CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Chinese President Jiang Zemin, responding to a bluntly worded question about his country's bloody 1989 crackdown on democracy advocates in Tiananmen Square, said Saturday that his government is sometimes guilty of "shortcomings and . . . mistakes."
Jiang's comments, which came after he delivered a speech at Harvard University, were described by U.S. experts on China as the closest a Chinese leader has come to admitting error in connection with the Tiananmen assault, which left hundreds, if not thousands, of demonstrators dead.
The questioner asked why Jiang refuses to hold a dialogue with his own people and why tanks were sent into the Beijing square.
In a rambling reply, Jiang said the Chinese leadership uses "various channels" to learn the people's views, and he asserted that his government's policy is "to serve the people." He added: "We may have shortcomings and even make some mistakes in our work. However, we have been working on a constant basis to further improve our work."
The China experts, while cautioning against reading too much into the last comment, still found his words intriguing.
"It's hardly an apology or anything of that sort," said William Kirby, Harvard professor of Chinese history. "But the question was about Tiananmen."
Kirby said Jiang, who arrived in Los Angeles on Saturday night, probably did not intend to tie his admission of mistakes directly to the suppression of the democracy movement, which has continued to seriously strain U.S.-Chinese relations.
But Kirby and several other China experts in the audience said that using the language in the context of Tiananmen Square was a remarkable departure for the Chinese president, who had insisted during a joint news conference with President Clinton on Wednesday that China's leaders were entirely justified in forcefully putting down the anti-government protest.
At the same time, Jiang on Saturday gave absolutely no ground when asked why he refuses to meet with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. The president said the Dalai Lama is trying to separate Tibet from China, something Beijing considers unacceptable.
In response to another question, Jiang said that human rights demonstrators who have followed his every step since he arrived in Hawaii last Sunday and made his way to Washington for his midweek summit with Clinton have given him new appreciation of what democracy means in the United States.
In advance of Jiang's trip, Chinese officials had warned the Clinton administration that anti-Jiang demonstrations would sour the atmosphere for the summit and damage U.S.-Chinese relations. But Jiang said nothing of the sort Saturday.
"I do have my understanding about the general concept of democracy," he said. "Starting in Hawaii, I have gotten a more specific understanding of American democracy--more specific than I've learned from books.
"Although I'm already 71 years old, my ears still work very well," he said. "While I was delivering my speech, I did hear the sound from the loudspeakers outside. But I thought my only approach was to speak louder."
An eclectic coalition of protesters--conservative Christians, civil liberties activists, labor leaders and Tibetan and Taiwanese nationalists, among others--has staged demonstrations, although frequently Jiang has not seen or heard them because his route was carefully designed to avoid them.
On Saturday, several hundred demonstrators, some with bullhorns, chanted slogans outside the Sanders Theater where Jiang spoke. The crowd would have been larger, but the Harvard campus was off limits to all but students, faculty and invited guests during Jiang's visit, limiting the demonstrators outside the theater to those with university identity cards. Others gathered outside the school, voicing various objections to Chinese policy.
Jiang also was confronted with a protest inside the hall. Several members of the audience, identified later as Harvard faculty, stood and turned their backs on the president, displaying T-shirts calling for freedom for Tibet. Jiang did not acknowledge them.
Jiang delivered a somewhat turgid, academic speech in which he traced Chinese history back 4,500 years and asserted that China and the United States have many reasons to forge good relations, despite their sharply different attitudes on such issues as human rights.
"Friendship and cooperation between our two peoples are of great importance to the world," he said. "The United States is the most developed country, and China is the largest developing country. . . . The economies of the two countries are highly complementary with each other."
At the conclusion of Jiang's formal remarks, which he read partly in English, Ezra Vogel, director of Harvard's Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, asked the president pre-selected questions.