'I Do Not Want Red Square to Look Like Tiananmen Square'

The secret history of Mikhail Gorbachev's ill-timed trip to Beijing -- and why Russia still fears the contagion of Tiananmen.

A specter still haunts autocrats in China and Russia: the specter of Tiananmen. Twenty-five years after the bloody crackdown on demonstrators in Beijing, and in spite of the Chinese government's efforts to blot out memories of what happened, Tiananmen lives on as a symbol of selfless protest against government corruption and autocratic misrule. The world has learned a lot about Tiananmen since 1989, and the tragedy is relived each year through the writings of its victims and the deafening silence of the Party authorities.

The international angle, however, is persistently overlooked. The 1989 student protests in Beijing didn't happen in a vacuum; in fact, they coincided with an epoch-changing shift in international politics. After decades of confrontation, Beijing and Moscow had mended fences, embarking on a road that by the mid-1990s would take them towards "strategic partnership." The high point of this rapprochement was then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to Beijing in May 1989, just days before the June 4 massacre in Tiananmen Square.

On June 4, 2014, the Wilson Center's Digital Archive released a new set of documents that show how the crisis looked from the vantage point of a fellow reforming state, the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev arrived in a city gripped by political unrest. In April, university students in Beijing and across the country had taken to the streets to protest growing social inequality, nepotism, and corruption. Tiananmen Square was aflutter with banners calling for freedom and democracy, some even contrasting Soviet political reforms with the Chinese Communist Party's unwillingness to countenance democratic change.

Gorbachev's visit offered the young, idealistic protesters in Tiananmen an opportunity to take their case over the head of the Chinese authorities directly to the man who, in their minds, personified a new era of reforms and openness. Students even submitted a petition to the Soviet Embassy asking for a meeting with their hero. (Despite prodding from radicals in his circle, Gorbachev declined the invitation.)

The Soviet delegation was stunned by the scale of the protests. "This is a revolution," concluded Gorbachev's confidant Yevgeny Primakov, who had been a prominent advocate of rapprochement with Beijing. "Could it not be," wondered Teimuraz Stepanov-Mamaladze, an official at the Soviet Foreign Ministry, "that we normalized relations with political dead men?"

Gorbachev himself was worried and relieved in equal measure -- worried because he had found himself in the epicenter of a national upheaval, and relieved because at least it was not his nation. "Some of those present here," he told members of his delegation on May 15, "have promoted the idea of taking the Chinese road. We saw today where this road leads. I do not want Red Square to look like Tiananmen Square."

Gorbachev left China on May 19, a fortnight before the Chinese Communist Party unleashed the People's Liberation Army against unarmed protesters. While the West was appalled by the killings and swiftly announced economic sanctions against China, Moscow did not go beyond a general expression of "regret." The human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov, then a deputy in the newly elected Soviet Duma, rose to the podium on June 10 to demand the recall of the Soviet Ambassador to China, but Gorbachev switched off his microphone.

Gorbachev had become heavily invested in the success of normalizing relations with China -- it was the only major accomplishment of his Asia policy -- and he simply could not afford to criticize Beijing for killing hundreds of students. He believed that China's international isolation and Western sanctions after Tiananmen offered an excellent opportunity for forging closer links with the Chinese and bringing them into a "strategic triangle" with India and the USSR.

This triangle idea was Gorbachev's longstanding dream -- a means of claiming Soviet leadership in Asia at the expense of the United States. But it never seemed to work.

Tiananmen gave Gorbachev hope. On July 15, he told Rajiv Gandhi, then-prime minister of India: "I think China will not distance itself from us and from you as a consequence of the latest events. They were grateful for our measured response, and, perhaps now they will value more their relations with us and with you.... Do you remember how we talked about a 'triangle?'" Gorbachev followed these comments with criticism of the George H. W. Bush administration, which, he said, wished them all -- Moscow, Beijing, New Delhi -- something "even worse" than Tiananmen.

