Senior Chinese Leaders Flouted Rules to Call Out Troops in Tiananmen Square, New Book Says

A new book depicts top Chinese leaders as Machiavellian back-stabbers who short-circuited procedure to use military force to crush the Tiananmen Square protests. Melinda Liu reports.

Kin Cheung / AP Photo

Beijing’s controversial ex-mayor, Chen Xitong, is not at the top of my list as a reliable, go-to source on the June 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. In 1989, Chen was widely perceived as a hardliner who exaggerated the threat posed by student demonstrators in Tiananmen to help prod China’s aging strongman, Deng Xiaoping, to call in the troops, who killed more than a thousand people, according to many Western estimates.

Still, in Conversations with Chen Xitong, a recent book published in Hong Kong, Chen’s assertions are fascinating even if we set aside—for the moment—what he says about his role in the crackdown. (His mantra is that his involvement has been exaaggerated: “I am sorry...was following orders.”) Chen’s most important revelation could well be a rare insider’s portrait of back-stabbing, Machiavellian senior leaders who seemed to short-circuit normal government and party institutions and procedures in order to have their way. Chen’s book, which evokes dysfunction and distrust at the top, was written by scholar Yao Jianfu, who has interviewed the 81-year-old former official numerous times since early last year. It could be a useful primer for those trying to grapple with the stunning recent purge of ambitious Politburo member Bo Xilai, whom Chen says is now sharing “the same disgrace” that he suffered.

Indeed, though Chen is often remembered for his purported role in the 1989 repression, he became even more controversial after the crackdown. Promoted in 1992 to become Beijing’s Communist Party secretary, Chen subsequently was purged in a dramatic case that featured the 1994 death by suicide of one of his deputy mayors. Chen was then tried and sentenced to 16 years in prison on corruption charges, and awarded the dubious honor of becoming the first Chinese Communist Party Politburo member to be jailed since the end of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. In 2006, Chen was released early on medical parole.

Chinese officials commonly find themselves accused of corruption when someone’s trying to eliminate them as competitors—especially when the leadership is poised to undergo a once-in-a-generation succession, as is the case today. Chen’s description of his own purge could portend the fates awaiting Bo and his wife, Gu Kailai, who is suspected of being involved in the murder of a British businessman.

“Chen talks about all the evidence presented in his defense. Everything’s come out in the book, and his sentence of 16 years doesn’t seem justified,” says the book’s publisher, Bao Pu. “It shows that as far as such purges go—and this may become true in Bo’s case—the law isn’t playing much of a role in the process.”

In that sense, despite what seems to be a glaring credibility problem, perhaps Chen is precisely the right person to enlighten the public with a tell-all book. And the timing is prescient. Beijing leaders remain haunted by the ghosts of Tiananmen, as underscored by the stringent security measures and hyper-vigilant Internet censorship this week, on the 23rd anniversary of the crackdown. Discussion of the tragic and heavy-handed manner in which the protests were quashed—a topic often referred to as “six four” in shorthand—remains taboo in mainstream media and public discourse.

For some senior Chinese officials or their supporters, however, the time has come to cement legacies—and settle scores. Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang, the posthumous memoir of the politician, who was purged for sympathizing with student protesters in 1989 and spent the rest of his life under house arrest, was published almost exactly three years ago today. Zhao died in January 2005, and was a hero to the end in the eyes of many Chinese liberals.

Zhao's memoir describes how Chen hyped the danger posed by the protests, at a critical moment from April 19-20 when Zhao was departing on an official visit to North Korea. Chen's exaggerated report circulated among more senior leaders, and was used by then Premier Li Peng to alarm Deng Xiaoping. It helped persuade China’s five most powerful leaders to approve an April 26 People's Daily editorial that described the demonstrations as "counter-revolutionary," a position seen as impossible to retract. Initially Zhao endorsed the editorial, but after returning to Beijing in early May, he changed his mind, declared it to be overly "strident," and tried to steer the crisis management effort back to what he called in his memoir "a track based upon democracy and rule of law." It was futile; on May 18 Zhao cast a lone dissenting vote when top leaders decided in favor of declaring martial law. A few hours later, the premier made a tearful and apologetic appearance amidst startled student hunger-strikers in Tiananmen Square—and then was never seen publicly again.

Then it was former Premier Li Peng’s turn. The much-reviled archconservative often referred to as the “Butcher of Beijing,” Li is said to be the author of a widely circulated diary that emphasizes paramount leader Deng’s role in the crackdown, while essentially repeating the official version of events, which depicted Chen to be a major player as head of the martial-law effort—a characterization Chen now disputes. Leaked in 2010, the diary quoted Deng as telling the People’s Liberation Army to be ready to “spill some blood” in quelling the unrest.

Chen’s account, which went on sale in Hong Kong last week, maintains the then-mayor was largely a scapegoat, and that he knew little about key decisions made behind the scenes. The book is important because it represents “the first time we hear the personal views—not the official version—of someone whom the public has held partly responsible for the Tiananmen crackdown,” says publisher Bao.

“This is unlike Li Peng’s diary, which is based on the official record. Unlike Li, Chen is an outcast. Chen’s book helps send a clear message to the leadership: it’s got to face the Tiananmen issue. Hoping people will forget is futile. If even Chen Xitong is talking…this will never go away,” Bao says.

While Chen’s assertions also are self-serving, they reflect personal remorse. Though he seems to underestimate the death toll, he does say that had the unrest been handled properly, “nobody should have died. As the mayor, I felt sorry. I believe one day the truth will come out.”

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Chen described the June 1989 blood-letting as a “regrettable tragedy that could’ve been avoided;” one that stemmed from the internal power struggle at the top. Although Chen admitted to delivering an official report to the parliamentary standing committee on June 30, 1989 that described the protests as “counter-revolutionary riots”—an assessment used to justify the use of military force—he said he didn’t write a single word of what he was reading: “I faithfully read the report they prepared for me, down to every last bit of punctuation.”

Chen’s version of events conflicts most sharply with Li Peng’s regarding who was in charge. Li’s diary maintained that Chen was “chief commander of the Beijing martial law command center” that directed the military crackdown.

“I know nothing of this role I allegedly played,” Chen wrote, adding that he always wanted to ask Li about this allegation.

So what happened? Did Li Peng lie? Or it is Chen who is not telling the truth?

Bao says former Chinese official Wu Guoguang, now a professor at the University of Victoria in Canada, studied the issue and concluded that it’s “possible Li Peng and others decided Chen would be chief in name [as a figurehead], but then things got so chaotic, no one told him about it. Just imagine, they could’ve forgotten to tell him! It shows how a few people managed to hijack the entire system, bypassing every state and party institution.”

Bao says his motive for publishing the book was “to get those involved to put things down on paper, so we can more easily check the facts. And even if the facts are found to be accurate, how much Chen is held responsible remains open to interpretation.”

In a paradoxical twist, the publisher’s father, Bao Tong, was a senior aide to the late premier, Zhao Ziyang, in 1989, and has been under a form of house arrest in Beijing since 2000.

“I don’t consider my father’s situation when I decide to publish a book; my primary concern is the value of the material to readers,” says the younger Bao. “But my father agrees that the more people talk and tell details about the crackdown, the more likely the truth will come out. I hope more and more people will be coming out to tell their stories.”