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Telegrams from Beijing: Czechoslovak Diplomats on the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests

In a series of eight flash telegrams, the Czechoslovak embassy in Beijing informed Prague on developments at Tiananmen Square from the end of May to June 4, 1989.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, 1988
Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, 1988

Relations between Prague and Beijing went through all the different phases of a "healthy partnership" from 1949 to 1989 – from love to hatred to reconciliation.

When the Chinese Communist Party declared the People's Republic of China in October 1949, Czechoslovakia was one of the first states to recognize the new regime in Beijing. A decade of intense political, commercial, and cultural contacts followed. Mutual trade grew significantly, and Czechoslovakia became the third most important trading partner of the PRC after the Soviet Union and East Germany.

This era culminated with the visit of First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Antonín Novotný to China in September and October 1959, a visit that commemorated the 10th anniversary of the PRC’s founding.

However, Czechoslovakia closely followed the Soviet Union’s China policy. Its attitude toward the PRC evolved from friendly relations to ideological disputes, and from a split to open hostility over the course of the 1960s. Mutual relations were further complicated by internal developments in Czechoslovakia and the PRC during the second half of the 1960s. The PRC plunged into a decade of "controlled chaos" created by the Cultural Revolution, while Czechoslovakia had its Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet-led intervention.

Twenty years following these events, Cold War lines were no longer so sharp, and Sino-Soviet relations were increasingly driven by geopolitics rather than by ideology. For smaller Soviet bloc states, the 1980s provided room for more independent diplomatic maneuvering. Many Eastern bloc states “opened” to the PRC and resuscitated plans from the 1950s, recognizing that China was a giant market and important trade partner. Moreover, as China implemented market reforms, it became an interesting “laboratory” for studying the merger of capitalism with a one-party system. In the end, states such as Czechoslovakia saw the Chinese model as a competitor to Gorbachev’s perestroika. 

All key Czechoslovak leaders visited the PRC in the second half of the 1980s – including Prime Minister Lubomír Štrougal, General Secretary of the Central Committee Miloš Jakeš, and President Gustáv Husák, who met with Deng Xiaoping in September 1988.

These visits produced a paradoxical situation. Moscow’s clients, who had followed Soviet foreign policy in the past, were now “pioneers,” laying the groundwork for the Sino-Soviet normalization, which materialized only after the Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing in May 1989.

This crucial breakthrough for Soviet bloc relations with the PRC, of course, was overshadowed by the suppression of the student demonstrations in June 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Eastern European regimes.

Yet, for a time, relations between China and Czechoslovakia remained unchanged after June 1989. As historian Mark Kramer has previously argued, for the neoconservatives within the Czechoslovak communist leadership, the way the Chinese Communist leadership “defended socialism” through a bloody crackdown on the demonstrators proved to be an appealing example.[1] The Czechoslovak leadership supported the suppression of the students and voiced its support for the Chinese Communist Party – something the Chinese leadership took note of.

The Czechoslovak regime even restored direct military contacts between the Czechoslovak People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, proposing cooperation in the areas of combat training, military education, and the exchange of military specialists. In July 1989, Prague announced that it would send the Czechoslovak Minister of National Defense, Milán Václavík, to Beijing in autumn 1989 to meet with the Chinese Defense Minister, Qin Jiwei.[2] The PLA Deputy Chief of Staff, Xu Xin, reciprocated with a visit to Prague on October 28 for meetings with Czechoslovakia’s president, the minister of defense, and the chief of the General Staff.[3]

Czechoslovak Diplomats & June 4th

The upswing in Czechoslovakia’s relations with China in the late 1980s is reflected in the voluminous records stored at the Czech archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Prague.

In a series of eight flash telegrams, presented below, the Czechoslovak embassy sought to inform Prague in real time on what was happening in Beijing from the end of May to June 4, 1989.

The reports do not offer revelations comparable to the leaked internal Chinese documents on Tiananmen Square. The Czechoslovak embassy had only limited access to key decision-makers at the time. Their sources of information consisted mainly of their own on-the-spot observations, analysis of Chinese state media, as well as other media covering the crisis, particularly from Hong Kong, and talks with officials from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, other low or middle level party officials, and ambassadors from other Soviet bloc countries.

