The secret history of Mikhail Gorbachev's ill-timed trip to Beijing -- and why Russia still fears the contagion of Tiananmen.
- By Sergey RadchenkoSergey Radchenko is a reader in international politics at Aberystwyth University and a former public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
A specter still haunts autocrats in China and Russia: the specter of Tiananmen. Twenty-five years after the bloody crackdown on demonstrators in Beijing, and in spite of the Chinese government’s efforts to blot out memories of what happened, Tiananmen lives on as a symbol of selfless protest against government corruption and autocratic misrule. The world has learned a lot about Tiananmen since 1989, and the tragedy is relived each year through the writings of its victims and the deafening silence of the Party authorities.
The international angle, however, is persistently overlooked. The 1989 student protests in Beijing didn’t happen in a vacuum; in fact, they coincided with an epoch-changing shift in international politics. After decades of confrontation, Beijing and Moscow had mended fences, embarking on a road that by the mid-1990s would take them towards "strategic partnership." The high point of this rapprochement was then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing in May 1989, just days before the June 4 massacre in Tiananmen Square.
On June 4, 2014, the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive released a new set of documents that show how the crisis looked from the vantage point of a fellow reforming state, the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev arrived in a city gripped by political unrest. In April, university students in Beijing and across the country had taken to the streets to protest growing social inequality, nepotism, and corruption. Tiananmen Square was aflutter with banners calling for freedom and democracy, some even contrasting Soviet political reforms with the Chinese Communist Party’s unwillingness to countenance democratic change.
Gorbachev’s visit offered the young, idealistic protesters in Tiananmen an opportunity to take their case over the head of the Chinese authorities directly to the man who, in their minds, personified a new era of reforms and openness. Students even submitted a petition to the Soviet Embassy asking for a meeting with their hero. (Despite prodding from radicals in his circle, Gorbachev declined the invitation.)
The Soviet delegation was stunned by the scale of the protests. "This is a revolution," concluded Gorbachev’s confidant Yevgeny Primakov, who had been a prominent advocate of rapprochement with Beijing. "Could it not be," wondered Teimuraz Stepanov-Mamaladze, an official at the Soviet Foreign Ministry, "that we normalized relations with political dead men?"
Gorbachev himself was worried and relieved in equal measure — worried because he had found himself in the epicenter of a national upheaval, and relieved because at least it was not his nation. "Some of those present here," he told members of his delegation on May 15, "have promoted the idea of taking the Chinese road. We saw today where this road leads. I do not want Red Square to look like Tiananmen Square."
Gorbachev left China on May 19, a fortnight before the Chinese Communist Party unleashed the People’s Liberation Army against unarmed protesters. While the West was appalled by the killings and swiftly announced economic sanctions against China, Moscow did not go beyond a general expression of "regret." The human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov, then a deputy in the newly elected Soviet Duma, rose to the podium on June 10 to demand the recall of the Soviet Ambassador to China, but Gorbachev switched off his microphone.
Gorbachev had become heavily invested in the success of normalizing relations with China — it was the only major accomplishment of his Asia policy — and he simply could not afford to criticize Beijing for killing hundreds of students. He believed that China’s international isolation and Western sanctions after Tiananmen offered an excellent opportunity for forging closer links with the Chinese and bringing them into a "strategic triangle" with India and the USSR.
This triangle idea was Gorbachev’s longstanding dream — a means of claiming Soviet leadership in Asia at the expense of the United States. But it never seemed to work.
Tiananmen gave Gorbachev hope. On July 15, he told Rajiv Gandhi, then-prime minister of India: "I think China will not distance itself from us and from you as a consequence of the latest events. They were grateful for our measured response, and, perhaps now they will value more their relations with us and with you…. Do you remember how we talked about a ‘triangle?’" Gorbachev followed these comments with criticism of the George H. W. Bush administration, which, he said, wished them all — Moscow, Beijing, New Delhi — something "even worse" than Tiananmen.
"Something even worse" was already happening in Eastern Europe — Communist regimes were folding one after another. Solidarity had won elections in Poland, large-scale protests had erupted in Czechoslovakia, political dialogue had led to democratization in Hungary, and East Germany and Romania were headed towards collapse.
In this context, Gorbachev began to change his views of Tiananmen. It was not an atrocity of a struggling regime but a necessary cost of maintaining stability. On Oct. 4, 1989, reacting to a report by Politburo member Anatoly Lukyanov that deaths at Tiananmen topped 3,000, the Soviet leader appeared unperturbed. "We must be realists," he said. "They, like us, have to hold on. Three thousand…. So what?"
