Bao pu: What Really Happened at Tiananmen

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Bao is one of the translators and editors of "Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang," to be released by Simon & Schuster on May 19. ]

Twenty years after Chinese troops crushed demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, new light has now been shed on the incident by the forthcoming memoirs of Zhao Ziyang. The former general secretary died in 2005, after living in forced seclusion for 16 years for supporting the pro-democracy movement. In those years of seclusion, he managed to record a testimony in audiotapes. His memoirs reveal that bloodshed could have been avoided in 1989.

China's economic reforms in the 1980s led to a rift in the top Chinese leadership between those who supported the reforms and those who opposed them. The students demonstrating in Tiananmen Square were calling for the deepening of reform, including democracy. Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping, Premier Li Peng and other conservatives opposed them and were predisposed to respond harshly.

Zhao saw the student demonstrations differently. "I felt that if the student demonstrations could be resolved along the principles of democracy and law, through dialogue and an easing of tensions, it could possibly boost China's reform, including political reform," he wrote.

The tragic turning point toward violence came when Mr. Li maneuvered to publish Deng's harsh comments about the protestors in a People's Daily editorial on April 26. When Zhao first heard of Deng's remarks while on a state visit to North Korea, he wrote, "[M]y first thought was that another campaign against liberalism might begin."

But much to the government's surprise, the students were shocked and insulted by the defamation of their motives and responded with the April 27 demonstrations, the biggest spontaneous student protest ever in modern China's history. Zhao observed at this time that "even the symbol of the paramount leader had lost its effectiveness."

The stakes had now been raised. Mr. Li and his associates were not only gambling with their political agenda but their careers as well. Zhao says: "They were extremely worried that the April 26 editorial might be overturned. . . . Yan Mingfu [director of Liaison Department] reported to me that Li Peng had told him that if, upon my return [from North Korea], I did not support the April 26 editorial, Li would have no choice but to resign."...

comments powered by Disqus