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.

In a deviation from that script, Chen, in the interviews, referred to Zhao repeatedly, praising his contributions to China’s reform drive. But he disputed assertions made by Zhao in posthumously published memoirs that Beijing city officials presented misleading reports about the 1989 protests to Deng Xiaoping, distorting the students’ demands and prodding China’s then-paramount leader to take military action. “How could Deng possibly have been deceived? To say he was is to underestimate Deng Xiaoping,” Chen said.

Chen lives in Beijing, but there are no plans to publish the book in mainland China, where works that deviate from party-approved versions of history are generally banned or sold only after revisions that delete sensitive material. A slew of books has been published abroad by student leaders and others involved in the 1989 crisis, but they are available in Chinese editions only in Hong Kong.

Chen, who was ousted from office in 1995, shed little light on the still-unanswered question of just how many people died when the People’s Liberation Army blasted its way into the center of Beijing on the night of June 3-4, 1989. Chen said he had spent the night in the Great Hall of the People overlooking Tiananmen Square and insisted that “not a single person died” in the plaza.

Witnesses disagree on whether troops fired on people in the vast concrete square in front of the Forbidden City but concur that most of the shooting occurred elsewhere. Chen said those killed in other parts of Beijing numbered probably “several hundred,” an estimate in line with official figures issued at the time. He dismissed as “nonsense” reports that thousands might have been killed.

A view into a secretive world

Although it offers no dramatic revelations, Chen’s account gives a rare view inside the secrecy-sealed world of senior Chinese officials. Describing an atmosphere of paralyzing suspicion and backbiting, Chen related how leaders bad-mouthed one another in private and, fearful of clandestine plotting, kept tabs on who among their colleagues was visiting whose home and for what purpose. His account also suggests that although officials have banned public discussion of the Tiananmen trauma, they often talk about it among themselves.

Chen took issue with Li Peng, China’s hard-line prime minister at the time, over assertions in Li’s diary that, in preparation for the military attack on Tiananmen, the mayor had been appointed “chief commander” of the Beijing Martial Law Command Center.

“I know nothing about this role I supposedly played,” said Chen, suggesting that Li, widely reviled as the “Butcher of Beijing,” wanted to play down his own responsibility. In his diary, pirated editions of which have been published in Hong Kong, Li expresses no remorse over the Tiananmen killings and defends his actions as those of a dutiful official who simply obeyed orders from Deng, who made all major decisions in China until his death in 1997.

Saying that his prosecution for corruption flowed from political machinations by Jiang Zemin, the party’s chief from 1989 until 2002, Chen condemned the case as an “absurd miscarriage of justice.” Chen, convicted in 1998 and sentenced to 16 years in jail, was held in Beijing’s infamous Qincheng prison but got out early on medical parole. His son also was jailed.

“In a power struggle, all measures can be used, all kinds of dirty tricks are adopted as the aim is to grab power,” said Chen, who compared his fate to that of Bo Xilai, the former party chief of Chongqing who is now in detention. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, also has been arrested and is under investigation in connection with the alleged murder of Neil Heywood, a British business consultant and estranged Bo family friend.

Complaining that he had been prohibited from speaking at the end of his trial, in violation of Chinese legal procedure, Chen recalled that he screamed at his judges: “You are a fascist tribunal.”

Chen’s denunciation of China’s highly politicized legal system comes at a particularly sensitive time for the country’s leaders, who are struggling to convince the public that allegations against Bo and his wife are rooted in evidence, not a political vendetta.

Bo’s father, revolutionary elder Bo Yibo, played a prominent role in lobbying for a crackdown on the student protesters in 1989, and the fall of his son has fueled speculation that more liberal-minded leaders, such as Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who worked alongside Zhao, want to revise the official verdict on those events.

Chen’s interviews could accelerate this process. But Bao, the publisher, said there is no sign of the party wanting to grapple with such a thorny issue ahead of a leadership transition later this year. “Tiananmen is still extremely sensitive and makes leaders very nervous,” Bao said.

Correspondent Keith Richburg in Beijing contributed to this report.