Monday, January 15, 2001
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Posted on: Monday, January 15, 2001

Tiananmen: China's day of reckoning nears

There is little doubt that the newly released documents spirited out of China by a disaffected bureaucrat and published as "The Tiananmen Papers" are genuine.

While the nearly 500 pages provide intriguing detail, they solidly corroborate what already was widely known, in and out of China, about the dispute among the country’s top leaders about how to handle the student-led protests that rocked the country during the spring of 1989.

As the title implies, there’s a clear parallel with the Pentagon Papers, the internal U.S. government history of the war in Vietnam that was leaked to the press in the early 1970s. Many people were already aware of the general outline of the deceptions that led to one of America’s darkest chapters, but the transcripts starkly depicting trusted public servants as calculating killers created widespread popular revulsion.

Chinese have known all along that Li Peng, then premier, pushed hardest for a crackdown on the thousands of students who occupied Beijing’s landmark square, and that Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party’s top official at the time, consistently opposed it, to the point at times of tears.

And they know it was the late leader Deng Xiaoping who came down on Li’s side, resulting in the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands.

The Tiananmen Papers were quickly branded a hoax by the current leadership. But they understand the authenticity of these papers, which will quickly become a staple of underground literature.

Since 1989, reformers have demanded a "reversal of verdicts" — that is, an official finding that the massacre was a crime against humanity. The leadership continues to declare there is no need for review of the decision.

Wrong. China is simply postponing its day of reckoning with an event that most Chinese, liberal and reactionary alike, consider an atrocity. The Tiananmen Papers, added to the massive opening of China to outside influence, make that inevitable.

Yet it’s important to understand that most Chinese don’t dwell so much, as Westerners do, on the bloody massacre in the early hours of June 4, but instead on what preceded it. June 4 ended an entire month in which hundreds of thousands of people stood up — with considerable success.

Most Chinese think they are far better off than they were a decade ago, in part because of Tiananmen. They believe these deaths were evil and unnecessary, but not in vain.

It is that distinction that should convince Americans to take great care not to demonize China as it struggles to find its destiny, but rather to help shape that effort.

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