Kristof: 15 Years Later, Tiananmen Square Remains ’Elephant’ in Chinese Politics

May 28, 2004 5:06 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Nicholas D. Kristof and his wife, Sheryl Wudunn, were Beijing-based correspondents for The New York Times when, on June 3-4, 1989, Chinese authorities brutally cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. The government line on the protestors remains that they were dangerous counterrevolutionaries. Looking back, Kristof says the deaths of what he estimates at between 400 and 800 people, many of them students, remain “the elephant in the room of Chinese politics” even as the country’s economy is booming. “If you’re the Chinese government, you can kill Chinese peasants and get away with it, but you can’t kill Chinese students and get away with it. At some point, that is going to have to be redressed. The moment there’s a greater relaxation of the political climate, there are going to be politicians and ordinary people who use [the killing of students] to demand that— to use Chinese parlance— the verdict on Tiananmen be reversed and that it be proclaimed, in a way, a patriotic student movement.”

He says it is difficult for the current regime to “liberalize, which in some ways it would like to, because then there would immediately be attempts to change the ruling on Tiananmen and that goes to the legitimacy of many of the present leaders.”

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Kristof, now a columnist for the Times, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on May 28, 2004.

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I was re-reading the book you co-wrote with your wife in 1994, “China Wakes,” and I was struck by two things. One, your reportage on the buildup to and the events of what the Chinese call the “incident at Tiananmen Square.” And two, your prescient views on China’s economy. Looking back now, what do you remember about Tiananmen Square?

The most powerful memory I have has to do with the idea that poor, uneducated societies aren’t ready for democracy. Obviously, there’s something to that, but that night at Tiananmen Square, the very bravest people I’ve ever seen in my life were these rickshaw drivers who came in from the countryside. When the troops began firing and we were all driven back, there would be a pause in the shooting, and it was those rickshaw drivers who would pedal their rickshaws out toward the troops, at incredible risk, and pick up the bodies of the kids who were killed and injured and drive them back with tears streaming down their faces to the hospital. It left a deep impression on me that, sure, those people could not have articulated what they meant by the democracy they wanted, but they were willing to risk their lives for it and took much greater risks than almost anybody else. It becomes a lot harder to be patronizing, after seeing that, about who is ready for democracy.

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In your book and in your reporting, you estimated that between 400 and 800 people died in Tiananmen Square. Have historians or anybody else come up with more exact figures since?

Not really. The initial estimates tended to be much, much higher. The State Department was throwing out numbers of at least 3,000 killed, and in general, the numbers that scholars, journalists, and diplomats were putting out tended to be in the low thousands. I’m pretty sure that was wrong for several reasons. One is that we know there was no massacre in the middle of Tiananmen Square, and a lot of those high estimates were based on the idea that there were many, many students killed in the middle of the square. Second, while there may have been some bodies burned that were not taken to morgues, we do have a vague knowledge of what the ratio was between the wounded and the dead. The wounded were, pretty much, taken to hospitals, and by talking to doctors around town, we know that there were a few thousand injured, but it wasn’t a vast number, like more than 10,000, who’d been shot. You would normally get a ratio of somewhere between five and ten injured for every person killed. So if there really had been several thousand killed, then there should have been up to tens of thousands injured, and that was just not the case.

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It occurs to me that many readers probably don’t know much about Tiananmen Square. Can you compare it to, say, Times Square or Trafalgar Square?

Tiananmen Square is a grand communist monument— I guess your readers may not know what a grand communist monument is either. It’s a huge square, multiple football fields in size, right in the center of Beijing outside the Gate of Heavenly Peace in the Forbidden City. And it’s also the political focal point of the country. There were demonstrations there for justice throughout Chinese history.

The great lesson of Chinese history is that regimes can kill peasants with impunity; they can kill workers and pretty much get away with it; but they should never dare to harm students because there’s a real reverence for education and students. And although there were only a few hundred students killed at Tiananmen, the political ramifications of that are much greater than, for example, the 30-odd million people who died in the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward [Mao Zedong’s failed economic modernization program of 1958-60].

The demonstrations began in April 1989. They were led by students, although other people joined in, and you had more than 1 million people on the streets of Beijing, completely paralyzing any kind of economic action. That led to a split within the leadership. The reformers, who wanted to respond to some of the protestors’ demands, were pushed out, and then hardliners ordered the troops in. I don’t think they expected as many deaths as occurred, but they were willing to put up with that risk.

Is there any question today that China’s de facto leader, Deng Xiaoping, personally ordered the shooting? You left the question open in the book.

This evidence we have now, and a lot of those historical holes have been filled, is that the senior leadership, including Deng Xiaoping, essentially ordered the military to take all actions necessary to restore order and recover Tiananmen Square. So they didn’t exactly order the army to kill kids, but they essentially authorized it, and it was pretty clear that’s what they were expected to do.

What is the legacy of the crackdown on contemporary Chinese politics?

