When Chinese leader Jiang Zemin used the words "shortcomings" and "mistakes" in response to a question at Harvard University Nov. 1, headlines worldwide labeled his remarks as a near-apology for the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen crackdown.
But a careful reading of Mr. Jiang's comments reveals that he meant nothing of the kind, according to China scholars and officials in both countries.
"I don't see evidence for a major rethinking on this subject," State Department spokesman James Rubin told reporters Nov. 3.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Tang Guoqiang told a press briefing Nov. 4: "Some people have misunderstood President Jiang's remarks." Mr. Tang urged them to study Jiang's speech more carefully.
The almost breathless reaction to Jiang's words underscores how, in the public mind, Tiananmen remains the central defining event in relations between the United States and China in the 1990s.
"Why the press or anyone else would leap to that conclusion ... it's absurd, unless there is just such a desire that [Jiang] address the issue," says David Shambaugh, director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University in Washington. He calls Jiang's remarks about rectifying government mistakes "standard party mantra."
Nevertheless, Jiang's misunderstood comments seem already to have taken on a life of their own. Chinese dissident groups based in the US and Hong Kong immediately seized on Jiang's "mistake" comment as a wedge with which to pressure Beijing to reverse the official verdict on the 1989 student-led protests. "We approve of this indication that you are willing to use good to transform evil," said a letter to Jiang issued Monday by the Joint Committee for Protesting Jiang Zemin's Visit to Harvard.
The group of Chinese students protested the Harvard visit and submitted the question on Tiananmen to Jiang.
Reports of Jiang's statement could also offer a fresh opportunity for Communist Party officials inside China who have lobbied from behind the scenes - so far unsuccessfully - for a reevaluation of the military crackdown at Tiananmen, in which hundreds Chinese citizens were killed. A major party meeting in September rejected calls for revisiting the issue, but there have been subtle changes in the party position.
For example, in Washington last week, Jiang reiterated the party line that the crackdown was "correct" and "necessary" to maintain stability. Yet Jiang called the protests a "political disturbance" rather than a "counterrevolutionary armed rebellion," reflecting a shift in the official rhetoric on Tiananmen that started immediately after the death last winter of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
What Jiang Zemin Actually Said
A translation follows of Chinese leader Jiang Zemin's answer to a question submitted by the Joint Committee for Protesting Jiang Zemin's Visit to Harvard University on Nov. 1:
Question: "Jiang Zemin asks the West not to engage in confrontation, but dialogue. However, why does he refuse dialogue with his own people? Why did the Chinese government order tanks in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, and confront the Chinese people?"
Jiang Zemin: "Regarding how China learns about the opinions of the people, we have various channels. For instance, when I was the mayor of Shanghai, I had frequent contact with the people's deputies there. Also, since I went to work with the party central committee, I have been to almost all the 30 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions of China.
"China is a large country with different levels of development. I've been to some places more than three times. I've been to many grass-roots units in China's countryside, in the cities, and in the factories, and had extensive contacts with people from different walks of life.
"The people are very satisfied with the achievements we have explored under the reform and opening-up program. The policy of the government is to serve the people. Therefore, we have to reflect the people's requests. As a result of our efforts to serve the people, we have enjoyed the support from our people. It goes without saying that naturally we may have shortcomings and even make some mistakes in our work. However, we have been working on a constant basis to further improve our work."