Obituary: Yang Shangkun

Andrew Higgins
Monday 14 September 1998 23:02

"PEOPLE SAY my hands are stained with blood," said Yang Shangkun plaintively at a private dinner a year after the army attack on Tiananmen Square. The table fell silent, one of the guests reported later. President Yang repeated his remark. Still no one dared break the stunned silence. The second most important man in China had uttered a terrible but unassailable truth: the bloodshed around Tiananmen on 3-4 June 1989 still clung to his name like an indelible stain.

Rightly or wrongly, Yang Shangkun is the man most closely associated in the minds of ordinary Chinese with the decision to use lethal force against student protesters. His was the voice that, on the night of 19 May 1989, boomed from loudspeakers around Tiananmen Square and from television sets across China: "To restore normal order and stabilise the situation there is no choice but to move units of the People's Liberation Army to the vicinity of Peking . . . If this state of affairs is allowed to continue then our capital will not be a capital."

From that moment until the final assault nearly two weeks later, President Yang, acting in tandem with Prime Minister Li Peng, was the principal public spokesman for a hardline military response to China's biggest explosion of dissent since the 1949 revolution.

That Yang played a key role in the 4 June crackdown is beyond doubt. As Vice-Chairman of the Communist party's Central Military Commission, he took the lead in rallying waverers within the military. "We can no longer retreat. We must launch an offensive," he told a crucial closed- door meeting of senior officers in Peking on 24 May. If anyone declined, he warned, they would be "punished according to military law". In China, that could mean a bullet in the back of the neck. Students and other protests were themselves never in any doubt about Yang's role. Tiananmen was filled with posters attacking him by name and caricatures portraying him as a bloodthirsty warlord.

If anything, though, President Yang's position at the centre of popular demonology overstates his own importance and underestimates what had long been the key to his political career: his friendship with and loyalty to Deng Xiaoping. It was Deng, not Yang, who decided to call in the army and again Deng who took the fatal decision to open fire when crowds of protesters blocked their way. Some even say Yang initially sided with the conciliatory policy of the then party secretary Zhao Ziyang. Whatever his reservations, though, he quickly and enthusiastically fell into line once his long-time associate and fellow Long March veteran Deng Xiaoping fixed a course of confrontation rather than conciliation.

The precise date of Yang's first contact with Deng is not known. According to perhaps tainted but not necessarily untrue reports from Taiwan, it was President Yang's brother, Yang Yinggong, who first introduced the young Deng Xiaoping to the Communist party in Shanghai in the 1920s. Like Deng, Yang was born in the inland province of Sichuan and joined the Communist cause in his late teens.

Sent to Shanghai to study in 1925, Yang joined the Communist youth league and left two years later to study in Moscow at the Sun Yat-sen University, a Soviet-sponsored training ground for China's revolution. Deng too studied there briefly but left before Yang arrived. After four years of study in Moscow, Yang returned to China in 1931, a member of the "Group of 28 Bolsheviks" dispatched by Stalin to reorganise China's struggling Communist cause.

What is notable about Yang's Moscow experience, however, is how quickly he forgot what Stalin's teachers had taught him and how nimbly he avoided the cloud that would later fall on many of his former classmates. Sent back to China to run the political department of the First Red Army in the Communist base area of Jiangxi, he came into contact for the first time with the home-grown revolutionary theories and military tactics of Mao Tse-tung. Mao's views, which stressed rural rather than urban revolution and guerrilla rather than conventional warfare, were vindicated when, in 1934, advancing Kuomintang troops forced the battered Red Army to leave its fortified encampments and embark on the epic Long March.

The Long March confronted Yang with what was probably the most important decision of his entire career: should he support Mao's right to run the revolution as he saw fit or side with fellow Moscow-educated "Bolsheviks"? He chose the former. In January 1935, he took part in the critical Zunyi Conference, allying himself with Mao against the Comintern-appointed German advisor Otto Braun and the party's pro-Russian faction led by Bo Gu and Wang Ming. The details of Yang's role at the meeting - also attended by Deng - are not known but he somehow managed to convince Mao that he was a loyal ally and thus escape subsequent purges of the Moscow faction.

Wounded by bomb splinters in his leg during a Kuomintang air-raid, Yang emerged from the Long March a member of the party elite that would dominate Chinese politics for the next 50 years. Compared with Mao, Chou En-lai, Liu Shaoqi and others, however, he remained a relatively minor member of this elite - though recent propaganda has sought to glorify his role. Moreover, for a man so intimately associated with the military in subsequent years, he had suprisingly little combat experience.

Like Deng Xiaoping, he devoted himself to political and ideological work rather than battle tactics. No great victories are linked to his name and he spent most of the war against Japan leading a drama troupe rather than soldiers. But his loyalty to Mao, like that to Deng decades later, was not without reward. In 1945, he was promoted to secretary-general of the party's military commission and, four years later, became director of the party's general office, a post he would keep for 17 years and which cemented his ties to Deng, the party's secretary general from 1956.

His close links with the party apparatus and intimate knowledge of its party's secrets, however, were later to prove his undoing. By the mid- Sixties Mao had grown bitterly distrustful of the party's institutionalised bureaucracy and turned on his former friends and battle comrades with vengeful fury.

The result was the Cultural Revolution. Yang was one of its first victims. Arrested in July 1966, he was accused of plotting "underground" activities, condemned as a "black general" and subjected to a harrowing "struggle session" before hundreds of thousands of Red Guards. Accusations ranged from spying for both the Russians and the Americans, for whom he supposedly tapped Mao's phone lines. Jailed for longer than any other Long March commander, he was held for 12 years until 1979, when Deng had him rehabilitated and sent to help repair the wreckage of the Cultural Revolution in the southern province of Guangdong.

When Deng needed a safe pair of hands to help him run the military in 1981, he called Yang back to Peking and made him Secretary General of the all-important Central Military Commission. Having won Deng's favour and trust, he continued his ascent, winning a politburo post and further promotion within the military commission the following year and the title of state president in 1988. Apparently a man of firm convictions of his own beyond loyalty and self-preservation, he promoted Deng's notions of economic reform and helped clear the way for a radical reorganisation and streamlining of the military.

Despite his growing importance as Deng's right-hand man, however, he failed to make much of an impression on ordinary Chinese. Many, particularly intellectuals mocked his foppish dress, his jovial, often coarse manner, and reputation as an ageing playboy. For many he was a buffoon, a powerful one but hardly a man of weight. Then, in June 1989, the joking stopped.

Overnight, Yang Shangkun became perhaps the most hated man in China. He had performed the ultimate act of loyalty - when Deng said open fire he obeyed.

Andrew Higgins

Yang Shangkun, revolutionary and politician: born Shuangjiang, Tongnan County, Sichuan Province, China 1907; Member, Communist Party China 1925- 90; Member, Central Committee 1956-66; President of the People's Republic of China 1988-93; married c1935 Li Bozhao (died 1985); died 14 September 1998.

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