In the end, the Chinese Communists were among the few who were able to "hold on." On Nov. 9, the Wall fell in Berlin. In December, Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled in Romania despite eleventh-hour counseling by China’s then-security czar, Qiao Shi, on how to manage public protests. Images of Ceausescu’s bullet-riddled corpse made headlines in the international media and left an indelible impression on China’s leaders, who spent years thinking that the crackdown at Tiananmen had saved them from a similar fate.
In the weeks and months that followed, the Chinese continued to offer their political, and even economic, support to the crumbling USSR, despite their anger with Gorbachev, whom they perceived as a dangerous revisionist unable to cope with bourgeois subversion. Whatever his perceived faults, Gorbachev represented an alternative to a U.S.-led world order, drawing Washington’s attention to Europe and thereby increasing China’s breathing space. As then-Premier Li Peng, one of the Tiananmen hard-liners, wrote in his diary in February 1990: "After taking Eastern Europe in its hands, the West can put China under greater pressure."
The Chinese leaders thus went to great lengths to prevent Soviet disintegration in order to maintain it as a "pole" in a multipolar world, as then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had put it. Deng, who had previously referr
ed to the Soviet Union as a "polar bear" and railed against its expansionist impulses, now thought better of Moscow, because at the very least the Soviets preoccupied the United States, giving China a freer hand.
For the Chinese Communist Party, survival of communist rule in the USSR — in any form — bolstered its waning legitimacy. Unsurprisingly, Beijing welcomed the August 1991 attempted coup against Gorbachev by the dysfunctional alliance of communist reactionaries in the form of the KGB, the Ministry of Defense, and some members of Gorbachev’s inner circle. There is tantalizing new evidence, based on declassified Russian internal reports, that Beijing had been forewarned about the coup, and maintained secret contacts with its organizers.
The attempted coup dealt a fatal blow to Gorbachev’s political authority and hastened the fragmentation of the USSR. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was no more, and Gorbachev was gone from the stage. The Chinese hurried to establish rapport with his successor Boris Yeltsin, even though they had previously derided him as counterrevolutionary scum and a traitor to Marxism. Beijing instinctively sensed that good relations with a strong and robust Russia would guarantee that China would never again be isolated as it was after Tiananmen. This feeling was fully shared by the ardent anti-communist Yeltsin, who quickly turned from his Tiananmen-days calls for cutting relations to bearhugging Chinese leaders in the name of a strategic partnership.
This partnership has since evolved into a quasi-alliance, underpinned by shared resentment of what both states perceive as U.S. sabotage of a "just and rational world order." But there is also another common denominator: the Chinese and the Russian ruling elites’ fear of the ghosts of Tiananmen. Twenty-five years later, the fear remains that a small Chinese protest could become another Tiananmen; that Red Square could become another Tiananmen; that no matter what road China or Russia take, it can only lead to the doom of authoritarian rule.
It is through this prism that China perceives the events in Kiev and Russia’s entanglements in Ukraine. Yes, Russia’s annexation of Crimea was hard to justify. Yes, China often proclaims its policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states. Yes, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support for ethnic separatism in Crimea and East Ukraine rubs salt into China’s own wounds in Xinjiang and Tibet.
It is now China’s turn to say: "So what?" They, like us, have to hold on.
Camaraderie in Sino-Russian relations was on full display in Shanghai in mid-May. Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to present a united front in the face of perceived foreign subversion and signed a key gas deal that demonstrated that China will stand by Russia in its hour of need. If Xi has given Putin a helping hand, it is because he sees danger in what is happening in Ukraine — though not in NATO expansion, or Kiev’s closer relations with the European Union. The real fear is that Ukraine, which has just experienced a Tiananmen of its own in Kiev’s Maidan, could destabilize Russia and ultimately China itself. Just as in the 1980s, a spark lit halfway around the world could start a fire closer to home. After all, the fundamental causes of resentment that fueled the protests of 1989 — social inequality, nepotism, and corruption — also caused the protests in Ukraine. And in both China and Russia these inequities are even more pronounced today than 25 years ago.
In 1989, it seemed as if Beijing and Moscow were choosing very different roads. But they have since returned to the starting point: the Russians beaten and bitter, the Chinese brash and self-assured. As in 1989, their fates seem irrevocably intertwined. Beijing and Moscow have closed ranks. Both pursue a confrontational foreign policy, stoke nationalist sentiments, and resort to domestic censorship to try to bury the memory of uprisings. But Tiananmen won’t die. And history is witness that it is precisely such hard-line policies that lead to those dead ends, where the only choice is between massacre and collapse.