‘Comrade Jiang Zemin does indeed seem a proper choice’

Jasper Becker

I could hardly bring myself to read this book. When I finished it, I was more puzzled than ever about what I had witnessed before and at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. I was then reporting for the Guardian and had been living in China for four years, watching the slow build-up of anger and hope among the intelligentsia.

In Shanghai one night in late 1986, I saw the whole of the Bund and the People’s Square filled with crowds of students and expectant onlookers demanding democratic change from Jiang Zemin, who was then the Shanghai Party Secretary and is now China’s leader. Again, early in 1989, the police arrested me in the Holiday Inn in Lhasa, just after Beijing had declared martial law, in response to three successive years of pro-independence protests by Tibetans. The Party Secretary in Tibet, Hu Juntao, who oversaw the crackdown, is now China’s Vice-President and Jiang Zemin’s anointed successor.

None of this prepared me or anyone else, however, for the vast scale of the events which overtook China for ten weeks when, later in 1989, more than a million people marched through the streets of Beijing, and millions more through the streets of every large and small provincial town. Nothing on this scale had ever happened in any Communist country, not even in Solidarity’s Poland or Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, nor anywhere else in Eastern Europe in the weeks before the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Nothing remotely like it had ever taken place in China either. Certainly, there had been cycles of protests by overtaxed peasants, revolts by ethnic groups or religious sects, but not political protests, and certainly not peaceful sit-ins and demonstrations.

Yet afterwards one was left with a sense of failure. These protests had changed nothing. Since 1989, Beijing has seen a parade of Western leaders, businessmen and academics praising men like Jiang or Hu as statesmen and visionaries who have brought unprecedented prosperity and freedom to the Chinese people. The unspoken message is that sending in the tanks was the right thing to do, and many visitors have explicitly condemned those fools in the Soviet Union for letting their empire slip away from them.

It leaves one thinking about what might have been in China, and fearing that such an opportunity may never come again. Modern political life has existed there only briefly, in the first part of the 20th century, when there were small-scale (but important) student protests and strikes as well as elections, independent newspapers and universities and many other organisations not under state control. This civil society was unique in Chinese history and Mao Zedong and the intellectuals who joined the Communist Party resolutely crushed every trace of its existence. Mao effectively returned China to the absolute totalitarianism which accompanied the founding of the modern state by the first emperor, Qinshi Huangdi, in 220 BC.

That the democratic ideas of the 1920s might have survived to put out fresh shoots in the 1980s seemed a miracle. Standing on Tiananmen Square in 1989 on the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, seeing the same slogans being held aloft, and even hearing the same songs (sung to the tune of Frère Jacques), left one bewildered and amazed: how could such a thing happen? Was anyone organising these millions? Were the demonstrations really spontaneous? What was the Party doing? What were the secret police doing? To anyone who has not lived in China or somewhere similar, it’s hard to conceive how minutely organised everything is there, how controlled events are even when they appear to be spontaneous, and therefore how unlikely they feel.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed the keeper of the Imperial snuff bottle collection in the Forbidden City. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, he was working for the Foreign Affairs office of the All China Writer’s Association as a guide hosting tours of visiting writers from friendly countries. At the time, Beijing’s most famous writers, such as Lao She, were being driven to suicide or beaten to death by Red Guards. (‘I had no idea,’ he said.) He recalled how, as he shepherded his visitors through the streets by car, he would telephone ahead to ensure that the squads of Red Guards would be ordered to disappear so their brutality would not be witnessed by the tourists. The Red Guards quietly obeyed every time: so much for the description of this period as ‘ten years of chaos’.

The first supposedly spontaneous political protests on Tiananmen Square in the Communist era took place in 1976, on the death of Zhou Enlai (now a semi-deified figure). A senior Asian diplomat who was there remembers how he was allowed to witness the burning of buses and to hear impassioned speeches urging democracy from the steps of the Great Hall of the People, until at 4 p.m. he was tapped on the shoulder and politely told to go home. The plainclothes policeman deputed to watch him knew what was going to happen next: the square was cleared by militia wielding clubs and guns, who killed many protestors and arrested others.

The 1979 Democracy Wall Movement, too, had a stage-managed feel to it. It lasted long enough for American reporters to create an expectation of imminent democracy. Deng Xiaoping was able to visit the United States and obtain diplomatic recognition. Soon after he returned, the Wall was closed down and the movement’s leaders given harsh prison sentences. Exactly the same trick was used by Jiang Zemin on the eve of his first trip to the United States four years ago. Suddenly, American journalists obtained reports of a new ‘Beijing Spring’ and the tiny dissident community was encouraged to form a new political party. Jiang obtained the favourable reception he wanted and the dissidents, veterans like Xu Wenli, are now once again in prison.

