Xi Jinping’s Tiananmen Family Lessons

The Chinese leader learned one key thing from his father: The party comes first.

Beijing magistrates wearing court uniforms join workers demonstrating in support of student hunger-strikers gathered at Tiananmen Square, in Beijing on May 18, 1989.
Beijing magistrates wearing court uniforms join workers demonstrating in support of student hunger-strikers gathered at Tiananmen Square, in Beijing on May 18, 1989. Catherine Henriette/AFP via Getty Images

Shortly after the death of former Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang in April 1989, Xi Zhongxun, the father of current Chinese President Xi Jinping, wrote a letter to key members of the party leadership warning that if the funeral arrangements were not managed well, chaos would occur. Hu had been a powerful reformer before he was forced to resign two years earlier, and Xi was worried—rightly—that his death might become a flash point for protests.

When Hu Qili, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, started sobbing, Xi told him there was no time for that. Xi was extremely agitated during the crisis that soon unfolded and, ultimately, ended with a bloody and violent crackdown on June 4, 1989. At a National People’s Congress meeting in 1990, Xi broke down and exploded at Li Peng, the premier who was widely loathed for his role in the violence. Shortly after the altercation, Xi moved to Guangdong and did not return to Beijing until 1999.

For such an emotional moment in Chinese history and for the Xi family, Xi Jinping has been remarkably quiet about June 4. Since coming to power, he has not spoken openly about the event. However, in the few times that Xi has spoken of June 4 directly or indirectly, as well as through his actions, we can see what lessons he learned and what that might tell us about his behavior in the future.

First, Xi sees the student protests as dangerous chaos, similar to the destruction of the Cultural Revolution. The Xi family suffered terribly during Mao Zedong’s campaign and the resulting political turmoil that seized the nation. Xi Zhongxun was kidnapped by Red Guards and forcibly brought to Xi’an, where he was subjected to struggle sessions, and later incarcerated in the capital. Xi Jinping was berated for his father’s supposed failings as a class enemy. In 1969, he left for Shaanxi province as a “sent-down youth” to spend years in a remote village, partially in order to escape the situation in Beijing. One half-sister, Xi Heping, waspersecuted to death. Xi was separated from his father for so long that Xi Zhongxun did not even recognize his son when they were finally reunited. Xi Jinping was in Beijing for the Tiananmen Square protests in April 1976 that followed Zhou Enlai’s death; he refused to attend, however, and warned others away from going. In May 1989, as a local official in Fujian, Xi spoke of the Cultural Revolution as in accord with superstition and stupidity, resulting in major chaos, and asked: “Can these days be repeated? Without stability and unity, nothing is possible!”

Xi very clearly equates political power with control over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the ability to inflict violence. During the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, the PLA took control of wide swaths of the country to restore order, including bloody battles with Red Guards and other groups. Famously, Xi has blamed the collapse of the Soviet Union on the party’s loss of control over the Soviet Army. Chinese intellectuals have interpreted these comments as code for what Beijing did right in June 1989. That assessment is supported by Xi’s closed speech to the Beijing Military Region in July 2013, in which he explicitly said China survived the “political turbulence” because “the military stubbornly obeyed the commands of the party and the enemy did not steal away a single soldier.” Xi then proceeded to quote at length Deng Xiaoping’s comments on June 9, 1989, in which he praised the PLA for having “passed the test.”

Xi and Deng both drew similar conclusions on the importance of education and propaganda for younger generations. In November 2013, after listening to a work report by the National University of Defense Technology, Xi referred to Deng’s 1989 comments that “our biggest mistake was in education.” Deng was of course blaming the protests on the party’s inability to convince the students to believe in the ideological and historic mission of the party. Xi’s preoccupation with ideals and motivation suggests he has taken Deng’s words to heart deeply, as shown by the emphasis on ideological correctness in universities and schools.

On first glance, this might suggest that Xi, by affirming the crackdown and drawing such lessons from the tragedy, has rejected his father’s legacy. In one sense, that is true—Xi Zhongxun’s career demonstrated that he believed political disturbances, although inherently undesirable, often could be resolved through discussions and persuasion. However, there is no need to overemphasize generational differences—the Communist Party is still the Communist Party. As Cui Jian, the rock star whose song “Nothing to My Name” inspired the student protesters in 1989, put it, “As long as Mao’s picture hangs in Tiananmen Square, we are all the same generation.”

Whatever Xi Zhongxun might have actually thought about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, we have no evidence that he took any steps to oppose the crackdown or protect the students. Strikingly, after the violent conclusion, he repeatedly and aggressively expressed support for the decision. For example, on July 4, 1989, Xi said, “The storm during the past two months was an anti-party and anti-socialist political upheaval and a counterrevolutionary rebellion created by an extremely small number of people taking advantage of the unrest.” Like Deng, he affirmed that the PLA “passed the test.” Both Xi Zhongxun and Xi Jinping have repeatedly demonstrated the conviction that party discipline must triumph over any personal doubts.

Xi Zhongxun’s entire political career as a revolutionary and politician was marked by constant setback and hardship, often caused by power struggles within the Communist Party itself, but he never lost faith in the party’s mission. In 1935, he was arrested by his compatriots and released only after Mao’s arrival in Shaanxi, where Xi had helped create a base camp. Xi was purged in 1962, many years before most of the rest of the leadership when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. Xi’s first job after the Cultural Revolution was as party boss in Guangdong, where he saw migrants flee communism en masse for capitalist Hong Kong. His friend and direct superior, Hu Yaobang, was unceremoniously removed and humiliated in 1987. Yet Xi’s belief in communism and the party never wavered, a characteristic for which his son has often expressed admiration.

The meaning of June 4 this year is particularly strong. Hong Kong has banned the annual vigil held every year for the past three decades, blaming the coronavirus. The new national security law imposed by Beijing means it may never occur again, at least safely and legally. As protests in Hong Kong and the United States persist, people are struggling to draw lessons on what they will ultimately mean. But for the most powerful man in China, Tiananmen already determined his views on such events. They are dangerous, chaotic threats that must be prevented with propaganda and solved with violence. Doubters must toe the party line and recognize that only the party and communism can save China.

Joseph Torigian is an assistant professor at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC, a Stanton Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center

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