1989 Jun: the Chinese regime in crisis
Charles Powell's note of phone call with President Bush, 5 June 1989
The documents on Tiananmen Square come at the end of a file on China's internal situation, which opens as far back as May 1979 and is revealingly empty for much of the period of the Thatcher premiership. By contrast with the previous era, that of the Cultural Revolution and the leadership crises which followed the death of Mao, Deng Xiaoping seemed to have brought a measure of stability to China - some achievement given the degree of reform that was taking place, though one secured at the price of repression. That such stability might not last was obvious enough, indeed it was almost axiomatic that reform would release tensions threatening the regime it was designed to save. Similar calculations prevailed in our thinking about the USSR.
Britain's continuing role as the colonial power in Hong Kong gave us a special interest in Chinese politics. MT had signed the Joint Declaration in 1984, setting out with Beijing an agreed mechanism by which the city would revert to China in 1997. Precise terms were a matter of ongoing discussion as the two sides negotiated the Basic Law. But one might argue, at least on the evidence of the file now released, that we were not looking as closely at the state of Chinese politics as we might have been. As late as November 1988 even Sir Percy Cradock - MT's exceptionally well-informed security adviser, a former UK Ambassador to China and chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee - doubted rumours that the reformist faction led by Zhao Ziyang was under threat. There is no sign in the file that MT was told of the sudden shift of Chinese policy on 26 April 1989 when the People's Daily published an editorial sharply critical of student democracy protesters occupying Tiananmen Square, previously treated with some forbearance by the state authorities. We know now from the smuggled-out memoirs of Zhao Ziyang that the article was a pivotal moment, after which he struggled to get access to Deng. Even the declaration of martial law on 19 May is referred to here only in passing on 20 May. Perhaps the file is incomplete because intelligence material provided MT briefing on these points. We lack all British intelligence material on China in this period, by contrast with the US where fragments have been released by the CIA, the State Department and the Pentagon (many of which can be viewed on this site).
The penny ought to have begun to drop after the declaration of martial law on 19 May, with a thud if not a clang, but after 20 May the file is silent till after the crackdown began, a good sign that absent intelligence material provides a missing link. We were surely watching closely in these days.
From the immediate aftermath of the crackdown on 3/4 June we have some valuable material, notably a minute on 5 June from Charles Powell warning MT how fast things were moving. Reports were being received of clashes between units of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), and to the effect that Deng had died - pointing to an existential crisis of the regime. There were several days of confusion during which Western diplomats kept their heads down in the diplomatic compound and the British government, and possibly the US also, was embarrassingly dependent on what it read in the press and saw/heard from the broadcasters. MT openly admitted as much to President Bush when they spoke on 5 June. The full record of their call is published here for the first time: the previously available US version redacts her contributions, making for a curiously one-sided edition of history.
The Bush-Thatcher call is an interesting and important document. We know from the archives of the Bush Presidential Library that MT was one of very few leaders the president spoke with about the crisis. Bush had a particularly close connection to China, having served as US envoy in the 1970s (the equivalent of US Ambassador in the days prior to the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the US and China in 1979). He had cultivated personal relations with the Communist elite, renewed as recently as February 1989 when he had stopped in China en route home from Emperor Hirohito's funeral in Japan. The President trusted his own judgment on the topic to a degree that led him to exclude most of the White House staff from his thinking, drafting a crucial letter to Deng Xiaoping in person and refusing to allow a copy onto official files. The joke in the State Department was that the President functioned as his own desk officer where China was concerned.
Bush's response to Tiananmen was to assume that the regime was staying put, a view reached even before the dust settled. This proved a shrewd judgment. Talk of PLA in-fighting and high level assassinations turned out to be just that, rumour and nothing more, swiftly dismissed. A revealing telegram home from our Ambassador to the US on 7 June makes clear that the CIA saw no alternative military leadership emerging, no evidence that the PLA was fighting itself, no sign that Deng was ill or Li Peng wounded. Accordingly from the first US policy was to minimise the damage to bilateral relations, to introduce the minimum necessary measures to respond to Western outrage while secretly reassuring the Chinese government that business could still be done. Bush seems to have called MT on 5 June as much as anything else to reassure himself that she wasn't about to announce measures significantly more negative to the Chinese regime than the US Government itself, which would have complicated the problem he already faced persuading Congress and the US public that he was being tough enough. In the event we were slightly ahead of the US from 6-20 June when a second round of US sanctions was announced blocking high-level contacts with the Chinese - sanctions immediately broken by the US itself when National Secretary Adviser Brent Scowcroft was sent with Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger on a highly secret mission to Beijing to speak directly with Deng and other leaders. MT seems to have had no inkling of the Scowcroft-Eagleburger mission - certainly nothing of the kind is hinted at in the 5 June conversation - though we too had a backdoor connection to the Chinese, in the slightly improbable form of a secret mission to meet Chinese leaders by Sir Hal Miller, a backbench Midlands MP with Hong Kong connections. Initially opposed by the Foreign Office and ministers, the government seems to have warmed to the idea on assurance that the Chinese would not publicise the event.
One other document deserves particular mention: a diplomatic telegram from the British High Commissioner in Singapore on 18 July giving Lee Kuan Yew's views of Tiananmen. MT will have studied this document closely: there were few leaders she admired more or whose opinions on China commanded closer attention from her. For Lee Kuan Yew the crackdown was simply "a disaster for China". The mystery for him was why Zhao Ziyang had miscalculated so badly by siding with the students? He was "no street fighter" and owed his position to the support of Deng Xiaoping, yet he had taken a line that inescapably put him on collision course with his patron. There was no surprise at the crackdown, though pessimism that the collective leadership could ever function as it once had or that reform would survive. He was pretty much saying that China had blown its best chance at modernisation, and at that point MT might well have agreed. Who knew how long it would be before reformers would get another chance?
After the bloodiness of the initial crackdown on 3/4 June, which a US intelligence report later attributed to the absence of properly trained Chinese riot police, a long period of mopping up followed as the regime rounded up critics. The Bush Administration did not flinch in its policy. For all the public condemnation, Scowcroft and Eagleburger took with them to Beijing a document containing the following formula: "How the GPRC [Government of the People's Republic of China] decides to deal with those of its citizens involved in recent events in China is, of course, an internal matter. How the USG and the American people view that activity is, equally, an internal affair. Both will be governed by the traditions, culture, and values peculiar to each". Such a declaration of relativism was very far from Thatcherite. Although MT did not tear up British policy towards China or Hong Kong in the aftermath of Tiananmen, she marked well what had happened and never brought herself to accept it. Her position did alter, in a kind of slowburn, so that by the time her successor made Chris Patten the last Governor of the Colony in 1992 she was ready to risk a breach with the Chinese on the question of democratisation of Hong Kong institutions prior to the handover, bringing her into painful public conflict with Percy Cradock, by then retired and a fellow member of the House of Lords.
And she made a point of taking things personally, as was her way. Ever after whenever she got the chance she taxed Chinese officials by asking politely after Zhao Ziyang, the party general secretary purged after Tiananmen. He was the man to whom she had warmed the most among the Chinese leaders she had dealt with as PM, the reformist once thought likely to succeed Deng Xiaoping, perhaps the closest to a Gorbachev figure in that regime. At least he was spared a trial. He died, still under house arrest, in 2005, but took care to ensure that his side of the story survived, in the form of taped recollections hidden in plain sight among his grandchildren's toys.