The world remembers the Chinese students protesting in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, and their earnest faces as they demanded democracy and freedom, ideals they didn't fully understand. It certainly remembers what happened to themthe young man in the white shirt halting a line of tanks remains one of the defining images of bravery in the past century. We remember the students because they made their stand and met their fate in the open, in the square and on the streets of Beijing. China's unnerved leadership, on the other hand, remained cloistered in its high-security compounds or in the home of Communist Party patriarch Deng Xiao-ping. The gunshots of June 4, 1989 told us what those old men ultimately decided, but we never knew how they reached that fatal point. Until now.
The U.S. editors of a new book, The Tiananmen Papers, compare their worka trove of memos, speeches, notes and other secret documents that reveal what the decision makers were thinkingto The Pentagon Papers leaked during the Vietnam War. The book contains six months' worth of private communiquEs, evidently uncensored, that detail how China's leaders reached their decisions during the hottest days of the uprising, up until the early-morning hours of June 4 when soldiers shot their way to Tiananmen Square and the final bedraggled students marched out. No similar collection of documents has come out of China before. Whoever smuggled these papers obviously had the keys to China's most well-protected footlocker, and the political explosion will surely reverberate through a succession struggle that is already under way. "I think this release will influence people at the top of the party," says Bao Tong, who once was near the pinnacle himself as a leading political reformer before being purged during the 1989 crackdown, after which he spent seven years in jail.
These are not the stupefying meetings shown on China's state-run television, where senior leaders intone 50-page speeches while rows of underlings frantically scribble everything down. What we read is electrifying. Watch as Li Peng, then China's 61-year-old Premier, reveals his hard-line heart and moves his comrades inexorably toward a final confrontation. There's Deng Xiaoping at a Politburo Standing Committee meeting ordering the army into Beijing to quash the protests. We get to listen as the enraged elders, a group of eight doddering revolutionaries who dread having their socialist victory overturned by a bunch of cocky students, sweep aside all pretense of a legal system and demand a crackdown. "Give 'em no mercy!" hollers hard-liner Wang Zhen. "The students are nuts if they think this handful of people can overthrow our party and our government!"
The fallout from this document will no doubt blanket the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in central Beijing, where most of China's senior leaders live. For China's top man, party chief Jiang Zemin, the release couldn't have come at a worse time. He is trying to organize a political succession, and it's already rocky. Jiang faces trouble lining up his people and is struggling to maintain his position as the head of China's military after the next leadership reshuffle, expected late next year, and thereby retain substantial power. His adversaries want him to drop all titles. At such a critical moment of inside maneuvering, somebody has jerked open the closet door allowing the skeletons of Tiananmen to spill out. The bones will become impossible to ignore in a few months, when the Chinese version will be released in Hong Kong and copies will inevitably make their surreptitious way into the rest of China. And here's the funnybone: the documents strongly hint that Jiang had more knowledge of the June 4 crackdown than he has ever let on. That will surely tickle his enemies.
Who would, or could, spirit such documents into the public domain? The only name mentioned is a pseudonym: Zhang Liang. While his real identity remains cloaked, his motive is clear: to undermine China's conservative leaders by forcing a rethink of the Tiananmen Massacre, which is still classified as a "counter-revolutionary rebellion." A press release by Foreign Affairs magazine, which will publish a 15,000-word excerpt this week, describes Zhang as "representative of reform elements within the communist hierarchy who say they believe that opening the political process is essential to successfully continuing a difficult modernization of the Chinese economy." In other words, the heist was an inside job.
Assuming, of course, that the papers are real. Remember the Hitler diaries? They made a spectacular splash in 1983, until they were exposed as the handiwork of an amateur forger. And the world knew loads about Hitler. Knowledge of the inner workings of China's leadership is virtually nonexistent. Charlatans have worked this paucity of information about China to their advantage for years. Sir Edmund Blackhouse, an oddball British Sinologist who later hinted that he copulated with the corpse of the Empress Dowager, claimed to have uncovered The Jing Shan Diary in 1914, and said it revealed the inner workings of the imperial Dragon Throne. The book's contents are now widely dismissed as fake. A controversial 1983 book, The Conspiracy and Death of Lin Biao, claimed to disclose the inside story of a power struggle against Chairman Mao that ended in the fiery death in a plane crash of his chosen successor. The book's veracity has since been credibly challenged by the daughter of China's top air force officer at the time.
Still, more recent examples of tell-all literature from China seem to have held up. In 1994, Chairman Mao's personal doctor, Li Zhisui, released a scathing biography of his famous patient. In The Private Life of Chairman Mao, Li charged that the Great Helmsman kept a stable of peasant girls who regularly contracted venereal disease from him, that he led an opulent life while most of the country went hungry, and that he cleaned his rotting teeth by munching on tea leaves. China's government huffed with indignation, but no one has convincingly discredited Li's portrait.
The fact-checking of The Tiananmen Papers seems to have gone smoothly. Zhang Liang made himself available to three American China scholars, who spent months probing for weak points in the documentation. "I originally approached this with skepticism, but the details all dovetailed with what we know and, more importantly, there are no discernible polemics," says Orville Schell, a China expert who runs the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley. Schell edited The Tiananmen Papers with two other respected China scholars: Andrew J. Nathan of Columbia University and Perry Link of Princeton. All speak Chinese, and two were in Beijing during the crackdown a decade ago. All three scholars have staked their considerable reputations that they are rightwith the caveat that, as Schell says of the documents, "we still have no basis for proclaiming their authenticity with absolute authority."