The unpublished diary believed to have been written by former premier Li Peng on the 1989 student pro-democracy protests became the hottest topic in mainland cyberspace over the weekend after it became accessible online to millions of savvy internet users.
The photocopy version of the book, entitled The Critical Moment and subtitled Li Peng Diaries, has been made available for downloading straight after the 21st anniversary of the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
It is not immediately clear who first uploaded the book, to be published later this month in Hong Kong.
There are various downloadable versions of the unpublished book online and many of them appeared to be accessible to mainland internet users without the hassle of scaling the 'Great Firewall' of online censorship.
The photocopy version of the book available online is largely the same as the copy of the manuscript seen by the South China Morning Post on the eve of the anniversary, except that 34 photographs purportedly picked by the former premier and a foreword in the printed book by an aide to former Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang are missing. Yuan Weishi, a historian at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, said the timing of the emergence of Li Peng's manuscript was intriguing. 'It would be good for him personally to see the book published when he's still alive. If anyone disputes his accounts, he still has chances to refute,' Yuan said in a telephone interview.
Li, 81, and reportedly in failing health, was obviously concerned about how his role at this critical moment in China's history would be portrayed later on. 'It was possible that he covered [something] up, avoided or even distorted some particular issues. It will take time for readers and researchers to find that out,' Yuan said.
For Liang Xiaoyan, a teacher at Peking University in 1989 and a founder of the environmental group Friends of Nature, Li's diary is pointless.
'It's meaningless to read his side of the story when the opposite side has completely been silenced. Seeking historical truth is only meaningful when the political atmosphere is normal, so that witnesses can complement each other to restore a whole historical picture,' she said in a phone interview. The book, based on a selection of diary entries the former leader dated from April 15 to June 24, 1989, has become an instant hit on Twitter and sparked heated discussions over the weekend.
Twitter postings ranged from speculation on Li's motives for giving his version of a crucial piece of history, to comments on his poor writing skills, to others poking fun at the former leader, widely considered to be the main culprit of the bloodshed.
Few on Twitter expressed doubts over the authenticity of the book, which was reportedly ready for publication in early 2004 to coincide with the 15th anniversary of June 4 but was shelved by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao . Excerpts of the book were believed to have been leaked before, but it was the first time the manuscript was made publicly accessible.
'Li Peng has become a best-selling author all of a sudden as discussions of the book are everywhere on the internet today,' said Michael Anti, a Beijing-based internet analyst in a posting, and then he joked: 'You are definitely out of touch if you haven't read the Li Peng diary yet.'
Most people believed the timing of the book's circulation showed the former leader was desperate to vindicate his name by straightening out what he saw as misconceptions and misinformation about his role.
Shi Feike , a renowned columnist, said it was no surprise the book was banned on the mainland because the incumbent leadership had apparently been embarrassed by Li's bold determination to share the blame with not only the most powerful party elders, such as Deng Xiaoping and former president Yang Shangkun , but also many current leaders.
But many people did not like the book and said they were bored by it because it consisted mostly of vaguely worded formal party documents and his selected accounts of events without interesting details and anecdotes. 'He was deeply biased and tried too hard to put the blame on others, and it is rather difficult to believe whatever he said,' one posting on Twitter said.
Many people also poked fun at the ex-premier, who has never been popular with the public and gained notoriety for his crucial role in the military crackdown and the building of the controversial Three Gorges Dam.
Another proof that the book was authentic was that Li misquoted an ancient poem cited by Bao Tong , a top aide to Zhao, because 'it was perfectly consistent with his educational level', Shi said in another posting.