Page last updated at 13:09 GMT, Friday, 5 June 2009 14:09 UK

How Tiananmen shook Europe

Demonstrator stops tanks approaching Tiananmen Square

Twenty years ago, the collapse of communism in Europe was proceeding smoothly. Tiananmen Square threw this into confusion, writes BBC Diplomatic Editor Brian Hanrahan.

Although it wasn't obvious, the Kremlin had given the nod to reformers in Eastern Europe and privately reassured them there would be no Soviet intervention to support the hardliners.

Poland and Hungary had already embarked on the path that would see them transferring peacefully from communist rule.

As tanks were rolling into Tiananmen square, Poland was voting the communists out of power. Hungary continued to roll up the barbed wire of the Iron Curtain.

Mikhail Gorbachev in China
Gorbachev's state visit emboldened Chinese protestors

Just as reformers elsewhere in Eastern Europe were starting to take notice - and take heart - events in China threw everything into confusion.

For the old-guard communists, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was fast becoming the man you didn't want to come to dinner for fear of the trouble that a visit from him might provoke.

And so it proved in China. The democracy movement was already campaigning against the government, but it was a state visit by Mr Gorbachev in May that emboldened its members to take over Tiananmen Square.

There, encamped between the portrait of Chairman Mao hanging on the walls of the Forbidden City, and the Great Hall of the People, they were a highly visible symbol of dissent right at the heart of China.

Night in the square

It couldn't have come at a worse time for the Chinese leadership.

Beijing was full of journalists waiting for Mr Gorbachev to arrive. I was part of a BBC contingent there in strength for a visit that was expected to be of unusual historic importance - an opportunity to establish a more balanced relationship between these two communist giants after years of antagonism and tensions.

Instead our focus switched to this unprecedented display of political opposition.

I rushed down to the square to view with astonishment the crowds of young people who marched in and camped there.

Moving in formed columns - waving black banners embossed with gold calligraphy - they looked like the vanguard of an approaching army. And so they proved to be. From a few tens of thousands on that first day they grew over the weeks that followed to a million strong.

I spent the night with them in the square fully expecting the Chinese police would move in and disperse them during darkness. That was the Chinese way.

Instead we were still there at dawn when a pink sky showed tiny figures peering down at us from the top of the Great Hall of the People. The Politburo had come to see for themselves before deciding what to do.

Archive report: Students demonstrate in China, in 1989

It was the beginning of a power struggle about how to treat the protestors. The Communist Party general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, wanted to address their grievances. But the old guard leaders would not tolerate anything which challenged the authority of the communist party.

They prepared to put down the demonstrations by force. Zhao was removed from his position and placed under house arrest until he died in 2005. Only in the last few weeks has his account of events emerged. (Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang.)

There are striking parallels between what was happened in China and Eastern Europe.

The demonstrators had sympathisers inside the communist hierarchy who were willing to negotiate about their grievances.

The willingness of the army to shoot down protestors was in doubt.

There was unusual media coverage - in Europe it was a deliberate policy encouraged by Mr Gorbachev's reforms - in China it was an accidental opening created by Mr Gorbachev's visit.

I remember watching one banner being carried into Tiananmen Square congratulating the BBC on its coverage - evidence of how international coverage was influencing debate in China.

Political paralysis

Without their habitual control of the media, communist leaderships hesitated to take tough action for fear of the damage it would do both internationally and at home. It's an illuminating demonstration of how important propaganda was to maintaining communism.

In both Europe and China the mood of euphoria on the streets was matched by political paralysis. But they were to play out very differently.

In China the elders of the party, under Deng Xiaoping's leadership, decided to reassert traditional communist control. They replaced supporters of the protestors, indoctrinated sections of the army to ensure their loyalty, and closed down as much of the international media coverage as they could before taking action.

Then they rode out the firestorm of international protest, despite the long-lasting damage it did to China's image and its economy.

This option wasn't available to Eastern European leaders. They had neither the economic nor military weight to stifle reform in the same brutal fashion. And as long as Mr Gorbachev remained in control of the Soviet Union, they could expect no political support from there.

But China's actions served to hearten those who opposed reform in Eastern Europe. It was reminder of how previous political challenges had been militarily suppressed in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.

Archive report: The East German opposition was influenced by Tiananmen - and so was the party leadership

And that autumn I found civic groups in East Germany were being threatened with the "Tiananmen Option" if they continued to bring people on to the streets.

It was a chilling but ineffectual threat so long as Mr Gorbachev ruled. But his fall from power two years later demonstrated what a narrow window of opportunity there had been for Eastern Europeans to break free from Soviet domination.

What was now plainly on view were two different approaches to reform. The Gorbachev way was to cede political power and be prepared to see communist control crumble. The Chinese way made the supremacy of the Communist Party the overriding objective, and it alone would dictate the pace and scope of economic and social change.

China remains, 20 years later, an authoritarian state under the control of the Communist Party.

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2020 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific