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Tiananmen Papers

January 11, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The images from June 1989 seem to stop time. The world watched as China’s army cleared out Tiananmen Square and the rest of Beijing, where hundred of thousands of students and others had been demonstrating for democratic reforms. An exact accounting of the dead hasn’t been available. The Chinese government says around 200 were killed but other estimates are as high as several thousand. The decision to send in the army was made in top-level Communist Party meetings in the park-like compound known as Zhongnanhai, and in the final days before the crackdown at meetings in party elder Deng Xiaoping’s home.

A new book, The Tiananmen Papers, features what purports to be minutes of the meetings where the key decisions were made. Those minutes plus other documents were made available to American China scholar Andrew Nathan by someone identified only by a pseudonym, Zhang Liang. He writes in the preference to the book: "As a witness to the events as well as a participant, I feel it is my duty to the Chinese people and to history to publish a complete and faithful record of the decisions that lay behind what happened."

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The documents from such a critical period are remarkable, says the U.S. Ambassador to China at the time.

JAMES LILLEY: I think we read it fairly accurately but we didn’t have the inside story and this tells you that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The student gatherings in Beijing began in April 1989 as a funeral tribute to a pro-reform Communist Party leader. As the demonstrations grew in size and vehemence, party officials discussed their options. A leading moderate was party secretary Zhao Ziyang, who urged patience and restraint. In an April 18 telephone conversation, according to the documents, he told China’s president:

ZHAO ZIYANG: (through interpreter) I’ve been on the phone with comrade Li Ximing to ask that the city government keep a close watch on the students’ activities to ensure stability during the mourning period. On the whole, I think we should affirm the students’ patriotism.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But others considered the situation more urgent. In a top level meeting on May 10, Premier Li Peng, a leading hardliner, said:

LI PENG: (through interpreter) Students have stopped obeying campus rules and are thumbing their noses at local regulations about marches and demonstrations…How is this different from the Cultural Revolution? If we let it go, this could pull our whole country into a morass of chaos.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: By mid-May hundreds of students had begun a hunger strike and the number of demonstrators in cities throughout China grew to 100 million, according to the book. On May 15, Soviet President Gorbachev arrived in Beijing for a meeting which also drew hundreds of foreign journalists. By then, some party leaders’ patience was wearing thin. At a May 17 meeting at his home, Deng Xiaoping, the party’s most influential elder, spoke.

DENG XIAOPING: (through interpreter) We want to build a socialist democracy, but we can’t possibly do it in a hurry, and still less do we want that Western-style stuff…if things continue like this, we could even end up under house arrest. After thinking long and hard about this, I’ve concluded that we should bring in the People’s Liberation Army and declare martial law in Beijing.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Zhao Ziyang, the leading moderate, dissented. Later that night he said:

ZHAO ZIYANG: (through interpreter) To impose martial law will not help calm things down or solve problems. It will only make things more complicated and more sharply confrontational…the Chinese people cannot take any more huge policy blunders…My duties must end here today; I cannot continue to serve.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: After the resignation, party leaders chose Zeng Zemin, then Shanghai Party Secretary to become the new Communist Party Secretary, though the appointment wasn’t made public till after the crackdown. He is now China’s president. Martial law was declared in Beijing on May 20. And while many students returned home, a smaller number remained, erecting what they called the Goddess of Democracy. On June 3, following clashes between demonstrators and police, hardliner Li Peng, speaking to the Politburo standing committee, advocated what he called clearing the square.

LI PENG: (through interpreter) Late last night a counter-revolutionary riot broke out in Beijing…we have to be absolutely firm in putting down this counterrevolutionary riot in the capital. We must be merciless with the tiny minority of riot elements.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The ultimate leader, Deng Xiaoping, wasn’t at that meeting, but he passed this message along through someone who was.

DENG XIAOPING (as paraphrased by then-President Yang Shangkun): (through interpreter) The Martial Law Command must make it quite clear to all units that they are to open fire only as a last resort. And let me repeat: No bloodshed within Tiananmen Square – period.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That night, the troops moved into the center of Beijing. They did not fire in the square, but did shoot at people on surrounding streets. And China lives with the consequences still.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: On Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry denounced the papers. A spokesman said: "Any attempt to play up the matter again and disrupt China by the despicable means of fabricating materials and distorting facts will be futile." With us now is Andrew Nathan, co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers. He is a professor of political science at Columbia University. Professor Nathan, tell us as much as you can about how you got these papers.

ANDREW NATHAN: The compiler who brought them out has taken a tremendous risk. So I’m afraid I can’t tell you very much about it. But he approached me some time ago and said that he had an enormous number of documents — he wanted to get the story out. And I told him that in order to do so needed to reduce that to a form that people could understand. So he put it together in a book form, a Chinese book, which will be published in March or April. And from that book my colleagues and I have produced the English book that you showed, which is only about one third as long as the Chinese book.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why do you think he came to you?