Within six months of the Tiananmen killings of June 3–4, 1989, a recently dismissed Chinese vice-minister told me on the record (and soon denied that he had done so) that “the man who tells the truth about what really happened in Beijing will rule China.” If evidence comes to light showing how China’s supreme leaders planned and directed the Beijing crackdown, the results, once the ritual denials are over, would be an embarrassment within the Communist Party and possibly even a change in the official verdict that what happened throughout China in the spring of 1989 was “a counterrevolutionary rebellion.”

Such is the potential of The Tiananmen Papers, which has been edited by Andrew Nathan and Perry Link, with an afterword by Orville Schell, three of the most respected experts on modern China, from pages compiled by a Chinese who remains anonymous using the pseudonym Zhang Liang. The book gives transcribed accounts of meetings among Chinese rulers during the Tiananmen crisis. If the evidence of the papers is authentic, and they deserve careful scrutiny, the man who compiled them seems to have been a middle-level official. In an interview with The New York Times1 he said that he is a Communist Party member. In his preface to The Tiananmen Papers, he says that he was “a witness to the event as well as a participant”; and in his interview on 60 Minutes, he recalls, “I saw corpses…. I saw a split in the top leadership.” From his interviews it appeared that, until very recently at least, he was no longer in China. Beijing has repudiated The Tiananmen Papers. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bang Zao said, “Any attempt to play up the matter [Tiananmen] again and disrupt China by the despicable means of fabricating materials and distorting facts will be futile.” Zhu also said that the 1989 crackdown was “highly necessary to the stability and development of China.”

Although President Jiang Zemin nowadays dismisses international concern about Tiananmen as “much ado about nothing,” what happened in Beijing and the rest of the country almost twelve years ago remains a burning issue inside China. On December 27, one of the demonstrators, Jiang Qisheng (who had previously served a year and a half in prison after Tiananmen), was sentenced to four years in prison for circulating a pamphlet calling for candle-lit mourning for the Tiananmen victims in people’s homes. The square, tightly policed at all times, is restricted or closed whenever the anniversary of the killings comes around. It is especially irksome to the regime that members of the religious movement Falun Gong often manage to unfurl their banners in the square, as they did on January 1, knowing that they will be severely beaten and perhaps killed.

We know that Deng Xiaoping claimed the Tiananmen demonstration was a nearly apocalyptic event; in 1990, for instance, he assured Canada’s former prime minister Pierre Trudeau that, had the demonstrators won, blood would have flowed in the rivers and millions of Chinese would have fled the country, destabilizing the region. At the time Chinese leaders feared they would be overwhelmed by a wave of protest. Between June 5 and June 10, 1989, according to The Tiananmen Papers, they received reports of disorder from 181 localities, including every provincial capital and major city.

During those turbulent days in the spring of 1989, China was under the control not of its usual high Party officials, led by the five-member Standing Committee of the Politburo, but of eight “elders,” veterans with careers stretching back to the Communists’ guerrilla period. When it became clear that at least two if not three Standing Committee members were unwilling to take a harsh line with the students, the eighty-five-year-old Deng summoned six elders from retirement. (Deng and President Yang Shangkun still held official positions.) Deng convened all eight elders in his residence for four crucial meetings on how to deal with what he described as a threat not only to China but to the world. I can recall the television pictures of the elders arriving at Deng’s house in Beijing—dozing, drooling, propped up by nurses and derided as figures of fun by the demonstrators, who did not realize at the time how dangerous these old men were. (Nor did we journalists.) According to The Tiananmen Papers, Wang Zhen, then eighty-one, a former vice-president and general, on the eve of the crackdown burst out in one of the meetings of the elders:

Those goddamn bastards! Who do they think they are, trampling on sacred ground like Tiananmen so long?! They’re really asking for it. We should send the troops right now to grab those counterrev-olutionaries, Comrade Xiaoping! What’s the People’s Liberation army for, anyway?…We’ve got to do it or we’ll never forgive ourselves! We’ve got to do it or the common people will rebel! Anybody who tries to overthrow the Communist Party deserves death and no burial!

