Back to Common Ground Archive


Program 0136
September 4, 2001

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

PROFESSOR ANDREW NATHAN: Tiananmen Square is a vast space and it was thronged with demonstrators. And the city of Beijing kind of came to a halt, although part of that time it was a sort of a happy breakdown of-the citizens were in a good mood. They were helpful to one another. There was a civic spirit.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, the secrets behind the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

NATHAN: Basically he told them, “I can handle this. The students are patriotic, they’re reasonable. I’m gonna tell them that I understand what they’re after, that they should get out of the square. We’re gonna deal with their issues of corruption,” and so forth. But that didn’t work.

KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.

MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Nearly 12 years ago millions of Chinese students in Tiananmen Square grabbed the world’s attention with their bold defiance of the Chinese government. While much has been written about the student movement leaders, very little was known about the government debates which led to the Tiananmen Square massacre. Until now.

PORTER: Andrew Nathan of Columbia University and Perry Link of Princeton University co-edited a collection of documents into a book entitled The Tiananmen Papers. Professor Nathan claims this material gives detailed information about decision-making at the highest level of China’s ruling party during the Tiananmen. I spoke with Nathan about those documents, but I first asked him to refresh our memory about why all those students came to Tiananmen Square in 1989.

NATHAN: Those of us who were old enough at the time saw this whole thing on television. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so much in our minds. Because the episode actually happened at the same time as the Soviet leader Gorbachev was going to China for a historic summit meeting, so all the big Western journalists were there to cover that.

The students came out in the square at first for a relatively modest reasons, which was that they wanted to note the death of a reformist leader who had passed away on April 15. And they presented some petitions to the government saying that “You should go the road of this leader, Hu Yaobang, and do away with corruption” and so forth. And when the government refused to respond, the students intensified their demands. And started up a hunger strike in the middle of May, embarrassing the government leadership intensely because the Soviet leader was expected at that time. That mushroomed. The citizens of Beijing came out to support them. And now we’ve learned in fact that in over 300 cities there were demonstrations sympathizing with the students in Beijing. So it became a nationwide movement. That was something we didn’t see on Western television.

The government finally declared martial law on May 20, and that still didn’t move the students. Some students then left the square and stopped demonstrating, but others moved in. So the government finally moved the troops on the night of June 3. And there was shooting, and there were deaths. And what’s known as the Beijing Massacre occurred, although we still don’t know exactly how many people got killed.

PORTER: You’re talking about the Western journalists who were there at the time. I remember a speech that Dan Rather gave sometime after that and he was talking about how oftentimes when the TV cameras show up to an event it-TV has a way of sort of making an event look bigger than it really is. And he said this was one of the rare things he ever saw where there was no way for the TV camera to capture how big this movement really was.

NATHAN: Yeah, it was huge. And I don’t have a number for how many citizens in Beijing participated, but Tiananmen Square is a vast space and it was thronged with demonstrators. And demonstrators were marching through it on the big boulevard that passes by the square. So it was, and the city of Beijing kind of came to a halt, although part of that time it was a sort of a happy breakdown of-the citizens were in a good mood. They were helpful to one another. There was a civic spirit. But it was a vast thing in Beijing as well as nationwide.

PORTER: And on the television we saw the pictures of the Statue of Liberty, the Lady Liberty statute. And we saw the man standing in front of the tank. And so there were lots of images in our, sort of etched in our minds from this event.

NATHAN: Yeah. And seeing it on television was extremely vivid. And something else that drove it into the conscience of the West, I think, was that it was followed then by similar spectacular events in Eastern Europe, and which led to the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and finally in the Soviet Union.

PORTER: We know now, through some of your work at least, that while those demonstrations were heating up in Tiananmen Square, there were also heated debates taking place among the Chinese leadership. Give us sort of the outlines of what they were debating as they sort of looked at these students gathering in the square.

