1989: A day in the death penalty around post-Tiananmen China

Yue Minjun, who still lives in China, says Tiananmen was “the catalyst for conceiving” of his Execution but that it is most certainly not about the famous protest and ensuing crackdown.

Although 1989 protests toppled dictatorships in Eastern Europe, this pregnant year’s great rally in China brought a bloody (pdf) crackdown.

The student-led Tiananmen Square protests packed hundreds of thousands into that Beijing plaza — with sympathy protests in other major cities — demanding liberalization.

For seven weeks, they seemed on the brink of making another world.

Then on June 4th came the crackdown.

The masters of China must have been holding their breath that day: would the soldiers follow their orders? Would the rebellion shrink away, or metastasize? You really never know.

By night, the masters of China could exhale.

Judicial reprisals were mere days in commencing … and June 21 appears to mark the first known executions* resulting from that tragic movement. And while most “perpetrators” didn’t die for the affair, it seems from the distance of a generation as if their cause did.

There was likewise, it was noticed in the American press, no comment on this date’s signal executions from the United States president. Washington and Beijing, these regimes west and east, alike weathering the end of the Cold War — they had a future in common.

Despite the harsh crackdown on protest, Chinese leaders and mass media have been almost desperately urging foreign businesses to maintain their ties with the country.

The New China News Agency carried a whole series of reports aimed at promoting international economic ties. These included:

— A report that foreign businesses will in the future be permitted to set up officially recognized chambers of commerce in China.

— An announcement that 10 large international industrial exhibitions will be held this year in Shanghai.

— A report that a Japanese businessman said investors from his country have confidence in China’s economy. “Some businessmen from the United States and the European Community have expressed their desire to continue to invest in China,” the report added.

— A statement by Ma Shizhong, vice governor of Shandong province, stressing that his part of China has “a favorable environment for import of foreign capital and introduction of up-to-date overseas technology.”

Only eleven days after the June 4th massacre that cleared Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the first trial of pro-democracy protesters saw three workers condemned to death in Shanghai.

According to this pdf on the aftermath of Tiananmen, Xu Guoming, a brewery worker, Bian Hanwu, unemployed, and Yan Xuerong, a factory worker, were all convicted of “setting fire to a train and indiscriminate destruction of transport and transport equipment in a serious riot at the Guangxin Road Rail Crossing of Huning Railroad on June 6.”

According to Nick Kristof, that “riot” had been a sit-in on a rail line to protest the June 4 military incursion — until a train actually rammed the demonstrators, who retaliated by torching the machine. Some firefighters were beaten in the disturbance, but nobody was killed.

For their part in this — whatever part that was — Xu, Bian and Yan were deprived of their political rights, and expeditiously shot on June 21. Eight other people got prison sentences shortly thereafter for the same “riot”, having pleaded guilty (all but one of them) to “smashing railway cars, setting fire to nine railway cars and six public security motorcycles, turning over police boxes, beating up firemen to impede them from putting the fire out and fabricating rumors to mislead the people.”

Lin Zhaorong, Zhang Wenkui, Chen Jian, Zu Jianjun, Wang Hanwu, Luo Hongjun, and Ban Huijie, meanwhile, were sentenced for “vandalism and arson in a counter-revolutionary riot” on June 17, 1989, by the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court — stuff like burning a military vehicle, looting supplies from it, and beating up (although again, not killing) a soldier.

(This pdf gives the execution date as June 22; most other sources list June 21.)

An eighth member of their same party, Wang Lianxi, received a suspended death sentence instead. She was spared.

“An undetermined number of anti-government demonstrators,” according to a UPI report, were among 17 prisoners publicly convicted and immediately shot in Jinan on a generic charge of endangering public order on June 21. (UPI is explicit as to the date, but some reports say June 20.)

State radio reported that 10,000 people attended the trial, which meted out 45 sentences in all on a variety of charges and is said to have mixed political prisoners with common criminals.

We note in passing a gentleman who has never qualified for an entry in this blog, and we hope never will.

The identity and fate of the figure at the center of those protests’ most indelible images, the so-called “Tank Man”, remain an enduring mystery.

There exist widespread rumors and ill-substantiated press reports of his execution. But who Tank Man was and what really became of him remains utterly unknown.

* Amnesty International’s appeal for the three workers — and this is the Spanish version; if the English is available, I have not found it — very plausibly alleges that secret, summary executions were already underway before this date’s grim milestone.

On this day..