The very idea that large-scale, spontaneous political events could take place in Beijing of all places seems on the face of it absurd. Yet somehow those events did take place, so a book which attempts to explain how and why is bound to be remarkable. The Tiananmen Papers is based on a vast collection of documents smuggled out of China. They include everything from secret police reports to the minutes of private meetings between Deng Xiaoping and his elderly cronies. The documents, none of which had been made public, were brought out by a man whose real identity is being kept secret. His name is given here as Zhang Liang and he is sometimes referred to by the editors as the Compiler. The documents were smuggled out some years ago and Zhang Liang first tried to get them printed in Hong Kong, which for over fifty years has been where all such leaks are published. Even in the darkest days of Mao’s reign, officials leaked stories about inner Party struggles to the outside world. It was still regarded, after all, as a neutral Chinese territory.

Curiously, since it reverted to Chinese control, the leaks have been fewer, and it’s revealing that The Tiananmen Papers were not first published there. Instead, the Compiler went on to the United States, still regarded in China as Enemy Number One, where two professors – Perry Link and Andrew Nathan – agreed to translate and edit the documents. Both men have been banned from China so, if this is a deliberate leak, they are an improbable choice. Perry Link, an expert on Chinese literature, was a close associate of Professor Fang Lizhi, the dissident physicist whose appeal for an amnesty for political prisoners was one of the events that heralded the 1989 protests. Link had been supposed to accompany Fang to a dinner hosted in Beijing by George Bush, then Vice-President; instead the police arrested Fang.

Link and Nathan have stitched together a remarkably readable account of the Tiananmen protests, taking us from the campuses of Beijing to the inner sanctums of power and including passages of vivid dialogue from both villains and heroes. Gaps in the reports have been filled with explanations and summaries. The book has been brilliantly marketed, too, attracting front-page articles in US papers and selling more than 40,000 copies and many translation rights. As such, it has certainly achieved the aim of the Compiler: to stir the pot and keep memories alive.

Jiang Zemin has almost managed to make the event disappear down an Orwellian memory hole. Even in Western countries, sub-editors have taken to calling it the ‘Tiananmen crackdown’, rather than ‘massacre’, making it seem as insignificant as the endless stories about routine ‘crackdowns’ on smuggling, prostitution, counterfeit goods, VAT forms or corruption, which provide the stuff of daily reporting here in China. Assigning blame for the massacre, or as the Chinese call it, ‘reversing the verdict on Tiananmen’, will remain the most sensitive issue in Chinese politics for a long time to come. The very legitimacy of the current gang of leaders depends on it and reversing the verdict – so that the protest movement is thought of, and referred to, as ‘patriotic’ – remains the chief goal of dissidents both inside and outside the country. However, this aim will not be achievable as long as Li Peng, the former Prime Minister and number two in the Party, remains in power. He was the most aggressive leader in his condemnation of the students and was, allegedly, instrumental in persuading Deng Xiaoping to adopt a military solution.

Jiang Zemin is in power because Deng Xiaoping appointed him and the book is particularly embarrassing for him because it reveals that the decision to elevate him was made contrary to the Party constitution. Three old men – Deng, Chen Yun and Li Xiannian – made it themselves, having consulted other retired elders: Peng Zhen, Deng Yingchao, Yang Shangkun, Wang Zhen and Bo Yibo. ‘After long and careful comparison, the Shanghai Party Secretary, Comrade Jiang Zemin, does indeed seem a proper choice. I think he’s up to the task. Comrades Chen Yun, Xiannian and I all lean toward Comrade Jiang Zemin for General Secretary. What do the rest of you think?’ So Deng said, and the rest agreed with him. Li Xiannian then added: ‘It’s true that Jiang Zemin lacks experience at the Centre. But this man has a political mind, is in the prime of life, and can be trusted.’ That was apparently all it took to become China’s next dictator. The dismissals of Jiang Zemin’s predecessors, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, were handled in a similarly imperious way. Link said recently in Hong Kong that he felt sure that one day the official line on Tiananmen would be changed and that this book’s revelations would help bring that about. But earlier this year, Jiang Zemin convened a special conference at which everyone had to stand up and swear allegiance to him and then sit down to watch a three-hour television documentary on the ‘crackdown’. This not only gave the Government’s version of events but also justified the repression by showing what happened to other Communist Parties and other countries which had wavered. The fact that these stories were carefully leaked to certain diplomats in Beijing and to the New York Times suggests not so much anxiety but the intention to demonstrate that the leadership is united on this matter.

