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The Fifth Modernization

THE TIANANMEN PAPERS; Compiled by Zhang Liang Edited by Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link; Afterword by Orville Schell; PublicAffairs: 514 pp., $30

February 18, 2001|LINDA JAIVIN | Linda Jaivin is co-editor with Geremie Barme of "New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices." Her biography of Hou Dejian, a pop star who negotiated with the troops for the students to be able to leave Tiananmen Square in the early hours of June 4, 1989, "The Monkey and the Dragon," will be published in Australia later this year

If there's one image that the Tiananmen protests 12 years ago have branded on the collective imagination, it's the one of the man with the tank. While onlookers held their breath, this Chinese Everyman stepped out in front of a rumbling line of tanks. They shifted to avoid him, but he defiantly stepped out in front again, bringing them to a halt.

To the democracy movement's sympathizers, he is a symbol of individual courage and hope in the face of state-sponsored violence and terror. To the Chinese authorities, the incident was proof of the army's restraint in the face of provocation. The man with the tank is everyone's to co-opt, even corporate capitalism's (he has most recently been seen stopping those tanks again on billboard advertisements for Eveready). He has no say in the matter, for he disappeared soon after the event; we don't even know if he's dead or alive.

Who owns his story? Who gets to define what it means? And who owns the bigger story of Tiananmen, in both its particular details and broader meanings?

The Chinese traditionally maintain a line of very practical wisdom on the meaning and value of history. From imperial times to the Maoist era and today, history is a tool for establishing legitimacy. As the China scholar W.J.F. Jenner remarks in his brilliant book-length essay, "The Tyranny of History," "Chinese governments have, for at least 2,000 years, taken history much too seriously to allow the future to make its own unguided judgments about them." When a new dynasty came to power, one of the first things it did was to set about compiling the history of the preceding one. Working from the detailed chronicles left behind by the previous reign, they tweaked the story to highlight the rightfulness of their own rulers' ascension. History belonged to the victor.

But who were the victors at Tiananmen? Was it China's rulers, who achieved their goal of clearing the square of protesters by the morning of June 4, 1989? Was it the students, who managed to hold out there until then? The Chinese democracy movement in exile, whose ranks and influence abroad swelled as a result? Or was it the Republic of China on Taiwan, which looked particularly good by comparison?

The last corpses hadn't even been cleared from the streets when the first shots were fired in the battle over the history of those 51 days that began with the death of ex-Party Secretary-General Hu Yaobang on April 15 and ended in the bloody denouement of June 3 and 4. China's leaders quickly staked their claim on history in People's Daily editorials and publications like "The True Face of the Counter-revolutionary Riot in Beijing." The student leaders who managed to escape to the West counterclaimed with interviews in the generally sympathetic Western media and in volumes bearing such titles as "Almost a Revolution." Chinese intellectuals abroad clocked in with books like "Tell the World: What Happened in China and Why." It would take the space of this article to list all the works--descriptive, documentary, analytical--that have been written on the subject by scholars, participants, journalists and even martial-law soldiers. And that's just the printed word. One of the most complex, provocative and moving takes on the events of 1989 was the documentary film "The Gate of Heavenly Peace," produced by the Long Bow Group in 1995, which opens with the enigma of the man and the tank.

So why, nearly 12 years after these events, is the publication of yet another book on this subject considered so newsworthy that both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times made it a front-page story and "60 Minutes" featured it as well? The answer appears simple. "The Tiananmen Papers" claims to be the true history, as the publisher's line on the book's dust jacket has it, of "the Chinese leadership's decision to use force against their own people--in their own words." The crucial phrase is "in their own words."

The words in question are not just those that have been chosen for public consumption and processed by the state's propaganda machine. These words constitute--or so we are told--the highest leaders' version of events. They are words that traveled over telephone lines between top leader Deng Xiaoping and his old comrade Yang Shangkun, then president of the People's Republic. These are words that spilled out at meetings of the Party's supreme decision-making body, the Standing Committee of the Politburo, as its members struggled to cope with the demonstrations taking place not just in Beijing but in cities and provincial centers all over the country.

These are angry words, conspiratorial words, guarded words, plain-spoken words and frightened words. These are words that led to the sacking of Zhao Ziyang, the party secretary-general who urged a more conciliatory approach to the protesters, and words that allowed the rise, through irregular means, to the highest levels of power of Jiang Zemin, China's current president.

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