Tiananmen's potent papers

China-watchers the world over are speculating about the impact the so-called Tiananmen Papers will have on China and its leadership.

Will these smuggled documents - which purport to show the heated debate that took place among Beijing's top leaders in 1989, when they grappled with the pro-democracy student movement - hurt the credibility of China's current regime?

Or will they cause China's leaders to close ranks, only hindering the democracy movement's goals? China says the documents, published this month in the United States, are fake. But to those of us who witnessed and participated in the demonstrations centered on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, they ring completely true. It also seems likely that the 1,000-plus pages of documents, gathered from more than 20 ministries and departments, had to have been compiled by more than one high-level official.

The papers contain few surprises. But they confirm many of the stories that have circulated for years. The significance of these papers is that, for the first time since 1949, official Chinese records have been released outside China via unofficial channels. They afford a rare glimpse of the inner workings of the Chinese government.

"Zhang Liang," the papers' pseudonymous author, represents the voice of a small yet growing number of Chinese officials who have access to top confidential Chinese archives, and are trying to use international pressure to get China's government to speed up political reforms.

The papers ignited speculation by Western China-watchers that the authors could be the members of a reformist faction within top levels of the Communist Party. They would want to release the Tiananmen Papers to embarrass conservative leaders such as Parliament Chairman Li Peng, and boost their own power.

We believe there is enough evidence to show that members of the senior leadership are masterminding this drama. Given China's tight security, only senior officials would be able to collect, assemble, and smuggle out these papers.

For many years, Western scholars tended to oversimplify analysis of the Chinese political leadership by calling them either conservatives or reformists. But the actual situation is far from clear cut. Chairman Li, known as a conservative, has been behind many of China's economic reforms, whereas President Jiang, who projects a moderate image, has initiated a series of ideological crackdowns.

Power struggles among the senior Chinese leaders are intensifying in advance of the 2002 Communist Party Congress, when President Jiang is slated to retire. Still, when it comes to the Tiananmen crackdown, the senior leadership fully supported the move. Many rose in the ranks during the 1989 shakeup and still have a vested interest in justifying the crackdown.

Therefore, unlike what has been reported in US news media, no faction within the senior leadership would want to use the papers to hurt another's position. Instead, pressure brought upon top leaders by the release of the papers could cause them to close ranks. The release of these documents could inadvertently strengthen top leaders such as Jiang and Li.

Almost 12 years after Tiananmen, China has changed dramatically. Many ordinary people who were sympathetic to the student movement now think otherwise. Some now believe that, given the breakup of the Soviet Union and its ensuing economic woes, Beijing's hard-liners were justified in cracking down on the students.

Moreover, the Chinese government has orchestrated an economic recovery. Within the last decade, China has emerged as an economic powerhouse in Asia, and people's living conditions have dramatically improved.

In 1989, many Westerners and dissidents predicted that China's Communist government would follow those in Eastern Europe and collapse. Instead, the Chinese leadership has consolidated its power and is enjoying broader public support. Bringing up the issue of the Tiananmen crackdown at this time will not precipitate a leadership crisis in China.

Party leaders may take advantage of growing nationalist feelings among ordinary Chinese. In fact, the release of the Tiananmen Papers in America and the ensuing international attention have only fueled Chinese accusations that Americans are trying to sabotage the stability and development of China.

Still, the papers' release could eventually damage the image of Chinese leaders, especially Jiang Zemin. The documents, which revealed that Jiang rose to power through irregular Communist Party constitutional procedures after the crackdown, could cast doubt on his legitimacy. As for Li Peng, who was then the premier of China, and is now dubbed "the butcher of students," the papers show in great detail how he manipulated the elders within the leadership for support in ordering the crackdown.

To the leaders' benefit, these papers have helped add a human touch to their image. The minutes of their meetings reveal their fear of going through another chaotic period like Mao's Cultural Revolution. They also show repeated discussions on how to crack down on the students without shedding blood.

Zhang and the other anonymous officials who have helped compile the papers may not bring about any substantial political change. But their work may pay off in the near future. As the most comprehensive records of the government debate over the 1989 student movement thus far, they will help us understand that event in Chinese history and pave the way for more disclosures from China. When the time is right, the historical truth revealed by the Tiananmen Papers will become a potent weapon to redress the controversial verdict on a people's movement.

Pin Ho is founder of Mirror Books Ltd., a Chinese-language publishing house in New York, which will publish the Tiananmen Papers in April. Wen Huang, a former staff member of The New York Times Beijing Bureau, is a Chicago freelance writer.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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