In This Review

The Tiananmen Papers
The Tiananmen Papers
By Compiled By Zhang Liang (Pseudonym), edited by Andrew J. Nat
Public Affairs, 2001, 560 pp.

Excerpts from this extraordinary compilation of documents first appeared in the previous issue of this journal ("The Tiananmen Papers," January/February 2001). The papers detail the deliberations of the Chinese leadership in the spring of 1989, leading up to the Tiananmen Square tragedy on June 4. In so doing, The Tiananmen Papers grants the reader access to the innermost decision-making processes of one of the world's most secretive governments during an infamous moment in its history. The documents contain the minutes of meetings of the Politburo and its five-person Standing Committee, the highest body of formal political power in China. Even more astonishing are the intimate communications among the top leaders: the gatherings of the eight "elders," the extralegal group of senior communist revolutionaries who at the time constituted ultimate authority in China; some private meetings in the home of Deng Xiaoping, the most influential elder and the chair of the Central Military Commission; and even some of his phone conversations. The various conversations and meetings all dealt with one subject: what to do about the student demonstrators who had taken possession of Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989.

The huge collection of documents was secretly compiled by a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) member (known to readers only by the pseudonym Zhang Liang) and some fellow collaborators, then handed over to Andrew Nathan of Columbia University; Nathan in turn sought the editorial help of Perry Link of Princeton University and Orville Schell of the University of California at Berkeley. The motive of the compilers was to advance political reform in China by forcing open discussion of a subject that has long been taboo. They hoped that the revelations in the documents would shock the CCP into reversing its official line -- that the Tiananmen demonstrations were the work of a "small group of counterrevolutionaries." A reversed verdict would acknowledge that the students were patriotic Chinese who sought to advance the modernization of their country through political reform.

The compilers believe that exiled dissidents alone will never change China. Instead, reform must come from within the CCP. It is for this reason that the compilers have bravely chosen to remain in China with their families. They hope that the revelations in these papers -- how some stubborn old men were fully informed about the ongoing events but fatally misjudged both the demonstrators and their own power to control them -- will convince fair-minded Chinese

that the government acted improperly, and that China should now match its economic reforms with serious political reforms. In his introduction, Nathan notes that the publication of The Tiananmen Papers will damage the political fortunes of China's current president, Jiang Zemin, and the hard-liner Li Peng, and could benefit a group of more liberal senior leaders, including in particular Zhu Rongji, Li Ruihuan, and six others. Could it be that some in this latter group are now providing shelter for the compilers?


Nathan and Link worked for years with a number of translators to produce the English-language text, which is just a third the size of the forthcoming Chinese version. Schell added a thorough examination of the critical question of the authenticity of the documents. He begins with a reminder of the long history of forgeries of official Chinese documents and insiders' reports, but he firmly concludes that the contents of The Tiananmen Papers are nonetheless genuine. Unfortunately, neither he nor Nathan can share with readers all the evidence they have to support this conclusion. To do so would endanger the compilers.

The appearance of The Tiananmen Papers sent a shiver of anticipation and speculation through the Western community of China specialists. What new revelations might they hold? Academic decorum called for a degree of cautious skepticism about such an unexpected mass of new information. Quickly, however, skepticism gave way to acceptance; the papers contained no smoking gun, nothing that contradicted the prevailing interpretation of the events of June 4. If forgery was involved, wouldn't the perpetrators have come up with something new and sensational? Accepting the documents, meanwhile, also called for constraint in publicizing them. The prospect of publishing the papers in the United States raised anxieties that their revelation would set back relations with Beijing.

The initial reaction of the Chinese authorities, however, seemed only to validate the authenticity of the documents. Beijing's assertion that the papers were fake was half-hearted at best, in contrast with the standard official Chinese response to any foreign-inspired insult or criticism, which has always been to let loose hyperbolic wails -- proclaiming, in one standard phrase, that the action had "hurt the feelings of one billion Chinese." The casual, almost offhand declaration that the documents were forgeries suggested that Beijing hoped to dismiss the whole episode as a tempest in a teapot, something the Chinese people should ignore. Or perhaps it was that the top authorities had not yet decided how the CCP should react. Nonetheless, in preparation for the 2002 16th Party Congress, questions about the verdict on Tiananmen may be raised by those favoring political reforms.