"Something even worse" was already happening in Eastern Europe -- Communist regimes were folding one after another. Solidarity had won elections in Poland, large-scale protests had erupted in Czechoslovakia, political dialogue had led to democratization in Hungary, and East Germany and Romania were headed towards collapse.

In this context, Gorbachev began to change his views of Tiananmen. It was not an atrocity of a struggling regime but a necessary cost of maintaining stability. On Oct. 4, 1989, reacting to a report by Politburo member Anatoly Lukyanov that deaths at Tiananmen topped 3,000, the Soviet leader appeared unperturbed. "We must be realists," he said. "They, like us, have to hold on. Three thousand.... So what?"

In the end, the Chinese Communists were among the few who were able to "hold on." On Nov. 9, the Wall fell in Berlin. In December, Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled in Romania despite eleventh-hour counseling by China's then-security czar, Qiao Shi, on how to manage public protests. Images of Ceausescu's bullet-riddled corpse made headlines in the international media and left an indelible impression on China's leaders, who spent years thinking that the crackdown at Tiananmen had saved them from a similar fate.

In the weeks and months that followed, the Chinese continued to offer their political, and even economic, support to the crumbling USSR, despite their anger with Gorbachev, whom they perceived as a dangerous revisionist unable to cope with bourgeois subversion. Whatever his perceived faults, Gorbachev represented an alternative to a U.S.-led world order, drawing Washington's attention to Europe and thereby increasing China's breathing space. As then-Premier Li Peng, one of the Tiananmen hard-liners, wrote in his diary in February 1990: "After taking Eastern Europe in its hands, the West can put China under greater pressure."

The Chinese leaders thus went to great lengths to prevent Soviet disintegration in order to maintain it as a "pole" in a multipolar world, as then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had put it. Deng, who had previously referred to the Soviet Union as a "polar bear" and railed against its expansionist impulses, now thought better of Moscow, because at the very least the Soviets preoccupied the United States, giving China a freer hand.

For the Chinese Communist Party, survival of communist rule in the USSR -- in any form -- bolstered its waning legitimacy. Unsurprisingly, Beijing welcomed the August 1991 attempted coup against Gorbachev by the dysfunctional alliance of communist reactionaries in the form of the KGB, the Ministry of Defense, and some members of Gorbachev's inner circle. There is tantalizing new evidence, based on declassified Russian internal reports, that Beijing had been forewarned about the coup, and maintained secret contacts with its organizers.

The attempted coup dealt a fatal blow to Gorbachev's political authority and hastened the fragmentation of the USSR. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was no more, and Gorbachev was gone from the stage. The Chinese hurried to establish rapport with his successor Boris Yeltsin, even though they had previously derided him as counterrevolutionary scum and a traitor to Marxism. Beijing instinctively sensed that good relations with a strong and robust Russia would guarantee that China would never again be isolated as it was after Tiananmen. This feeling was fully shared by the ardent anti-communist Yeltsin, who quickly turned from his Tiananmen-days calls for cutting relations to bearhugging Chinese leaders in the name of a strategic partnership.

This partnership has since evolved into a quasi-alliance, underpinned by shared resentment of what both states perceive as U.S. sabotage of a "just and rational world order." But there is also another common denominator: the Chinese and the Russian ruling elites' fear of the ghosts of Tiananmen. Twenty-five years later, the fear remains that a small Chinese protest could become another Tiananmen; that Red Square could become another Tiananmen; that no matter what road China or Russia take, it can only lead to the doom of authoritarian rule.

It is through this prism that China perceives the events in Kiev and Russia's entanglements in Ukraine. Yes, Russia's annexation of Crimea was hard to justify. Yes, China often proclaims its policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states. Yes, Russian President Vladimir Putin's support for ethnic separatism in Crimea and East Ukraine rubs salt into China's own wounds in Xinjiang and Tibet.

