Monday, June 4, 2001

Tiananmen Papers: Reconstructing the view from the Watchtower

June 2001

Compiled by Zhang Liang
Edited by Andrew Nathan and Perry Link
Little, Brown and Co. UK 2001
Reviewed by Philip Cunningham

The real history of Tiananmen has already been told in the footsteps of marchers, the ebullient songs of youthful defiance and in the earthly rhythm of sun-warmed days and moon-chilled nights camping out on the Square. The story has been documented in photographs, video, film, tape, pen and in the hearts and minds of the people. The world-riveting defiance and thirst for change that hit China by storm in the spring of 1989 was fortuitously recorded, perhaps in greater detail than any other demonstration in the history of the world.

Even now the scholar or concerned citizen can view gripping video accounts of life on the square, can watch Li Peng get upbraided by Wuerkaixi, can see Zhao Ziyang in tears talking to hunger strikers on a bus, and can study student speeches and publications, pore through thousands of photos, verbatim records of press conferences, interviews, and official communist party response to all that in the state media.

Against this mountain of first hand data, the Tiananmen Papers adds the narrow view from the watchtower. It’s like reading second-hand FBI reports to get a picture of Woodstock in 1969, or Stasi reports on the fall of the Berlin Wall.
There is almost nothing new or controversial in the Papers, which are at their most believable when they tell us what we already know. The papers don’t add many bricks to the edifice of our understanding, though some of the information presented may serve as mortar to fill gaps here and there. Nor is the publication likely to set off an earthquake in China, since similar information has been available for a long time.
The slick uptown Manhattan publicity blitz (New York Times, CBS, Time, Foreign Affairs) likewise raised unsustainable expectations for this collection of rewritten bureaucratic reports. The documents fail the test of good scholarship and good journalism because they are not original documents, at best they are watered down versions of alleged minutes and records, edited and released with a partisan political purpose in mind.
What was the irresistible element that persuaded ambitious scholars get involved, and what made the elite media bite so hard? And why the shroud of secrecy surrounding the whole project? Is it just part of the hype, like that used to build interest in the release of Spielberg’s latest flick or a new computer from Steve Jobs?
One suspects the real story of the Tiananmen Papers is not in the message, but the messenger. Those in on the secret are not talking, but asking us to agree with their “wisdom,” reminiscent of the “if-you-knew-what-I-know-you-would-agree-with-me” technique Kissinger worked to perfection when dealing with intelligence matters.
As a result, the book has a hard time living up to the long-winded, self-congratulatory introduction by editor Andrew Nathan. He makes hubris-filled comparisons with the Pentagon Papers, but then adopts the humility to say, “As a foreigner, I do not presume to intervene in Chinese affairs,” after ten pages of gleeful anticipation, (one can almost see the grin) that the book he has just worked so hard on will rock China, destroying some members of the Politburo, rehabilitating others. It’s unlovely and unbecoming of a scholar to talk that way, especially if you are selling a collection of un-recorded, loosely paraphrased, heavily politicized and deeply edited material that is not interesting unless you’re in on the secret.

Reading the Minutes of important meeting, June 2, 1989 allegedly produced by the office of Deng Xiaoping, I found the conversations unbelievable as conversations. Rather like a bad novel, the writer assigned huge chunks of plot material to different characters according to pre-determined stereotypes (arrogant, sympathetic, weak, strong) and each character did a soliloquy on cue.
It’s certainly not documentary, but that’s not to say it does not convey, in broad strokes, a sense of what might have transpired in Deng’s office at that particular point in time. Despite the annoying lack of quotable detail, the so-called top secret content accords reasonably well with known events, including CCTV television reports and People’s Daily commentary that followed a few days later. Anyone familiar with CCTV news knows how rare it is to hear leaders talking in a natural, spontaneous way; often you don’t even hear them speak at all, but just get a smoothly edited Xinhua voiceover.
The fly-on-the-wall accounts of secret conversations presented in the Tiananmen Papers are disappointing because they lack the telling detail of true documentary or even good fiction. The conversations presented here are stilted and orthodox in tone, with approximately the same relationship to the way people really talk as a CCTV news report has to reality.
Thus plowing through the Tiananmen Papers is a bit like reading People’s Daily for a month or watching too much Chinese television. It’s whitewashed material and it makes you yawn a lot.
It’s not that the papers seem forged, they just seem dull and adulterated. As River Elegy scholar Xie Xuanjun has said, if you add water to Maotai, it’s not maotai. And if the water isn’t clean, it’s not even a drink. To this I would add, PublicAffairs press has taken a watered down drink and put it into a shiny new bottle labeled Maotai.
So who is Zhang Liang, and what does he, or she, want us to believe?

