National Security Archive

Tiananmen at 25 Years

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Marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the crushing of the Tiananmen protests, the National Security Archive is posting 25 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) records relating to the event and its aftermath.

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Deng Xiaoping

Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader from 1978-1992 (photo credit: Carter White House Photographs Collection).

SSignificant cleavages existed within the Chinese political leadership and security apparatus over the decision to use force against student protesters at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, according to US military intelligence. Declassified reports citing well-placed sources inside China describe sharp differences among some of the country’s military and political elite, as well as a range of other security-related concerns with important implications for the political longevity of the Chinese leadership.

Marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the crushing of the Tiananmen protests, the National Security Archive is posting 25 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) records relating to the event and its aftermath. The Archive obtained the documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).1

Among the highlights of the DIA reporting cables are the following vivid accounts of events on the ground in Beijing during and after June 1989. (The local attachés are careful to note that the reports they are receiving are «not finally evaluated intelligence.» In fact, at one point an author comments: «Each day everyone seems to have a new horror story about China» (Document 11). Nevertheless, these depictions effectively convey some of the great drama of the period:)

  • In the heat of the moment, rumors flew, including that paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had died (he lived until 1997); without accepting the rumor as true, a DIA cable noted that at a minimum there was «great chaos among the high-level military leadership» (Document 4)
  • Facing a «continuous stream of victims,» doctors at a central Beijing hospital refused to turn over corpses to security officers when they discovered the bodies were being cremated before they could be identified (Document 17)
  • Risking their own lives, pedicab drivers — hailed by one source as «the real heroes» — were critical to the effort to get the wounded and dead to medical treatment (Document 17)
  • Some reports indicated military forces brought in from outside Beijing were spotted «laughing» and «shooting at random» at civilians (Document 9)
  • Arrests of student protesters continued for months, to the point where the capital reportedly ran out of prison space for them (Document 19)
  • Public reaction to the violence included a run on the Shanghai branch of the Bank of China that required the Army to airlift large quantities of foreign currency to meet demand (Document 20)
  • Fears of «counterrevolutionary» retaliation abounded, including concerns that Chinese passengers planes might be bombed (Document 11)
Hu Yaobang

Former Chinese Party leader Hu Yaobang shortly before his death in April 1989, an event which touched off the massive protests at Tiananmen Square. (photo credit:

The question of whether China’s ruling Communist authorities were united in ordering a bloody crackdown on student protests has been debated since 1989. Secret US intelligence analyses concluded significant divisions existed. A CIA assessment from August that year described some high-ranking officers as being opposed to bloody force on principle while others were suspicious that hardliners were secretly planning a coup against party leader Zhao Ziyang (see the CIA analysis here).

In January 2001, The Tiananmen Papers, a collection of secret documents smuggled out of the Chinese archives, was published in the West and purported to show a much more limited split — one that existed «only at the top,» and did not reach throughout the system.2 More recently, an account in The New York Times3, based on interviews, leaked Chinese records and recent scholarship, essentially draws the same conclusion as the CIA analysis of 25 years ago but with considerable evidence that both senior officers and rank-and-file soldiers had basic qualms about confronting their fellow citizens with lethal force.

Li Peng

Li Peng, China’s premier, declared martial law on May 20, 1989, in response to growing protests in Tiananmen Square (photo credit: World Economic Forum).

That viewpoint finds further support in the cables published today. At the same time, the records implicitly show that a more nuanced take on the issue is probably required. As one report (Document 12) points out, «reluctance» does not always mean «disobedience.»

This selection of 25 reports and analyses covers a range of security-related topics that were the typical focus of the DIA officers who collected the intelligence as well as those who analyzed the data in Washington. Originating from DIA headquarters and various overseas missions, the cables should be read in conjunction with other intelligence materials, White House records, and State Department and Beijing Embassy reporting contained in previous National Security Archive publications. The latter include two Electronic Briefing Books on Tiananmen and two large compilations of declassified documents on the US and China published as part of the «Digital National Security Archive» through ProQuest (see the links at top left of this posting).