It’s the elephant in the room of Chinese politics. If you’re the Chinese government, you can kill Chinese peasants and get away with it, but you can’t kill Chinese students and get away with it. At some point, that is going to have to be redressed. The moment there’s a greater relaxation of the political climate, there are going to be politicians and ordinary people who use [the killing of students] and demand that— to use Chinese parlance— the verdict on Tiananmen be reversed and that it be proclaimed, in a way, a patriotic student movement.

That’s one of the problems the regime faces: it’s very hard for it to liberalize, which in some ways it would like to, because then there would immediately be attempts to change the ruling on Tiananmen and that goes to the legitimacy of many of the present leaders. In fact, Hu Jintao, the current president, came into the Politburo and was effectively anointed a future leader precisely in the aftermath of Tiananmen. So it’s something they all know they need to deal with, but because it would undermine the legitimacy of the government, everyone is putting it off.

So despite China’s economic boom there is still political rigidity? How do you describe how economics and politics coexist?

I think one of the reasons people got China wrong was that they used the model of a communist state. They looked at what happened in Eastern Europe or Russia and foresaw a collapse. Instead, I think the model is more like quasi-fascist countries like Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore, in its earlier years, where you had a lot of political repression but something of an economic free market and tremendous economic dynamism that created a middle class and that, in turn, created more demand for political participation.

I think that China is very much along that path, and as Singapore and South Korea and these other countries have shown, you can have a lot of economic freedom without it leading immediately to political freedom. But at some point, in every case, economic pluralism and social pluralism have eventually led to political pluralism, at least to some degree. And I’m sure that’s going to happen in China as well. At some point, there’s going to be a monument in Tiananmen Square to the students who were killed on June 4.

Is that going to have to wait until the next generation?

I don’t know. It’s the kind of thing that could happen almost any time or could be delayed another decade or more. Some of the Chinese leaders have already been calling for reversal on Tiananmen, even some of the people within the Politburo, privately. Since everybody knows that it’s going to happen eventually, there’s some advantage for any given official to stake out that position, but not in a way that would possibly get him fired or purged.

People periodically ask, who is the Chinese [Mikhail S.] Gorbachev, [the Soviet president and reformer who presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union]? In a way, all of the leaders are Gorbachevs in that they want to reform the system and keep the Communist Party in power. The question is, who is the Chinese [Boris] Yeltsin, [Russian president, 1992-99], who’s willing to start all over? That’s not clear yet, but there are some people who might have a go at it.

Would it be fun to be a correspondent in China again?

I think China is the most important place in the world today. It is an amazing place to be a correspondent. You go into any little village and you talk to anybody over the age of 40 or 50 and get these amazing sagas. I’m always jealous of the reporters who get to live in China for a few years because they’re watching history unfurl in a way that isn’t true almost anywhere else in the world.

If you were giving advice to a young journalist, would learning Chinese be vital?

For a journalist who wanted to go to China, yes, you need Chinese. The other thing is that you need to get out of Beijing because while Beijing is the political center, it’s not the real China. In fact, China is now loosening up enough that people are becoming less scared, and if there are going to be more demonstrations or protests that, at some point, will be a challenge to the regime, I don’t think they’re going to start in Beijing. I think they will be labor protests or student protests or— possibly but less likely— peasant protests off in the countryside, maybe in northeast China or maybe in the center. You’re beginning to see the bubbling up of local protests, but it’s really around the country, not in Beijing.

Some experts are worried that China’s economy may soon overheat. Do you share that concern?

Yes. They’ve got a really delicate balancing act. They’re trying to push the economy fast enough that it creates jobs but without overheating and creating inflation, which is another potent political problem. And the other problem we have is that the banking sector is essentially insolvent. And all of these things aren’t just economic problems; they could unleash political protests around the country.

I tend to think that economically, the problems are manageable in and of themselves. Even if the Chinese were to have a hard landing and go down to negligible economic growth for a year or so, over any five- or ten-year time frame, they’d [still] be doing just great. But there is a real question about whether they could manage politically. After Tiananmen, the economy slowed down a lot, everybody was scared so people didn’t take to the streets. For the last 15 years since Tiananmen, there’s been this kind of détente between the people and the government, and they’ve each been equally afraid of the other.

But now it seems to me that the people are becoming a little less afraid of the government, and that’s one reason why protests are beginning to grow and one reason why they are going to continue to grow. And creating a lot more disaffected, unemployed workers and young people could be a prescription for real political unrest.

China is now so intertwined with the global economy, I suppose the United States would feel pain from any of China’s problems.

Yes, and it would ripple especially throughout Asia because China has really become the anchor of the global economy in the East. You know, we used to think the global economy was going to rest on three pillars: one pillar in the United States, one in Europe, and one in Japan. Actually, it’s turned out to be in China. It’s China that’s keeping Japan alive, keeping Korea alive, keeping Southeast Asia alive, and keeping the global commodity market alive. So if China were to have a hard landing or a banking crisis, which is a real possibility, that would initially create tremendous problems all over Asia and then ripple all across the globe and hit us as well.


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