NATHAN: Well, the job of dealing with the students at first belonged to the Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang. And he told the other leaders-there were five top leaders, Zhao and four other men, who made up the Politburo Standing Committee. Basically he told them, “I can handle this. The students are patriotic, they’re reasonable. I’m gonna tell them that I understand what they’re after, that they should get out of the square. We’re gonna deal with their issues of corruption,” and so forth.

But that didn’t work. And while Zhao was away in North Korea the number two man in the government, Li Peng, who believed in a more hardline position, went to senior leader Deng Xiaoping, who was really retired from government, although he was still running the military. And told Deng Xiaoping, “The students’ challenge to us is fundamental. There are some bad people who are manipulating the students. They really want to overthrow Communism. Deng was alarmed by that. He said, “Let’s deliver a harsh warning.” And so the People’s Daily issued an editorial that said that, that this is a what the Chinese called a turmoil, and that, you know, anybody who’s responsible for this will be punished. If, however, you’re an innocent dupe, you can avoid punishment by getting out of there.

This move hardened the resolution of the students and led to a polarization of the situation. Zhao comes back then from North Korea and he says, “Wait a minute, gang. I can still handle this. Let’s not polarize things.” And Deng gives Zhao enough rope to hang himself, and Zhao tries to negotiate with the students and can’t. And so finally the senior leaders above the Politburo Standing Committee, the so-called “elders,” get together and they say, “This is really out of hand.” And again, fed with information from Li Peng. “We’ve got to declare martial law.” And they declare martial law and purge Zhao Ziyang at that point.

So that’s the big debate, the softliners and the hardliners, is between Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng. After the declaration of martial law the softliners are gone. And what you have is a kind of a mini-debate among the hard- and sort of middleliners about, “How long do we wait before we move the troops?” And they tried various methods to reason with or threaten the students. And finally moved the troops.

PORTER: So the hardliners won. What were the implications of their so-called win?

NATHAN: Domestically speaking they carried out these killings, they scared the people sort of back into their shell. Nationwide, people began to give up on politics. We’ve had this twelve years of kind of apathy on the part of the Chinese people. The government, the position of one-party rule was laid down, once again reaffirmed as the absolute unbreachable principle of Chinese government.

Internationally, as we all know, the Tiananmen incident caused a big rupture with the United States and with the West. The Americans and the other G-7 countries imposed sanctions on China. Chinese foreign policy was thrown on the defensive, and it took them quite a long time to climb back from that. In fact, the Americans did not grant a summit meeting to the Chinese until 1997, when Jiang Zemin came and held a summit meeting with Clinton. So it took that many years to begin to recover what had formerly been a pretty cooperative US-China relationship.

But one important strand was not affected by Tiananmen. And Deng Xiaoping worked from the very beginning of this episode, he kept stressing, “No matter what happens, economic reform cannot be stopped.” And after the crackdown he again met with the top leaders and said, “Now we’ve had this crackdown. We did what we had to do. But economic reform must continue.” And indeed, it more or less has continued. Actually, in the immediate aftermath even economic reform had a bit of a setback, but Deng again pushed on it and it recovered. And so we see the continuation of the reform program in the economy.

PORTER: What happened to that generation of people who came to the square?

NATHAN: Different things have happened to them. Some became the Democracy Party, the China Democracy Party, which is a small party that the government, that challenged the government through the ‘90s and which the government has pretty well wiped out; put most of them in prison. A lot of those people went into business and they are now the young CEOs, and very patriotic. And who, I think, in many cases, believe that they were young and foolish in ’89, and that they did the wrong thing. The government did what it had to do. So there are quite a bit of different paths out of Tiananmen.

PORTER: We know a lot about this debate because of these documents that we’re calling The Tiananmen Papers, which you helped to bring to light. Tell us where these documents came from. How did you find these?

NATHAN: Well, they were brought to me. I didn’t really find them. That would be a more glorious story of investigative effort. But actually, some people in China wanted to get these documents out. So they had accumulated the documents. I can’t tell you how they did it because that might give an important clue to the Chinese security apparatus. But in some way they had them. And they were bringing them out in order to force the current leadership to come to terms, or to reopen if you will, the story of Tiananmen. Because the people behind this believe that a terrible mistake was made and it has to be rectified.