Given DIA’s mission, the cables also focus on such issues as the uniformed services’ role in suppressing dissent, the relationship between the military and various police forces, as well as connections between the state of the country’s security apparatus and the ongoing succession struggles within China’s political system.

The Documents

Document 1: Cable from [excised] to AIG 9190, «IIR [excised]/ Internal Friction among Top Political Leaders in China,» Confidential/Noforn, April 14, 1989

A high-ranking official, whose identity is excised for security reasons, gives DIA officials insights into the ongoing leadership struggle between Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng. A few months earlier, according to the source, Li Peng derided Zhao at a top leadership meeting: «I don’t see how a person who is always playing golf can know anything.» The events at Tiananmen would decide the competition in favor of Li Peng and other hardliners.

Document 2: Cable from DIA Headquarters to [excised], «China: Student Protests,» Confidential/Noforn, April 19, 1989

Four days before this cable was written, former General Secretary Hu Yaobang died, an event that helped touch off mass student protests against high-level government corruption and other issues. At this stage, the government reacts with a degree of «tolerance,» but the authors predict the leadership may feel forced to take much stronger measures to keep order even at the risk of losing support among less hardline elements and losing face internationally in the lead-up to a high-profile Sino-Soviet summit with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Document 3: Cable from DIA Headquarters to [excised], «China – Students Demonstrating for Democracy,» Confidential, May 19, 1989

A month after the protests started, «the pressure is building» on China’s leaders in the wake of numerous rallies, a hunger strike and a demonstration of «about a million people» in Tiananmen Square the day before this cable is written. The authors optimistically foresee «serious concessions» in the making even as the authorities are reported to have begun moving troops into the capital. They see Zhao Ziyang as the most popular official figure with the students and remark on Deng Xiaoping’s (initially repudiated) hardline approach to the protests. Overall, the authorities appear at a loss over what to do, which the analysis implies may contribute, along with other factors, to a «crisis of legitimacy» for the Communist Party.

Document 4: Cable from DIA Headquarters to [excised], «Crisis in Beijing: ((Deng)) Xiaoping Reportedly Dead; President ((Yang)) Shangkun Orchestrates Military Crackdown in Beijing,» Secret/Noforn/Wnintel, June 5, 1989

The day before this cable was sent, China’s authorities brutally crushed the demonstrations with military force. Reflecting the continuing confusion of the moment, DIA headquarters reports — prematurely (by almost 8 years) — on the apparent demise of hardline leader Deng Xiaoping. Although the identity of the source is excised, he is evidently a foreign government official who is in a position to telephone his Chinese counterparts directly (i.e. presumably from a country relatively closely allied with Beijing). Unfortunately, the source’s information is vastly off the mark, making the subsequent piece of news — that Deng’s last words were, «Originally, I did not want to use force» — equally suspect. Closer to the truth is the cable’s conclusion that «there is great chaos among the high-level military leadership,» with or without Deng’s fictitious passing.

Document 5: Cable from [excised] to DIA Headquarters, «IIR [excised] Martial Law and Public Security,» Confidential, June 6, 1989

As usual, the source’s identity for this report is excised, but he (his gender is provided) is presumably Chinese and has access to security facilities. The main subject of this report is the existence of divisions between regular police and the People’s Armed Police (PAP) on the one hand and other public security organs (i.e. the army) on the other. For example, the source indicates that roughly 200 policemen-in-training regularly demonstrated along with the other protesters. This along with a general lack of crowd control training are offered as reasons why the army handled the crackdown rather than the police.

Document 6: Cable from DIA Headquarters to [excised], «China: Relations Worsening,» Confidential/Noforn, June 7, 1989

One of the Chinese leadership’s fears — a deterioration in relations with important foreign partners — is discussed here. In this case, the erstwhile partner is the United States which has just suspended military sales to Beijing because of the suppression of the demonstrations. The Chinese suspect Washington has some involvement with the protests, among other complicating factors.