Key commentators inside China, like the writer and environmentalist Dai Qing, feel that the publication of The Tiananmen Papers will impede the cause of political reform by making the leaders even more nervous about the slightest liberalisation for fear of where it might lead. Yet, sadly, the book contains almost nothing that sheds any new light on what happened. It could largely have been compiled from existing materials and press clippings, or it could simply have been made up. There are fascinating details, like Deng’s remarks about Jiang Zemin, and new figures and details about large-scale protests outside the main cities: they reportedly took place in 27 provinces and 57 towns. It also tells us that at a 1987 Politburo meeting Deng was given formal power to approve or overturn any decisions, and that a second resolution gave Yang Shangkun and Bo Yibo the right to attend meetings of the Politburo and Politburo standing committee as observers on behalf of Deng, Chen Yun and Li Xiannian. But little of this has the feel of, say, The Mitrokhin Archive, scribbled down over the years by an archivist with access to all the files on the KGB’s overseas operations, before he was smuggled out of Russia with the help of British diplomats.

Most disappointing of all, The Tiananmen Papers provide no insight into how this vast outpouring of protest could have happened. What brought about the split in the Party that paralysed the security apparatus? And did Zhao Ziyang and his followers really organise the students? I find it impossible to imagine how more than a million people could march peacefully through the streets, behind banners, unless they knew they had the permission of the Party and the co-operation of the police. How else could people lose their fear?

Zhao Ziyang emerges as China’s Hamlet. He clearly had the people behind him and much of the Party; why did he not act? Why did he agree to step down so quietly, a decision which has left him under lifelong house arrest? One searches in vain here to find out what notion of loyalty or discipline led him to give up without a fight. Why did Zhao not take his chance as Yeltsin was later to do? He had seemed to want to end the Leninist state. He permitted people to penetrate the mysteries of the propaganda machine in a spirit of glasnost or ‘transparency’ – touminghua as it was called in China. Exhibitions showed how famous propaganda pictures, including some from the Korean War of peasant women nourishing troops with milk from their breasts, had been faked. And foreign journalists were even invited into Zhongnanhai, where China’s leaders live and work, and allowed to tour the house on the island in the lake where Mao had lived.

The Tiananmen Papers omits the high point of this process, when for four or five days the press was free, after Zhao’s ally, Hu Qili, made a speech lifting restrictions on the reporting of the events. Those few days were the only ones in living memory when such freedom was permitted.

Some of Deng’s more brutal utterances are also missing: as early as April, he had said that the Party should not fear shedding blood. Instead, in the extracts here he repeats the propaganda about the disturbances being the work of a small handful of agitators and foreign and Taiwanese agents. It also struck me as odd that the book quotes Deng and other leaders saying at great length that the top priority remained to deepen economic reforms and open the door to trade, investment and new technology. Perhaps Deng did talk a lot about that but I doubt it. What was uppermost in his mind was saving the Party. The protests were not against reform. Certainly, after Tiananmen China’s leaders pursued exactly the opposite policy: there was a great revival of central planning and self-reliance.

Some readers in Beijing suspect that The Tiananmen Papers are a fake. China, after all, is the land of fakes and forgeries. Sales of fake Coca-Cola, Duracell batteries, Nike shoes, Levis, French wine, American peanut butter, Boeing aircraft parts, Tang pottery, Song paintings, Qing furniture, Windows software, far exceed the genuine articles; most of the brand-name domestic drinks are fakes as well. Multinationals spend half their global anti-piracy budgets in China.

Forged documents, too, have been common in Chinese history. They have often been used during succession crises: the forged wills of dying emperors are not uncommon. Chairman Mao Zedong’s last testament, supposedly appointing Hua Guofeng as his heir, and consisting of a few barely legible lines, including the words ‘with you in charge my heart is at ease,’ falls into this category.

The more daring the forgeries, the more successful they have been. There was the 1965 case of a low-ranking clerk who was caught after he forged Zhou Enlai’s signature on Zhongnanhai notepaper and went to the People’s Bank, where they obeyed the written instructions and gave him 10 million renminbi ($1.2 million). The man loaded the money onto five pedicabs and took it home. The authorities eventually mounted a search and hunted through every desk in Zhongnanhai until one day they opened a drawer stuffed with scrap paper on which the confidence trickster had practised Premier Zhou’s signature thousands of times. Eventually, the money was found buried in the forger’s garden.

At the same time, those who follow Chinese politics know that although few if any genuine documents have ever emerged from the inner sanctums of the Party, a great deal of other stuff labelled secret is available. Under regulations issued in 1980, secret documents can be made available after ten years, and the most secret documents declassified after 30, although the Party can make whatever exceptions it wants. The writer Zheng Yi had no difficulty gaining access to archival documents detailing cannibalism in Guangxi during the Cultural Revolution with the help of local officials.