So they brought them to me. Then my part of the story is in a sense relatively mundane. I said, “Oh, you have so many documents it’s really too many. There’s no way to publish them. Please reduce this down to a manageable amount.” It’s still a very large amount. And I was given eventually a Chinese language manuscript which is going to be published in April by a Chinese publisher. It will be a two-volume work, over a thousand pages. From that manuscript I selected out what I thought were the most interesting and important materials, and I organized a group of people to translate them. And we brought them out.

PORTER: What kind of documents are we talking about? Transcripts? Memos? What?

NATHAN: Not transcripts, but, and not really memos either. The most interesting probably are minutes of meetings. We have minutes of Politburo Standing Committee meetings, which as I said is the top five power holders. We have minutes of the Politburo meetings, which is about 20 people. We have minutes of the meetings of the eight elders, the people above the top power holders, the top, top power holders, who made the ultimate decisions.

Now, minutes are not transcripts in China, as indeed is the case I think in every government that I know about. Minutes are taken by professional minute takers. And they have a certain orderliness to them and they’re not the same as transcripts. But they are the official record of that meeting and what was said, speaker by speaker. And in the Chinese material they appear with quotation marks and we’ve printed them with quotation marks.

We do, also, have accounts of some private conversations and telephone conversations. These are not, again, transcripts, and not tape recordings, but they are accounts by participants. And I, in the introduction to the book, I tell in detail how these accounts came together, where people who participated in phone conversations have told the story. So it’s sort of like a deposition later, for the Party. And we’ve got those documents and have reconstructed the phone conversations and some private conversations.

And then you have lots and lots and lots of reports from the bureaucracy. From the Ministry of State Security, the Railway Ministry, the Party committees of the provinces, and so forth, to give you the picture that the central leadership had of events all through the country. And, of course, events in Tiananmen Square. They also have reports to the central leadership of what is being said in the foreign press, something that the Chinese central leadership pays a lot of attention to.

MCHUGH: More on The Tiananmen Papers, next on Common Ground.

PORTER: I’m fascinated by this “Deep Throat” character. [laughing]


PORTER: Will we know some day?

NATHAN: I don’t know if that will ever come out. Quite possibly not.

MCHUGH: Andrew Nathan of Columbia University and Perry Link of Princeton University are co-editors of The Tiananmen Papers. The book is based on documents which claim to give an inside look at decisions made by Chinese government officials during the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

PORTER: Inevitably, there are questions about where these documents came from. I asked Professor Nathan how we can be sure this material is authentic.

NATHAN: You know, I think when you say, “How can we know?,” meaning you, the readers, and others, I’m very much in favor of you all waiting and seeing some things. Because the reason I know that they are authentic is something that I can’t totally share with you. But I think we’ve already seen since the book has been published that a lot of experts-American government specialists like Jim Lilly, who was the American ambassador in China at that time, and others with whom I’ve been on panels since the thing came out, and academics and specialists-have acknowledged that the material is authentic. The Chinese government has made one weak denunciation and since that time they haven’t said anything. When the Chinese book comes out April 15, the whole world of China will be able to see this-the people in China who can get a hold of it, people who participated in the events. So if the documents were false we’re gonna, it’ll be very easy to know that. People who have participated or who have seen documents can say so.

Now, I myself, am confident and was confident before I got involved in publishing this thing. Because I was able both to check a number of things that are the content of the material-what’s in the documents that I could check up on. I didn’t check everything. That would have been a huge task, but I checked selectively. And secondly, and most important, I was able to satisfy myself about the person I call “The Compiler,” the person who brought me these materials. That he is who he says he is. He had access. He had a way to do it, a reason for doing it, and could answer all the questions that I threw at him. And that he actually was in a position to do this and did it.

PORTER: I’m fascinated by this “Deep Throat” character. [laughing]


PORTER: Will we know some day?

