The reason is that many Chinese leaders depend on the government's "correct view" of its repression of the Tiananmen protests for their political survival. Former President Jiang Zemin, who heads the influential Central Military Commission, arrived at Zhongnanhai in the wake of—and indirectly because of—the 1989 crackdown, and a number of Jiang's associates continue to fill top posts in the leadership. While Premier Li Peng, who advocated the bloody crackdown, is retired, his deputy Luo Gan is still security czar. The prestige of these men, and hence their power, depends on maintaining the fiction that the June 4 victims were not protesters against corruption but, as the Chinese Communist Party puts it, "a tiny minority" of lawless "riffraff."
Few Chinese believe such nonsense, but almost all must pretend in public that they do. This hollowness of public support for the official view leads to potential instability in Chinese politics. Any leader who steps forward to change the verdict on June 4, 1989, would immediately harvest public sympathy at the expense of those who have been enforcing the lie. Six years ago, during the run-up to the June 4 anniversary, a few high-ranking Party members co-signed a letter to President Jiang urging him to preempt the danger by making the move himself. They suggested that he use the discredited mayor of Beijing, Chen Xitong, as the scapegoat for the Party's "error." But Jiang, apparently calculating that the risks were greater than the benefits, took no action.
For all their trappings of power, Chinese leaders need to worry about their legitimacy in the public mind. In the past, emperors based their right to rule mostly on heredity and so could listen to remonstrance from below without necessarily feeling that legitimacy was at stake. But in the Communist era, the legitimacy of rulers has been tightly associated with a claim to "correctness." To say to a ruler "you are incorrect" comes close to saying "you should be out." Mao Zedong, at least in public, was always correct. When Deng Xiaoping radically reversed Mao, he made sure that Mao's deputies, the Gang of Four, took the rap for incorrectness. Deng needed Mao's leftover legitimacy. Even today, the disasters—oops, "mistakes"—of late Maoism are wholly omitted from Chinese textbooks and museums. Similarly no name of a current leader can be associated with a major mistake like June 4. Whoever takes the blame loses power—or worse.
Dr. Jiang, who knows this tradition, couches his letter as "advice" to the top leaders. "I hope that our Party will resolve to correct this mistake on its own," he writes, thus obeying Party rules about loyalty even while deciding to flout the rule against going public. The doctor has played his cards well. His letter has medical credibility because he was a surgeon on duty the night of the massacre. It has credible passion because he writes of carnage and atrocity that he witnessed firsthand. And he has political credibility because he is an Establishment figure who (at least until this letter) is free of the "dissident" taint. If someone from China's Democracy Party or Falun Gong or the overseas dissident movement had written this letter, its impact would be weaker.
But the doctor's position as a partial insider carries costs as well as benefits. It prevents him from stating certain plain truths plainly. His letter speaks of "correcting a mistake." Elsewhere, Party jargon commonly uses pingfan—"reversing a verdict" (literally, "turning right side up"). Such terms suggest exoneration or pardon of the accused. But for June 4, they raise several questions. Which side was wrong? Who should be asking whom for pardons? Why is the Party leadership the sole authority for determining who, possibly including itself, was criminal—oops again, "mistaken"? Overseas dissidents like Hu Ping, editor of Beijing Spring, and Liu Qing, head of Human Rights in China, for years have been pointing out that the Chinese Communist Party is not morally qualified to be granting exonerations to anybody.
It can do so only after it relinquishes its forcible monopoly on power and allows other Chinese groups to compete with it in a fair and open system. The real question is not whether the June 4 victims deserve exoneration, but whether the Party ever will.