The minutes from Deng Xiaoping’s office touch on, but frustratingly do not document, the leaderships claim that foreign intelligence was at play, a topic that Washington and London haven’t been completely forthcoming about. Nathan vetted the book and its provenance with US intelligence officials who have already lent it more credible support than he alone could garner. Is that why he goes out of his way to contemptuously dismiss the seemingly reasonable Chinese fear that the clandestine agencies of the US government, the most powerful nation on earth, might possibly have meddled at Tiananmen? “We believe the accusations of manipulation of the movement by the United States and Taiwan were unfounded,” editorializes Nathan, “and charges that George Soros was an agent of the CIA are not credible.”
The book will not shed much light on topics that Washington prefers to keep mum on. We see a brief mention of the Fang Lizhi case but are not given enough information to see why it was so distressing to China. The fact that Fang Lizhi sought out former US Ambassador Winston Lord’s wife Bette Bao at the Shangrila Hotel when the crackdown began, and was then spirited into the US embassy by a CBS news producer may have heightened Chinese suspicions, but you’re not going to learn that here.
A graduate student in child psychology at Beijing Normal University named Chai Ling (incorrectly identified in the “Who was Who section” of the book) quizzed me for advice on May 26, 1989 after she received an offer of asylum by someone who claimed to be an agent of the British embassy. As we spoke on Tiananmen Square, I cautioned her not to get involved with another countrys government. Two days later she was named to Beijing’s black list and sought me out for assistance and an interview.
The impromptu May 28, 1989 interview with the idealistic young Chai Ling in tears touched on volatile topics such as overthrowing the government and the anticipation of bloodshed in the Square. Two references to this as-yet untelevised interview appear to have made their way into security reports quoted in the June 2 meeting in Deng’s office. Li Peng quotes someone who said the Square is “’a center of the student movement and eventually the entire nation and “blood will awaken the people…’” Did the Politburo have a bootleg copy of my May 28 interview with Chai Ling —and all that implies-- or is this material lifted from somewhere else? Hard to tell because the Tiananmen Papers are frustratingly inexact.
The collection would be a thinner, but much more useful reference if it provided a handful of good verbatim documents rather than thousands of vaguely transcripted ones which add little verifiable detail to the
bureaucratic story, the basic, brutal contours of which have long been known.

The publishers failure to produce a single verifiable document brings us back to the abnormal air of secrecy and hocus-pocus surrounding the project. Orville Schell’s contribution does not so much lend scholarly credibility, as it provides an escape clause. In “Reflections” the talented wordsmith gives the fine print warning for the book. After plowing through 458 pages, the reader may find it disconcerting to hear Schell acknowledge that the Tiananmen Papers could be fake, as he skates around the rink of history looking at similar inside files, some of which turned out to be concocted. Why, in the end, he believes this collection of paraphrased papers not to be fake, he’s not telling. Which brings us back to the credibility of the murky character called Zhang Liang.
Zhang Liang in his own words is not a political sophisticate, but an ardent believer that the long view of history will embrace both the spirit of Tiananmen and the reforms started by Deng Xiaoping.
The editors say Zhang Liang is one person, not a composite, but sometimes refer to compilers in the plural. They acknowledge Zhang Liang wanted the materials released first in Chinese, then later say he wanted them first in English. He’s in China, he’s in the US, he’s a high official, he’s a low official. To make a long story short, nothing we are told about Zhang Liang is consistent, let alone credible. They say he’s a man, well, maybe she’s a woman.
Deng Rong wrote an interesting book about her father Deng Xiaoping several years back, though the effort to be candid was limited by the strict party discipline regarding access to documents and quoting of key leaders. She told a credible story, indicating along the way that there were things she could not say, and sources she could not identify, questions she could not ask and conversations she could not quote. But there was a story to be told, a political agenda, perhaps, to be served and she dished it out in her own words.
Many key documents in the Papers hail from Deng Xiaoping’s office at his home near Jingshan Park. Indeed, Deng’s home is one of the few places in China where a collection of documents comparable to the Tiananmen Papers in scope and volume could be accessed, hoarded, studied, painstakingly hand copied and recorded on a computer disk. In the twilight years of Deng’s life, as he saw his much-loved reforms being threatened by the orthodox Maoist elders who interceded in 1989 in favor of cracking down, he might have had, if not a change of heart, at least the courage to order a study of all Tiananmen-related documents in the spirit of seeking truth from facts. And Deng Rong saw it as her destiny to deliver a computer-input copy of the goods to the world.
Now that’s just speculation on my part, but it seems like a fair guess when face to face with a book shrouded in secrecy, of unknown provenance and unknown accuracy that was allegedly penned by a powerful insider.