At the same meeting Deng analyzed the causes and potentially global consequences of the demonstrations, which had begun on April 15 after the death of Hu Yaobang, a protégé of Deng’s who had been fired from his position as Party general secretary (and succeeded by Zhao Ziyang) in 1987, partly because he had been judged too soft on students during a series of intense but brief demonstrations in Beijing and a few other cities in 1986. At the June 2 meeting at which Wang Zhen cursed the students, Deng, according to The Tiananmen Papers, blamed the West for stirring up


the so-called democrats or opposition in China—people who in fact are the scum of the Chinese nation…. Imagine for a moment what could happen if China falls into turmoil. If it happens now, it’d be far worse than the Cultural Revolution [the years 1966–1976, when Deng himself was twice disgraced by Mao, including several years of exile and factory work far from Beijing].

Deng warned of civil war in which the army would be controlled by competing factions, with “hundreds of millions” fleeing abroad. “This would be disaster on a global scale. So China mustn’t make a mess of itself. And this is not just to be responsible to ourselves, but to consider the whole world and all of humanity.” The tough-talking Wang Zhen spoke again; the people in the square, he said, must be warned that the army is coming: “They can listen or not listen as they choose, but then we move in. If it causes deaths, that’s their own fault. We can’t be soft or merciful toward anti-Party, antisocialist elements.” Deng closed the meeting conclusively: “If they refuse to leave, they will be responsible for the consequences.”

Such were some of the allegedly transcribed remarks at the June 2 meeting of the most powerful men in China, as they sat in Deng Xiaoping’s heavily guarded walled compound north of Tiananmen Square. No place on earth was more secure.

The record of these alleged conversations, and many others among very high officials, together with intelligence and police reports from all over China, make the publication of The Tiananmen Papers a momentous event. It casts a beam of light into the central workings of the People’s Republic of China during what Deng Xiaoping himself described as its greatest crisis, greater even than the Cultural Revolution, which in 1981 the Party’s historians, overseen by Deng himself, had judged the country’s “greatest catastrophe” since the Communists first came to power in 1949. While it is true that much of what happened in the spring of 1989 is well known, what we have in The Tiananmen Papers is a record of how China’s supreme leaders managed what they saw as a danger that could bring them down. In it we almost hear their voices. Here, too, we have the fullest picture ever presented of how widely the spring disorders spread throughout China. The top leaders, we learn, were well informed of the national scope of the disorders while fatally misconstruing and mishandling them.

But are these materials authentic? Or are they the latest in a long series of forgeries of which the greatest in recent years was the “Hitler diaries”? The editors have put their reputations on the line with this book; as Orville Schell, dean of the School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, acknowledges in his afterword, if the papers prove to be a fake, he and the book’s editors could be damaged as badly as was Hugh Trevor- Roper, the author of The Last Days of Hitler, in 1983 when he authenticated the Hitler diaries in The Sunday Times of London.

The central question therefore is whether we can trust the man who compiled the papers. According to Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia, the compiler, claiming to represent a tiny group of like-minded reformers, met him several years ago somewhere outside China. Along with the other Chinese he said had helped him, the compiler must have had access to the deepest recesses of the regime (and he will now, we can be sure, be the target of a determined manhunt in Beijing). He said that although Nathan was often deeply critical of China (he had been denied a visa for five years), the compiler and his friends regarded him as “fair-minded.” They knew he had been involved in the publication of the revealing book by Mao’s doctor2 and of the prison letters of the dissident Wei Jingsheng.3 The compiler offered a large collection of super-secret high-level materials to Nathan, proposing that he publish a selection of them or summaries of them, together with helpful explanations for foreign readers.