It is far too early to tell whether The Tiananmen Papers will have a significant influence on current elite politics in China and the succession game. They do, however, provide a vivid human dimension to what were history-defining events. As Zhang boasts in the preface, "June Fourth was the culmination of the biggest, broadest, longest-lasting, and most influential pro-democracy demonstration anywhere in the world in the twentieth century." He may be right; indeed, the documents show that some 100 million people participated in the 1989 protests in 341 cities. In the years since, we have seen the video footage and heard numerous accounts of the Tiananmen events from the perspectives of participants and journalists. But The Tiananmen Papers gives the first direct evidence of exactly how the demonstrations were perceived and understood by their targets -- the CCP authorities. The documents put the reader inside Zhongnanhai, the Beijing complex that houses the Party Central Office, the State Council Office, and some top leaders' residences. The reader becomes a witness as China's leaders express their frustrations, debate what should be done, descend into increasing internal division, arrive at critical decisions, and finally try to justify their bloody choices -- to themselves as well as to the outside world.


In plotting their moves, the leadership in Zhongnanhai worked from an abundance of accurate, detailed, and often up-to-the-minute intelligence reports from both domestic and foreign sources. Hourly updates on what the students were planning and doing came in from the various undercover Public Security agents on every university campus and in all major cities. Meanwhile, intelligence flowed in from around the world, giving the Chinese leaders insight into how foreign governments and publics were characterizing their decisions. And the topmost Chinese officials received daily briefings on how the world's leading newspapers were reporting the events in Tiananmen Square.

The logs of the leaders' meetings show evidence of having been edited for smoothness and clarity. The statements and conversations contained within are strikingly articulate, coherent, and well-reasoned -- with none of the shorthand, half-sentences, or cryptic jargon so common in everyday talk among busy people. This type of editing process is typical treatment for official Chinese government and CCP documents. So the coherence and polish given to The Tiananmen Papers actually bolster the evidence in favor of their veracity.

Li Peng, premier and member of the Politburo Standing Committee, stands out as the acknowledged leader in most of the meetings, in which he used rigorous, logical reasoning to advance his policy of treating the protesters with uncompromising firmness. In contrast, CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang's appeals for dialogue with the students seem at times to have been guided by wishful thinking, more from his heart than his head.


As the crisis mounted, China's leadership became increasingly divided between Zhao's group, who respected the students' patriotism and thus favored dialogue with them, and the hard-liners, who stood firm and eventually called for the use of military force. The reader sees two sides of the hard-line leader Li Peng, whose machinations are essential to understanding the gradual drift toward violent repression. Li is quite forthright in declaring his disagreements with Zhao and advocating a hard line. But he is also sly in his private meetings with Deng. He incites anger in the elder leader -- who a decade earlier had boldly spearheaded China's economic modernization -- by telling him that the students were personally denouncing him and all that he stood for. Deng, thus manipulated by Li, gradually adopted a harder stance, and most of his colleagues quickly fell in line.

Each side in the internal debate had its blind spots. Zhao passionately called for dialogue with the students, apparently unaware that his appeals often only raised the protesters' expectations and made them more adamant. Li's camp, for its part, was slow to realize that its demands for toughness only strengthened the students' resistance and put the romanticized idea of martyrdom in their heads. Each faction tried to point out the weaknesses of the other, which only made both sides more determined to stick to their initial positions.

Moreover, the leadership's internal divisions soon widened. The leaders vied among themselves in forcefully advocating the position of their chosen camp: first one leader would make a statement; then the next one would note his complete agreement but, in elaborating, would exaggerate the case. Soon a third would chime in and carry the argument even further toward an extreme. This practice might work well in a time of consensus, but the competitive behavior only widened the gap between hard-liners and moderates.

The split within the leadership was crystallized early on by an April 26 editorial in the People's Daily. The article bluntly expressed the hard-line position that the "turmoil" was the work of a "small clique of counterrevolutionaries" set on overthrowing the CCP and the socialist system. At a meeting the previous night in Deng's home, Li had prodded Deng into making some tough statements and then quickly called for the drafting of an editorial along these lines. When it ran, the whole country was alerted to study the piece. Zhao Ziyang was away on a state visit to North Korea but received the text by telegraph and wired back his total agreement.

When Zhao returned to Beijing, however, he realized that the editorial had angered the students and strengthened their determination to continue the protests. So he turned around and attacked the article, infuriating conservatives for what they saw as two-faced behavior. At a May 1 meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, Zhao went even further, declaring the need to accelerate the reform of our political system, especially the building of a system of socialist democracy based on law. ... Democracy is a worldwide trend, and there is an international counter current against communism and socialism that flies under the banner of democracy and human rights. If the Party doesn't hold up the banner of democracy in our country, someone else will, and we will lose out.

He went on to demand guarantees of freedom of speech and "multiparty cooperation." Li Peng immediately denounced such views and declared his total disagreement with Zhao.

Already in trouble, Zhao then made his position even more politically untenable. In a speech to the directors of the Asian Development Bank (who happened to be meeting in Beijing), he spoke sympathetically of the patriotic students and their calls for needed reforms. The publication of this speech caused confusion in the CCP ranks. Local leaders declared that the party seemed to have "two headquarters" and they did not know which to obey. Drawing renewed vigor from the government's confusion, the students raised the stakes by initiating a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square.


