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Documents Reveal Top Chinese Split Before Crackdown

By Steven Mufson, Washington Post, Saturday 6 January 2001; Page A01

A trove of newly released documents reveals the secret conversations of top Chinese leaders as they battled one another over the decision to crush the massive student-led protests in Tiananmen Square that rocked the country during the spring of 1989.

Given the extraordinarily closed nature of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, the documents put human faces and voices to the most controversial event in China in the past quarter century and shed light on the decisive role played by the late leader Deng Xiaoping and a group of eight retired and semi-retired Communist elders, who possessed no official role but wielded ultimate power.

We can't be led around by the nose, Deng said during a leadership meeting held at his house just three weeks before the bloody June 4 army crackdown that took hundreds if not thousands of lives. We have to be decisive. . . . How can we progress if things are in an utter mess?

The documents were spirited out of China by a Chinese official who wants to promote political reform and remain anonymous. They were translated by two leading American scholars, Andrew J. Nathan of Columbia University and Perry Link of Princeton University, who after extensive conversations with the official and independent researchers are convinced of the documents' authenticity.

The documents confirm that then-Chinese Premier Li Peng led the internal campaign to crack down on the students, whose appeals for openness and broader elections he dismissed in one leadership meeting as nonsense. They show that the party's standing committee was indeed split over whether to continue dialogue with the students, with only two of the five committee members voting for martial law and one abstaining. And they show Deng as having little sympathy for the demonstrators.

The opposition is not just some students, but a bunch of rebels and a lot of riffraff, Deng said during a May 13 meeting at his house inside the Zhongnanhai leadership compound. At another point, Deng said, Anarchy gets worse every day. If this continues, we could even end up under house arrest.

The documents include minutes of meetings of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo and standing committee, intelligence agency reports, and transcripts of recordings of phone calls by Deng and of meetings at Deng's home. But they don't offer new information about the number of people who died in the massacre; the Chinese government has put the number at 218 civilians, but that number is widely considered too low.

We get to see the dark side of the moon, said Orville Schell, dean of the journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley and author of numerous books on China. What's really interesting about it is not some smoking gun that makes one leader or another look craven, but we see how the decision-making process works.

Schell wrote an afterword for the compilation, which is being published as a book titled The Tiananmen Papers by Public Affairs.

James R. Lilley, who was the U.S. ambassador to China at the time and is now at the American Enterprise Institute, said yesterday that the collection doesn't fundamentally alter your view.

It is like the Pentagon Papers, [the internal U.S. government history of the war in Vietnam that was leaked to newspapers in the early 1970s], Lilley said. You knew about the deceptions, but all of a sudden you see what people were saying and it becomes very revealing.

The documents confirm General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party's top official at the time, as a consistent opponent of martial law even though thousands of students were camped out in the square at the heart of the capital. At a May 16 meeting of the standing committee with two of the elders attending, Zhao said, I thought it might be best simply to skirt the most sensitive issue of whether the student movement is turmoil, hoping it would fade away while we gradually turn things around using the methods of democracy and law.

A day later, he said, I'm against imposing martial law in Beijing, according to minutes of a May 17 Politburo meeting. It will only make things more complicated and more sharply confrontational.

But Zhao came under sharp criticism from other leaders, especially Premier Li and some of the elders who argued that a speech by Zhao revived protests after they started to wane in April, the documents show.

I think Comrade Ziyang must bear the main responsibility for the escalation of the student movement, as well as for the fact that the situation has gotten so hard to control, Li charged at the May 17 Politburo meeting.

The next day, May 18, the eight elders met with four of the standing committee members. Zhao did not attend.

We old comrades are meeting with you today because we feel we have no choice, Deng said to the standing committee members. The standing committee should have come up with a plan long ago, but things kept dragging on and even today there's no decision. Beijing has been chaotic for more than a month now.

One document quoted elder Wang Zhen as saying, These people are really asking for it. They should be nabbed as soon as they pop out again. Give them no mercy.

On May 19 at 4 a.m., Zhao and Li visited Tiananmen Square, and Zhao begged the students to leave before it was too late. Later that morning Zhao requested three days' sick leave.

On May 21, Deng said Zhao's intransigence has been obvious, and he bears undeniable responsibility. Elder Li Xiannian fretted that the party now has two headquarters. Zhao Ziyang's got his own separate headquarters. We have to get to the bottom of this, have to dig out the roots. Elder Wang complained that Zhao never paid a whit of attention to people like us. . . . What he really wants is to drive us old people from power.

After further discussion, the elders discussed replacing Zhao with Jiang Zemin, then Shanghai party chief. Six days later, Deng convened the elders and they voted to install Jiang as general secretary, a decision that theoretically should have been made by the standing committee. The elders also reshuffled the rest of the standing committee, ousting Zhao ally Hu Qili and adding others to bring the committee membership up to seven. Zhao remains under loose house arrest to this day.

On June 2, just two days before army troops fired on protesters, Premier Li fired up the elders' enthusiasm for a crackdown by telling them that American and Taiwanese agents, part of a coalition of foreign and domestic reactionary forces, have been stirring up the protesters. Li branded an exile group, Chinese Alliance for Democracy in New York, as scum of our nation.

Capitalism still wants to beat socialism in the end, elder Li Xiannian said afterward. He said he was revolted by the model erected in Tiananmen Square of the Goddess of Liberty, calling it neither human nor demon.

On the day before the crackdown began, elder Yang Shangkun said that soldiers who earlier had been reluctant to confront the protesters were prepared to clear the square. Qiao Shi, the intelligence chief who had abstained in the martial law vote earlier, endorsed an immediate army crackdown. Deng did not attend this meeting, but elder Yang brought a message, one document reported.

He has asked me to relay two points to everyone, Yang said. The first is: Solve the problem before dawn tomorrow. He means our martial law troops should completely finish their task of clearing the square before sunup. The second is: Be reasonable with the students and make sure they see the logic in what we're doing.

Within hours the shooting began.