The 4 June massacre signalled an end to 1980s press reform in China
The Communist Party’s crackdown on democracy demonstrators in Beijing 20 years ago brought hopes for political reform in China to an abrupt and violent end. For journalists, it also marked the painful crushing of their hopes for real progress on free speech.
The issue of freedom of speech in China is intimately linked with the 1989 student movement.
Events were of course precipitated by the death on 15 April of Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), the party’s former general secretary, a dedicated reformer and an outspoken proponent of freedom of speech.
Just days after Hu Yaobang’s death, hundreds of university students sat outside the doors of the official Xinhua News Agency to peacefully protest what they saw as unfair coverage of the legacy of this much-loved leader. On 21 May, Xinhua criticised the students’ actions in an offical news release called “Hundreds Create an Incident at the Doors of Xinhua” (数百人围聚新华门前制造事端). The coverage angered students, and again struck home the importance of press freedom.
Five days after that, on 26 April, a hardline editorial in the official People’s Daily, “We Must Take a Firm, Clear-cut Stand Against Chaos” (必须旗帜鲜明地反对动乱) set off large-scale demonstrations in Beijing.
The very same day, Shanghai’s World Economic Herald (世界经济导报), at the time China’s most outspoken newspaper, was shut down by the city’s party chief, the hard-line Jiang Zemin. Two days earlier Jiang had ordered the Herald’s editor, Qin Benli (钦本立), to expunge several paragraphs from a story about the student movement, and to remove a photograph of protesting students. Qin ignored these demands outright and instead gave the green light for a full print run.
The closure of the World Economic Herald intensified opposition among students and intellectuals to controls on the press. On 30 April, Premier Zhao Ziyang returned from his official visit to North Korea, and moved immediately to cool down the situation. He called for “calm, rationality, restraint and order” and said China should “resolve these issues through democratic and legal means”.
At this point, controls on the media relaxed, and there were even reports from a number of newspapers about the massive demonstrations that had gripped Beijing on 4 May.
On 6 May, Zhao Ziyang discussed the question of “freedom of speech” with Hu Qili (胡启立), the politburo member in charge of propaganda, and Rui Xingwen (芮杏文), head of the Secretariat of the Central Committee.
Conflagration of History(香港天地图书公司), a recently published book by Zhang Wanshu (张万舒), former head of the national desk at Xinhua News Agency, now gives us a rather nuanced picture of the situation inside China’s press in the weeks surrounding 4 June. It also gives us the clearest picture we have had in the last two decades of what exactly Zhao Ziyang said during his 6 May “discussion” with Hu and Rui.
The moment is recorded in of Zhang Wanshu’s book:
Zhao Ziyang said to Hu Qili and Rui Xingwen:
“Now, concerning news work. Freedom of speech has recently become a focal point, and this issue needs to be resolved by means of a press law. This law cannot be made simply according to old concepts [of press control, etc.]. In making this law, we must ensure our constitution is carried out. That is to say, the first priority must be to guarantee freedom of speech, and checking the abuse of freedom of speech must be a secondary priority. Naturally, the degree to which freedom of speech is relaxed must be a product of compromise. Absolute freedom of speech is impossible, and must be avoided, but nor can we continue to act according to traditional concepts. This must be a conversation between various differing viewpoints. And we can only take the path of rule of law in resolving the question of freedom of speech. On the question of a press law, the central party must take a step back and allow legislative bodies to discuss it and lay down the framework. This is not something we can dictate.
“Recently, news reports have already in fact made some major breakthroughs, and we can draw some lessons from this. We cannot say all reports have been accurate, nor can we say they have all lately been wrong. For some time a while back, news reports [on the student demonstrations] were more restricted. For a time after that restrictions were loosened somewhat, and reports came out. It seems there would be no great risk if the news were loosened up just a bit.
“This is the direction in which the news media have been heading over the last few years. The degree of openness is already expanding. We must look back and draw some lessons, set some parameters, and test the waters for a bit . . . Summing up, given popular inclinations at home and the current of progress internationally, we can only accommodate our circumstances. We cannot go against the will of the people.”
Talking about the need to promote reforms, Zhao Ziyang reportedly said:
“Our process of democratisation must of course be socialist in nature, suited to China’s national circumstances, and not overly radical.
“The process of socialist democratisation includes openness and transparency. Because there has been insufficient transparency in politics, there is a lack of understanding and trust between the party, the government and the people. Many of the problems we have now spring from an extreme lack of transparency.”
Zhao Ziyang’s Press Policy
After the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949 it instituted a news policy of “uniformity of public opinion” (舆论一律). Journalists who had trumpeted the cause of free speech in opposing the despotism of the Kuomintang Party now became entangled with a new brand of despotism. They were attacked first during the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957, and suffered unspeakable abuse again less than a decade later during the Cultural Revolution.
At the end of the Cultural Revolution, the news media in China began a transformation away from the deceptive propaganda of the Maoist era. In the early 1980s the central party media began voicing opposition to systemic problems such as political privilege and crippling bureaucracy. During his brief tenure as General Secretary, Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) employed a policy of “tolerance, lenience and easing restrictions” toward the media. But leftist party officials still had strong sway, and their obstinate insistence that media toe the party’s ideological line brought journalists into ever more rancorous conflict with propaganda officials. More outstanding signs of this ongoing conflict in the early 1980s came with the forced resignation of the People’s Daily’s reformist editor-in-chief Hu Jiwei (胡绩伟), and the removal from the party of corruption-busting journalist Liu Binyan (刘宾雁).