The telegrams provide insights not only into the Czechoslovak embassy's sources of information, but also how the embassy framed the information it sent to Prague and how it advised the Czechoslovak leadership to respond to the protest movement and crackdown.

The telegrams were usually received from 9:00 to 10:00 a.m. in Prague (in Beijing 3:00 to 4:00 p.m), meaning that the embassy was able to report on the events of the day through the early afternoon. 

Monday, May 29, 1989

The first telegram from this collection, sent to Prague on Monday, May 29, reflected the situation when, as the editors of Tianmen Papers say, “students from the provinces began to leave Beijing” and “the Party prepared for a possible crackdown.”[4]

The Czechoslovak embassy reported that the ambassador, Eduard Saul, had met with representatives of the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs several days earlier to discuss the results of Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit in the middle of May. The Chinese representatives emphasized progress towards normalizing Soviet-Chinese relations and their high appreciation of the Czechoslovak-Chinese relationship.[5]

The embassy also analyzed the speeches of the Chairman of the Central Advisory Commission of the CCP, Chen Yun; the chair of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, Wan Li; and of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Li Xiannian. The embassy concluded that all three speeches confirmed the application of the measures, adopted by both the Central Committee of the CCP and the PRC government after May 19, 1989, and thus a “wave of support” for the Li Peng solution.

The embassy also pointed to an important “qualitative shift” in the assessment of the ongoing demonstrations in Beijing and the overall situation in the country, with the authorities clearly evaluating the “contemporary chaos” as a result of underestimating Marxist-Leninist education and disrespecting the four basic principles (the leading role of the party, adherence to Marxism-Leninism, following the path to socialism, the people’s dictatorship, and the ignorance of not fighting the “bourgeois liberalism”). The embassy also underscored that it read the CCP leadership’s proclamations as they admitted that the events were organized, planned, and driven by “behind-the-scenes machinations” and the political intrigues of individuals within the highest ranks of the party leadership.

The embassy reported that all key authorities and top leaders signed up in support of Li Peng's solution, except for the General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. The embassy did not exclude the possibility of protests against Li, but it was generally inclined to believe that the current direction – towards the “restoration of stability and order,” as well as the strenghtening of Li's position – was irreversible.

As such, the embassy advised Prague to change the tone of domestic propaganda regarding the 1989 Tiananmen protests and to begin actively supporting the official Chinese line. Specifically, the embassy noted that the Chinese leadership assessed the students’ first initiatives as positive, but it condemned the transformation of the movement into a protest against socialism and against the leading role of the party. The embassy concluded that following the new Chinese official line would have a positive effect on political and economic relations between Czechoslovakia and the PRC.

Tuesday, May 30, 1989

The following day – Tuesday, May 30 – the embassy reported that another important party veteran and former Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, Peng Zhen, agreed with Li Peng’s solution regarding the normalization of the internal situation. On behalf of the Central Committee of the People's Republic of China, Peng persuaded the chairmen of the so-called democratic parties (and, at the same time, the vice-chairmen of Standing Committee of the National People's Congress) to support Li’s solution.[6]

The embassy also reported that the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, the Unions, the Komsomol, the Women's Union, and the working groups of several ministries supported this policy. It viewed it as a relatively rapid “transfer” of Li’s speech to the lower echelons of the Chinese power structure.

The embassy portrayed the demonstrations as being driven mainly by the growing interest of Hong Kong media and Western television journalists. The erection of the “Statue of Democracy” was thought to attract as much attention as possible before the march scheduled for May 30. The embassy admitted that the event might complicate the situation in the center of Beijing, but it would not affect the ongoing course of normalization between China and the USSR.

The embassy indirectly admitted that the Hong Kong press and media were an important source of information for their own reporting, particularly regarding the latest speeches of party veterans that dealt a blow to the so-called reformists within the leadership. Information from the Hong Kong press stated that the Chinese leadership had already decided to remove the so-called Band of 7 from power, including the General Secretary Zhao, Hu Qili, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, Director of the General Office of the Communist Party of China Wen Jiabao, the Politburo Secretary Yan Mingfu, and three other officials responsible for economic, political and agricultural reforms.

