Book Review — Tiananmen Square: The Making of a Protest – A Diplomat Looks Back by Vijay Gokhale

May 23, 2021 3:30 AM

A diplomat outlines the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China from an Indian perspective in a persuasive and precise manner

A file photo of paramilitary police officers standing guard at Tiananmen Gate, adjacent to Tiananmen Square, in Beijing APA file photo of paramilitary police officers standing guard at Tiananmen Gate, adjacent to Tiananmen Square, in Beijing AP

By C Uday Bhaskar

June 4, 1989, will remain a tumultuous day in the history of modern China when tanks, armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and military trucks packed with armed troops swept down Beijing’s Avenue of Eternal Peace to crack down on student protesters who had gathered there in thousands. The Chinese leadership was visibly rattled by the scale of the dissident movement and decided that it had to be suppressed. What the defiant students were seeking was symbolised in a statue they unveiled on May 30—the Goddess of Democracy. It was a still-born aspiration and very soon, this movement was crushed. Blood was shed on an avenue that stood for ‘eternal peace’ and many lives were lost. The official narrative is that the PRC (People’s Republic of China) was saved from a grave socio-political crisis—one that could have had tectonic consequences for the stability of the country that was to celebrate its 40th anniversary on October 1.

The Tiananmen ‘incident’, as it is now referred to, has been selectively documented and carefully recalled within China in deference to the ruling communist party’s sensitivities about democracy and dissent per se. However, given the enormous significance of Tiananmen, there have been narratives and interpretations of the ‘incident’ by external observers/authors and the book under review is a distinctive Indian contribution in this stream.

The author Vijay Gokhale is an illustrious diplomat having recently retired as the Indian foreign secretary. Prior to that, he was the Indian ambassador to Beijing and is counted among the most astute China experts in the country. The subtitle of the book is apt—A Diplomat Looks Back—and as Gokhale notes: “I have always wanted to tell this story since I witnessed it thirty-one years ago in Beijing, but my circumstances prevented me from doing so until now.”

In a pithy introduction, the author frames the historical relevance of Tiananmen: “At the time it was a global phenomenon. Within a few months, however, the Berlin Wall came down and the world’s attention reverted to Europe. The happenings in China in the spring and early summer of 1989 faded from public memory.”

Observing that the Tiananmen story has remained “untold” from the Indian perspective, Gokhale, who was serving in the Indian embassy in Beijing as a junior diplomat at the time, makes valuable addition to the existing literature by telling his version of Tiananmen. “My story is intended to interpret the facts, to some of which I was eyewitness, with the benefit of hindsight.”

In 10 compact chapters, Gokhale outlines the background to the events that led to the June 4 crackdown and tells his story in a persuasive and precise manner. Focusing on the principal player of the time, Deng Xiaoping, the general secretary of the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the early chapters offer a quick but comprehensive overview of the other players “in the drama that was to unfold”.

Tracing the rise of the astute Deng Xiaoping and the skillful manner in which he snuffed out opposition to his ambitious programme of liberalising a communist, commune-driven controlled economy, Gokhale deftly sets the stage for the turbulence that was to seize Beijing in May-June 1989.

In the chapter titled The Blaze, some of the most significant political developments of that period are recalled succinctly. The visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in mid-May was truly historic, for it marked the formal end to Sino-Soviet hostility that began in the second phase of the Cold War. India was also drawn into the superpower rivalry of that period and the incongruous realpolitik compulsion of the time saw the world’s leading capitalist country, the US, drawing communist China into its camp, even while a communist USSR partnered with the world’s largest democracy, India.

Reference is made to the May 16, 1989, Gorbachev-Deng meeting, where the Chinese leader signalled that the historical animosities going back to the days of Tsarist Russia were now a closed chapter. The Deng turn of phrase was evocative: “Let the wind blow away these questions” (when will such a wind blow away Sino-Indian discord?).

Having accomplished this major breakthrough with Moscow, Deng had to now deal with the students who took over Tiananmen Square. At peak, they were estimated to be 1.5 million and it was evident that the factional divide between Deng and his one-time protégé Zhao Ziyang had exacerbated the situation.

In the last fortnight of May, the Chinese leadership rallied around Deng and, on June 4, the die was cast. The military moved in to disperse the students and overpower them—if required. Gokhale carefully notes: “There is no accurate account of what happened in Tiananmen Square on the night of 3-4 June.” Without subscribing or emphatically rejecting the ‘massacre’ allegation, he adds of those fateful hours: “There are credible eyewitness accounts of people dying of gunshot wounds, but these casualties were mostly bystanders and people blocking the advance of the troops.”

Deng and the core of the CCP crushed the Tiananmen ‘incident’ and the country has been transformed. As Gokhale adds, China’s GDP, which was less than $500 billion in 1990, was $14 trillion in 2019. Over the years, its “people have become prosperous and proud” and the students and youth “have never again tried to protest”. And for those who believe that there is a simmering internal disquiet that can derail China in its objective to displace the US, the book concludes: “There is no sign yet that the majority of the people want to exchange their present for a democratic future.”

The eight-page epilogue is import-laden and the book would have benefitted if the author had elaborated on some significant assertions. For instance, reviewing the relationship between the US-led West and China, the section concludes: “It has taken the West thirty years after the Tiananmen Square incident to realise the errors of their ways.” Has the West really?

This quibble apart, Gokhale is to be commended for sharing his version of Tiananmen and the manner in which a nascent democracy movement was buried by the CCP on the avenue for Eternal Peace—eternally?

C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi

Tiananmen Square: The Making of a Protest—A Diplomat Looks Back
Vijay Gokhale
HarperCollins
Pp 181 (with index), Rs 399

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