China branded as fakes today newly published documents exposing Chinese leaders’ squabbles over the crushing of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and suggested their release was aimed at destabilizing the country.
In the first official reaction to their weekend release in the United States, China’s Foreign Ministry labeled the documents as similar to previous efforts abroad to rekindle controversy over the divisive crackdown in which hundreds were killed.
“Any attempt to play up the matter again and disrupt China by the despicable means of fabricating materials and distorting facts will be futile,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said in a statement carried by the government’s Xinhua News Agency.
Pressed by foreign reporters at a briefing later today, Zhu leveled more direct accusations.
“I have already indicated here that these are fabricated materials that distort facts,” Zhu said. “How much clearer would you have me be?”
Zhu defended the crackdown as “highly necessary to the stability and development of China.” He added that the ruling Communist Party’s “correct conclusion” about the 1989 protests would not change.
Supposedly smuggled out of China by a disaffected civil servant and vetted by U.S.-based China scholars, the documents — dubbed the “Tiananmen Papers” — purportedly contain minutes of secret high-level meetings, intelligence reports and phone conversations by party patriarch Deng Xiaoping.
The documents — if authentic — show a leadership in turmoil over the million-strong democracy protests and their suppression on June 4, 1989. Their release threatens to aggravate ever-present strains among reformist and conservative factions in the party and reawaken debate over political change.
“The publication of these high-level decisions on the June 4 suppression will be positive, not only for a just resolution, but also for accelerating the advance of China’s democratization,” 111 people wounded and relatives of some slain in the crackdown said in a statement from New York-based Human Rights in China.
Ever since the crackdown, the government has maintained that the protests were an anti-government rebellion that needed to be crushed to safeguard economic growth — a view now supported by many Chinese who have benefited from free-market reforms.
But public resentment also lingers, especially in Beijing. The crackdown saw hundreds killed and thousands arrested. The actual toll is not known because the government has never allowed a credible inquiry.
Initially, the government had no comment about the documents and China’s wholly state-run media did not report them. But news of the papers leaked into China via the Internet, foreign radio broadcasts and word of mouth, stirring the beginnings of debate.
Chinese Web site censors sought to silence the discussion. One message that detailed CNN’s coverage of the documents was deleted within minutes of appearing on a popular chat site. But other messages got through. Excerpts from the papers and students’ comments also were posted on a Beijing University Web site.
“To know whether the Tiananmen Papers are true or not, just look at them on an overseas Web site and judge for yourself. ... If one has done no wrong why fear other people knowing?” one surfer said in a Web posting on the popular Sina.com portal that was later deleted.
Calls for Justice
The papers confirm popular perceptions that Li Peng, then the hard-line premier and now chairman of the legislature, argued for the crackdown. They also reveal how communist elders led by Deng imposed martial law, ousted reformist party chief Zhao Ziyang and replaced him with Jiang Zemin, now China’s president.
Human rights groups and victims of the crackdown who have long targeted Li said the papers could help bring him to justice. New York-based Human Rights in China hoped the papers would bring Li a fate similar to Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, internationally hounded to account for his brutal rule.
The very ability of someone, or a group of people, to collect the sensitive documents and spirit them out of China show that some within the Communist Party support political change and want the Tiananmen crackdown re-examined.
“Maybe the person who carried the documents is not a very high-level official, but quite senior leaders must have known about this,” said Wu Guoguang, a former aide to Zhao and a Chinese politics scholar in Hong Kong.
Pressure on Freedoms
But Bao Tong, also an adviser to Zhao and the most senior communist official imprisoned for the crackdown, said the documents could forestall political reform.
“It’s possible some people will be scared and therefore say ‘politics cannot be reformed, news must continue to be blocked off, rights must be stripped away to an even greater extent,“‘ said Bao, who spent seven years in prison and another year detained in a guest house for leaking word of the crackdown.
But Bao also said the documents would be a revelation to a majority of today’s government officials who were not privy to the leadership battles of 1989.
“It will make them reconsider how this incident happened, what kind of problem it was, what kind of society China’s is, what kind of system we work under, what procedures and systems are used in Chinese decision-making, how did Tiananmen happen and how can we avoid a recurrence?” Bao said. “Everyone will be bound to consider these questions.”