From Tiananmen to Leipzig

By Frank Sieren, published: September 10, 2014


Chances are we will never get to know what really happened 25 years ago in Beijing. But a trace leads from Beijing to the peaceful revolution in the former GDR, says DW-Columnist Frank Sieren.


Just one month after June 4th incident in 1989, a high-ranking East Germany politician traveled to Beijing. His name is Günter Schabowski. At the time he was an official of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) and a member of the central committee of Eastern Germany´s Politburo, the center of power of the SED. With him he had two orders from Erich Honecker, head of state and party leader: to congratulate the Chinese government for successfully cracking down on the counterrevolutionary movement. brotherly greetings from hardliner to hardliner so to speak.

On top of that Schabowski should “find out what really happened on the Tiananmen Square.” Not that the Politburo in eastern Berlin did not believe that Beijing had taken drastic measures; it didn’t trust the western media and saw them as instruments of propaganda. Schabowski therefore was sent to get an idea for himself about what had happened. Schabowski, son of a plumber, with a diploma in journalism who had risen steadily up the ranks within the SED, wasn‘t the only one in Beijing looking for first-hand information.

Quietly,US President George Bush also sent an envoy, Brent Scowcroft. But his mission was different. He was to assure Beijing that the USA would outwardly show its indignation but behind the scenes work on a fast normalization of the relations. The reason for the American message was simple: At the beginning of the 1970s Mao Zedong and the then US president Richard Nixon had allied against the Soviet Union, and Washington wanted to continue the pact, especially after Michail Gorbachev, the then head of state and the Party of the Soviet Union, had visited Beijing in May as the first USSR leader since the split with China in 1959. The Americans wanted to err on the side of caution, although Gorbachev‘s visit had not been a pleasant one for Beiijing.

Gorbachev: Chinese Leadership Has Lost Control

Because of the protests Gorbachev had to enter the Great Hall of the People through the back door. Instead of supporting the Chinese leadership, Gorbachev kicked Deng Xiaoping in the back.  Assuming the wisdom of a western statesman, he told the Russian news agency Tass at the end of his visit that the Chinese leaders had lost control. This was a huge loss of face for Deng that definitely fuelled his decision to use military force to end the protests.

Erich Honecker, who had been angered by Gorbachev’s reforms for years because they made him look pigheaded, wanted to show his approval of Deng’s decision by sending Schabowski to Beijing. Schabowski met with the newly-installed CCP Secretary General and president of China, Jiang Zemin, who, formerly the party leader of Shanghai, had replaced Zhao Ziyang who had been dismissed for siding with the students.

Confession of Weakness

Jiang explained to his East German comrades that the military had cleared the Tiananmen Square peacefully and it was only in the neighboring streets that things got out of hand, and that about 400 people died when protestors and soldiers confronted each other. Schabowski was surprised that Jiang basically conceded that the bloodshed occurred because the leadership had obviously lost control over the situation. “That was a surprising confession of weakness,” Schabowski later recalled.

He noticed how uneasy the Chinese politicians he met were about the international condemnation after having been celebrated as exemplary reformers for just a decade before. So shocked and shaken was Jiang Zemin by the bloodshed of his own people that Schabowski refrained from relaying Honecker’s congratulations for “successfully cracking down on the counterrevolutionary movement,” Schabowski recalled. Jiang did not speak of the protesters as counterrevolutionary forces but only as confused students. From Jiang’s remarks, the visitor from East Germany neither confirmed the rumored news of a “massacre” in Tiananmen Square nor heard the assumed position of Beijing, that is, while restoring order,  “unfortunately” there had been some inevitable casualties.

No “Beijing Solution” for Leipzig

Jiang’s tone had consequences for the German-German unification process that shouldn’t be underestimated, because a mere five months later the SED-Politburo had to decide whether it should bring in tanks against the protestors in Leipzig. Schabowski was of the same opinion as Egon Kgon, the head of the state and the Party, he says looking back, “one of the lessons from the events in Beijing was that we must not use military force against protesting citizens.”

The subdued tone of the Chinese leadership was confirmed by a third party a year later. In 1990, the then former chancellor Helmut Schmidt met with Deng Xiaoping, the first German politician visiting China in the aftermath of 1989. Deng also spoke about the muddle-headed students and he faulted the party’s internal division for the incident. Deng did not leave Schmidt the impression that he would like to do the same thing again. His main concern was how to bring China back to the path of opening up to the world. As a matter of fact: 1989 has remained a one-off in the history of the New China.

A Realistic and Fair View On June 4th Is Possible

Why is this historic episode so important? It shows a picture of June 1989 that is closer to the reality. It helps no one when the west lopsidedly exaggerates the events; it is just as shameful as the silence the Chinese government imposes on the incident of 1989. Both impede consensus, for example, the consensus that it is wrong and short-sighted to jail those who want to discuss the matter, even though a political party doesn’t want to comment on it. But this consensus is rather reached if [China’s] national security can´t claim anymore that it has to stop western exaggerations from agitating its own citizens.

The West has developed an understanding of the law and justice over centuries, and it is based on the onus of proof, which distinguishes between negligence and intent, between a single killer and a serial killer, and in which there is no place for guilt by association.  We should stick to this principle even when we are outraged. It’s not about relativization of events, but about fairness even for those who have acted unfairly and still do so today, because only fairness of this kind gives power to your own values.


DW-Columnist Frank Sieren has been living in Beijing for 20 years.



Tiananmen Massacre not a “Passing Lapse” of the Chinese Government, Chang Ping’s rebuttal to this article by Sieren


(Translated by Florian Godovits. This is the first of three articles by Frank Sieren that China Change has translated from German to English to present the complete picture of the Sieren vs. Chang Ping debate about the Tian’anmen incident and China in general. – The editor)


German original on DW site

Chinese translation on DW site

One response to “From Tiananmen to Leipzig”

  1. says:

    great article !!!


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