A crack in the wall

The publication of "The Tiananmen Papers," the first look behind the scenes at how the Communist Party leadership decided to crush the democracy movement, is a historic event -- and may have far-reaching consequences for China.

Published February 2, 2001 8:25PM (EST)

Modern revolutions aren't always clad in velvet -- and they don't always win. That's what we learned when the Chinese government ordered the People's Liberation Army to use its tanks to clear the student protesters from Tiananmen Square in 1989, killing hundreds if not thousands of people. The tragedy that unfolded in Tiananmen Square remains the defining political event, with the Cultural Revolution, of contemporary Chinese history. But no one, aside from those involved, has ever known exactly how the Chinese leadership arrived at its fateful decision to crush the budding democracy movement. What happened inside the fortified walls of Zhongnanhai, China's leadership compound, has remained a mystery.

Until now. Maybe.

"The Tiananmen Papers," published in January by Public Affairs and edited and vetted by three prominent American Sinologists, purports to be the official record of the Chinese government's struggle in deciding how to respond to the student uprising. Its appearance in Chinese this spring could have profound consequences, both social and political.

If authentic, these papers have their provenance in the highest levels of government in Zhongnanhai. Columbia University political science professor Andrew Nathan and Princeton University professor of Chinese Perry Link edited the papers with the help of U.C.-Berkeley journalism school dean Orville Schell, who helped vet the papers and wrote the book's afterword. (Full disclosure: Schell is a Salon contributor.) The papers were compiled by the pseudonymous Zhang Liang, whose anonymity was a condition of publishing the documents.

Not surprisingly, "The Tiananmen Papers" is highly addictive reading: You want to believe every word of a publication that sheds more light on the inner workings of Chinese government than any document released in the past quarter-century. It's also one of the best-edited sets of government documents this writer has ever seen. The editors have strung together transcripts, intelligence reports, meeting minutes and editor's notes to form a riveting narrative -- and one that seems highly plausible.

But this extraordinary document requires its readers to take a leap of faith. Zhang and his editors ask the reader to accept, without decisive corroborating evidence, the authenticity of documents that answer just about every question one could possibly have about the role of the Beijing government in the student crackdown.

The paucity of biographical details about Zhang leaves a presumably unavoidable, but undeniable, cloud of uncertainty over the whole book. Zhang is either the greatest whistle-blower since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the Washington Post, or the most elaborate forger of documents since German Konrad Kujau swindled $4.8 million from Stern magazine for his bogus "Hitler Diaries."

All we know about Zhang, who was almost certainly an official in Zhongnanhai, is that he didn't jump ship after unfurling his load of classified documents -- he stuck around for the entire process, offering corroborating evidence to give his editors enough faith in the project and his motives to attach their names to it. The presumption is that Zhang leaked the papers to light a flame under reformers who were quieted after the crackdown but are still active in the Chinese government. In his preface Zhang writes, "Reversal of the verdict on June Fourth is another historical inevitability, as well as the wish of most Chinese people. June Fourth weighs on the spirits of every Chinese patriot, and almost every Chinese knows that official reevaluation is just a matter of time. The Party's top leadership has been divided about the event ever since it occurred. By now many of those responsible for the decision to crack down -- notably Deng and others serving as 'elders' -- have passed away."

By publishing "The Tiananmen Papers," Zhang apparently seeks to spark renewed debate in Beijing about the crackdown and open the door to a resumption of democratic reforms. The book's timing may even be pegged to launching a debate in the two years leading up to Chinese President Jiang Zemin's planned retirement in 2002. China has evolved much since Tiananmen -- it has opened up more to the world and promotes free markets, travel and international study -- but it has also remained as oppressive as ever toward the media and any groups that promote free thinking. One has only to read about the deaths of dozens of imprisoned Falun Gong followers to understand how firm and resolute the grip of the Communist Party on its people remains.

In judging Zhang's credibility, we are asked to rely on the credentials of the three men who are vouching for Zhang's book -- and those credentials do carry extraordinary heft in the worlds of journalism and academia. The only physical evidence that Zhang exists was a silhouetted interview he granted CBS News' "60 Minutes" in early January and an interview he granted the New York Times. In that interview, Zhang told his interlocutor: "We believe that only the Communist Party has the ability in China to carry out political reform ... In this sense we are not dissidents trying to operate from outside the system."

