Tiananmen: A Reporter Looks Back

Cracks are appearing in China's 'Great Wall of Silence' surrounding the military assault of June 3-4, 1989.
A commentary by Dan Southerland
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Ex-Beijing mayor Chen Xitong standing before a court as he was sentenced to 16 years in jail for misappropriating 39.2 million yuan (4.7 million dollars), July 31, 1998.
Ex-Beijing mayor Chen Xitong standing before a court as he was sentenced to 16 years in jail for misappropriating 39.2 million yuan (4.7 million dollars), July 31, 1998.

Chen Xitong, widely known as the Beijing mayor who advocated the Chinese army's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989, now says that the tragedy was regrettable.

Chen asserts in a new book that, contrary to most independent analysis as well as popular opinion, he did not push for the use of force.

With proper handling, the ex-mayor says, the loss of hundreds of lives during the crackdown could have been avoided.

My own reporting from Beijing during the 1989 crisis, like that of many other reporters at the time, supports the view that Chen Xitong was among the hardliners advocating the need to use force to suppress the protests at Tiananmen Square.

It was Chen who delivered a lengthy report to the National People's Congress on June 30, 1989, that constituted the Chinese government's definitive statement on "Checking the turmoil and quelling the counter-revolutionary rebellion."

Chen now says that he was forced to read this statement prepared by the ruling Chinese Communist Party leaders but that he did not support it.

Cracks in the wall

Why is a declaration of regret by Chen of any significance more than two decades after the military assault of June 3-4?

To begin with, this marks the first time in 23 years that a high-ranking Party official associated with the Tiananmen crackdown has openly expressed regret about the loss of lives  in 1989.

Moreover, Chen speaks of disagreements among top officials over Tiananmen at a time when the Party continues to maintain silence on the issue.

For more than two decades now, the Party's censors have managed to erase all mention of what actually happened in 1989 from the country's textbooks and state-run media.

Chen's new statements disagreeing with top-level decision-making at the time are not necessarily credible, but they constitute a rare crack in what some are calling the "wall of silence" over Tiananmen.

Spokesman distances self

Another, albeit smaller, crack in that wall appeared in a brief RFA telephone interview on May 30 with China's former State Council spokesman Yuan Mu.

Yuan, who had spoken at a news conference in Beijing on June 6, 1989,  in defense of the army's actions, had little to say to RFA about his views at the time.

"I can't express them clearly on the phone," he said.

"I don't really know about [the leaders'] business," he said.  "Don't ask me. Go and ask someone who really understands the situation."

He said that he hadn't read the book of interviews with Chen Xitong in which Chen said that he had not masterminded the crackdown.

In effect, Yuan seemed to be distancing himself from the leaders of the Tiananmen crackdown.

Chen's turnaround

In a foreword to the new book based on a series of interviews given by Chen, Wu Guoguang, a professor at the University of Victoria, says that Chen, now turning 82 years old and ailing, is worried about his place in history.

Chen was fired from his job as mayor in 1995.

He was tried for corruption and sentenced to 16 years in jail in 1998 but was released early for medical reasons.

Chen's interviews were published in Hong Kong by New Century Press.

In the interviews, Chen seems particularly intent on disputing former Premier Li Peng's description of him as the "chief commander" of the martial law center in Beijing in 1989.

Li Peng's remarks on Chen were revealed in what were purported to be extracts from his diary leaked to New Century Press and published in 2010.

In an earlier memoir produced in secrecy, former Premier and Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang gives an account that also contradicts Chen's new version of events.

According to Zhao, the three key officials who labeled a major student demonstration in the spring of 1989 as an "organized and carefully plotted political struggle" were Li Peng, Chen Xitong, and Li Ximing, the Beijing Party secretary.

Chen and Li Ximing, Zhao says, reported to the Politburo Standing Committee in late April 1989 that student protesters were opposing the Communist Party and targeting paramount leader Deng Xiaoping personally.

But, according to Zhao, the two "disregarded the fact that the student demonstrations had already calmed down. In fact, student opinions had begun diverging."

Reappraisal doubted

Some observers now ask if Chen's turnaround is a precursor of a Chinese government reassessment of its own official verdict condemning the pro-democracy movement of 1989.

The initial signs inside China 23 years after the crackdown are not encouraging.

In Hunan Province on June 4, activist Ouyang Jinghua said that police had confiscated banners calling for a reappraisal of the official verdict on the 1989 protest movement.

Police used violence on June 3 against activists marking the anniversary of the crackdown in the southeast province of Fujian.

They also detained at least 30 activists from eastern Zhejiang Province at a railway station in Beijing on June 2 and put them on a bus back to their hometown.

Fujian-based rights activist Wu Linxiang said she and her husband were detained after they unfurled a banner calling for a reappraisal.

Perry Link, a professor at the University of California Riverside, who was a co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers published in early 2001, does not believe that a Chinese government reassessment of Tiananmen is likely any time soon.

"My impression is that Chen Xitong, like Li Peng a couple of years ago, is just trying to shake off personal responsibility for the massacre, even though both he and Li Ximing were feeding Deng a steady diet of stuff that Deng used in order to reach his decision."

"I don't think that Chen's book or any whispers from [current Premier] Wen Jiabao signal any movement among the guys at the top to reverse the verdict on June 4."

"That would open an ideological can of worms that they could not handle. They're still way too afraid to try that, I think."

Dan Southerland is RFA's Executive Editor





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