It is now China's turn to say: "So what?" They, like us, have to hold on.

Camaraderie in Sino-Russian relations was on full display in Shanghai in mid-May. Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to present a united front in the face of perceived foreign subversion and signed a key gas deal that demonstrated that China will stand by Russia in its hour of need. If Xi has given Putin a helping hand, it is because he sees danger in what is happening in Ukraine -- though not in NATO expansion, or Kiev's closer relations with the European Union. The real fear is that Ukraine, which has just experienced a Tiananmen of its own in Kiev's Maidan, could destabilize Russia and ultimately China itself. Just as in the 1980s, a spark lit halfway around the world could start a fire closer to home. After all, the fundamental causes of resentment that fueled the protests of 1989 -- social inequality, nepotism, and corruption -- also caused the protests in Ukraine. And in both China and Russia these inequities are even more pronounced today than 25 years ago.

In 1989, it seemed as if Beijing and Moscow were choosing very different roads. But they have since returned to the starting point: the Russians beaten and bitter, the Chinese brash and self-assured. As in 1989, their fates seem irrevocably intertwined. Beijing and Moscow have closed ranks. Both pursue a confrontational foreign policy, stoke nationalist sentiments, and resort to domestic censorship to try to bury the memory of uprisings. But Tiananmen won't die. And history is witness that it is precisely such hard-line policies that lead to those dead ends, where the only choice is between massacre and collapse.



To Save Lives, or Not to Save Lives

The U.N. is debating whether it can legally defy Bashar al-Assad and deliver aid across Syria's borders. Meanwhile, millions of people are suffering.

Foreign Policy and the U.S. Institute of Peace are co-hosting the second PeaceGame on June 18-19 in Abu Dhabi. This article provides background for some of the issues to be discussed at that event, which will focus on how to build peace in Syria. 

The humanitarian crisis in Syria is incomprehensible -- and getting worse. The United Nations estimates that 9.3 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian aid. Among those, approximately 3.5 million people are in "hard to reach" or besieged areas. Exact numbers of deceased, injured, and displaced Syrians are difficult to verify, but there is relative consensus that real figures are higher than estimates reflect.

The international community is acutely aware of the need for humanitarian assistance to reach all parts of Syria, yet there are at least three obstacles standing in the way: first, a lack of funding; second, the Syrian government limiting access to humanitarian aid providers; and third, indecision at the U.N. over whether or not to defy the Assad regime's restrictions on getting into and working in the country. If these challenges are not overcome, another generation of Syrians will be lost to violent conflict.

Funding. The amount of assistance required to meet the basic needs of Syrians affected by conflict is astounding -- and very little of it has been found. On June 7, 2013, the United Nations announced its largest ever appeal: $2.5 billion dollars, to cover the expected humanitarian needs for the following year. The amount requested has since risen to $6.5 billion for 2014. The U.S. is the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance, having provided approximately $510 million in humanitarian assistance as of May 2014. But according to a joint statement by five heads of U.N. humanitarian agencies released on April 23, "that appeal has gone largely unanswered." Only 25 percent has been funded.

"The situation for millions of desperate people has not improved," said U.N. Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos on March 28, 2014, just after the conflict entered its fourth year.

The international community is struggling to meet the U.N.'s request for many reasons, including the request's size, the fact that demand only continues to grow, and politics at both the state and global levels. Issues of access, too, play a role.

Access. U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSC) 2139, which passed in February, recognized the "urgent need to increase humanitarian aid access in Syria." It called on all parties to allow rapid and unhindered humanitarian access to all parts of Syria, across conflict lines and across borders, as well as to ensure the safe passage of humanitarian aid providers. It provided the international community, aid workers, and human rights advocates a glimmer of hope after years of being denied the ability to do their jobs.