Critics and China experts have approached "The Tiananmen Papers" cautiously, some doubtful of its authenticity, others cautiously optimistic. No one, it seems, is taking these papers as a matter of historical fact -- at least not without adding the obligatory qualifiers. The passages whose provenance raises the most questions -- and they are often the most interesting -- are quotes taken from private meetings at his residence between Deng, who essentially served as the shadow leader of China at the time of the Tiananmen crisis, and senior members, both active and retired, of the Communist Party. Zhang, in what appears to have been an epic breach of Zhongnanhai security, apparently had considerable access to people who had considerable access to these leaders.

The past century has seen some prominent forgeries, and both publishing houses and journalists have been duped time and again -- a fact that Schell acknowledges in his afterword. And one of the more famous fakes came from China. Sir Edmund Backhouse discovered a diary in the home of Jing Shan, an assistant to the imperial family, which later became the basis for his book "China Under the Empress Dowager" early in the early 1900s. But years later, confidence in Backhouse's reputation has been stained by lurid tales (including insinuations that he had necrophiliac sex with the corpse of the Empress Dowager, according to Time magazine) and faith in his account has faded. The Oxford-trained academic didn't help his cause by failing to ever produce a copy of the diary.

The jury, meanwhile, is still out on the 1983 book by Yao Ming-Le, "The Conspiracy and Death of Lin Biao -- How Mao's Chosen Successor Plotted and Failed: An Inside Account of the Most Bizarre and Mysterious Event in the History of Modern China," which claimed that Marshal Lin Biao, a protege of Mao, was murdered for plotting to kill the Chinese leader. Last year, the daughter of the commander of the Chinese air force at the time of Biao's mysterious death, Jin Qiu, stated that after conducting her own investigation, she concluded that the book was pure innuendo. "Few students of the subject have taken this version seriously," she wrote, "chiefly because the sources to which Yao claimed to have access were never made available to others." Jin fell short of outright disproving the account, but she did successfully raise fresh doubts about its legitimacy.

"The Tiananmen Papers" is a different story. Strong contextual evidence suggests that it is legitimate. It has long been known, for example, that Deng Xiaoping had orchestrated the ouster of Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, his anointed successor, because he had been too soft on the students. Deng retired from the Politburo in 1987, and his only official role in the government was that of chairman of the Military Affairs Commission of the party. It was widely reported that Deng was in fact running things even after the appointment of Zhao. But it was never before known how deep a role he played in the day-to-day decision-making about Tiananmen. The dissident writer Liu Binyan told the New York Times of deep splits in the Communist Party less than two weeks before the June 3 massacre; he also referred to dissent within the military, which is corroborated in "The Tiananmen Papers."

After his meeting with Deng in May 1989, just weeks before Tiananmen, Mikhail Gorbachev was bitterly criticized by Chinese officials for revealing to the foreign press that Deng was still calling the shots. But only with "The Tiananmen Papers" does the full story of Deng's involvement emerge. The power struggle between Zhao and Prime Minister Li Peng was also hinted at in media coverage of the student uprising in 1989. But "The Tiananmen Papers" are the first to document the Politburo split behind the clash.

"The Tiananmen Papers" takes us back to March 1989, when the Chinese government became conscious of the growing public dissent that would result in the student movement. "The national mood reflected a profound questioning of China's leaders, political system, and direction," an intelligence report cited in the book states. "But it was hard to tell whether the social contract was breaking down as a result of inflation or corruption, or a normal civil society was emerging as a result of prosperity and liberalism." The papers cover the period ending in the clearing of Tiananmen Square, with behind-the-scenes details assembled from Xinhua (China's official press vehicle-cum-spy shop), meeting transcripts, notes from telephone conversations and private conversations between the country's highest leaders.

Though Schell says there's no "smoking gun" in the documents (a fact that he says increased his belief in their authenticity) there is plenty of potentially live ammo. It has long been known that there were ideological splits at the top of the Communist Party. But what wasn't known prior to the documents' release was how deep this rift had grown during the student uprising.

