The Death of Deng: He showed no remorse for Tiananmen massacre

After the years of despotism, China marches on into the great unknown
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The Independent Online
Reassessing the Tiananmen verdict is potentially the most politically explosive issue in the post-Deng era. "Sooner or later, there has to be a revision of the current verdict," a Western diplomat in Peking said. But any such revision of 4 June 1989, when hundreds of peaceful demonstrators were killed, is unlikely without far-reaching changes at the top of the Chinese Communist Party.

There have been repeated calls from political activists and dissidents for a rewriting of the official verdict on the pro-democracy movement.

In 1994, seven student activists involved in the 1989 demonstrations wrote in an open letter to the National People's Congress: "We believe the government's characterisation of it as a `riot and a counter-revolutionary rebellion' is unjust and immediately should be reassessed."

There have also been petitions from intellectuals, academics and activists echoing the demand for a review and the release of those imprisoned after 1989.

Such appeals still fall on deaf ears, however. Since 1989, the leadership has steadfastly defended Deng Xiaoping's decision to send in the People's Liberation Army. As President Jiang Zemin declared: "If the Chinese side had not taken the resolute measures then, China would not enjoy the stability it is enjoying today." Mr Jiang himself was catapulted to power in the wake of the killings.

Mr Deng has never shown any remorse for the massacre. In the third volume of his collected works, published in November 1993, he explicitly took responsibility for the order to send in the troops. "It is lucky that I was still around. The matter was handled without difficulty," he told a visitor five months after the crackdown.

In recent years, however, the Deng family have had an eye on their father's place in history. His daughter, Deng Rong, defended him: "At least in my father's heart, he believed he had no other alternative but to take this action and that it had to be taken." But she added that China's inexperience in riot control had contributed to the "tragedy". On the question of whether there could be a reconciliation between the two sides, she admitted: "That's something which will be up to those who come afterward."

Mr Deng successfully obstructed any revision of the official verdict. In 1992, President Yang Shangkun proposed a fresh look at both 4 June and the position of Zhao Ziyang, who lost his job as party secretary after appearing sympathetic towards the students. Mr Deng blocked any such move.

In any power struggle in the post-Deng era, however, both reformers and hardliners could have a vested interest in overturning the verdict. It may be a way both to settle political scores and garner popular support. Those reformers who opposed the military crackdown may blame Mr Deng posthumously for a misjudgement. Their aim would be to undermine the hardliners linked to the bloodshed, draw a line under the massacre, and press ahead with China's modernisation. This could lay the ground for the rehabilitation of those in Mr Zhao's camp.

On the other hand, some hardliners have reportedly been planning to discredit Mr Deng's reform policies - and those who inherit his mantle - by blaming the 1989 demonstrations on the effects of "bourgeois liberalisation".

Just as an internal party power struggle may take years to be resolved, so probably will any rewriting of the official version of events in June 1989. "Now it has become possible to change that verdict, but I don't see it happening very quickly. A change in the verdict will mean that there has been a realignment of forces. And I think it will take some time for that to work its way through," one analyst said.

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