In his introductory essay, “Reflections on June Fourth,” the compiler writes that Tiananmen weighs heavily on the minds of many Chinese. In his view, the 1989 demonstrations and the crackdown were “one of the most dramatic and significant episodes in the worldwide pursuit of democracy in the twentieth century. Certainly it was the greatest event of that kind in China.” Furthermore, the compiler observes, tens of millions of people participated in demonstrations throughout the country; they came not just from the universities and schools, but from mines, factories, and offices. (In the papers the leaders say they feared the demonstrations were having an effect on the security forces; I myself saw police and soldiers in uniform demonstrating with the students, although after reading these materials I realize that some of them may have been informers.) The Chinese press and television, the leaders noticed with alarm, were no longer under complete official control. And despite the leaders’ constant assurances to one another that the students were being manipulated by Western forces and internal “scum,” the compiler—and I agree with him—says the events of spring 1989 were “autonomous, spontaneous, and disorderly.” The demonstrators failed, the compiler writes, for at least three reasons: the reform faction within the Chinese leadership, led by Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, was weak; the demonstrators had no clear plan and fell into factionalism; and they failed to make common cause with workers and farmers.

The compiler believes that the publication of The Tiananmen Papers, especially when they appear in Chinese this spring—an edition containing three times as many documents will be printed outside the mainland and presumably smuggled into China—will be shattering. According to Nathan, the compiler expects “the damage of reversing the [Tiananmen] verdict will be borne largely by Li Peng and a small group of those close to him….” In his New York Times interview, the compiler says, “We believe that only the Communist Party has the ability to carry out political reform.” In this book, however, he places no such importance on the Party. He says, in fact, that he hopes for a “new force” to replace the Party, led by a group which “regrets the errors of the Communist system” and is prepared to “unite with democratic forces at home and abroad to establish a truly democratic system.” I doubt that these materials alone justify such high hopes. But they may be the beginning of the beginning of an upheaval.

After considering the drawbacks of embarking on this project, including possible professional embarrassment, Andrew Nathan (and later Perry Link of Princeton and Orville Schell) agreed to take on the task of editing and presenting the compiler’s papers. Nathan explains that the editors felt that publication of the papers would be “unprecedented in the drama of the story it tells, the fullness of the record it reveals, and the potential explosiveness of its contents.” Most of the materials would have been available to perhaps forty people, or, sometimes, far fewer, and most of those, like Deng and six of the other elders, are dead or off the political scene. Only Li Peng still holds a top position; no longer premier, he is still on the Politburo Standing Committee and is chairman of the National People’s Congress.

The papers are accompanied by editorial prefaces and footnotes, and by summaries containing comments by the compiler and Nathan (it is not always plain who contributes what in these). They move chronologically from the death of Hu Yaobang on April 15 to the weeks immediately after the killings.

Nathan, Link, and Schell decided to proceed with this perilous project, as Schell says, because they found the compiler “increasingly sympathetic and believable.” As they read the printouts of a computer transcription of the original materials, they discovered points that had not appeared elsewhere. Schell claims that “the texts ring with an air of truth, and they dovetail in fact, tone, and political point of view with what we, as longtime observers of China, know about the events of 1989 and that country’s leaders.” Nathan says that there is too much complex material here to be faked: “In short, it is hard to imagine a means of creating a plausible forgery at such a deep level of detail.”

The editors and Schell concede that none of the above considerations guarantees authenticity. Nathan cites many already published materials including words of the leaders in 1989, some of which resemble the account of the secret meetings in this book. Although on balance—trusting Nathan, Link, and Schell as I do—I take these transcriptions of conversations to be genuine, I can also imagine a skillful and knowledgeable person reconstructing the conversations recorded in the pages or making some of them up. Whether they were members of the Standing Committee or the group of elders, or both, everyone speaks as we might expect from other sources: the woodenly tenacious Li Peng; the enraged, foul-mouthed Wang Zhen; the opaque head of security Qiao Shi, who wavered before agreeing with Li; the querulous but finally obedient Deng Yingchao, Zhou Enlai’s widow; and the masterful and increasingly determined Deng. Deng’s published remarks to Pierre Trudeau in 1990, for instance, could have formed the basis of the possibly invented words attributed to him on June 2, 1989.

