovation, despite counteroffensives against “spiritual pollution” led by conservatives.
“What we all shared was the belief that China had to reform, and to do so urgently,” writer Chen Ziming (陳自明) said. “The only real division among students and scholars was whether to reform the economy first, or take on political reform first, or do both at the same time.”
Many of China’s current leaders started climbing the political ladder in this febrile atmosphere, when it was not unusual for officials to mix with advocates of more radical change, and even to show some sympathy for them.
As a student, Li Keqiang socialized with Hu Ping (胡平) and Wang Juntao (王軍濤), two firebrands who threw themselves into the unbridled student elections of 1980.
Friends say Li Keqiang sometimes joined in campus salons, where students stayed up late into the night debating electoral politics, Western philosophy and the excesses of authoritarian rule.
Later, friends say, Li Keqiang was cajoled by party officials into giving up the chance to study abroad and instead became a cadre in the Communist Youth League.
“At the time, we had a lot of views in common,” said Wang Juntao, who was jailed after June 4 and left for the US in 1994. “A lot of the issues that came to divide us hadn’t arisen yet.”
Other future leaders came from similar backgrounds. Wang Qishan, the current anti-corruption chief, won prominence in the early 1980s as one of the “four reform gentlemen,” young intellectuals who advocated shifting away from a rigidly planned economy.
Later that decade, he sat on the editorial committee of Toward the Future, a series of books avidly read by students.
Chen Yizi, the former leader of the government institute that organized the Beijing conference, recalled having long chats with Wang and one long conversation with Li in 1988.
Referring to China’s recently retired leadership, Chen said: “This generation should be more enlightened than Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) and their generation.”
By 1989, divisions were tearing at the Communist leadership. Despite a decade of economic growth, students and intellectuals were dismayed by corruption and the party’s reluctance to emulate the changes sweeping the Soviet bloc. The broader public was also irate about official privilege and price reforms that had unleashed inflation.
Those tensions flared after the death of Hu Yaobang, when the mourning in Tiananmen Square escalated into demands to curtail the power and privilege of the party’s elite through steps to democracy and free speech.
Zhao and other relatively moderate members of the party hierarchy advocated measured political liberalization and press freedoms to defuse discontent. However, hard-liners argued that liberalization was a menace, not a cure.
They had the backing of Deng, who was more enthusiastic about economic reforms than about political compromise.
Wang Juntao, the democracy advocate, recalled meeting Li Keqiang, his former university acquaintance, for a last time in mid-May 1989, when Li was among a group of officials trying to coax students to end a hunger strike and return to class.
“As a student, he used to speak his mind,” Wang said. “Now some of that pushiness was gone. He’d become an official who deferred to his superiors, but I still think he had a sense of justice.”
By the time the government declared martial law in Beijing on May 20, 1989, Zhao’s authority was broken, and Deng and party conservatives prepared a harsher response to students clogging Tiananmen Square.
Two weeks later, soldiers and tanks plowed toward the square, and China went through a convulsion of purges and imprisonments.
To navigate these reversals, former acquaintances said Li Keqiang and other Communist Youth League officials showed a ruthless pragmatism to ward off suspicions of disloyalty, taking steps that included attending meetings at which they denounced the protests as counterrevolutionary.
“To survive in the party, you have to become an opportunist,” Wang said.
Soon after the crackdown, Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan (彭麗媛), a singer in a military troupe, was among the performers who entertained troops in Tiananmen Square.
Photographs of her performance, published in a People’s Liberation Army magazine in 1989, spread briefly on the Chinese Internet this year before disappearing — a reminder of the sensitivities of that time.
“The party system changes people,” said Wu, the former official. “Once you go down that path, you learn that to defend yourself, you have to defend the system, but I don’t believe that era left no traces on them.”