New light cast on Deng Xiaoping’s role in June 4 crackdown

Diary written by ex-premier Li Peng hints at secret meeting with paramount leader

05 June 2010

The diary believed to be written by former premier Li Peng contains an important revelation about the role of Deng Xiaoping in the party’s decision to condemn the Tiananmen student movement – a turning point that made peaceful resolution impossible and shaped the bloody outcome.

In an entry dated April 23, 1989, Li left a clue that strongly suggests he and former president Yang Shangkun met Deng secretly the night before the landmark Politburo meeting he chaired on April 24.

After former party secretary Zhao Ziyang set off to North Korea for a state visit on the afternoon of April 23, Li wrote, he was very worried that the student movement might lead to another Cultural Revolution.

“I had no resolution about how to handle the chaos before us. At this time, comrade Shangkun suggested I take the initiative to seek instructions from comrade Xiaoping, and he would go with me.”

The diary does not mention when or where the meeting took place. It is the first suggestion of a secret meeting between Deng and Li on April 23. Past records – including a memoir by Zhao and The Tiananmen Papers, a book about the June 4 crackdown – said Li reported to Deng only on April 25, a day after a Politburo standing committee meeting decided to condemn the student movement.

Many party insiders and observers, including Zhao, believed Li’s descriptions during an April 25 meeting with Deng provoked Deng’s fear of the student movement and prompted the paramount leader to pass the verdict that swift actions should be taken to crush the “anti-party, anti-socialist turmoil”.

Zhao apparently did not know about the secret meeting. In his memoir, he said the standing committee concluded on April 24 that the student movement was “an organised, planned political struggle to overthrow the party and socialism”. He said “Li Peng … Chen Xitong were the instigators” of this view.

In a forward printed in Li’s June Fourth Diary, to be published in Hong Kong on June 22, Professor Wu Guoguang, a former member of Zhao’s think tank, said there was much evidence showing the secret meeting did take place because the Politburo standing committee would not reach a consensus easily if Deng had not given his backing to Li. Wu pointed out that even liberals such as Wan Li and Hu Qili abandoned their sympathetic stance towards the students at the April 24 meeting. Wu believed it was possible only if Deng had issued a secret order that morning.

“No matter how capable Li was, was it really that easy to make them reach a consensus overwhelmingly?” wrote Wu, now a professor at Victoria University, Melbourne. He believed the party kept the April 23 meeting in the dark because it violated party procedures.

“According to the timetable here, the meeting between Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng and Yang Shangkun preceded the Politburo standing committee meeting and the meeting endorsed the decision [to condemn the student movement] in the absence of Zhao Ziyang. It violated the party charter and the legal procedures,” Wu wrote.

“The official record covered up the meeting with Deng Xiaoping on the night of April 23 and highlighted (or fabricated) the fact that Deng met Li on the morning of April 25. It changes and makes it look like a Politburo standing committee was held before Deng endorsed this decision the next day.”

Perry Link, editor of The Tiananmen Papers, believed Li left the subtle but important revelation in his diary to shirk his responsibility in the crackdown. “The responsibility for June 4 haunts all of these people and none of them want to take it. Even Li Peng … doesn’t want to be seen as having blood on his hands.” It was also possible that Li wanted to show Yang was involved in changing Deng’s mind, Link said. “None of the leaders, Li Peng, Yang Shangkun, Deng Xiaoping, wanted to be viewed as butchers. They were embarrassed about the massacre and embarrassed about the prospect of the massacre, they didn’t want their own names associated with the bloodshed.”

Gao Yu , a journalist who was jailed after June 4, said that even if the secret meeting did take place, Li could not shirk his responsibility in shedding the blood of students.

“This cannot cover up his crime … Li Peng was taking the hardline position, and whatever explanation is given, these were only details and it was done when Zhao Ziyang wasn’t in Beijing. “This only serves to prove that he did report to Deng while Zhao was not there … everyone has a responsibility.”

Although the diary was written in self-defence, Li showed little regret about the decision for the crackdown.

He wrote in an afterword that he reviewed the history of June 4 in order that “leading cadres of all levels could learn the lesson from history and try their best to avoid similar incidents from taking place, or they should do their best to contain [civil unrest] to the smallest scale so that they would not affect the work [of the Communist Party] adversely”.

Li, now 81 and reportedly in failing health, retired in 2003. The diary is a collection of secret entries from April 15 to June 24, 1989.


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