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Frontline


ĎWeakness exposed by Tiananmen still existsí

Interview with Prof Andrew J. Nathan
Professor of Political Science at Columbia University &
co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers



If the history of the Tiananmen Square movement of 1989 is represented as a jigsaw puzzle, one important piece Ė detailing the inner workings of the Communist Partyís decision-making process and responses to the crisis - was missing from the picture until The Tiananmen Papers was published in 2001. The sensational book was based on hundreds of top-secret official documents, obtained by a reformist-minded compiler (identified pseudonymously as Zhang Liang). The explosive documents revealed how close the Chinese regime was to a collapse in 1989, and how deep the split in the Communist Party ran. In a telephone interview to DNAís Venkatesan Vembu, the bookís co-editor, Andrew J. Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University and a specialist in Chinese politics and foreign policy, explains the historical significance of the book. Excerpts: :

What is the historical legacy of The Tiananmen Papers?

The book did not have any political impact on the regime. The compiler (ĎZhang Liangí) had hoped for that and I myself had anticipated it would shake up the regime. But that didnít happen. (The regime) was successful in bottling it up so the news did not get around in China. But the book is one of several elements that have contributed to keeping the memory of the Tiananmen Square movement from being wiped out. Itís a record that has to be addressed sooner or later by the regime.

What did the book tell us about the Chinese government and the Communist Party that we didnít know?

The most important thing we learnt was how deep the division in the top leadership of the Communist Party was at the time. We also learnt a lot of details about how the party-state system works, the flow of intelligence, the responsiveness of the ministries, the way the high-level officials put their heads together to pool their information. We saw how the system functions.

What significance does it hold 20 years after Tiananmen? Is it the same Communist Party today or has it evolved over time?

It is in some ways the same Communist Party and in other ways itís different. The difference is this: after the division in 1989 almost caused the collapse of the regime, the leadership has never allowed itself to be that divided. Theyíve stayed very unified, theyíve avoided another such crisis, theyíve tried to keep control over corruption, theyíve prevented inflation and economic slowdowns, theyíve been very proactive in running ahead of any crises that might emerge. I call it Ďresilient authoritarianismí. In that sense, theyíve pulled themselves together and itís not the same party.

But it is the same party in the sense that itís still a one-party authoritarian system that does not allow dialogue with society. When Zhao Ziyang (the then reformist-minded party general secretary, who refused to participate in the crackdown and was later purged) wanted to allow a dialogue with the protesting students, the party didnít allow it. Even today, they donít allow any social forces to emerge. They allow a quasi-civil society to emerge so long as the party controls it. And so itís still an authoritarian system.

So, the basic weakness that was revealed by Tiananmen is still built into the system: that whenever it does hit a crisis of one kind or another Ė whether it is economic or corruption or something else Ė and since it does not allow channels of dialogue with society, it can easily lose pubic support quickly.

Thatís the difference between a Chinese system and a democratic system like the US or Japan or India, where the government may at times perform extremely badly. Our government in the US performed extremely badly in recent years, but it didnít face a public uprising because it is a democracy. And you can change the government if you want to, and we have.

Post-1989, how was unity in the Communist Party achieved? Did it, for instance, silence dissent or manufacture consensus?

I think they feel that they have to stick together on political matters as otherwise, if they show any kind of weakness or division, their Ďenemiesí will overthrow them. Part of the reason how they can stick together so much is that theyíve learnt the lesson of Tiananmen, which is that if you donít stick together itís going to cause political instability. But they also stick together by constantly consulting among themselves, which (current President) Hu Jintao is good at. Theyíve also stuck together by agreeing that each person will do his job. Thereís division of labour and they donít interfere in one anotherís work. Theyíve worked out a system that functions very effectively for the time being, and theyíre doing many good things. But the system is vulnerable to disruption by a crisis or a power struggle.

Do you think it is a historical inevitability that the Communist Party will some day reverse its verdict that the student movement of 1989 was a Ďcounter-revolutionary riotí? What will trigger a reappraisal? Will it be the passing away of Li Peng (the then Premier, who pushed for a hard line against the protesting students) and Jiang Zemin (who replaced Zhao Ziyang as party general secretary)?

As a historian, I donít believe in historical inevitability because all kinds of surprising things happen. But I do think that the question of Tiananmen has to be addressed sooner or later by the party. And, yes, as long as Jiang Zemin and Li Peng are alive, thatís one of the obstacles to it since the party leaders donít want to embarrass the senior leaders.