Political reform was formally put on the agenda in China after 1986. In a discussion of political reform directly led by Premier Zhao Ziyang, press reform became a focal issue. In his book, Zhao Ziyang and Political Reform, political scientist Wu Guoguang (吴国光), a former member of Zhao Ziyang’s inner circle and a key drafter of the premier’s political reform agenda, has documented many of the topics covered in this internal discussion:
“Freedom of speech and expression are critical: Zhao Ziyang raises the issue of people’s democracy” (November 8, 1986), “Can we have privately-run newspapers?: Yan Jiaqi hosts a forum on press freedom” (April 8, 1987), “Carrying out press reform: Bao Tong (鲍彤) calls together party newspaper editors for a forum” (December 1987) . . . “Watchdog journalism is integral to democracy: Bao Tong further discusses press reform” (May 1988) . . . “
At the 13th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 1987, Zhao Ziyang spoke of “raising the level of openness about the activities of leading [government] organs, letting the people know about significant circumstance and discuss significant questions”.
“We must increase reporting of party and political affairs through various contemporary news and propaganda means, leveraging the strengths of watchdog journalism, and we must encourage the masses to criticize errors and weaknesses in governance,” Zhao Ziyang said.
It is now clear that Zhao Ziyang’s “talk” with Hu Qili and Rui Xingwen on 6 May 1989 was a crystallisation of these press policies.
As the message of Zhao’s “talk” was relayed through China’s press system, Beijing media showed unprecedented courage in their news coverage, and this continued up to the point that martial law was declared.
Jiang Zemin Takes Zhao to Task for His Press Policies
To date, Zhao Ziyang’s “talk” remains the most open pronouncement on the media to emerge from within the Chinese Communist Party. It approaches the question of “freedom of speech” as an actualisation of the noble language of China’s constitution, which in Article 35 states: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” Zhao spoke of the need for a press law to preserve freedom of speech. He said the party needed to “step back” on this critical issue and and “allow legislative bodies to discuss it and lay down the framework”.
Zhao Ziyang set practical and qualified objectives for press reform, beginning with an expansion of openness. The “openness” and “transparency” of which he spoke had an affinity with the “glasnost“, then gripping the Soviet Union under Gorbachev.
In May 1989, Zhao’s openness brought breakthroughs in domestic coverage that could most readily be seen in reports on student marches and hunger strikes.
Zhao Ziyang’s ideas about press reform were moderate and gradual, and he spoke also about checking the abuse of free speech. His efforts to advance openness and transparency won ardent praise from media during those few weeks.
Early May 1989 was, according to Zhang Wanshu, a “major turning point”. Beijing university students returned to their classes. And for the media too this was a historic moment. On 9 May, more than 1,000 journalists signed a petition asking for a dialogue with central party leaders. Just two days later, on 11 May, politburo member Hu Qili –– who had been party to Zhao’s “talk” on press policy –– paid a visit to China Youth Daily, a newspaper published by the Communist Youth League of China, and spoke with reporters and editors there.
“Press reform must be an integral part of political reform,” Hu Qili told his hopeful audience of journalists, “and we have come to a point where reform is absolutely essential.”
The turning of the tide, however, came just two days later as hunger strikes commenced on Tiananmen Square. The stage was already being set for a brutal outcome to this historic movement. And the gunshots that came on 4 June punctuated the end not just to 1980s-era reforms, but also to the press reforms that were so integral to them.
The trauma of 4 June also deeply imprinted the press control policies that came in the event’s aftermath, and which have dominated ever since.
In November 1989, Jiang Zemin (江泽民), China’s new hard-line leader, spelled out his break with the more open press policies of Zhao Ziyang in an official pronouncement called “On a Few Questions in Press Work” (关于党的新闻工作的几个问题).
In one section of that address, Jiang Zemin spoke of “freedom of speech” in rigidly ideological terms, as a kind of Trojan horse used by “hostile forces” in the West to upset China’s socialist system. “Hostile forces overseas and stubborn exponents of bourgeois liberalisation at home see ‘freedom of speech’ as a means of achieving [China’s] peaceful evolution [from socialism to capitalism],” Jiang said.
Revisiting Zhao Ziyang’s 6 May “talk” with Hu Qili and Rui Xingwen, Jiang Zemin railed against Zhao’s “errorsng its operation sealed off from investigation.”
Transparency is now all the cry — and should apply, with appropriate safeguards, where possible to the justice system as much as to the political one. As Professor Slapper put it: “We no longer accept that important parts of government should be operated on blind trust and in dark secrecy. We have a Freedom of Information Act and we expect openness in all parts of the justice system unless there is some compelling reason — like national defence secrets — to stop something being open to all.”
The jury remains an important feature of our democracy. With something that important, he said, we need to know how it works. Section 8 is an anachronistic law — and urgently needs reform.
Frances Gibb is legal editor of The Times
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