Document 7: Cable from [excised] to DIA Headquarters, «IIR [excised] Military Region Commanders Insthye [sic] Equation,» Secret/Noforn, June 17, 1989

This analysis treats the question of the role of regional military commanders in quelling the student protests. It draws attention to a rumor that hardline figure Yang Shangkun summoned a meeting of these commanders at the end of May but that several if not all of them declined to attend — a circumstance rife with potential significance. The cable goes on to cite additional open-source intelligence and to identify several commanders and their likely stances on the question of using force.

Document 8: Cable from Joint Staff to [excised], «IIR [excised]/Chinese Military Attaché Comments on Situation in China,» Confidential/Noforn, July 5, 1989

A Chinese attaché posted in an unidentified country offers some intelligence on the political situation. Deng is said to be securely in control in Beijing despite his age and health. The source denies the authorities ever faced losing control of the army but acknowledges the picture is «complicated» and that a prolonged «investigation (read: crackdown)» is about to ensue.

Document 9: Cable from Joint Staff to [excised], «[Excised]/China Scenes,» Secret/Noforn/Wnintel, July 5, 1989

The unnamed source in this cable reports on events personally observed in Beijing during the lead-up to the violence and as the events unfolded on June 3. Apparently not from Beijing (the source stayed at a hotel in the capital), the individual provides information about the government’s initial attempts at a «one by one» crackdown before bringing in troops in large numbers. The main component of the assault is said to have been from the 27th Army, which reportedly did not use a Beijing dialect and allegedly was «laughing» and «shooting at random.» The source discounts some of this information as rumor but adds that the 28th and 38th armies were allegedly «opposed to the 27th Army.» The individual further adds that Deng had surgery just before Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in Beijing and was not in good health. «Further, he did not want to take any repressive actions while Gorbachev was in China that could implicate» the Soviet ruler.

Document 10: Cable from [excised] to DIA Headquarters, «IIR [excised] Military Mobilization under Martial Law,» Confidential, July 17, 1989 [Fragment of cable]

A source provides a detailed breakdown of elements assigned to different armies of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as well as their standard levels of readiness and their disposition during phases of the crackdown. One of the armies described is the 38th Army, whose commander, Major General Xu Qinxian, (not named in the document), refused to resort to force against the protesters, according to a much later report in The New York Times. «I’d rather be beheaded than be a criminal in the eyes of history,» the general told a historian later, according to the Times.4 Unfortunately, this cable is incomplete; the full version might go on to describe the 38th Army and its leadership in more detail.

Document 11: Cable from Joint Staff to [excised], «IIR [excised] Apprehension about Bombs on CAAC Flights,» Confidential, July 21, 1989

A Hong Kong-based source reports current anxieties among travelers to Beijing that «Chinese counter-revolutionaries» might be planning to place bombs on Chinese passenger aircraft, adding that even Chinese security personnel seem to be wary of the possibility. An alternative theory is that extra scrutiny of containers being loaded onto airplanes is aimed at finding students being smuggled out of the country. The authors comment: «Each day everyone seems to have a new horror story about China.»

Document 12: Cable from [excised] to DIA Headquarters, «IIR [excised] Domestic Situation in China and Sino-Soviet Relations,» Confidential/Noforn, August 7, 1989

Another source offers his views on the current state of play within the PLA hierarchy, based in part on a Kremlinology-style reading of press accounts of public military celebrations. The source believes the PLA had «no serious breakdown» during the Tiananmen events. While he had heard reports that some military regions had shown an unwillingness to take part, he noted that «reluctance does not mean disobedience,» in the wording of the cable. He follows with an assessment of the problems posed for the US and China by dissident Fang Lizhi, and a comment that Soviet leader Gorbachev will be «much more comfortable after the death of Deng.» Whereas the USSR had disavowed the «hard approach» in favor of the «soft approach,» China had done the opposite. «The two countries remain traditional enemies,» the cable concludes.