The Hong Kong media was not considered to be an entirely reliable source, but, to some extent, the embassy admitted that its conclusions might be justified, compared to the embassy’s own analysis and observations.

Thursday, June 1, 1989

On June 1, the embassy reported that it was completely quiet in the city center during May 31. A sit-in strike was announced at the “Statue of Democracy” on the square, which was to last until the beginning of the Standing Committee of the National People´s Congress on June 20.[7]

The embassy was informed by the head of the International Liaison Department that the situation was gradually becoming “normalized” – that is, the Party was regainining the initiative – and that the errection of the statue was deemed illegal. The representative refused to comment on possible changes within the Chinese Party’s leadership.

However, the embassy concluded that, based on the representative’s reaction to speculation from the Hong Kong press, the representative had already been provided with some internal information regarding possible leadership changes. The official also stated that although Zhao was still in office,  he was seriously ill –  therefore, the embassy concluded that Zhao was on his way out.

As we know now, on May 31, Deng had already decided to confirm Jiang Zemin as a new General Secretary.[8]

The Chinese official also denied to the embassy that Hu Qili had participated in the party meeting on May 19, although the embassy’s own findings and the findings of other socialist state embassies contradicted his statement. Hu’s participation was considered an attempt to join Li Peng, and to save his own position at the last minute.

By denying Hu Qili’s participation, the representative might have wanted to cover Hu’s failed attempt and the embassy concluded that Hu was "blacklisted."

The representative of the Chinese Communist Party apparatus also denied “rumours” from the Hong Kong press that Yan Mingfu was also out of office, which, according to the embassy, supported the idea that Yan would be promoted for the sake of a compromise within the communist leadership.

Friday, June 2, 1989

In its June 2 telegram, the Czechoslovak embassy focused on what was happening on the streets.[9]

It noted that the intensity of the students’ protest activities was diminishing, prompted by a split between the different student groups over how to proceed with the demonstrations. One of the key student leaders, Wu’er Kaixi, left the square after a week because he wanted to change tactics: from a sit-in demonstration to a more legal approach, via the representatives of the National People’s Congress. The students from the provinces disagreed with Wu’er proposals.

On May 27, another student leader, Wang Dan, announced a plan to evacuate the square by Wednesday. He gained support mainly from Beijing students, who returned to university campuses and left their banners on the square. Only students from the provinces remained on the square.

The Czechoslovak report corresponds to information from a Hong Kong newspaper that, on the basis of an interview with student activists on June 3, suggested students from the provinces wanted to continue with the sit-in protest.[10]

The embassy noted that the events at the square were directed by two spontaneously formed organizations – the so-called "Beijing Workers and Students Self-Government" and "the Tiananmen’s management headquarters," which announced its reorganization that Tuesday. They established three groups to control the spending of the donors´ money, allegedly worth several million dollars.

The embassy underlined the differentiation in students´ opinions – one group favored the proclamation of support to "the good leadership of the CPC, respect for the constitution and laws," the other insisted on following four demands: the abolition of the state of emergency, the departure of troops from Beijing, the promise to not punish student activists, and freedom of the press. Within the latter group, students were further split between those who saw fulfillment of the four points as a condition for leaving the square and those who only wanted an initiation of dialogue with the government. The embassy considered the continuation of the student sit-down on the square until June 20 (when the session of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress was to be opened) as “extreme.” The embassy also highlighted new forms of protest emerging, such as students shaving their heads, allegedly based on the same sound of the words "without hair" and "lawless," as an allusion to the "illegal procedure of the government."

The embassy stressed that the retreat from demonstrations was even more visible in the provinces. Students gradually returned to schools after a “loss of public support.”In Shanghai, for example, all demonstrations were recalled by Tuesday, and the situation was similar in other provincial centers. The embassy also described a public march in support of government measures in a rural district of Beijing that was staged by the Beijing Party Committee and aired on TV. 

In its second telegram from that day, the embassy informed Prague that the students’ actions were only limited to the central square. A tent city was built instead of temporary shelters, which the embassy thought was meant to visually compensate for the decrease of the number of demonstrators on the square. The embassy believed that central authorities had made it clear that they would no longer tolerate the situation on the square, generally considered sacred for the whole nation. The authorities condemned the errection of the so-called “Statue of Democracy” as unacceptable, compared it to an American symbol and suspected it of implanting the concept of American democracy into the “domestic Chinese civic democratisation process.”

