On June 4, China will mark the 25th anniversary of the violent suppression of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square — an event that shocked TV audiences around the world, made global pariahs of the country’s top leaders and set a precedent for decades of iron-fisted reactions to political dissent.
Even before the brutal crackdown, images of the protesters had already been broadcast around the world. Part of the reason why such images spread so far and so quickly was thanks to the large contingent of journalists already on hand to cover the high-profile arrival of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who was visiting the Chinese capital for a historic summit to normalize relations between China and the then-communist superpower. The timing of Mr. Gorbachev’s visit presented the government with difficult questions, including whether to proceed with the meeting at all, given the hundreds of thousands of students already massing at Tiananmen Square.
Many students protesting in Beijing said they had been inspired by the introduction of political change in the Soviet Union. Below is how The Wall Street Journal reported Mr. Gorbachev’s arrival:
Gorbachev Arrives In China as Protests Continue in Beijing
Adi Ignatius and Peter Gumbel
Staff Reporters of The Wall Street Journal
15 May 1989
BEIJING – Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev stepped into the thick of a Chinese domestic political crisis as he arrived here for a historic reconciliation summit.
Chinese officials arranged for a welcoming ceremony today at the city’s airport, canceling a scheduled stop at Tiananmen Square, the symbolic center of communist China. About 1,000 students were staging a hunger strike there to press for the kinds of reforms Mr. Gorbachev is implementing in the Soviet Union. As if preparing for the Soviet leader, two students held a banner yesterday that read, in Russian and Chinese, “Democracy is our common dream.”
During his four-day visit, the first official summit between the two communist superpowers in 30 years, Mr. Gorbachev and Chinese leaders are expected to normalize both state and Communist Party relations. They also will address a range of bilateral and international issues, including demarcation of their border, expanded trade opportunities and a resolution to the conflict in Cambodia.
But barring any surprise initiative by Mr. Gorbachev, the visit is likely to be largely symbolic, underscoring a warming in ties that has accelerated in the past few years. Even as Mr. Gorbachev arrives, the first Soviet troops are being pulled out of Mongolia, on China’s northern border, one of several military and political concessions the Soviet leader made to enable the summit to take place.
The long-awaited visit represents to both sides one of the major diplomatic events of recent years. But Mr. Gorbachev and his Chinese counterpart, Deng Xiaoping — who are scheduled to hold talks together tomorrow — could find themselves forced to share the limelight with the students, whose spontaneous and highly disciplined protests have taken the Chinese government by surprise and now threaten to create a diplomatic embarrassment.
The timing of Mr. Gorbachev’s visit puts the Chinese government in a bind. Had the ceremony been held at Tiananmen Square, the hunger-striking students and thousands of onlookers were likely to greet Mr. Gorbachev as a savior — implicitly criticizing China’s lack of political reform.
On the other hand, Beijing would risk international condemnation and spoil the tenor of the summit meeting if it were to crack down on the students’ peaceful protests. There had been speculation that Chinese officials would be forced to reroute the Soviet leader’s tour to avoid any contact with the students.
Students say the latest protest isn’t related directly to Mr. Gorbachev’s visit. But many say they are inspired by recent political changes in the Soviet Union, such as contested elections and a press that is increasingly critical of official policies. “I think Gorbachev is a good leader. He has a high reputation among us,” said Yu Fangxin, a student from the Beijing Institute of Technology who was wearing the white headband of the hunger strikers.
Regardless of their effect on Mr. Gorbachev’s visit, the month-long student protests already have dented the reputation of the 84-year-old Mr. Deng, who has pioneered economic reform but kept a tight grip on the political system. Mr. Deng urged a tough response against the student movement when it began, only to be ignored by his subordinates. The summit meeting with Mr. Gorbachev, which is generally viewed as one of Mr. Deng’s greatest achievements, is likely to be the Chinese leader’s political swan song.
Mr. Deng is expected soon to give up his leadership of the military, as well as his de facto role as the country’s paramount leader. The military post is likely to be taken by Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang.
It was Mr. Deng who insisted several years ago that Sino-Soviet ties couldn’t be normalized until Moscow resolved the so-called three obstacles: Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, Moscow’s military buildup along the Sino-Soviet border and the occupation of Cambodia by Soviet-backed Vietnamese troops.
Of the three, only Cambodia remains a serious problem. The two sides have narrowed their differences, helped by Vietnam’s decision — under Soviet pressure — to withdraw its forces this year. But there are continuing disagreements over the shape of the future Phnom Penh government and the role of the Khmer Rouge.
Beijing still backs the Khmer Rouge, under whose rule in the mid-1970s two million Cambodians starved to death or were killed. However, Vietnam insists on excluding the Khmer Rouge.
During his visit, Mr. Gorbachev plans to meet with Mr. Zhao, Premier Li Peng and President Yang Shangkun. He also will take a one-day trip to Shanghai, where he will tour factories and an industrial zone. The Soviets are keen to learn from China’s experience in developing such zones to attract foreign investment.