Chinese officials held a symposium on Sept. 9 to commemorate Yang Baibing (1920–2013), the commander-in-chief of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who led the bloody suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student demonstration.
The attendance of Zhao Leji, a key member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s top decision-making body, didn’t go unnoticed, leading to three questions: How should we evaluate Yang’s legacy? What is Zhao’s current situation? What was the purpose of the high-profile memorial?
As far as Yang is concerned, he had three roles. First, he was one of the key people who suppressed the Tiananmen student movement.
Meanwhile, Zhao’s attendance at the high-profile commemoration has led to widespread speculation about Xi’s intentions.
Some commentators pointed out that it was Jiang who deprived Yang of his military power through Deng. Meanwhile, Xi’s move to commemorate Yang with a high-profile memorial sends two major signals: First, the power struggle between Xi and Jiang has been exposed; and second, by vindicating the Yang brothers, Xi aims to consolidate his power and counter the Jiang faction. There are also China commentators who claim that Xi has always emphasized winning-over military veterans and their offspring—to treat the army as a private force and establish allegiance to the individual.
At present, the CCP faces domestic crises and fears that there will be large-scale protests. Therefore, it has repeatedly emphasized the unity of the army and absolute obedience to the Party's command.
However, one question sticks out: Why did Zhao attend the memorial, rather than other members of the Politburo Standing Committee? Wang Huning, a top Party official and close adviser to Xi, would have been more appropriate for the occasion. For example, Wang attended the April 2018 memorial meeting for Zhang Tingfa (1918–2010), a Chinese communist revolutionary and a major general in the PLA Air Force.
Xi leadership’s decision to have Zhao attend the Yang memorial is a dangerous move.
First, Zhao is in charge of political discipline and political punishment as the CCDI head. His presence at the memorial is a subtle hint that the Party wishes to redress Yang. It was Jiang who dismissed the Yang brothers, and now that the faction loyal to the two brothers no longer exists, there's no threat to the Jiang faction. For the sake of the "overall situation," Party "unity," and "saving face," the gesture will only add points for Xi and win people's hearts.
Second, Xi’s faction values Yang’s role in suppressing the Tiananmen pro-democracy student protesters. Now that the CCP appears to be on the verge of collapse, what if the Chinese people in the mainland stand up against the regime? Would it be like another Tiananmen democratic movement? Who could take on the heavy responsibility of carrying out another bloody suppression?
Xi's real intention is to make himself appear as if he is capable of suppressing dissent.
The Xi regime has always emphasized "bottom-line thinking" and has been making preparations in that regard and have given signals along those lines. In other words, they likely would send out the army to suppress any protesters. For instance, at the June 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, defense minister Wei Fenghe openly stated that China had done the right thing in quelling the 1989 student protests.
"Because of the handling of the Chinese government, China has enjoyed stability and development," he said.
Another example would be if Xi planned to send troops to Hong Kong to suppress the pro-democracy protesters there.
It's precisely because of "bottom-line thinking" that we have repeatedly seen the rigid policies of the Xi camp toward the people. Everyone has been very surprised that since the Sino–U.S. trade war started in 2018, the CCP has faced a sharply deteriorating international environment, but the regime still continues to engage in troublemaking—from pushing the Hong Kong extradition bill last year to implementing a national security law on the city this year, from interfering in Taiwan’s elections to escalating military threats on the self-ruled island, and from the illegal detention of millions of Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang to the current mandatory cancellation of Mongolian-language education in Inner Mongolia.
These were all intentional moves by Xi’s faction. Fearing that international relations could deteriorate and the Chinese people in the mainland could rise against the tyranny of the regime, the CCP feels the need to act first.
Most people would think that this kind of thinking is absurd, but the CCP is precisely such a monster. As the Chinese saying goes, those “whom the Heavens wish to destroy, will first be turned mad.”