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Post-Crackdown, Signs of Cracking

Fifteen years after the protest in Tiananmen Square, China may be edging closer to acknowledging that its response was a mistake.

June 04, 2004|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Democracy activists around the world plan to commemorate today's 15th anniversary of the violent crackdown in China's Tiananmen Square with rallies, petition drives and candlelight vigils. Beijing is marking the date in its own way -- with heightened security, house arrests and renewed vigilance against any hint of a public memorial.

"It was political turmoil no matter what you call it," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said this week, defending the government's decision to use force that left hundreds, possibly thousands, of Chinese students and workers dead.

The crackdown helped ensure stability, Liu said, "which enabled China to develop its economy and make contributions to the peace and development of the world."

Chinese officials continue to present a united public front, arguing that economic reform must come before political reform. Behind the scenes, however, analysts say, a growing number of Communist Party and government officials admit that the use of deadly force in 1989 was a mistake that must eventually be acknowledged.

"June 4 is like a shadow on their hearts," said one analyst with close links to the party.

But Beijing is under far less pressure than its Western counterparts to admit blunders or acknowledge that victims deserve compassion rather than condemnation. There won't be anything like the Iraq prison abuse hearings in China any time soon.

Still, expanded links with the outside world, growing if subtle domestic pressure and the weight of sitting on the wrong side of history exact a toll, analysts say.

There are signs the government's resolve is cracking. Retired military doctor Jiang Yanyong -- widely credited with exposing China's SARS cover-up last year -- called on the Communist Party to acknowledge that the 1989 crackdown was a mistake, a challenge that went unanswered for months.

As authorities crack down, however, Jiang's daughter said she had not heard from her father in the last few days.

Official terminology for the protest recently has changed to "political disturbance" from "anti-revolutionary riot," indicating a softening. Mothers of Tiananmen victims have become more vocal in calling for a reassessment and official accounting of the dead. And a recent petition by more than 67 Chinese dissidents and intellectuals circulated over the Internet has called for the movement to be recast as a patriotic effort.

"Thanks to the Internet, the truth is no longer so easy to cover," said Liu Xiaobo, a writer and Tiananmen protest participant who signed the petition. "We believe the government must deal with this issue."

A significant impediment to any mea culpa is former President Jiang Zemin, who owes his swift ascent to the 1989 crackdown. Jiang retains significant clout as head of the Central Military Commission and is said to jealously guard the "admit no mistakes" school of thought on Tiananmen.

A less obvious but more nettlesome problem for the propagandists is how to handle Jiang's predecessor, the highly respected Deng Xiaoping. Any reevaluation of June 4, 1989, also presupposes reevaluating Deng's legacy, because he ordered the troops to fire. With Deng still enjoying near-godlike official status, however, the Communist Party is reluctant to go that far, fearful that its own reputation would be tarnished.

Finally, at a political level, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao probably would need to consolidate their power, particularly over hard-line conservatives, before initiating any sort of reevaluation of the event.

The Communist Party twice has formally admitted that it had erred, paving the way for reforms. At a key party meeting that started in June 1944, leaders produced a lengthy list of party mistakes, setting the stage for Mao Tse-tung's ascent. And in June 1981, it said that the economically disastrous Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1960 and the politically tumultuous Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 under Mao were mistakes.

Tiananmen, however, is arguably far more difficult to handle because the blunder was judged not just politically in China but in moral terms by other countries.

"The two earlier apologies only involved past leaders and issues within the party," said Yang Zhaohui, a Communist Party historian. "But this had implications across the whole world."

Analysts and democracy activists say a first step toward any reconciliation would be compensating the families of protesters killed 15 years ago and restoring medical benefits to the injured. Because the state has branded protesters counterrevolutionaries, victims and their families have been denied access to proper medical care and many social welfare benefits.

Another step would involve letting some of the exiled student leaders return home. Many have not seen relatives since they fled the country in 1989.

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