Document 13: Cable from Joint Staff to [excised], «IIR [excised]/Chinese Riot Control Police Units,» Confidential, August 8, 1989

This report details Chinese attempts to bolster the preparedness of riot control units. Although events as long ago as three years earlier had exposed deficiencies in methodology and trained personnel, little was done until the beginning of 1989 when the authorities launched a two-year project aimed at emulating Japanese techniques. Because civil units were not ready when the protests broke out, the leadership brought in the PLA, which itself had no experience with riot control and therefore, according to this report, resorted to «brute force» resulting «in the massacre of many Chinese demonstrators.»

Document 14: Cable from DIA Headquarters to [excised], «Special Assessment for Customers of DIA NADA INTSUM,» Secret, August 15, 1989

This 21-page document differs from the rest of the items in this posting in that it is not passing along information from sources but providing in-depth analysis of the events surrounding the Tiananmen catastrophe. It incorporates political as well as military topics, describing events such as Mikhail Gorbachev’s «embarrassing» visit and going into detail about the day-to-day unfolding of the crisis. The authors offer assessments of why martial law was slow to take effect, including the surfacing of disagreements within the party and military leaderships. They conclude most of the rifts were resolved by the end of May, in part because of a genuine shared concern about the spread of disorder. The cable ends with a lengthy discussion of the consequences of the episode for China and its rulers.

Document 15: Cable from [excised] to DIA Headquarters, «IIR [excised]/Democracy Movement Alive,» Confidential, August 29, 1989

This report notes «a slow return to normalcy in the ‘after hours counterculture'» of nightclubs and rock concerts. A dissident is quoted as saying «the goal hasn’t changed, we are moving along slowly (taking it easy), slowly changing our thinking, but we are still alive.»

Document 16: Cable from [excised] to [excised], «IIR [excised] Security Situation in Beijing, Dalian, Yantai, and Shanghai Cities, China,» Confidential/Noforn, August 30, 1989

An unnamed source describes mostly «normal» conditions and no signs of disorder in various parts of the country, but the authorities are carrying out careful inspections of Chinese travelers, among other indicators all is not as it seems. City dwellers are said to be largely aware of the Tiananmen events but people in more remote areas and villages still tend to blame «villains» for provoking riots. Interestingly, a group of Chinese acquaintances of the source reacted suspiciously to a taped statement by a pro-democracy student leader, saying it «might be a fabrication by the West.»

Document 17: Cable from Joint Staff to [excised], «IIR [excised] Disposition of Tiananmen Massacre Victims,» Confidential/Noforn, August 31, 1989

A doctor in a central hospital in Beijing proudly describes the staff’s conduct in not only treating a «continuous stream of victims» from June 4-5 but in refusing to turn over corpses to public security authorities who they discovered were cremating them before they could be positively identified. The doctor also expressed pride in the fact that most of the staff were US-trained. She believed that the staff’s «friends in the US» would «protect them [from] persecution.» The «real heroes» of the «massacre,» according to the source for the cable, were «the flatcar pedicab operators who volunteered their services to transport the wounded and dead … at the risk of losing their own lives.»

Document 18: Cable from DIA Headquarters to [excised], «China: Pressure Tactics,» Confidential, August 31, 1989

Betraying their acute sensitivity to international condemnation for the Tiananmen violence, Chinese officials apply «strong pressure» on the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva to reject a resolution critical of Beijing’s handling of the crisis. One delegate reports «he has never been under such pressure.»

Document 19: Cable from Joint Staff to [excised], «IIR [excised] Conditions in Beijing under Martial Law as of 10 August 1989,» Confidential/Noforn, October 3, 1989

Most signs of the crisis have disappeared by this time. Yet, road blocks exist, pedestrians continue to be banned from the main road leading to Tiananmen Square, a curfew is in effect at night, and inspections and searches routinely occur. Troops at central locations look «sharp,» according to observers, but other units appear «slovenly» and «lack discipline.» Authorities reportedly are concerned about the potential threat from armed civilians, and political leaders rarely leave their homes. With martial law still in effect, student arrests continue, to the point where «the government has more arrested students than they have prison space.»

