January 6, 2001
New Window on Tiananmen Square Crackdown
By RICHARD BERNSTEIN
3 DECISION MAKERS Li Peng, left, pushed to use force on students in June 1989. Deng Xiaoping, center, was persuaded. Zhao Ziyang's calls for restraint were ignored.
• Who Wanted Troops in the Square, Who Didn't and What They Said About It (Jan. 6, 2000)
hroughout the day on May 17, 1989, with student-led protests occupying Beijing's Tiananmen Square and paralyzing much of the country, several of China's most powerful figures dropped by the home of the most powerful of them all, Deng Xiaoping, to discuss what to do.
"If things continue like this, we could even end up under house arrest," Deng warned his old comrades, according to a book of documents that its editors describe as classified Communist Party archives smuggled out of China. "After thinking long and hard about this, I've concluded that we should bring in the People's Liberation Army and declare martial law in Beijing."
The documents, which number in the hundreds and have been deemed authentic by several experts, appear in "The Tiananmen Papers," which will be published on Monday. [Excerpts, Page A6.] They depict how China's rulers decided to order a military crackdown that in June 1989 killed hundreds and put China's present leadership in place. They also suggest how deeply divided the top leaders were and how close the country came to embracing political change rather than crushing it.
Provided to American scholars by a shadowy Chinese figure who says he represents people in the Communist Party favoring more rapid change, the materials paint a vivid picture of the leadership during the Tiananmen crisis. While largely confirming impressions of how the crackdown came about, the documents detail internal arguments, the fears of the elderly leaders and the ways officials used those fears.
Inevitably, a central question is how certain one can be of the authenticity of the documents, which were provided as computer printouts. They include Politburo minutes, army and intelligence reports and memorandums of meetings that Deng held with his comrades. Several times in recent decades, Chinese documents initially hailed as important were later discredited. For example, a supposed inside account of the 1971 fall of Mao's designated successor, Lin Biao, was published to great interest in 1983 but is now of dubious credibility.
But in interviews, the scholars who have pored over the Tiananmen documents and helped translate and edit them — and who have intensely questioned the Chinese man who handed them over — have expressed the firm conviction that the material is authentic. Even so, they said, they are less certain that it accurately captures the reality of the period. "I believe that the documents are authentic," said James R. Lilley, the American ambassador during the protests and one of few experts besides the volume's editors to have examined the materials. "But I don't rule out the possibility that people might have played with the language to score certain points. In addition, the documents themselves contain material that is not true. For example, the reports on the C.I.A. are exaggerated and inflammatory to appeal to the paranoia of the Chinese leadership."
The documents indicate that the officials who formally held the top posts — the members of the Politburo Standing Committee — were split two to two, with one abstention, over whether to use force to end the protests. Without a majority, the hard- liners lacked standing to call in the troops.
But, according to the documents, the deadlock was broken by Deng and his octogenarian comrades, who had retired from most of their official posts but still held ultimate power. In this sense, the papers suggest an important conclusion, surmised before but now emerging more forcefully: that had it not been for Deng and the other elders, the moderates might have prevailed in the power struggle, averting bloodshed and inaugurating a period of greater political openness and economic liberalization.
There seems little doubt that the documents, which are to be published in Chinese in April and sold in places like Hong Kong, will slip into China and stir intense interest there, despite an almost complete ban on public discussion of the Tiananmen incident. Disclosure of the documents could erode the authority of two top Chinese leaders. One is Jiang Zemin, China's president and Communist Party general secretary, who was awarded the top posts after Deng and the elders dismissed the former party chief, Zhao Ziyang, for opposing martial law. The other is Li Peng, now the chairman of China's Parliament and the second-ranking figure in the Communist hierarchy, who was prime minister in 1989. Mr. Li in particular is depicted in the documents as manipulating information to encourage a crackdown. "The hard-liners that pushed the decision to use force, especially Li Peng, are still vulnerable on these issues, and these papers show how they acted," Ambassador Lilley said. "They show Li to be this guy with very little tolerance of dissent."
The Tiananmen protests began in mid- April 1989, at first to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, a former party leader and a symbol of political reform. The mourning turned into vast demonstrations for a free press, more open and representative government, a crackdown on corruption and inflation, and independent labor unions.
The translated collection of documents is being published by PublicAffairs, a nonfiction house in New York. The material was provided by a man going by a pseudonym, Zhang Liang, who has not disclosed his real name, former position or present whereabouts. He said in an interview that his purpose was to stimulate a reassessment inside China about Tiananmen, which is officially branded a criminal uprising. He says he is a party member who, with his friends, has tried to have the official judgment on Tiananmen reconsidered, which they believe essential if China is to become more democratic. But having been rebuffed in that effort, they decided to get the materials published elsewhere.
"To publish in the United States was our last choice, which we made only when there were no other options," Mr. Zhang said. He would provide no details on how the work was assembled or brought out of China. "We believe that only the Communist Party has the ability in China to carry out political reform," Mr. Zhang continued. "In this sense we are not dissidents trying to operate from outside the system." He compared his collaborators to people like Boris N. Yeltsin, a Communist who eventually helped bring down the Soviet system.
The material covers the six weeks of the Tiananmen crisis and the period immediately after the movement was suppressed. It offers a portrait of the personalities of some top leaders, the questions and fears that obsessed them, their style of debate. Deng, China's supreme leader, who died in 1997, comes across as both infuriated and tormented by the protests, which he saw as deeply damaging to his modernization strategy. According to the documents, he often voiced the opinion that the students were being manipulated by a "tiny minority" whose secret, unstated goal was the overthrow of Communism. Deng seemed to believe this minority was backed by outside countries, especially the United States. "Some Western countries use things like `human rights' or like saying the socialist system is irrational or illegal, to criticize us," Deng is quoted as saying on June 2, as leaders made plans to use force, "but what they're really after is our sovereignty."
Death estimates are far lower in the documents than some foreign observers believe. Two days after the crackdown, Mr. Li is quoted as telling the elders that about 23 soldiers and 200 civilians had been killed; foreign estimates ranged from several hundred to several thousand or more.
The documents depict the party elders losing faith in Mr. Zhao and discussing various candidates to replace him. Early on, they indicate, Deng seemed to favor Li Ruihuan, a moderate with a reputation as open-minded about political and economic change. But other senior figures are quoted as favoring Mr. Jiang, the party secretary of Shanghai, whom they praise for his resolute and hard-line stance in closing down what was then China's boldest newspaper. Deng, who is depicted as the key figure but also as deferential to other elders, apparently allowed himself to be convinced. "Comrades Chen Yun and Xiannian and I all lean toward Comrade Jiang Zemin for general secretary," Deng is quoted as saying later. "What do the rest of you think?" The documents show the rest of the elders readily agreeing, and that apparently is how Mr. Jiang came to vault over many more senior people to be China's top leader today.
Andrew J. Nathan, a Columbia University political scientist and the volume's main editor, collaborated with Perry Link, a literature scholar at Princeton University, and Orville Schell, a writer on Chinese affairs who is now dean of the Journalism School at the University of California at Berkeley. The three examined the documents over many months.
One cause of concern was the form of the materials provided by Mr. Zhang — computer printouts rather than originals. They also lack the incomplete sentences, hesitations and interruptions typical of real conversations. As is standard with such Chinese documents, they appear to have been edited. But Mr. Schell and the other scholars list reasons that convinced them of the collection's genuineness. Among these are Chinese intelligence reports on closed-door meetings of Western experts. Mr. Nathan and Mr. Lilley both said they had been able to track down some of the specialists referred to in the documents and verify the reports.