NATHAN: I don’t know if that will ever come out. Quite possibly not. Because he has-I don’t foresee any reason why he’s gonna want to identify himself and the other people that he worked with. Although right now what we’re looking at in the short term is a large effort by the Chinese government to uncover who it is who’s behind these things. Great risk for the Compiler is really necessary to continue to keep his identity secret.

PORTER: As someone who is just so involved in these issues, what was your reaction when you were presented with this opportunity?

NATHAN: The first reaction, I was incredulous. You know, the Chinese system doesn’t leak like this. But after thinking about it, the fact is that the Chinese system and systems of this sort in fact do leak like this. It’s an extraordinary event but things like this do happen. I remember many, many years ago the torture records came out of the Brazilian military dictatorship. It’s exactly in these kinds of regimes where information is covered up, you know, that the political struggle sometimes extends to leaking the documents. And there have been examples, although not so big, even in the history of China itself.

And then my second feeling was, “Oh my god, do I have to interrupt my life to get involved in what’s going to be a massive project?” And I thought about that and I decided that given the fact that the material was real that I had an obligation to try to help in getting it out.

PORTER: Anything particularly chilling or disturbing that you found as you went through these documents?

NATHAN: No. Actually, you know, it’s almost the opposite. That as I went through the documents I became more comfortable-it’s an awkward word, maybe it’s the wrong word-but, that is to say, I could understand the human reality of all the actors in the situation, including the hardliners. So that instead of getting a chilling picture of you know, bloodthirsty maniacs and sort of, Hannibal Lecters in high places and so forth, I got more of an understanding of how people who-let’s take the hardliners, people whose political vision was very different from my own and whose political flexibility was extremely limited, but who could see in their own terms of reference that they were facing a severe challenge from the students and had to respond in a harsh way to save the essence of their regime that they believed in-that kind of a thing. You could follow it day by day and see how the whole thing made a certain kind of human sense. That doesn’t make it less of a tragedy. It doesn’t make it less of a human rights violation. But it didn’t leave me feeling chilled. It left me feeling almost more engaged or that this is real life and as one human to another you can see how a person might be in that situation.

PORTER: I’m wondering what this reveals about the current leadership of China. And perhaps another way to ask the question is, who in the current leadership will be, sort of, most embarrassed when this is published in China?

NATHAN: Well, that seems clear, that the two people who are now the top two leaders are the ones who are most embarrassed. Jiang Zemin, who is the number one guy in China and is the head of state, the head of the Party, and the head of the military, is by accounts that I’ve received since the book came out, he is very embarrassed by it. Partly because, after all, this is a leak that happened on his watch. I mean, it’s embarrassing that this should have happened in his regime. Secondly, the book shows unflattering things about him, things that are unflattering at least in the, to a Chinese readership. How the elders picked him to be what he is today, the top leader. How they picked him at a meeting of the elders, which is not the constitutional way for the succession to be handled. And the reasons that they did so after discussing many candidates and discussing them quite frankly, as you might do in a, you know, fellowship meeting or something, in an academic setting, and saying, “Well, this guy’s middle of the road. He’s always been nice to us old people. When I go to Shanghai for my winter vacation he’s nice to me,” and so forth. These kinds of reasons. “He won’t rock the boat, he’ll carry out our orders.” Instead of saying something like “He’s a great leader, a great theorist, a great” …

PORTER: A man of vision…

NATHAN: Yeah, a man of vision. This was not the reason why he was selected. And a third reason why it hurts Jiang is because we think that Jiang is trying to construct a parallel power structure to the one that Deng Xiaoping, occupied in 1989, where Jiang will retire from his posts and step into the position of an elder and keep hold of his post as Chairman of the Central Military Commission. This is exactly how Deng controlled the situation in 1989. Jiang would like to do that after 2002, when he’s supposed to retire from his leadership of the party. And the publication of this book and what it tells us about how that type of power structure doesn’t function well, is gonna be a third embarrassment for Jiang.