Document 20: Cable from Joint Staff to [excised], «IIR [excised] PLAAF Airlifts Foreign Exchange to Shanghai, June 1989,» Confidential, November 15, 1989

One of the unanticipated effects of the Tiananmen crisis was a run on certain Chinese banks. According to this report, based partly on Chinese published accounts, the Shanghai branch of the Bank of China had to call on the Army to fly in planeloads of foreign currency to counter a flood of withdrawals in the days immediately after the clampdown, a task reportedly performed with unusual speed and efficiency.

Document 21: Cable from Joint Staff to [excised], «IIR [excised]/ The New MC Leadership – A Postmortem Analysis,» Confidential, November 27, 1989

This lengthy cable reports on results of the Fifth Plenum which named Jiang Zemin, already head of the party, as chairman of the Central Military Commission (MC). Although the promotion of Jiang and others is meant to stabilize the political scene, the authors explore «unsettling» evidence to the contrary. Among signs of problems are public expressions of concern by Chinese officials and media about the prolongation of martial law and a general lack of adherence to party decisions. The report characterizes the current leadership setting as a «hostile political environment.» It goes on to describe the position of several key players — including Deng, Jiang, Yang Shangkun and his brother, Yang Baibing — and assesses additional organizational changes and developments (with a lengthy concluding passage excised for national security reasons).

Document 22: Cable from DIA Headquarters to [excised], [Title Excised], Secret/Wnintel/Noforn, April 17, 1990

A year after the first demonstrations in Tiananmen Square following the death of Hu Yaobang, the authorities make a show of normalcy by opening the square to public access but «many plainclothes security officers» are in evidence.

Document 23: Cable from Joint Staff to [excised], «IIR [excised]/The Directory of PRC Military Personalities,» Confidential, August 31, 1990

Typically a subject of abiding interest to the DIA is the release of a new directory of foreign military figures. The latest edition listing China’s top-ranking officers is particularly interesting for US military intelligence since it follows an «eventful and crucial period in the history of the People’s Republic» and reflects «sweeping reshuffles» throughout the military establishment. In describing the details, this cable notes that seven of ten regional commanders have been taken from other regions, indicating a continuing concern about the development of competing power centers.

Document 24: Cable from Joint Staff to [excised], «IIR [excised]/Beijing’s Central Garrison Division and Its Possible Role in Determining a Post-Deng Xiaoping Successor,» Confidential/Noforn, April 10, 1991

Two years after Tiananmen, the power plays continue among the Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng and other factions. As always, the military is seen as a central factor. This cable notes the interest of all concerned in gaining the support of the Central Garrison Division (known for, among other things, helping with the arrest of the «Gang of Four» in 1967). The CGD’s backing is considered «vital» for any person or group hoping to retain power in China. In describing the current state of play, the cable touches on the role of various players in the June 1989 crackdown, noting in passing that several Military Region commanders had been «passive in carrying out orders from headquarters» during the crisis and were later replaced.

Document 25: Cable from DIA Headquarters to [excised], «China: Security,» Confidential, January 10, 1992

Almost three years after the student protests, «widespread dissatisfaction persists,» «emboldened» in part by the sense of some dissidents that growing international pressure on China will help protect them from retribution. At the same time, this report notes ominously that a recent gathering of senior security officials is believed to have ended with agreement on assigning priority to the «suppression of dissent» over «criminal activity.»


[1] The requests were originally filed by Archive staffer Michael Evans.

[2] The Tiananmen Papers, (New York: PublicAffairs, 2001), p. xxxiii.

[3] Andrew Jacobs and Chris Buckley, «Tales of Army Discord Show Tiananmen Square in a New Light,» The New York Times, June 2, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

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These materials are reproduced from with the permission of the National Security Archive. Edited by Malcolm Byrne. For more information contact: (202) 994-7000

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