"The Tiananmen Papers" depicts Party Secretary Zhao as a moderate figure, sympathetic to the demands of student protesters. Zhao tried to steer his fellow leaders away from declaring martial law and toward dialogue with the students. Prime Minister Li, on the other hand, comes across as an obdurate hard-liner. Deng's trusted confidante, he feared that the student uprising promoted the "bourgeois liberalism" so despised by dyed-in-the-wool Leninists and posed a serious threat to the Chinese government. A power struggle between Li and Zhao ensued. Li, who still serves on the Politburo Standing Committee but who is widely disliked both in and outside of China since the Tiananmen massacre, probably stands to lose the most from the publication of the "Tiananmen Papers," since they show that without his cheerleading for the crackdown, the events of June 3 might never have happened.

When forced to decide whether to move against the students, the Politburo Standing Committee -- the highest formal decision-making body in China -- split 2-2, with one member abstaining. But under a clandestine 1987 agreement, Deng, who was technically retired, and the extra-constitutional "elders" had veto power and oversight over the Politburo Standing Committee. Following the split verdict, the elders moved to purge Zhao and other leaders who sympathized with the students.

Jonathan Mirsky, who covered the Tiananmen crisis for the London Independent, gives an ominous account of the elders in an essay on "The Tiananmen Papers" in the Feb. 8 New York Review of Books. Mirsky (who largely supports the authenticity of the papers) describes them as resembling a geriatric ward of communists from China's "guerrilla period." "I recall the television pictures of the elders arriving at Deng's house in Beijing -- dozing, drooling, propped up by nurses and derided as figures of fun by the demonstrators, who did not realize at the time how dangerous these men were. (Nor did we journalists)," he writes.

It was the elders who moved unanimously to declare martial law and turn the troops on the students who had filled Tiananmen Square for weeks with their hunger strikes. And in a particularly ironic development -- given that the students were pushing for democratic reforms that would include the implementation of rule of law -- the elders, operating as a rubber-stamp government for Deng, elevated the relatively obscure Shanghai Party leader Jiang Zemin to replace Zhao as party chairman. The papers reveal that the decision was taken by Deng who, it seemed, acted with ayatollah-like authority. The influence of Deng over the decision making of the elders is obvious in the following excerpts from the meeting in which they sealed Zhao's political fate:

Deng: "After long and careful comparison, the Shanghai Party secretary, Jiang, does indeed seem a proper choice. I think he's up to the task. Comrades Chen Yun, Xiannian, and I all lean toward Comrade Jiang Zemin for general secretary. What do the rest of you think?"

Wang Zhen: "If that's what the three of you think, then that's it. I don't know Jiang Zemin very well, but I trust Comrade Xiaoping to get it right. So let's have Jiang Zemin be general secretary."

Deng Yingchao: "I haven't had much contact with Jiang Zemin, but from what the rest of you say about him, he seems fine. I agree that he be general secretary."

This is an explosive revelation, given that their promotion of Jiang appears to have violated the Chinese Communist Party Constitution. That document provides that the Politburo Standing Committee is responsible for selecting the president, which would make Jiang an illegitimate leader. Added to the embarrassing extent to which the documents portray Deng as the seemingly lone power behind the Communist Party of the Tiananmen era, it's not surprising that Beijing says they're bogus.

"Any attempt to play up the matter again and disrupt China by the despicable means of fabricating materials and distorting facts will be futile," Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said earlier this month. But the government has yet to elaborate on which, if in fact any, of the documents have been forged or redacted in a distorting way.

The publication has other critics, however, whose motives are less dubious. Dai Qing, a Beijing writer who participated in the Tiananmen movement and was imprisoned for it, told the Boston Globe's Hong Kong correspondent that she believes deep-throat Zhang "got some documents from the Chinese government, but edited some things out and created some other things with a purpose. All my friends in Beijing can't believe these papers are 100 percent true, even though famous overseas Chinese figures say they are. Some details are 100 percent wrong." When grilled by the reporter about which facts were disputed, Dai pointed to comments in the paper by Yang Shangkun (China's president at the time of the crackdown) about the son of General Xu Haidong, who apparently refused to send troops into Tiananmen Square. "Dai says that she played with Xu Haidong's children when she was a girl," the Globe reported, "and that he had no son who grew up to become a senior army officer."