And then the second guy who is suffering from it is Li Peng, who comes through in the ’89 records as the hardliner, who is kind of hysterical about the student challenge, who goes running to Deng Xiaoping, saying “The students are after my head and your head. We gotta do something.” He’s always been labeled as the “Butcher of Beijing.” This just adds to that burden and makes him even more, sort of, unacceptable to the Chinese people, I would think, who might end up reading this book.

PORTER: In addition to the leadership changes that we’re facing in 2002 and 2003, we also have a lot of speculation about China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and how, sort of, the requirements and regulations and things that they will have to comply with will create great pressure on the government in China. How do you think this current leadership will react both to the WTO pressure and also to the leadership change?

NATHAN: The leadership has made its decision to enter WTO. Apparently under the guidance of the Premier, Zhu Rongii who hardly figures in our ’89 story. He was then the mayor of Shanghai. So that this book has no particular implications for Zhu Rongii. But Zhu and his technocrats and others have presented the case to the political leadership that “We have to enter WTO and we have to deal with the fallout.” And I think they know that that fallout will be extraordinarily challenging to them. And that they’re gonna have to keep a strong police presence and deal with the challenges that come from laid off workers, from farmers whose interests are affected, and others. And they’re hoping to squeak through that situation by taking the good side of WTO and beefing up the Chinese economy and somehow managing the transition.

It’s generally considered that Zhu Rongii is not a competitor for this power succession in 2002-2003. That he is a technocrat. He’s limited himself to his brief. And in a sense he can take the fall for the, you know, troubles that WTO creates. So the power struggle in ‘02-’03 is not directly connected to WTO. That is, say, that it’s being fought over other issues now.

Of course, if the WTO scenario doesn’t go well and leads to widespread social disorder, that will affect the top power structure. Whoever comes out on top is gonna have to deal with those things.

PORTER: Do you think that in any way the release of these documents, the release of the papers, will tie the hands of the leadership? So that if there is that kind of social unrest, perhaps they will be unable to react the way they did in 1989, because this has all become public now.

NATHAN: I don’t see it. I mean, anything can happen, but right now I’m not seeing that scenario very clearly. The leadership has continued since ’89 to make liberal use of the police and what’s called the “People’s Armed Police.” They have the army in the wings. I mean, one of the sensitivities coming out of ’89 is that the military people don’t want to be blamed for ’89. I mean, one possible scenario that I think will not occur is for civilian leaders to say, facing the pressure that this book represents, “Yeah, mistakes were made. The military got out of control. It was their fault.” But I don’t think that’s gonna happen. Because when you do that, you’re kissing off military support for a future, as you said, crisis where you may need the military.

So I think that both the military and the Party leadership are pretty clear that as we go through this painful transition to a modern economy, we may need again to call on the military. The treatment of the military after the crackdown by the civilian leadership was extremely deferential. Deng Xiaoping called in the commanders-this is in the book-and gave them a reception, commended them for everything, that there was never a word of criticism that, which could have been made, that, you know, “Your troops flew off the handle. They shot a lot of civilians. There was no order to do so.” Which is true. There was no order to go out and kill civilians. The orders were a little more ambiguous. It was said, “Get to the square. Whatever it takes. Clear the square by dawn. Don’t kill anybody in the square.” So the military commanders received these rather ambiguous orders and they did what they thought they had to do. And I think a lot of their troops did lose their cool, because the civilians turned out to be very hostile. And so there was, I think, killing that wasn’t even ordered by military commanders. But none of this came up afterwards. The Party leadership just commended the military for their heroism. And publicized the deaths, which there were some, of troops.

So I think that, that if there are future disorders in China that the leadership hopes for the continued cooperation of the People’s Armed Police and the regular police and the military, all those three units. And it’s plausible that-I don’t, can’t foretell the future, but I think it’s quite possible that all those units will stick together with the Party. And that the Party does have enough repressive power at its beck and call to control the situation.

PORTER: That is Professor Andrew Nathan of Columbia University. He and Professor Perry Link of Princeton University are co-editors of The Tiananmen Papers. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security