From Mourning Service to Martial Law - The Crackdown on the Protest Movement of 1989 on Tiananmen Square and the Leaders' Motives

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)


Table of Contents

A. Question: Why did the Chinese leaders decide to use force against the Tiananmen protesters in June 1989?

B. Development and Testing of Hypotheses: Four Approaches to Explain the Leaders’ Motives

1. Escalation Approach
- “War of Symbols”
- Communication Problems between Students and Political Leaders

2. Cleavage Approach
- Political Struggle within the Politburo’s Standing Committee
- Lack of Homogeneous Leadership
- Power Blockade within the Apex of Decision-Making

3. Psychological Approach
- Cultural Revolution Experience
- Punishment of “Spoilt Children”
- General Belief in Military Solutions

4. "Behind-the-Scenes" Approach
- Exploitation of Students by “a Small Group”?
- Fear of Foreign Conspiracy

C. Findings: The correlative motives framework

D. List of Works Cited

A. Why Did the Chinese Leaders Use Force?

When in the night from June 3 to June 4, 1989 armoured personnel carriers and main battle tanks entered Tiananmen Square in Beijing the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) brought the world’s largest and longest–lasting movement dedicated to democracy to a violent end. The numbers of confirmed deaths differ depending on the source. Today it is safe to assume that more than thousand people were killed in Beijing within several days. The West was shocked that the democracy movement that had met with wide response throughout the world ended in tragedy and bloodshed. The surprise about the crackdown was so big because the Chinese government had treated the demonstrators over a month obviously with remarkable tolerance[1]. Eventually, the declaration of martial law and the government's use of force against their own people by killing innocent and peacefully demonstrating students and citizens were disturbing and horrifying for the Western observers.

The final reaction of the Chinese leadership, its Party and its decision-making body to crack down violently seemed to be contradictory to the attitude the politicians had shown the weeks before. When the demonstrations began after the death of former general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Hu Yaobang, on April 15 the official statements were not showing a thoroughly negative attitude toward the students. Even in the later stages of the protest movement there were still voices from Politburo members that showed some understanding for the students’ main requests: Democratization of the political decision–making body, the stop of corruption by Party cadres and the official reclassification of the student movement as “patriotic” instead of labeling it as “turmoil”.

Last but not least, the final use of force against the protesters also seemed to contradict the image of the paramount leader of China, Deng Xiaoping. In the West he was seen as a pragmatist who obviously rejected the ideological approach of problem–solving which Mao Zedong had practiced. Classical phrases by Deng like “Seek truth from facts”[2] or “It makes no difference if a cat is black or white – so long as it catches mice, it’s a good cat”[3] engraved this image in the minds of Western people. Therefore it was even more surprising when finally the massacre happened at the Tiananmen Square in front of the eyes of the world. Observers were asking how it could be necessary to attack peacefully demonstrating students with main battle tanks and machine guns: Because of this obvious contradiction between the tactical and political necessity (the necessity to clear the Square from peaceful students who were asking for democracy brutally with heavy vehicles) and the personal logic on the one hand and the action of the Chinese leadership on the other hand the question arises why the Chinese leaders decided to use force against the Tiananmen protesters.

B. Four Approaches to Explain the Leaders’ Motives

In order to judge why the decision-makers finally decided to declare martial law it is necessary to examine the reactions of the political leaders in the apex of the decision-making body of China’s leadership corresponding to the development of the protest movement. Analyzing the official statements and informal comments of, the discussions among and the actions carried out by China’s ruling elite is a way to put forward possible hypotheses that can explain why the leaders made the final step to end the “worst crisis since the Cultural Revolution”[4] violently. In the following, four hypotheses, which are the result of four different approaches of analysis, shall be mentioned and verified.

1. Escalation Approach

The first hypothesis refers to the chain of events taking place from April 15 to June 4. This theory considers the development of the protest movement as an escalating conflict between two opponents: the formal and the informal leaders of China (the Standing Committee of the Politburo and the group of Party Elders with Deng Xiaoping on top) on the one hand and those students who were taking an active part in the democracy movement on the other hand. This escalation is supposed to having led into a vicious circle with the eventual declaration of martial law and the use of force against the protesters.

“War of Symbols”

When the reform-oriented politician Hu Yaobang, who was purged in 1987, died on April 15, 1989 the new students movement started spontaneously out of the mourning demonstrations for the liberal reformer and popular politician. The students used the service for Hu as an occasion to express their criticism on inflation, corrupt Party cadres and Party rule in general. Opposing the Party officially was the first provocation that had started a chain of events. Heilmann calls it in retrospect a “war of symbols”[5]. Because the students didn’t have any institutionalized means of expressing their opinion like newspapers or independent student organizations they tried to gain national and international recognition through symbolic maneuvers at the heart of the capital in Tiananmen Square only a short distance from Zhongnanhai, the seat of government.

Some of these symbolic maneuvers were: A sit-in on April 18 at the Great Hall of the People; laying siege to Xinhua Gate on April 19 while shouting slogans like “Down with dictatorship” and “Down with autocracy”[6] ; boycotting classes at the universities in Beijing and other cities as an act of protest against the biased Chinese media coverage of the demonstrations; and stating demands like the Ph.D. students at the People’s University who insisted on ending the press censorship, the establishment of a Committee for Clean Government and on the resignation of all leaders over the age of seventy-five on April 23. Li Peng called this “a naked declaration of war against the party”[7]. Later on the students tried to increase the pressure on the Politburo to give in by declaring a hunger strike.

