China leak may be effort to revisit Tiananmen

Insiders seek debate on reform, experts say

January 15, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - The appearance in the West of secret documents revealing Chinese government decisions leading to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown appears to be the work of well-placed people in the Communist Party trying to rekindle the long-suppressed debate on political reform here, scholars, analysts and former party officials say.

Given the breadth and depth of the papers, which include minutes of Politburo meetings, some believe they were compiled by disillusioned party members who want to force a public reassessment of the crackdown and weaken the leaders and their followers who still defend it.

"The book contains a high number of high-level, confidential documents which cannot be brought out by one single person," said Zhong Jin, editor of Open, a political commentary magazine based in Hong Kong. "It shows that a number of high-level people view 6-4" - the date of the crackdown in 1989 - "differently from those in power."

Observers say the documents' dissemination seems less like a carefully targeted salvo in a current power struggle and more like part of a long-term strategy to influence the direction and future leadership of the party.

"The papers should not be read for `whom the spearhead is aimed at,'" said Jeremy Paltiel, associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. "Whoever leaked the documents ... was obviously looking toward a day when Tiananmen will become a live issue in PRC [People's Republic of China] politics."

The papers, published recently in book form in the United States, document in unprecedented detail the inner workings of the Communist Party leadership in the midst of one of its worst crises, the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989. That spring, more than 1 million people filled the square in Beijing, demanding political reform of the nation's authoritarian system as well as free speech and the right to organize.

The protests galvanized the world and split the party leadership, which eventually decided to send in tanks and troops to retake the city. Untrained in riot control, the soldiers slaughtered hundreds of protesters who took to the streets with rocks and bricks to block their route to the square.

The book, "The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership's Decision to Use Force Against Their Own People," includes verbatim accounts of arguments between senior leaders over the decision to send in troops as well as Chinese government intelligence reports describing how the confrontation deteriorated into a massacre.

The documents, which will be published in Chinese later this year, are said to have been smuggled out of China by a government employee who uses the pseudonym Zhang Liang. Several leading U.S.-based China scholars have read and edited the material and say they believe it is authentic. The Chinese government says the documents are fakes designed to stir up trouble.

Posting of document excerpts sparked some chat on the Internet here last week. By the end of the week, though, there was little sign that people were discussing the issue on popular Chinese Web sites. It was impossible to know whether the lack of postings was a function of censorship, disinterest or fear.

Political impact unclear

Although many China watchers seem to agree on the broad motives of those who leaked the documents, they differ over what sort of political impact the papers might have.

Andrew Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia University who helped edit the material, says he believes the papers will hurt the careers of National People's Congress head Li Peng and party General Secretary Jiang Zemin, the only two leaders connected to the crackdown who remain in power. Most of those involved in the decision, such as top leader Deng Xiaoping, have died or retired.

Jiang owes his job to the crackdown. Li, who as premier declared martial law at the time, essentially engineered it.

After China's aging leaders sacked party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang for supporting the students, they gave the job to Jiang, who had served as party secretary in Shanghai. According to the documents, Li, working to win support for the use of force, misled Deng and other elder leaders into believing the demonstrations were aimed at them.

"The Tiananmen Papers" have become public at a time when Chinese leaders are jockeying for position in advance of the party's 16th congress next year, when Jiang is to step down as general secretary but is expected to try to retain his job as head of the Central Military Commission to maintain power behind the scenes.

While the leak could be construed as an opponent's pre-emptive strike, Nathan said he thinks that the timing is coincidental because predicting how long it would take to obtain, edit and publish the documents would have been impossible.

"The publication of this book is not good for Jiang Zemin or Li Peng, and would have been detrimental to their interests no matter when it came out," Nathan said. "It just happened to come out now."

More pragmatic concerns

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