But thereís another obstacle to that process: whenever the party decides to re-evaluate Tiananmen, it also has to re-evaluate the idea that the ruling party does not dialogue with independent social forces. To reopen that question is quite dangerous. And so, they will probably avoid doing so as long as possible.

What will it take for the Communist Party to reverse its verdict on Tiananmen?

Thereís all kinds of possibilities, but it might take some kind of a crisis in state-society relations Ė or a power struggle within the leadership. Something that will give a positive incentive for a faction in the leadership to do it. They wonít do it just because of their interest in historical accuracy. They will have to do it at a political moment when somebody sees an advantage in reopening it.

Late last year, pro-democracy activists in China initiated a campaign seeking an end to one-party rule, and the introduction of multi-party elections. What does the Communist Partyís response to the so-called ĎCharter 08í movement say about how far the party has come since Tiananmen?

I would say itís the same response as with Tiananmen: they have bottled it up and made it invisible. It took a few weeks to do that, but they were able to break it down to each individual who had signed the Charter 08 petition, visit those persons and intimidate them and keep the news of it from circulating even on the Internet. So, it has pretty much disappeared within China. It was not as big a challenge as the student demonstrators demonstrating in public, so it didnít require the same kind of responses, but I would say they have effectively responded to it.

Thereís been speculation over the years over one particular aspect of The Tiananmen Papers: the identity of Zhang Liang, the compiler who made available the top-secret documents. Have you disclosed his identity Ė and will you ever?

No, Iíve never disclosed his identity, and I donít think I will Ė not unless he asks me to do so. Itís up to him, whether he wants his identity to be revealed. I donít see any particular reason why he would want to reveal his identity now or at any particular time. From what I know, I donít think he is going to do so.

There were media reports immediately after The Tiananmen Papers came out that the Chinese government had arrested several persons it suspected might have been behind the leak of the documents. How big a burden was it for you as an editor to bear the secret of the compilerís identity, knowing that others were being persecuted?

I am not aware of people being arrested and prosecuted for involvement in the project. I remember there were reports at that time, but I donít think they were correct. I donít have information that anybody was arrested.

So, you felt no burden from bearing that secret?

I feel good about what I did. I donít feel any moral ambivalence. Subsequent to the publication of The Tiananmen Papers, I havenít been able to get a visa to go to China. So this is a loss for me. Iím sorry that I canít go to China; I would like to go. But, again, I donít feel any psychic pain about that. I knew when I did this project that that would happen. I feel okay about it. I am paying the price knowingly and willingly.

The Chinese government initially dismissed the documents that form the core of the book as fabricated. Other scholars too challenged the authenticity of the documents. You engaged them on that. After all these years, have you had any occasion to doubt the authenticity of the documents?

No. When the government said it was a fabrication, it was in a tight spot at that moment: the book had just come out in English. The government responded immediately and I donít think they had even seen the book so they had no way to validate the authenticity of it. They put out a statement saying ĎAny attempt to fabricate documents and damage us would come to no goodí. They didnít really base their comments on the book. They had no way to do so. Subsequently they havenít made another comment.

In my understanding, the authenticity has only been challenged by one scholar, and I answered him. In these 20 years, I have never doubted the authenticity of the documents; in fact I have occasionally encountered further evidence that continued to confirm for me that the documents were authentic. And thatís been accepted increasingly by the academic community. For example, the preface to the new Zhao Ziyang memoirs cites The Tiananmen Papers as an authentic source.

If you were editing the book today, would you do it any other way?

I am happy with the way we did it. There were two big decisions that I had to make. The first was whether or not to do the project. And I am glad I did it. I believe the book has scholarly value, and it is an important project. The second decision we made had to do with how we would structure the English edition. The Chinese edition is what it is: thatís the thing I worked from. It was published exactly the way I had it. And that was none of my business; that was done by the compiler in a way he wanted to do that. The way that we turned that into the English edition was by cutting out some material.

You whittled down thousands of pages of documents while editing the book. How much of history fell through the cracks in this process, and were there any nuances that were lost?

I donít think anything important fell through the cracks. And it wasnít difficult to know which were the most important documents: Polit Bureau meetings and stuff like that were the most important. I think we put into the English-language edition the material that was most dramatic and the most important.

© Venkatesan Vembu 2009