These caveats do not mean that I dismiss the transcribed dialogue of the top leaders. But I find more convincing the large quantity of nationwide opinions sympathetic to the students cited here—there is no other record of so many—all commenting on an editorial in the People’s Daily on April 26, 1989. They must have been gathered by a speedy and efficient intelligence network. Understood as expressing Deng’s views, the editorial accused the demonstrators of mounting a “well-planned plot…to confuse the people and throw the country into turmoil…[and] to reject the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist system at the most fundamental level.”

This reflected almost word for word Deng’s alleged comments in The Tiananmen Papers to senior leaders at his residence the day before. It is well known that the April 26 editorial was a turning point in the entire affair. From then on the students grew increasingly angry, demanding almost daily that the editorial be officially repudiated. Reports from the provinces to the leaders indicate that many people found the editorial went too far; still more telling, because they are so laconic and unexpected, are the reports from army study groups advising the government to deal with official corruption—the students’ fundamental demand—and counseling its leaders, as did some troops in the Inner Mongolia Military District, “that only the methods of education and guidance should be used on the students.” Zhao Ziyang and two others on the Standing Committee took this conciliatory line, while Li Peng and the elders insisted right up to the final days of the uprising that “not a single word” of the editorial be changed, because it embodied Deng’s thinking.

Nathan draws some conclusions that seem to me convincing. Li Peng, who is still on the Standing Committee today, comes out badly. Throughout the papers he eggs Deng on to take irreversible positions. This is no surprise. Probably the most despised man in China today, Li is dogged by demonstrators whenever he goes abroad, precisely because of his role in Tiananmen. Nathan condemns the elders for their increasingly murderous fury with the students, whom they alternately accuse of being manipulated and of somehow mobilizing the entire country against the Party. Two of the other Standing Committee members first urge conciliation with the students but eventually move over to side with the elders.

The man who comes out best, Nathan concludes, is Zhao Ziyang, then Party secretary, who is still under house arrest today for “splitting the Party.” In April and early May 1989 he urged dialogue rather than force. On May 19, when he went so far as to apologize to the students, I saw him appear in the square, almost weeping, with Li Peng glowering behind him. Another leader who comes out relatively well in the papers is Li Ruihuan, a Politburo Standing Committee member after June 4. In 1989, as mayor of Tianjin, he kept the demonstrators under control without using violence. Nor will Zhu Rongji, now premier, be harmed by the new materials. He was mayor of Shanghai in 1989, where there were demonstrations but little violence—although most of the credit for that must go to Shanghai’s then Party secretary Jiang Zemin. Indeed Jiang’s later promotion owes something to his skill in dealing with the demonstrators. Many in China and abroad will be surprised by Mr. Nathan’s claims that Chi Haotian, the army chief of staff in 1989, urged moderation in dealing with the demonstrators. There is no evidence of this in the published materials and Chi must share responsibility for the actions of his army even if he was merely following orders. He continues to insist—as he did in Washington in December 1996—that no one was killed in the square.

I disagree with Nathan on two points. He believes Jiang Zemin will be judged harshly by Chinese who read these materials. They will see him, Nathan suggests, as chosen by Deng to succeed Zhao as Party chief and as “core leader” because he was “a pliable and cautious figure who was outside the paralyzing factional fray that had created the crisis in the first place.” It is certainly true that Deng saw Jiang as someone outside the central factions; indeed, Jiang’s informative biographer Bruce Gilley says that after it was decided that Jiang would succeed Zhao, Deng brought him to Beijing and kept him isolated in luxurious detention, so that he would emerge untainted from the decisions on how to end the uprising.4

But Jiang in The Tiananmen Papers is never spoken of during the discussions among the elders as merely a pliable underling. Although he was unknown personally to most of them it was agreed that he had handled the demonstrations in Shanghai well. It was precisely because of that, I suspect, that he, rather than Li Peng, against whom the students howled louder than anyone, was chosen as “the core,” i.e., the new Party secretary. Nathan also believes that Jiang will be damaged because these papers show that he was chosen as Zhao’s successor by the elders rather than elected by the Party’s constitutional means. I doubt that anyone in China will now doubt Jiang’s credentials because of the way in which he was chosen. Most people are aware that during the crisis, as during most of the Party’s history, procedural niceties, like all other aspects of law, could easily be cast aside.

