By Hon. David Kilgour, J.D.
In the spring of 1989, following the death of the former reform-minded Party Secretary Hu Yaobang, hundreds of thousands of Beijing residents took their complaints about widespread party corruption and other governance issues to the streets. Shielded by the presence of numerous foreign journalists covering the visit to China’s capital by then President Mikhail Gorbachev of Russia, many also demanded democracy, the rule of law and freedom of media. Their courage inspired demonstrations in 80 cities across the country, and estimates that about 100 million persons from all walks of life participated in the protests.
Then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who had twice been purged by hard-liner Mao and thus might have become a bridge to post-communism, pluralism and representative government, like his visitor Gorbachev, tragically opted instead to characterize events as a “counterrevolutionary riot.” Wuer Kaixi, one of the protest leaders, noted, “We repeatedly communicated to senior levels of the government that if they wished the students to withdraw they had to ‘give them a ladder to stand down’… or else they would not go.”