Retired veteran U.S. government intelligence analysts Robert Suettinger served as deputy national intelligence officer for East Asia at the National Intelligence Council from 1989 to 1994, and from 1987 to 1989 was President George H. W. Bush's director of the office of analysis for East Asia and the Pacific at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. The author the 2004 book Beyond Tiananmen, Suettinger is working on a biography of late Communist Party reformist leader Hu Yaobang, who's ouster in 1986 and death in April 1989 were precursors to the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests. He spoke to Jane Tang about Hu's legacy and issues related to the Tiananmen crackdown of June 4, 1989. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: Thirty-two years ago on April 15, Hu Yaobang passed away and his death triggered the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Looking back at the history, what was the role and significance of Hu’s death for the Tiananmen student movement at that time?
Suettinger: I think it was a catalyst, more than a causal factor. There were plans for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the May 4 movement, so students were already gathering and kind of collecting their grievances and talking about what they wanted that was more in keeping with the ideals of the May 4 Movement which was democracy and science and westernization and so forth. So there were already preparations being made when Hu Yaobang passed away. In the wake of his death, there were a lot of questions that were raised and probably some guilty consciences, on the part of people who thought they should have opposed the purge of Hu Yaobang in 1987 more than they did. And there were lots of people, not just students and university professors, but members of the party, who really thought that that the way that Hu Yaobang was removed from office was improper. So those two factors that led to a kind of spontaneous mourning for Hu Yaobang on college campuses, and then it began to grow, and as students found that they were able to actually march from their university campuses to Tiananmen Square, it really began to be an issue for public order and for the Communist Party's concern about its own reputation.
RFA: Is this a reason why you're working on his biography after the book about Tiananmen? Why is his story important for us to understand that part of history?
Suettinger: I was always interested in Hu Yaobang. I was working in the U.S. government during the time when he was general secretary, and I always found him to be a very interesting man. He was not a typical leader. He was just a little short guy, had a very high voice, very kind of bouncy and interested in discussions of issues and so forth. He was not a kind of a Mao type, or even a Deng Xiaoping type -- a great leader figure. So I thought that was interesting. And the more I looked at the period of time when he was in office, the more it began to occur to me that that he was more of a reformer than Deng Xiaoping. Deng Xiaoping gets a lot of credit for the PRC reform efforts, and in some cases and there's a fair number of Chinese writers who actually believe that Deng does not deserve the credit that he's gotten.
RFA: Let's go back to the Tiananmen Square protests. I read an interview you did before about the debate inside the US government on how to respond to the June 4 crisis, 32 years ago. What was that like? Were there big divisions?
Suettinger: I wouldn't say there was a big division. Everyone was shocked and appalled, even though some of us kind of had a better idea that it was coming, than others. The U.S. government had warned the PRC government that we wanted them not to react badly to this. It had been going on for several weeks, and it was all on television, everybody was watching it. There were a couple of serious differences of view. One was between the Congress and the administration. The Congress was much more engaged on human rights issues, and was very much aware that President Bush at that time was disinclined to be tough on the PRC. He considered himself to be knowledgeable about China and he really believed he understood the person that he called his friend: Deng Xiaoping, and the Congress was much more interested in the growing evidence of human rights issues, trade issues, and other kinds of issues that were beginning to roil the overall relationship between the United States and the PRC fairly seriously. So particularly in light of the absolutely shocking videos that were shown, they were not inclined to give Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues much of a break on this one and they wanted sanctions, they wanted them fast and they wanted him serious, whereas certain elements of the administration, and particularly the executive office, were inclined to try to minimize the damage to the larger strategic relationship which involved the Soviet Union and so forth. And that was the crux of the difference in the views.
RFA: How would you compare the reaction in the U.S. toward Hong Kong this time with 32 years ago to the Tiananmen Square issue?
Suettinger: It was nowhere near as emotional and it was nowhere near as strong. And even though there has been, amongst American civil rights and human rights groups and individuals, a great sense of loss, and a great sense of anger at the PRC over the way this was all handled, at this point the distance between the United States and the PRC is greater than it was -- politically and ideologically and trade wise and so forth -- is considerably greater than it seemed to be in 1989.