Inevitably the Standing Committee of the Politburo (PBSC) considered each action of the students to be a provocation and met it with a counter-action. Certainly, the mutual maneuvers led into a vicious circle of action and reaction. The PBSC considered the hunger strike during the crucial state visit of Gorbachev as the final provocation. The leader of the Soviet Union could not be welcomed on Tiananmen Square. The delegates, the Chinese leaders and Gorbachev had to enter the Great Hall of the People through a side entrance. It had become publicly obvious that the Chinese leadership was unable to maintain control even in the center of their own capital, which was a major humiliation to them. President Yang Shangkun said at the PBSC meeting on May 17 in Deng Xiaoping’s home: “Has that month seen turmoil in our capital? Yes. It’s reached the point where we can’t conduct national affairs.”[8] The hunger strike and the blockade of the Square during the Gorbachev visit marked the final saturation point.[9] In consequence of this public humiliation Deng Xiaoping was determined to end the protest movement at all cost. During a PBSC meeting on May 17 at his home Deng said: “Some comrades [still] don’t grasp the nature of the problem; they still think this is about how to handle students […].The anarchy gets worse every day. […] If we don’t turn things around, if we let them go on like this, all our gains will evaporate, and China will take a historic step backward […] “[10]. At this meeting Deng articulated his decision to declare martial law in Beijing’s urban districts.

Communication Problems between Politicians and Students

A decisive role in the escalation played the communication problem. Both sides were unable to speak with one voice. First, the political leadership did not show a coherent approach of conflict—solving because of the split among the PBSC members (see approach 2). Therefore the content of official statements of the PBSC was not homogenous. While General Secretary Zhao was showing a conciliatory attitude, Premier Li (PBSC chairman in Zhao’s absence from April 23 until April 30) represented the hard-liners. Second, the students movement inevitably had no homogenous leadership either. It was not clear who was in charge of them or responsible for their specific actions. Although Zhao wanted to maintain “multilateral, multichannel, multiformat dialogs”[11] with the students a lot of communication problems or misunderstanding which had influence on the further development occurred.

Some problems in communication were: (1) The editorial “The necessity for a clear stand against turmoil” in People’s Daily on April 26. Here the demonstrations were called a dong luan (“turmoil“ or “rebellion”)[12]: “This is a well-planned plot to confuse the people and throw the country into turmoil.”[13] These expressions were taken from a statement of Deng Xiaoping during a meeting with the PBSC under the chairmanship of Li Peng on April 25. Deng referred the word “turmoil” to a “tiny minority” (see approach 4) that was “exploiting the students”[14]. However, the editorial did not distinguish between this “minority” and the mass of students. Therefore anyone who took an active part in the demonstrations now felt stigmatized. How indignant the students were due to this expression that did ignore their patriotism becomes obvious in the last stage of the protests: One of the two final demands of the fasting students was officially labeling the movement “patriotic” instead of being a “turmoil”. In Zhao’s words the editorial created an “us-versus-them mentality”[15].

(2) The PBSC members and the Elders got a lot of detailed reports on the banner slogans or the content of the wallpapers during the movement. Logically the most extreme or explicit ones were also the most noted ones. Chen Xitong, the mayor of Beijing, mentions in his report to the PBSC on April 23 “Down with bureaucrats!”[16] and on April 25 “Down with Deng Xiaoping!”[17]. Deng Xiaoping was in presence when Chen reported this. Other examples – taken from the demonstration on May 17 – were: “When a person turns eighty he turns stupid!” or “You’re old Xiaoping!”[18]. The pressure on the political leaders even increased through the international media coverage. Here the students could articulate their opinion uncensored and worldwide. One example was the interview with the well-known student leader Wuerkaixi in Le Figaro on May 17. He is quoted: “The government is a bunch of corrupt rotten eggs”[19]. It is obvious that the slogans had a lot of influence on the hard-liners’ opinion about the movement. Thus, the personal opinion of single demonstrators became a “general attitude” of the students the political leader referred to. Li Peng said in a PBSC meeting on May 1: “What they want is the kind of absolute freedom that tramples on the Four Basic Principles […]. They attack, slander and insult Comrade Xiaoping and other party and state leaders”[20].


[1] Saich 35

[2] Quoted in: Zhang L. 29

[3] Quoted in: Meisner 48

[4] Zhang W. 175

[5] Heilmann 2

[6] Quoted in: Zhang L. 38 - 39

[7] Ibid., 70

[8] Ibid., 243

[9] Even after the public declaration of martial law the “war of symbols” continued: On May 29 the students erected the “Goddess of Democracy”, a thirty feet high plaster statue modeled on the Statue of Liberty; on June 2 a concert of the Taiwanese Pop Singer Hou Dejian took place

[10] Quoted in: Zhang L. 248 – 250

[11] Ibid., 67

[12] Wang 279

[13] Quoted in: Zhang L. 100

[14] Ibid., 97

[15] Ibid., 155

[16] Quoted in: Zhang L. 71

[17] Ibid., 95

[18] Ibid., 256

[19] Ibid., 242

[20] Ibid., 142

Excerpt out of 20 pages


From Mourning Service to Martial Law - The Crackdown on the Protest Movement of 1989 on Tiananmen Square and the Leaders' Motives
University of Regensburg  (Institute for Politcal Science)
China in World Politics
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
401 KB
The research paper analyses the leaders' motives which led to the use of force against the students' protest movement on Tiananmen Square in June 1989
From, Mourning, Service, Martial, Crackdown, Protest, Movement, Tiananmen, Square, Leaders, Motives, China, World, Politics
Quote paper
Bernhard Kuttenhofer (Author), 2003, From Mourning Service to Martial Law - The Crackdown on the Protest Movement of 1989 on Tiananmen Square and the Leaders' Motives, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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