Already incendiary, the standoff grew worse as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's May 15 visit to China approached. Thanks to the students, it was now impossible to receive him in Tiananmen Square. This, to the eight elders, was a matter of national humiliation. Once Gorbachev was in China, Zhao infuriated the elders even more by revealing an important state secret to the Soviet leader: the day after Gorbachev's arrival, Zhao informed him that the CCP had agreed to let Deng make the most important party decisions -- even though he had officially stepped down from the Politburo. Hours later, at a Standing Committee evening meeting, Li Peng denounced Zhao for this breach.

The following morning, the committee met at Deng's house. Li had no trouble convincing them that Zhao, who was absent, would have to go, and that martial law was necessary to end the student demonstrations. That evening, the Standing Committee voted 2-2 on martial law, with Zhao's supposed ally Qiao Shi abstaining. On the morning of May 18, the elders met and agreed that martial law was indeed required. Shortly thereafter they again convened, this time to oust Zhao and appoint Jiang Zemin as his replacement.


The elders' behavior during this course of events was intriguing. The group seemed to believe that whatever they declared should happen, indeed would happen -- as though they had magical powers. They assumed that by merely declaring martial law, they could send the students scurrying back to their campuses and restore normalcy to Beijing. They never seemed to consider that the symbolic act of declaring martial law might not be obeyed, or that they might be obliged to back it up with actual force. Similarly, the elders assumed that their order to the army "to clear the Square" would bring instant results. Nobody seriously suggested the possibility of violence.

Furthermore, the elders never gave any indication of being aware that their actions were extralegal, if not illegal. They took upon themselves the authority to remove and replace Zhao as the country's nominal leader, even though that power supposedly belonged only to the Politburo and the State Council. When the elders met as a group, the old revolutionaries clearly saw themselves as supreme, since it was they who had personally created the People's Republic of China. This confidence spared them even the slightest doubt that anything they decided might not be totally legitimate. Objectively, however, their actions lacked any legal or constitutional basis.

The elders defied not only legal reality but also the excellent intelligence reports they were fed, operating instead as though their own words determined the governing facts. The ideas they repeated to each other became the reality guiding their decisions. So once they had decided that the "turmoil" was caused by members of "a tiny minority" who, as the "black hands behind the scenes," were manipulating the students, they felt it appropriate to ignore whatever the students were demanding.

Yet the idea that all the "turmoil" could be caused by such a small group became increasingly frightening. The elders must have wondered how a small gang of those they called the "scum of China" could wield such powers over the students and citizens, when the CCP itself was unable to move the people to take any counteractions. The tiny group obviously had demonic powers, and hence ruthlessness was appropriate. Thus a group of leaders who had started out with the resolve to end the demonstrations peacefully was led down the path toward the Tiananmen tragedy.


Among the elders, everyone looked to Deng for all decisions. Yang Shangkun, China's president and Deng's close comrade, did -- at times -- seek to guide Deng in a more liberal direction but met little success. Usually the elders spoke most forcefully when they thought they were seconding Deng's thoughts. And those thoughts were guided by Li Peng, whose tactic of influencing Deng by telling him that the students were denouncing him personally generally seemed to work.

By the time the decision for martial law was made, Deng had grown discouraged by the vicious criticism of his leadership. Indeed, in the midst of the final deliberations just before the declaration of martial law, Deng called Yang to his house to vent his anger and frustrations:

[Zhao] was completely uncooperative -- he didn't even show any signs of wanting to cooperate. I had to do what I did. ... It is not easy. I am old, and if somebody wants to say I'm senile, fine, confused, fine. ... These last few days I've been thinking, I've never been formally number 1 in the Party, but everybody keeps hanging around me, showing me deference. I have to give the nod on every important decision. I carry too much weight, and that is not good for the Party or the state. I should think about retiring. But how can I, right now? With all this lying before us, how could I retire?

Yang responded, "The people will remember your achievements, Comrade Xiaoping. I also think they will understand and accept your decision on martial law."

Although the Chinese people may indeed remember Deng's earlier achievements, it is not certain whether they will continue to accept the decisions he made during the Tiananmen crisis. The compilers of The Tiananmen Papers have bet their lives that Chinese now reading the full documentary reports of the government's decision-making will conclude that Deng's verdict on the demonstrations should be reversed, and that political reform should recommence. Time will tell whether they are right. But in the meantime, the papers' compilers have exposed the current leadership's reliance on highly informal and essentially extralegal decision-making practices.

We should thank them profusely for bravely pulling back the Chinese curtain of secrecy.

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  • Lucian W. Pye is Ford Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and reviews books on Asia for Foreign Affairs. His own books include The Spirit of Chinese Politics.
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