RFA: Hu Yaobang is always seen as a historic figure, promoting China's liberalization, embracing the spirit of democracy, the conscience of the party. After studying his life, what do you think is most important legacy?
Suettinger: He always prided himself on being a man of integrity. He wasn't corrupt and a lot of people in the party by 1989 were certainly corrupt. He believed that the essence of reform was not a series of policies, but it was a series of attitudes and the attitudes included ‘If you, if you acknowledge that you've made a mistake, recognize it publicly and fix it. If you if you want to get policies right, pay attention to the people and their interests, and you won't go wrong.’ So he was always a person who promoted the interests of the laobaixing, the ordinary people of China, and people remember that. He was daring, in the sense that he made some speeches and promoted some ideas that were considered to be too far out in front by both Deng Xiaoping and especially by Chen Yun, and others amongst the elders in the party, and he and he kept pushing on them to change things for the better…Anytime he went into a different bureaucracy, he would fix it, he would basically say, ‘you've made a lot of mistakes and you need to correct them.’ And he did that every pretty much everywhere he went, so people in retrospect, looking at that record, say: ‘You know, we could use another guy like Hu Yaobang.’ And he did stand up for his values. He did promote democracy within the party, basically by opposing tyranny, and he recognized Mao was a tyrant. He recognized Deng was heading toward tyranny, and that the party was naturally disposed toward that kind of leadership. So his opposition to that made a lot of people aware of what he stood for.
RFA: Why did his believe and his approach conflict with Deng Xiaoping. Why did he fall?
There's a tendency among both Chinese and American students of political science to regard issues as being the main thing over which politicians divide themselves. And that's true to a degree in the PRC and within the Communist Party of China. But issues tend to become personal, and loyalties become more important than anything else, and personal relationships, and power. That's what Marxism Leninism is all about: the gaining of and the utilization of power, and power can be both institutional and it can be personal. With Deng Xiaoping it was personal…Hu Yaobang’s ouster came about because the party elders, and there were eight of them that were most important during that period in 1986, who finally said ‘Look, we've had enough of this guy; he's not doing what we want. We need to drop him.’ And so they took the same approach to Hu Yaobang that they took to Hua Guofeng in 1980, and they basically just wrote him out of the party. And Deng and Hu Yaobang’s relationship was never what you'd call terribly close. I think they respected each other, they played bridge together, but, but they weren't associates, and they certainly weren't friends.
RFA: Can you talks about the relationship between Hu and Xi Jinping's father, Xi Zhongxun?
Xi Zhongxun had been imprisoned by Mao early, and was in jail by 1964. Hu Yaobang was instrumental in Xi’s being released in the late 1970s, when he was the head of the Organization Department, and was going through a massive program of overturning the verdicts of the Cultural Revolution and before. So Xi Zhongxun was restored to his position, Hu Yaobang brought him into the Secretariat, and he in fact for a period was the Executive Secretary of the Central Secretariat, so he was sort of Hu’s his right-hand man for a while…When they had what was called a ‘party life’ meeting, which was basically a criticism session in January of 1987. The life meeting is a disciplinary procedure that is designed to for people to engage in criticism and self-criticism. Hua Guofeng, for example, exposed to a fairly brutal criticism section. Hu Yaobang’s session was much worse by comparison, and all of his old friends basically deserted him. The only one that did not was Xi Zhongxun, who stood up and said to the people who were organizing this was basically an illegal improper, out of the party charter ceremony that was that was inflicted on Hu Yaobang against this will….And Xi Zhongxun stood up and said: ‘This is absolutely ridiculous. What are you doing here? This is against the party's regulations. You need to stop.” And nobody else in this meeting, and there were 20 some people that were a part of it, including all the Politburo, all the Secretariat and a number of members of the Central Advisory Committee. Hu Yaobang had to stop Xi Zhongxun from really losing his temper. He said: ‘Don't worry about it, Zhongxun, I've got this.’ And he let it happen because he had basically understood that he was finished, and that this was just something he was going to have to suffer through, but Xi Zhongxun was very angry. It's interesting that the party has not made much of that in the period since that since that time. It's a story that just isn't much told.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.