Chinese General Who Defied Orders to Crush Tiananmen Protests Dies at 85

‘I would rather be killed than become a sinner of history,’ said Xu Qinxian, who commanded the elite 38th Army.
January 11, 2021, 10:44am
Tiananmen Square, 1989, pro-democracy protests, tanks, crackdown
The 1989 protests centered on Beijing's Tiananmen Square ended with a bloody crackdown. Photo: MANUEL CENETA / AFP

When student-led pro-democracy protests in China entered their second month in the spring of 1989, Chinese leaders ordered the People’s Liberation Army to enforce martial law and quash the protests. 

One army leader refused to obey the order and was thrown in jail. 

The defiant commander, General Xu Qinxian, died in his home last week. His death has prompted an outpouring of grief from former leaders of the protests, as well as sympathizers with the protests.

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Xu, 85, who had been bedridden in recent years, died from choking on the morning of January 8, according to exiled former student leader Wang Dan, who confirmed the death with a common friend with Xu’s family.  

“He was one of the few military people who kept their conscience,” Wang, a student leader of the 1989 movement who now lives in the United States, told VICE World News. “Xu resisted the order out of the belief that the people’s army should not be used to suppress the people. He upheld his honor as a soldier. ” 

Xu Qinxian

Xu Qinxian refused to follow orders to quash the 1989 pro-democracy protests. Photo courtesy of RTHK

The 1989 protests, a nationwide movement against corruption, inflation and authoritarian rule, ended with a bloody crackdown. On the night of Jun. 3, Chinese troops opened fire and killed an estimated hundreds of civilians in central Beijing.

In the past three decades, the ruling Communist Party has been ruthlessly wiping out all mentions of the movement. With the passing of witnesses such as Xu, those intent on preserving memories of the event are engaged in a battle against time and one of the world’s most sophisticated systems of information control.

While the pro-democracy movement has been labeled “counter-revolutionary riots” by the party, Xu and other defiant figures within the establishment have demonstrated a discord within the party elites and continued to serve as symbols of resistance. 

A book on China’s political history by historian and former journalist Yang Jisheng, who had interviewed Xu, offers the most detailed account of the general’s life.

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Raised in an impoverished family in the border province of Liaoning, Xu joined the Chinese military as a radio operator during the 1950-53 Korean War, when China was fighting alongside North Korea against the U.S.-led United Nations troops. He was underaged and too young to join the army, so he wrote a letter with his own blood pleading to become a soldier. In the following decades, Xu gradually worked his way up to command the elite 38th Army. 

In May 1989, when student protesters occupied Tiananmen Square, Xu was following news reports from a hospital, where he was being treated for kidney stones. On May 17, the general was summoned for a meeting in Beijing on enforcing martial law. 

Unlike other commanders, Xu refused to participate in the suppression, according to Yang’s account, and went back to the hospital. He said he was prepared for death. 

“I would rather be killed than become a sinner of history,” Xu was quoted as saying. He was soon detained. 

On June 2, two days before the military opened fire at unarmed civilians and ended the protests, protesters broadcast the news about Xu’s dismissal from his military post to the crowds on Tiananmen Square, Yang wrote in his diary, which was included in the book. 

Xu was later stripped of Communist Party membership and sentenced to five years in jail by a military court. After being freed, he was allowed to keep his military remuneration and spend his retirement in the northern city of Shijiazhuang. 

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The story of Xu’s disobedience was nowhere to be found within China’s walled-off internet and his death was not reported by any newspaper.

On social media, a handful of users commented on Xu’s death while carefully avoiding any mention of the taboo history of the Tiananmen Square crackdown that would trigger censorship.

“Mr. Xu Qinxian has passed away. He was jailed for five years because of a certain event,” a Weibo user wrote. “Hope he rests in peace.”

Another post about Xu’s death has been shared more than 280 times. Many users commented with the candle emoji.

“People have memories,” one commentator said.

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.