The second point on which I disagree with Nathan is his verdict on Deng. Nathan asserts that he “emerges from the materials as perhaps a more sympathetic figure than he appeared at the time.” Nathan notes that Deng told his old army comrade Yang Shangkun that he wished he no longer had such heavy responsibilities. He said this on other occasions as well, and near the end of The Tiananmen Papers he reveals that soon he will withdraw from power and the new leaders will have to press on without him—although he will always be available.

But as Nathan says, however, “The Tiananmen Papers show that during the crisis Deng participated intimately in every important decision.” In fact all the most important decisions were made at Deng’s house, and he observed on several occasions that he was the chief figure in the post-Mao generation, only the second such generation since the revolution. It was Deng who called for martial law, as Nathan shows; and it was Deng who fired Zhao, approved Jiang as his successor, and ordered the army to crush the demonstrations and “clear the square by sunup.” Nathan says Deng “did not play this role happily,” and that he often deferred to some of the elders. But what we see working out in the papers is what Nathan refers to as “the tradition of supreme rulership forged by Mao Zedong.”

Nathan writes, too, that Deng instructed Yang to make it clear to everyone, including the army, that “no blood be spilled.” This is not strictly true. On June 3, Yang Shangkun told the top leaders about recent instructions from Deng: the square must be cleared “before sunup.” Deng also said that there must be “no bloodshed within Tiananmen Square—period. No one must die in the square.” But Deng’s statements included the command that “the troops should resort to ‘all means necessary’ only if everything else fails.”

Deng did not need to say, “Fire on the students in Tiananmen.” The commanders did what was implicitly required. Only the commander of the 38th Army, Xu Qinxian, refused to move his troops (hearing of this, Yang Shangkun cried out, “This is no time for jokes”) and was promptly whisked off to the hospital. Within twenty-four hours of Yang’s statement that Deng wanted no bloodshed in the square, I saw troops marching along in good order and firing into the demonstrators. Other journalists, including Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times and Jan Wong of The Toronto Globe and Mail, also saw the troops shooting unarmed people in the square.

What is fascinating is that, according to The Tiananmen Papers, even after the killings, the leaders were told by Li Ximing, Politburo member and Beijing Party secretary, that while 218 civilians had been killed, including thirty-six students, and seven thousand people wounded (five thousand of whom were soldiers), “no one was killed within the scope of Tiananmen itself.” This is entirely false and has remained the Big Lie of Tiananmen. The leaders wanted something terrible to happen to the demonstrators. Some leaders, such as Wang Zhen, openly called for bloodshed. Deng simply said, do what is necessary. Everyone got the message. There is no need to look for a smoking gun in these materials.

I think there is a helpful analogy here. In a recent brilliant dispatch, Ian Johnson of The Wall Street Journal shows how the central government, terrified of the Falun Gong religious movement and its alleged millions of members, some of whom turn up regularly in Tiananmen and other public places throughout China, ensures—without giving explicit orders—that Falun Gong members are subjected to torture and sometimes killed. (Of course, as may have been the case in 1989, just because there is no known record of an order does not mean it was not given.) Mr. Johnson describes the deaths of eleven Falun Gong members in one small Chinese city, Weifang, southeast of Beijing in Shandong province. Its governor is Wu Guangzheng, who also sits in the Politburo. Johnson writes:

Besides explaining the mechanics of death, this city’s tale also points to the direction this conflict is likely to take in the future…

Mr. Wu was a focal point of Politburo meetings called to discuss the [Falun Gong] protests. “The central government told Governor Wu that he was personally responsible. He risked losing his job if he didn’t do something,” said a Weifang official, now retired. “Everyone knew the pressure he was under.”

Mr. Wu quickly found ways to transfer the pressure. First, Weifang city officials say, Mr. Wu ensured that every official in the city knew what was at stake, by calling a meeting of police and government officials to a “study session.” There, the central government’s directive was read out loud. “The government instructed us to limit the number of protesters or be responsible,” says another government official.5

This method of spreading the word led to eleven deaths and much torture. It seems highly likely that something similar happened in Tiananmen. Deng wanted something done to rid him of troublesome demonstrators whom he and the other elders referred to as “scum” and “bastards,” and whom Deng foresaw threatening “the whole world and all of humanity.”