Unfortunately, cross-border access continues to be a problem. Due to regime blockades and insecurity, reportedly, approximately 85 percent of food aid has remained in regime-controlled areas of Syria. At least 241,000 people are trapped in besieged areas without access to food, according to U.N. reports. International NGOs are only able to reach 65 of 262 U.N.-classified hard-to-reach locations, according to a U.N. report released May 23.

There have been other moves by the government targeting specific humanitarian groups and limiting their reach. In April, for instance, following nearly two years of operations in-country, Mercy Corps closed its office in Damascus after it was told by the Syrian authorities to cease delivering humanitarian aid across the country's northern borders into non-government controlled territory. If it did not stop, it would no longer be permitted to operate in the capital city. Mercy Corps lost access to the over 350,000 civilians it was serving in and around Damascus, but it continues delivering aid to over 1.7 million Syrians in northern Syria.

Indecision. International legal scholars have debated whether the U.N. has legal authority to carry out cross-border aid missions absent consent from the Syrian government, on the basis of international human rights law and in light of UNSC 2139. On April 28, the International Bar Association (IBA) issued an open letter arguing there is no legal barrier to the U.N. undertaking cross-border humanitarian aid operations, irrespective of Syrian government consent. United States Senator Tim Kaine then sent a letter to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urging the U.N. to pursue large scale cross-border assistance missions, based on the legal opinions of the signatories to the IBA letter. A counter-argument issued by Naz Modirzadeh, senior fellow at the Counterterrorism and Humanitarian Engagement Project at Harvard Law School, refutes most claims the signatories make. Modirzadeh accused the letter of being a "political argument dressed up in the language of IHL [International Humanitarian Law]." Without Security Council authorization to intervene, she argued, all U.N. bodies would need explicit consent of the Syrian regime to undertake any cross-border operations, even humanitarian ones.

To be sure, conducting cross-border assistance operations without government consent is not only potentially dangerous to the individuals involved, but it also exposes organizations on the ground to the risk of eviction by the Assad regime for flouting its authority. (This was what Mercy Corps was faced with.) If the U.N. were evicted from Syria, it would lose access to approximately 4 million people, according to John Ging, field operation leader for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as reported in the New York Times. That said, it seems unlikely the Assad regime would go so far as to evict the United Nations: Doing so would place responsibility back on the regime more directly to feed people the U.N. has been able to access, and it would attract enormous international backlash.

In a clear sign of frustration -- and what may yet be an emerging shift in policy -- the secretary general encouraged the Security Council to allow for cross-border humanitarian operations even without the consent of the Syrian government, in a report on the implemention of UNSC 2139, released in the New York Times on May 23. Included in the report are U.N. accounts of diminished access to government and opposition areas, confusion over new government policies around the transport of humanitarian aid, and significant delays in delivery of assistance. The report described UNSC 2139 as "demanding" that relevant border crossings be opened, that sieges by immediately lifted, and that medical supplies be allowed to reach all in need -- and it said the parties to the conflict are not adhering to these demands.

Yet the Security Council remains stalled. In part, this is due to the legality debate, but it is also because the body has to identify a formulation for a resolution that Russia and China would not veto.


While debates continue over international law and whether the U.N. can defy Syrian regime preferences, the humanitarian situation in Syria will only continue to unravel. Consider the matter of food: The World Food Program estimates that it needs $41 million weekly to meet the food needs of Syrians affected by the conflict. In Aleppo and the surrounding areas alone, approximately 1.25 million people are deemed in need of food. Yet between a looming drought and severe damage inflicted to irrigation systems, as well as the lack of functioning machinery and fuel, the coming harvest is expected to hit a record low crop yield, which will cause only further food shortages.

A handful of NGOs are racing to find ways and means to respond to this disaster to the greatest extent possible, but their capacity is limited. The U.N. is the key body that needs to move faster -- to do what the secretary general called for in his latest report. In the meantime, Syrians struggle, the Assad regime survives, and much of the international humanitarian community waits.