On a spring evening in 1989, with the student occupation of Tiananmen Square entering its second month and the Chinese leadership unnerved and divided, top army commanders were summoned to headquarters to pledge their support for the use of military force to quash the protests.
In a stunning rebuke to his superiors, Major General Xu Qinxian, leader of the mighty 38th Group Army, said the protests were a political problem, and should be settled through negotiations, not force, according to new accounts of his actions from researchers who interviewed him. “I’d rather be beheaded than be a criminal in the eyes of history,” he told Yang Jisheng, a historian.
Although General Xu was soon arrested, his defiance sent shudders through the party establishment, fuelling speculation of a military revolt and heightening the leadership’s belief that the student-led protests were nothing less than an existential threat to the Communist Party.
The new details of the general’s defiance and the tremors it set off are among a series of disclosures about the intrigue inside the Chinese military preceding the bloody crackdown in Beijing on June 3 and 4, 1989, some contained in army documents spirited out of China in recent years, and others revealed in interviews with party insiders, former soldiers and other people directly involved.
The documents show that General Xu’s stand against the threatened use of lethal force fanned leaders’ fears that the military could be dragged into the political schisms and prompted party elders to mobilise an enormous number of troops.
Even after a quarter century, the night of bloodshed remains one of the most delicate subjects in Chinese politics, subjected to unrelenting attempts by the authorities to essentially erase it from history.