A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. Chen Xitong, Beijing mayor at time of massacre, says in new book it was preventable and ‘a tragedy.’ (Jeff Widener/AP)

Beijing’s mayor at the time of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre has described the bloodshed as “regrettable” and “a tragedy that could have been prevented,” in a rare departure from the Chinese Communist party’s version of the crackdown.

Chen Xitong, now 81, was regarded as a hard-liner at the time of the Tiananmen student protests. His comments mark the first time a senior official associated with the decision to fire on protesters has expressed regret for the June 4, 1989, massacre.

“Several hundred people died on that day,” Chen is quoted as saying in a book to be published on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the massacre. “As the mayor, I felt sorry. I hoped we could have solved the case peacefully.

“Looking back, I consider [the events of June 4] a tragedy that could have been prevented, should have been prevented, but was not prevented.”

The Tiananmen massacre has been erased from Chinese history books and public discourse but remains a looming and potent presence in the country’s politics. Chen’s apparent regret is especially important as he was the named author of the only public official report on the massacre, titled “Checking the Turmoil and Quelling the Counter-revolutionary Rebellion.”

In a series of interviews conducted by Yao Jianfu, a former official and researcher, Chen says “other people” wrote that report and ordered him to read it out in public, which he did on June 30, 1989.

“As far as I know, this is the first time that someone widely believed to be responsible for the massacre has expressed regret for those events,” said Bao Pu, the Hong Kong-based publisher of the book.

Chen was promoted after the crackdown. In 1995, however, he was removed from his position as Communist Party secretary of Beijing on charges of corruption, for which he was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 1998.

He was released on medical parole in 2004 and is believed to be suffering from late-stage cancer.

In the book, which goes on sale in Hong Kong on Friday, Chen denies the corruption charges and hints that he was the victim of a political purge. “In a power struggle, any means possible — any underhand means — will be used. . . . The objective is to seize power,” he says.

Chen also compares his demise to that of Bo Xilai, the senior Chinese leader who was purged last month and detained on suspicion of “serious discipline violations.” Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, is a suspect in the alleged murder of a British businessman.

“Bo Xilai’s fate is so similar to mine and that of Chen Liangyu,” Chen says. “The party secretaries of Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing all suffered the same disgrace.”

Chen Liangyu, Shanghai’s former Communist Party secretary, was convicted of corruption in 2006.

— Financial Times

Tsui reported from Hong Kong.