June 4 'could have been avoided'
Former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong - one of the leaders blamed for the military crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square - now calls it 'a regrettable tragedy that could have been avoided' and downplays his role in the incident.
Chen, mayor during the crackdown, was seen as a hardliner who pushed for military force against student protesters. Some accused him of deliberately exaggerating the situation and misleading paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to get him to authorise the assault by the People's Liberation Army.
Chen was promoted to Beijing party secretary and made a Politburo member after the crackdown. But in 1998 he was sentenced to 16 years in jail on corruption charges in one of the most dramatic downfalls of a senior Communist Party official.
His case and that of another convicted official - former Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu - were China's biggest political scandals before the drama that erupted this year over former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai.
Conversations with Chen Xitong by scholar Yao Jianfu hits bookstores in Hong Kong on Friday. The book, a copy of which the South China Morning Post has seen, contains eight interviews Yao conducted with Chen from early last year. The 81-year-old claims he knew little about decisions behind the scenes and was only following orders.
Chen said that while he wanted to see a swift end to 'the turbulence', he believed the incident could have been solved without bloodshed.
'Nobody should have died if it was handled properly,' Chen told Yao. 'Several hundred people died on that day. As the mayor, I felt sorry. I hoped we could have solved the case peacefully. Many things are still not clear, but I believe one day the truth will come out.'
Chen also likened his plight to that of Bo Xilai, who was stripped of his leadership posts earlier this year as his wife was implicated in the murder of a British businessman.
'Bo Xilai's fate is so similar to mine and that of Chen Liangyu,' Chen said. 'The party secretaries of Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing all suffered the same disgrace.'
In the book, published by Hong Kong's New Century Media, Chen says the June 4 tragedy 'stemmed from the internal [power] struggle at the top level and led to a tragedy nobody wanted to see'. Publisher Bao Pu said: 'This is a rare first-person account from a man widely believed to be heavily involved in the crackdown and can serve as rare historical material on the situation.'
The book could reopen debate about June 4 ahead of the 23rd anniversary of the crackdown - a ghost the Communist Party has failed to exorcise. Beijing has declared the case 'concluded' and is reluctant to reopen old wounds, fearing it may undermine party unity.
But Wu Guoguang, a former government adviser and now a professor at the University of Victoria in Canada, said the debate would continue until the party came clean.
'If the Cultural Revolution can be reassessed, why not June 4?' Wu said.
Chen's political career was cut short in 1995 after he was arrested and later convicted of corruption. He became the first Politburo member to be jailed since the end of the Cultural Revolution. He was released on medical parole in 2006 from Qingcheng Prison - the secretive jail where many student leaders of the June 4 movement were also held.
After 23 years of silence, Chen now tells his side of the story. He is particularly upset about the unpublished diary of former premier Li Peng, in which Chen was said to be 'the chief commander' of the Beijing Martial Law Command Centre.
'One day, if I had the opportunity, I'd want to ask Li Peng about this,' Chen said. 'I know nothing of this role I allegedly played. I don't know what his [Li's] purpose is [for claiming that].
'I believe that one day the party will declassify all the documents and history will give a fairer judgment on Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng and [purged party general secretary] Zhao Ziyang,' he said. 'I believe this is only a matter of time. As our country is now getting stronger, so we should have a more democratic system. [Premier] Wen Jiabao has said on many occasions that [we need] political reforms ... We need to do this step by step ... Unfair and unjust things will be readdressed one day.'
Chen also said that he had never been to Deng's home and did not attend the meeting on May 18, 1989, at which Deng and other party elders defined the incident as a counter-revolutionary riot and decided to depose Zhao, who sympathised with the students.
He said that as Beijing mayor he was tasked with solving daily logistical issues and was not fully aware of the behind-the-scenes political decisions and discussions, which were handled by Beijing party secretary Li Ximing.
Chen delivered an official report to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress on June 30, 1989, in which he condemned the demonstration as a 'counter-revolutionary riot'. But he said he did not write a word of the report.
'I faithfully read the article they prepared for me, even down to every last piece of punctuation.'