Some of the strongest and most convincing support for the present papers’ authenticity comes from Song Yongyi, an expert on Party documents from the Cultural Revolution. Now a librarian at Dickinson College in the United States, he was arrested and expelled from China two years ago, after being detained for stealing state secrets. Song, who has collected 1200 Party documents from the 1960s and 1970s, says there is a tendency to overrate the system of secrecy in the Chinese bureaucracy. Party documents are given three grades: jue mi or ‘absolutely secret’, ji mi or ‘extremely secret’, and mi mi or simply ‘secret’. Yet documents labelled ‘absolutely secret’ can be found in university libraries in the United States.

According to Song, ‘Local Party branches often throw out piles of documents stamped as “top secret” which would be carted away by refuse collectors and sold as scrap. After a while no one thinks this sort of stuff is worth keeping.’ Such documents circulate among most levels of the membership and are stored in any large unit’s own archives. Secret documents explaining Party decisions are normally distributed according to rank and their contents revealed to lower ranking members at cell meetings. A few days after this, a division or bureau chief would be free to go and borrow a document to take home to study – or indeed to scan or photocopy. Song again: ‘I don’t think this would be very difficult, dangerous per-haps if you are caught, but not hard to do gradually over a few years … Even a division chief can get hold of jue mi documents.’ Those in charge of maintaining archives and cataloguing data would have fewer problems of access still. Even documents labelled ‘absolutely secret’ should not be trusted as accurate records, however. ‘My own experience of reading Party documents,’ Song says, ‘shows that often different versions of a document circulate. The Party Committee of a local government often produced its own version, perhaps cutting out certain parts of a document sent from higher levels.’

Policy documents and reports are also tailored to the rank of the recipient. Those delivered to cadres contain unpalatable truths whereas in those given to the rank and file a much more optimistic picture is presented. During the Cultural Revolution, top leaders were given an accurate picture of the killings and other horrors perpetrated by the Red Guards, but completely different and more reassuring reports were sent to ordinary members.

‘It is also often hard to determine what the original document was actually like,’ Song suggests. Studying the style and language is not always a reliable indicator because these change depending on which leader is responsible. The Tiananmen Papers could therefore be simply the work of a mid-ranking official operating on his own initiative.

Link and Nathan stress in their introduction that the Compiler, whose identity they vouch for, had access to a cache of unique documents kept in Zhongnanhai, which lies next to the Forbidden City (and was recently silently surrounded by members of the Falun Gong sect). The Party’s central archives are in a prison-like complex located in Wenquan, a small town an hour’s drive north of Beijing, but more recent documents are kept inside Zhongnanhai. A special bureaucracy called the Wenxian Yanjiushi exists to edit and compile all these materials.

Bao Tong, a former aide to Zhao Ziyang, who later spent years in solitary confinement, recalls that he used to take his own notes at Politburo meetings but that every word spoken was recorded on tape and formal minutes were drawn up and published in document form. Only a few top leaders are allowed to take these documents home, however: for everyone else this is strictly forbidden, so removing such material from Zhongnanhai, to copy or edit it, would be very difficult. ‘Access to information is very, very tightly controlled. Afterwards only very limited groups of people are permitted access to these internal documents,’ Bao Tong told me. ‘When I needed something I would ask my assistant to get it out of the archives. Even I don’t know how he did that.’

When Bao Tong worked in Zhongnanhai, computers were only just being introduced, but he believes that by now the Party will keep its records entirely on hard disks – which would make it easy to copy a large number of files. This still leaves the question of whether accurate records of what happened during the Tiananmen period would have been preserved anyway. Many senior leaders would have been keen to avoid keeping any documents that made clear their responsibility.

According to the introduction, the Compiler had access to briefings that Li Peng and Yang Shangkun gave their followers, and to a series of memoranda of conversations supplied by a friend of Yang Shangkun. In some cases he has used different sources to reconstruct conversations. And one also has to accept that scholars of the calibre of Link and Nathan would not stake their reputations on the Papers if they weren’t sure they were genuine.

A final possibility is that the Papers are authentic, albeit very selectively edited, and were sent abroad as a political manoeuvre by some senior figure. A key suspect is Qiao Shi, the uncharismatic head of the security apparatus, who in 1989 abstained from voting on whether or not to send in the tanks. Later, as head of the National People’s Congress, he cultivated a reputation as a closet liberal. One fellow journalist told me that on several occasions Li Peng had to order that Qiao Shi’s interviews not be published abroad. At the last Party Congress Jiang Zemin forced him into retirement.

Qiao Shi would be condemned as a traitor if he was found guilty of this. One of Zhao’s chief crimes, to which an inordinate amount of attention is given by those quoted in this book, is that he revealed to Gorbachev that Deng still made all the key decisions in China, a fact that every child knew.

Whatever the provenance of this book, more will one day come out about Tiananmen Square. No one in Beijing believes this is the end of the story.