At the time of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in China, it was popular to compare the brinkmanship under way in Beijing's central square to a game of poker. It was easy to watch the student protesters and read the cards on their faces: they wanted political reform, but they held nothing more than their lives. China's leadership was unreadable. Some officials seemed eager for reform; others were enchanted by the possibility of a crackdown. How would they react? When? When tanks finally rolled through Tiananmen on the night of June 4, the world saw how the cards had been played. But the decisions that led to the crackdown were, and have remained, totally opaque.
A new book out this week offers the first glimpse inside the top level of China's leadership during those difficult days. The American editors of The Tiananmen Papers (Public Affairs; $30) compare the book's trove of memos, speeches and meeting notes to the Pentagon Papers leaked during the Vietnam War. The book contains six-months' worth of private communiques, evidently uncensored, of China's leaders during the hottest days of the crisis. Who on earth let these out of China? The book's authors won't say, though they explain that they made "extensive efforts" to ensure the authenticity of the documents. The secrecy associated with these documents made it impossible for TIME to independently verify them. But what emerges from even a cursory read is a sense of a Chinese leadership electrified by the street protests and very willing to use force to short-circuit their fears.
There are few surprises about who the villains of Tiananmen were, but there is an unmatchable frisson in watching them play their roles in real time. Li Peng, then China's Premier, was and is still known as a hard-line troublemaker. He comes off terribly in the papers: wheedling, whining, gleefully back-stabbing peers unlucky enough to have missed a meeting. Watch as he tries to manipulate Deng Xiaoping in an early conclave: "Some of the protest posters and the slogans that students shout during the marches are anti-Party and anti-socialist," he says. "The spear is now pointed directly at you and the others of the elder generation." And then watch Deng, 83, nibble at the catnip: "Saying I'm the mastermind behind the scenes, are they?"
Yes, among other things. And the papers make clear for the first time how right the protesters were. Even though the highest government post he ever held was Vice Premier, Deng and a party of "elders" still made most of the country's decisions. But though a secret deal gave him almost unlimited informal power, he frets at one point in the papers about ending up under house arrest if he eschews decisiveness for discretion.
The denouement of the papers, when Deng decides to order martial law, occurs in a debate between him and Zhao Ziyang, the reform-minded General Secretary. "Of course we want to build a socialist democracy," Deng says. "But we can't possibly do it in a hurry, and still less do we want that Western-style stuff. If our 1 billion people jumped into multiparty elections, we'd get chaos like the 'all-out civil war' we saw during the Cultural Revolution... After thinking long and hard about this, I've concluded that we should bring in the People's Liberation Army."
Zhao shoots back, "But Comrade Xiapoing, it will be hard for me to carry out this plan. I have difficulties with it."