BEIJING — "There's no way for us to retreat. To retreat means our downfall." --President Yang Shangkun
On Thursday, May 25, Li Peng appeared on television for the first time in six days in ceremonies aimed at dramatizing the consolidation of power by the hard-liners. "The Chinese government is stable," the premier declared as he welcomed three new ambassadors to Beijing.
One of the three envoys was U Tin Aung of Burma, which only the previous summer had brutally repressed a nationwide uprising by a student movement seeking democratic reforms. After the televised ceremonies were over, Li pulled Tin Aung aside for a private chat.
"How did you do it?" Li asked, according to the story the Burmese ambassador later recounted to other diplomats in Beijing.
"You just do it," Tin Aung replied. "You use whatever force is necessary."
"In China, we can't do that," Li murmured. "We can't use the People's Army against the Chinese people."
The conversation pointed up the difficulties that China's hard-liners still confronted.
Li and his patrons, Deng Xiaoping and Yang Shangkun, had already won the battle for domination over the Politburo and the party's top leadership. By force, they also controlled China's propaganda organs. Most important, they had lined up massive military support.
But they did not yet control the streets of downtown Beijing. They did not have the cooperation, out of allegiance or out of fear, of the Chinese people.
The Chinese were not yet cowed. In countless ways, they demonstrated a quiet ability to resist or subvert the hard-line leadership and martial law.
On state television, newscasters read their reports in mournful tones and with downcast eyes. On the streets, those Chinese who watched or listened to broadcasts sometimes laughed at new pronouncements by the Communist Party's octogenarian leaders, some of them so feeble that they could be shown on television only in photographs several years old.
Despite the reimposition of censorship, official papers such as the People's Daily managed to publish subtle messages of subversion. The effort in Hungary to rehabilitate Imre Nagy, who led the unsuccessful revolt against Soviet troops in 1956, received front-page coverage two days in a row. Unflattering references to Chinese emperors--metaphorical allusions to Deng--began to appear.
Even at relatively high levels of the Communist Party, the hard-liners faced problems in imposing their will.
Over the weekend of May 27-28, they summoned provincial and municipal party leaders to Beijing in an apparent effort to convene a plenary session of the 175-member Central Committee. But the hard-liners let the members go home after discovering that they lacked the votes to purge Zhao and his allies from the leadership.
"We all take it for granted Zhao is out of power," said one Asian diplomat. "But this Central Committee is Zhao's Central Committee. One has to assume there are people loyal to him. I don't think it will be as easy as people believe to get rid of him."
Without any formal action by the Central Committee, the hard-liners were obliged to continue wielding power through a small, unofficial group of seven or eight "old comrades"--the party elders, all in their 80s, all survivors of the Long March and the Chinese civil war. The group included Deng, Yang and several retired or semi-retired party leaders.
They exercised continuing strong influence over both the army and some younger party officials. For example, one of the elders, Deng Yingchao, the widow of Premier Chou En-lai, had advanced the career of Li Peng, whom she and Chou had adopted and raised.
The elders tended to see the battle with the pro-democracy protesters--and, eventually, the intra-party struggle against Zhao--in cataclysmic terms.
"There's no way for us to retreat," said Yang Shangkun in a speech in late May. "To retreat means our downfall. To retreat means the downfall of the People's Republic of China and the restoration of capitalism."
It would mean, Yang said, a posthumous victory for John Foster Dulles, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of state, the man who hated China's Communist regime so much that he once refused to shake the hand of Chou En-lai.
Worst of all, from the hard-liners' point of view, they still did not control Tian An Men Square.
In hindsight, the protesters might have done better to vacate the square during this last week of May. They could have declared victory for their democracy movement and vowed to return someday. By abandoning Tian An Men, they would have forced leaders like Li and Deng to defend their hard-line stance inside the party, where their political position was still shaky. There would have been no street battles and no bloodshed.
Indeed, on Saturday, May 27, some of the most experienced student leaders proposed to do exactly that--to organize a strategic retreat.