China's fear of shadows

Tiananmen: Western publication of papers outlining 1989 crackdown brings nervous jitters in Beijing.

January 14, 2001

PAPERS COPIED by a disaffected civil servant and smuggled to the United States for translation and publication by academics should be the least of the Chinese government's worries.

It is the unchallenged and unaccountable ruler of 1.2 billion souls, with nuclear weapons, a monopoly on political power and the world's most dynamic economic growth.

The energies of the most capable millions of its population are devoted to the creation of wealth for private consumption and not to introspection or history.

Yet publication of "The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership's Decision to Use Force Against Their Own People" brought severe denunciation from Beijing. It's an attempt to "disrupt China by the despicable means of fabricating materials and distorting facts," said a foreign ministry spokesman. And "futile."

The internal government papers, if authentic, purport to show a divided leadership and an insecure leader, Deng Xiaoping, worried at his own possible arrest if the democracy demonstrations in Beijing's main square got out of hand in June 1989.

The faction that implemented the crackdown, in which hundreds of demonstrators were killed and thousands arrested, became the post-Deng leadership. They were Jiang Zemin, now the president, and Li Peng, head of the legislature and No. 2 in the hierarchy. He is currently warming China's relations with neighboring giant India.

The regime's Internet police are trying to suppress references to the book and its materials from accessible sites without infringing the practical freedom of Chinese people to cruise the Web. Good luck to them.

The papers, if authentic, do not change the West's understanding of what happened. Still, they make the regime nervous in just the way they report Deng Xiaoping to have been nervous. That's one sign of authenticity.

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