The embassy also noted that although foreign journalists were repeatedly instructed on the restrictions that originated from the declaration of the state of emergency, the restrictions were not enforced until June 1. Now the journalists were to rely only on official sources.The embassy also received unconfirmed information about troop movements close to the city center, which they saw as evidence of the government´s intention to clear the square in the near future and confirmation of “the strength and confidence of the party leaderhip.”

Monday, June 5, 1989

After not sending any cables on June 3 or June 4, the Czechoslovak embassy resumed activity at 9:30 a.m. on Monday, June 5, reporting its key findings on what had happened in Beijing during the final crackdown on the student demonstrations.[11]

The Czechoslovak embassy observed that certain groups were inciting other city residents with news that the army was ready to clean up the square in the center of Beijing. It also saw that the “aggressiveness as well as overall tension and nervousness” (the wording of the telegram does not indicate precisely who was aggressive) had gradually increased since Friday afternoon. According to the embassy, this mood escalated with attacks on public buildings, looting, and the blocking of intersections.

The embassy declared that the deployment of the troops and heavy artillery in the inner city on Saturday afternoon was the largest ever since the declaration of the state of emergency. The embassy repeated the official story that it was mostly soldiers who were injured and killed in a series of clashes; the cable stated that neither students nor civilians were injured or killed. It also cabled that the heavy artillery and firearms were deployed only for the purposes of warning the demonstrators. Only then were the camps of protesters in the square “liquidated” and the so-called statue of democracy removed.

The embassy saw “visible traces of sharp clashes, burning military and civilian cars even at the border with the diplomatic quarter” and heard shots “even behind the walls of the Czechoslovak embassy.” After reproducing the content of state media reports on “crushing the counterrevolutionary force,” the embassy concluded that it had adopted extraordinary security measures and reported that all Czechoslovak citizens were safe and secure.

 


[1] Mark Kramer, "Gorbachev and the demise of east European communism,” in Silvio Pons and Federico Romero (ed.), Reinterpreting the End of the Cold War: Issues, interpretations, periodizations (Frank Cass, 2005), 185.

[2] Národní archív (NA) / National Archive (NA), f. KSČ - Ústřední výbor 1945-1989, Praha - sekretariát 1986-1989 (KSČ-ÚV-02/4) /file Czechoslovak Communist Party – Central Committee 1945 – 1989, Prague – Secretariat 1986-1989/, sv./issue 68 B, a.j./archival unit 106/b. 3, p. 2.

[3] John Garver, China's Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People's Republic of China (Oxford University Press, 2016), 509.

[4] Andrew J. Nathan, Perry Link, Orville Schell, The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership's Decision to Use Force Against Their Own People - in Their Own Words (Abacus, 2002), 420-421.

[5] A Telegram from Beijing. Received: May 29, 1989, 9.30 am, Secret, No. 048 442. In: Archive of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic /AMFACR/, Telegrams Received, 048.401 - 048.800, May 26 – June 5.

[6] A Telegram from Beijing. Received: May 30, 1989, 10.00 am, Secret, No. 048 517. In: AMFACR, Telegrams Received, 048.401 - 048.800, May 26 – June 5.

[7] A Telegram from Beijing. Received: June 1, 1989, 09.00 am, Secret, No. 048 626. In: AMFACR, Telegrams Received, 048.401 - 048.800, May 26 – June 5.

[8]The Tiananmen Papers, 426.

[9] A Telegram from Beijing. Received: June 2, 1989, 09.30 am, Secret, No. 048 724. In: AMFACR, Telegrams Received, 048.401 - 048.800, May 26 – June 5.

[10]The Tiananmen Papers, 479.

[11] A Telegram from Beijing. Received: June 5, 1989, Secret, No. 048 821. In: AMFACR, Telegrams Received, 048.401 - 048.800, May 26 – June 5.

About the Author

Jan Adamec

Jan Adamec is an independent scholar based in Prague, Czech Republic.

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