The Tiananmen Square massacre is a historical demonstration of how far the Chinese Communist Party is willing to go when its reign is under threat.

Yet, before the bloodshed, a top Chinese official refused to quell the pro-democracy protests with violence. Unlike the authoritarian Communist government the world is used to, he listened to their grievances and was ready to take action with respect to the people.

He was the party’s then-general secretary Zhao Ziyang . He assumed the leadership role in 1987, promoted by Deng Xiaoping , who was looking for someone to reform the economy and open up the country from the disastrous Maoist era. Sure enough, he was the man that kickstarted China’s three-decade economic miracle.

But the economic revival was not going hand in hand with governmental changes. Frustrations with corruption, nepotism, and sycophancy continued to simmer. The death of former Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989, a symbol of political reform and democratic transition, sparked the beginning of the student-led protests in China. They called for democracy, free speech, and a free press.

As the New York Times reported, Zhao wanted to end the public unrest, but he wished to finish it peacefully via negotiation and conciliation. Showing sympathy towards the demonstrators, he edged Deng’s martial law. 

When thousands of students began a hunger strike, Zhao was among the government leaders who personally paid them a visit. On May 19, 1989, with a megaphone and surrounded by demonstrators, he said:

Bringing some of those present into tears with his respectful speech, that was Zhao’s last public appearance. His refusal to enter a bloodbath with the Chinese citizens caused him to be ousted as the general secretary by Deng and his hardliners.

Zhang was placed under house arrest the following day after his speech, and the Chinese Communist Party installed Jiang Zemin, who was ready to carry out Deng’s order. Around 100,000 Chinese troops were deployed in Beijing.

According to CNN, the Chinese military was not ready to kill their own people either. Many blended in with the protesters and offered them food, drinks, and even newspapers.

And as the news agency reminded, the army gradually proceeded with the government’s order after repeated pressure. Then came the June 4 massacre in 1989. An estimated 7,000 people died, and 20,000 others were left with injuries.

As for the outcast Zhao Ziyang, his name became a political taboo alongside the carnage. He lived under virtual house arrest for the remainder of his life until he passed away in 2005 at 85.

The Chinese Communist Party issued a succinct notice of the “comrade” through state-media China News Agency, omitting to address Zhao as China’s former top political leader. According to the New York Times, in an official obituary, Zhao was described as making “severe mistakes” in 1989.

Tiananmen Mothers, a group of the victims’ relatives, stated, “It was a blessing to have a leader who could lead the public peacefully toward freedom, democracy, wealth and strength.”

That was not the last disgrace towards Zhao. His family had to wait until 2019 so that they could finally lay him to rest on the outskirts of Beijing. That came after back-and-forth negotiations with the Chinese government, and the low-key ceremony was held under tightened security.

The Times remarked at the time, “Usually, deceased Chinese leaders’ major anniversaries inspire laudatory speeches and editorials. But Mr. Zhao was consigned to the class of toppled former leaders whose anniversaries are smothered in official silence and stepped-up security.”
Julian B. Gewirtz, a historian of China at Harvard University, stated, “Zhao is a ghost that haunts the Chinese Communist Party… To some he is a martyr who sought to stop the violent crackdown of 1989, and to others — in the official line — he’s an enemy who sought to bring down socialism in China.”

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