Shortly after Chinese troops stormed into Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, the then-mayor of Beijing gave a lengthy report that, for 23 years, has formed the bedrock of the Communist Party’s justification for the use of lethal force against unarmed protesters. Describing street demonstrations by millions of people in Beijing and other cities as a Western-backed conspiracy orchestrated by a “tiny handful of people,” Chen Xitong’s report hailed the crackdown as “correct” and unavoidable.
Now 81, battling cancer and fighting to salvage his reputation after a corruption conviction, Chen wants to come clean. In a book of interviews released Friday in Hong Kong, the Chinese capital’s former mayor and onetime Politburo member declared that the bloodshed was “of course a tragedy that could have been avoided and should have been avoided. . . . Nobody should have died if it had been handled properly.”
In a series of eight conversations with Yao Jianfu, a retired government researcher, Chen insisted that he played no role in composing his June 1989 report to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and had merely read out — “without changing a single punctuation mark” — a script prepared for him by unnamed “Party center” officials. “I couldn’t not read it,” he said.
Chen’s efforts to distance himself from his earlier hard-line stance highlights how — more than two decades after a massacre that has been scrubbed from public discourse inside China — the 1989 bloodshed continues to haunt the ruling party.
The gulf between public rhetoric and private reality also adds to pressure on the party to “rehabilitate” a student-led protest movement that is still officially classified as a “counterrevolutionary rebellion.” The Tiananmen protests, which spread to scores of cities across China, were animated largely by public rage at official corruption and unaccountability, ills that have since only grown worse.
“The Tiananmen matter has never been forgotten, particularly by the government,” said Bao Pu, the Hong Kong-based publisher of “Conversations With Chen Xitong.” Bao’s father, a senior official at the time of the crackdown, was jailed after the massacre and, though now back at home, remains under constant surveillance by security forces. The party “does not let people talk about Tiananmen but can never forget what happened because it is living with the consequences,” the publisher said. “The crackdown fundamentally altered the relationship between leaders and the people. It created deep mistrust.”
As has become an annual custom, security at Tiananmen Square has been stepped up ahead of Monday’s anniversary, with uniformed and plainclothes police keeping a watchful eye on the mostly Chinese tourists visiting the area. China’s leaders are also jittery because of a spate of self-immolations by Tibetans in the past nine months, and security police on Tiananmen Square keep fire extinguishers at the ready.
Deviating from script
The Communist Party has gone to extraordinary lengths to erase memories of 1989 and of its leader at the time, Zhao Ziyang, who was purged as general secretary for refusing to support the use of military force. Zhao lived under house arrest until his death in 2005 and had been systematically excised from official accounts of the economic reforms he led for a decade, paving the way for China’s emergence in 2010 as the world’s second-biggest economy.