"Perhaps he had a son from another marriage, but we have tried to contact such a person, and no one has heard of him," Dai told the paper.

Even Schell is quick to admit that there may be errors in the publication. But he stands by the document's legitimacy as a whole, saying that the revelations about how senior officials were swayed to crack down on the student movement are the closest to an accurate record we're going to get without more transparency in China's notoriously walled government.

Recently, there has been a steady drumbeat of support for the authenticity of "The Tiananmen Papers." Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, asked about the papers by a journalist from Singapore's Sunday Times in Davos, Switzerland, last weekend, replied: "They are too detailed and too extensive. You can't have a team drawing these up." The comments of Lee, who helped create modern Singapore, have considerable credibility since he also supported the Chinese government's hard-line stance on the student movement. "There are more than 300 cities in China. When you have that kind of wildfire, you either stump it out quickly or you are burnt out yourself," Lee told the paper.

Immediately after the documents' publication, former American ambassador James Lilley, who served in Beijing during the time of the crackdown, vouched, conditionally, for their legitimacy. "I believe that the documents are authentic," he told the New York Times. "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."

While it may be too soon to tell what kind of impact "The Tiananmen Papers" will have inside Zhongnanhai, some predict the reverberations will be enormous. Journalist Mirsky, who reported from Tiananmen Square in 1989, writes in his New York Review of Books essay of a recent interview he conducted with a former Chinese vice minister. He quotes the deposed bureaucrat as saying, "The man who tells the truth about what really happened in Beijing will rule China." Mirsky continues, "If evidence comes to light showing how China's supreme leaders planned and directed the Beijing crackdown, the results, once the ritual denials are over, would be an embarrassment within the Communist Party and possibly even a change in the official verdict that what happened throughout China in the spring of 1989 was a 'counterrevolutionary rebellion.'"

Indeed, much of the ferocity of the students involved in the protests seemed to have been fueled by an April 26, 1989, editorial in the People's Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, published just one day after a fateful meeting of the elders at Deng's home in which he laid out the framework for the essay. "We've got to be explicit and clear in opposing this turmoil," Deng said. His comments were a de facto condemnation of the protesters, since "turmoil" was a derogatory term. The editorial forced the students into the corner. They had nothing to gain by backing off, since they would likely face reprisals from the government regardless of the outcome. The best they could do was fight to restore their honor, which they believed had been smeared by the editorial. And so started the inevitable countdown to the massacre.

A broader assessment of "The Tiananmen Papers" is expected after a Chinese-language version containing the original documents is published in April. Sinologists like Berkeley's Schell expect that the book will quickly find its way into mainland China through the dierqu dao or "second channel" -- the black market book peddlers who sell tomes on everything from Falun Gong to voodoo spiritualism and provide an important outlet for books and literature banned by Beijing. And though Beijing has proven effective at filtering Internet content, savvy communicators will still find ways to pierce the firewall to send copies of the documents by e-mail or to serve Web pages by untraceable proxy.

With the pressure that will bring, decision makers in Zhongnanhai may be forced to revisit the events of 1989 -- and perhaps this time they will tell the truth. In the end, whether or not "The Tiananmen Papers" is completely accurate may be less important than whether it can force the hand of China's leaders to be more candid about the most tragically defining moment of Chinese Communism since the Cultural Revolution.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and the top Sinologists in the Bush administration are sure to give close scrutiny to "The Tiananmen Papers," not only to understand how close the student movement came to succeeding before it was mercilessly crushed, but to plumb it for potential new diplomatic channels. The document may bring to light Beijing politicians who are interested in pursuing the democratic reforms that have stagnated for the past decade under Jiang, even as China has transformed itself into an economic giant.

Powell has already taken what appears to be a hard line on China's creative definition of human rights. In less than two weeks in office, the secretary of state has banged heads with Beijing, issuing a stinging criticism of its oppression of members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement. The Foreign Ministry spokesman slapped Powell back with an acrimonious rebuke: "China demands the U.S. government respect the stand of the Chinese government on the Falun Gong issue and stop interfering in China's internal affairs."

If the publication of "The Tiananmen Papers" leads to a crack in the wall of China's hidebound leadership, and that crack becomes a breach, relations between the two nations may someday be far different.

By Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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