It is striking that a regime as wellinformed as Deng’s could go so fatally wrong in Tiananmen. Nathan perceptively notes that during the Mao years leaders were often supplied with only the “best” news, which was mostly false. During Tiananmen, the men around Deng demanded that they have accurate reports about the nationwide reaction to the demonstrations, including ideological doubts. There are plenty of reports in The Tiananmen Papers of sympathetic attitudes toward the students among ordinary citizens throughout China, from soldiers, and from high provincial and national officials. As Nathan says, and as was obvious at the time, the students did not set out to challenge “what they knew was a dangerous regime.” They opposed official corruption and wanted a free press. They attacked Li Peng and Deng personally only after the government first ignored them and then began abusing them. But for men of revolutionary background like Li Peng (Zhou Enlai’s adopted son), Deng, and the other elders, the students probably reminded them of themselves. In the early Twenties a “tiny handful of troublemakers” (to use the Party’s abusive term for its enemies) formed the Party and were able to seize power in 1949 despite internal purges, extermination campaigns by Chiang Kai-shek, the Long March, the occupation by the Japanese, and a protracted civil war against the Kuomintang government, which was supported by the US.

The elders must have seen the young people of Tiananmen and elsewhere as potentially capable of taking power, especially since there were so many of them in so many places. On April 25, the day before the editorial condemning the demonstrations, Li Peng warned Deng: “The spear is now pointed directly at you and the others of the older generations of proletarian revolutionaries.” Deng responded: “[They are] saying I’m the mastermind behind the scenes, are they?” Beijing’s Mayor Chen Xitong (now in jail for extensive corruption) chimed in: “At Beijing Normal, they openly chanted ‘Down with Deng Xiaoping.'” Standing Committee member Yao Yilin warned: “The nature of this student movement has changed. It began as a natural expression of grief [for the dead Hu Yaobang] and has turned into social turmoil.”

Deng finally made his position clear: “I completely agree with the Standing Committee’s decision. This is no ordinary student movement…. This is a well-planned plot…to reject the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist system at the most fundamental level.” Li Peng suggested an editorial to appear in the People’s Daily setting forward Deng’s position. It appeared the next day, and used Deng’s words.

A central fact of the Tiananmen story is that the Standing Committee members were not unanimous on what to do. As has been said, three of them wanted to reassure the students that there would be a great campaign against corruption. They included Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang, Hu Qili, the Party official in charge of ideology and propaganda, and the security chief Qiao Shi.

Herein lies a tragedy. Nathan tells us—I have never before seen this mentioned—that “the divided Politburo Standing Committee honored a secret commitment [made in 1987] to refer serious disagreements to the elders.” The very old former revolutionaries demanded, above all, “stability,” which has remained the Party’s watchword in subsequent crackdowns, most recently on the Falun Gong, whose nonviolent members can now be tortured and executed because China’s present leaders have made it clear to the security services that such measures can be taken. The deaths in Tiananmen were inevitable from the moment Deng said, “The troops should resort to ‘all means necessary’ only if everything else fails.” When President Yang Shangkun, who was also Deng’s deputy on the Central Military Commission, relayed Deng’s orders that troops could fire “only as a last resort,” but “no one must die in the Square,” I can imagine the grim smiles around the table.

Within a week, on June 9, Deng publicly congratulated his army commanders, China’s “great wall of steel.” The aim of the conspirators behind the “turmoil,” said the supreme elder, was nothing less than the overthrow of the Party, the state, and the socialist system, and the installation of a Western-style bourgeois republic. He praised the army for its restraint. According to The Tiananmen Papers he told his commanders the brutal truth: “This storm was bound to happen.” The compiler of what seems to me to be a generally authentic record is right about June 4, 1989: “History seems frozen there.” This book may cause something more than a thaw.

—January 10, 2001

This Issue

February 8, 2001