The Beijing of 1989 was still a drab city of tenement blocks and offices, enlivened here and there by remnants of its imperial past. Even so, it had changed since Chairman Mao’s death. Blue and khaki were no longer so ubiquitous, as brightly coloured clothes had appeared, with modern suits increasingly worn by party members. Imported cars appeared in larger numbers on the streets, while new buildings and neon signs enlivened the skyline.

Originally the Beijing Hotel, located next to Tiananmen Square, had been the main venue for visiting dignitaries, but several new establishments had opened their doors, including the Jianguo Hotel and the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel, a sleek silver structure towering over the capital. Hawkers, peddlers and itinerant traders were everywhere, offering their wares on pavement corners, sometimes gathering in free markets. Among the more prosperous of these was a narrow lane called Silk Alley, situated between the Jianguo Hotel and the Friendship Store.

Unlike the Friendship Store, a hulking complex spread over three floors with shop assistants legendary for their inability to shake off a lifetime of indoctrination in bad manners, Silk Alley was lively. Its small wooden booths, painted in blue with a number in white, offered silk or cotton dresses, pyjamas, blouses, underwear, trousers, shoes, bags, knick-knacks and much else from factories in places as far away as Wenzhou.

The general population, its standard of living lagging behind, tended to view private traders with contempt. Even university students, considered a privileged minority, lived six to a tiny room, with showers once a week. As part of a national effort to save energy, in the middle of the winter the heat and electricity were shut off every couple of days. In crowded canteens students were served concoctions of tofu and cabbage, with generous helpings of rice gruel, slopped out from huge iron vats. Their professors barely received a living wage, forcing some of them to take two jobs in order to make ends meet.

A year earlier, in April 1988, a small group of 18 students from the capital’s most prestigious universities had staged a fruitless protest before the Great Hall of the People to demand better treatment for intellectuals.

Migrants from the countryside were also a relatively new phenomenon. Their numbers had surged, with tens of millions nationwide. Lured to the city, where better employment opportunities existed, even if the household registration system prevented them from acquiring permanent residency, they were interlopers, surviving on the margins of urban society.

Entire villages came to rely on their remittances, especially as investment in the countryside dwindled and living standards declined. The registration system of the planned economy had tied them to the land, turning them into bonded servants at the beck and call of local cadres in the People’s Communes.

Now the same system guaranteed a steady supply of cheap labour for infrastructure projects and the exporting factories located along the coast. Migrants enjoyed no rights, no benefits and few protections, and were exploited by local authorities, who could send them back to the countryside at a moment’s notice, or instead deploy them on another project where sweat was required. Foreign specialists occasionally lectured on ‘social mobility’, a fancy term which sounded rather learned, but the migrants bore great resemblance to an hereditary caste permanently locked into poverty. As retrenchment began to bite, the influx of villagers became harder to control.

In Beijing alone, the authorities detained thousands every month, yet the numbers still swelled, encompassing young men looking for work, but also disabled people, petitioners with grievances, street performers, vagrants sleeping rough, even beggars near the Jianguo Hotel.

As the Lunar New Year approached, the regime mounted a huge effort to ensure that shops were provisioned with consumer goods and food. Residents in the capital were allowed to buy an extra pound of meat in state shops, while the supply of cabbage was increased by a quarter. The occasion was subdued, with a few coloured rockets and crackers flickering in the capital’s smoggy sky, a dim echo of past fireworks. In Shanghai a complete ban on firecrackers was imposed. Austerity was the order of the day.

The leadership made the rounds, offering New Year greetings and delivering talks to boost popular morale in the face of economic woes. Li Peng addressed an audience of 4,000 party leaders, telling them that economic and political stability was essential, as the country would celebrate the fortieth birthday of the communist takeover in October. 6

But trouble was not long behind. In April 1988, former president Richard Nixon had published a book entitled 1999: Victory Without War. Communism, he explained, should be undermined by supporting
opponents within those regimes. Deng Xiaoping was not one of them, but Zhao Ziyang showed promise. ‘The unanswered question is who is the one among many who has the strength and vision to replace Deng when he finally leaves the scene,’ Nixon wrote. ‘In a communist country only one can be the leader. Whether that leader is Zhao will depend upon how successfully his skills as a political tactician match those he has already exhibited as an economic one.’

Later that year, on 19 September, after several weeks of panic buying across the country, Zhao Ziyang met the economist Milton Friedman for a candid conversation on reform, an encounter that attracted the attention of several journalists in Hong Kong who had close ties to a Beijing think-tank associated with Zhao Ziyang. ‘The Patriarch Should Retire’, one editorial boldly proclaimed. Another pronounced
that ‘those who hope China will walk the capitalist road bet on Zhao Ziyang’. To Beijing conservatives, this seemed suspiciously like ‘collusion with external forces’, a spectre commonly conjured up in dictatorships, with a clandestine network within the state alleged to be engineering a coup with the assistance of hostile foreign powers.

A few months later, the plot thickened. In early January, Fang Lizhi, who had been cast out of the party in 1987, decided to take Ren Wanding’s petition one step further, issuing an open letter to Deng Xiaoping demanding the release of all political prisoners.

He personally recommended May the Fourth as a suitable occasion for a general amnesty. On 2 February 1989, Fang published a piece in the New York Review of Books, dismissing socialism in a single sentence: ‘Forty years of socialism have left people despondent.’ Ten days later, more than thirty of China’s most prominent authors signed the petition and made it public at Columbia University in New York. The document, according to a secret circular from the Central Committee, demonstrated ‘foreign support’ for ‘reactionary political forces’ at home and abroad.

Excerpted with permission from China After Mao: The Rise of a Superpower’, Frank Dikötter, Bloomsbury Publishing.