Beijing Spring, 1989: Confrontation and Conflict: the Basic Documents

By Michel Oksenberg; Lawrence R. Sullivan et al. | Go to book overview

Introduction: Reluctant Duelists
The Logic of the 1989 Protests and Massacre

MELANIE MANION

Moral outrage at the massacre of protesters and bystanders in Beijing is a natural response to a grossly inhumane act. We reacted all the more acutely because the act took us by surprise: it flatly contradicted the estimates of most China experts and the apparent public defeat of force as a regime option in the first two weeks of martial law. While it may have been naïto expect a victory for the protesters, even political sophisticates were shocked by the violence of June 4, 1989.

The massacre was a disaster--for the protesters and their supporters most obviously, but also for the Chinese Communist regime and its program of economic reform. What, then, explains this tragic outcome? This introduction reconstructs events of April, May, and June from the inferred perspectives of organized protesters in Beijing and those we now know as regime hardliners. My purpose is to make sense of the narrow rationale of particular acts and to discover how they fit together to produce the massacre of 4 June. Essentially, I conclude that the logic of the 1989 protests and massacre is one of players pressed into a duel. Events unfolded as they did mainly because protesters and hardliners operated on the basis of mistaken and irreconcilable assumptions and estimates about the practical implications of mass political participation. And while the massacre was by no means inevitable from the start, the exchange between protesters and hardliners caused both sets of players to update information in a way that escalated events, to a point at which retreat in the form of compromise was virtually impossible.


Assumptions and Initial Estimates

On April 26 an editorial in the Renmin ribao, the Communist Party newspaper, labeled the recent student protests in Beijing "a planned conspiracy and a distur

____________________
I wish to thank the following people for their helpful comments on an earlier draft: Nina Halpern, Abigail Jahiel, Kenneth Lieberthal, John Mueller, Michel Oksenberg. Charles Phelps, and David Weimer.

-xiii-

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