For more than two decades, there has been only stony silence from China's ruling Communist Party about the bloody crackdown that quashed pro-democracy demonstrations in and around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
It was a silence that drove Ya Weilin to despair – this week the 73-year-old hanged himself in his Beijing apartment, the last move in a long and fruitless battle to bring the truth of what happened that day to light. His suicide note recounted again the details of how his son, Ya Aiguo, had been shot dead that day while shopping with his girlfriend a few blocks west of Tiananmen Square. Mr. Ya's note said he would "fight with my death" against the official silence, according to a statement released by the Tiananmen Mothers, a victims' parents group that he belonged to.
That wall of silence is now starting to crack. A new book that will be published Monday in Hong Kong to coincide with the 23rd anniversary quotes Chen Xitong, Beijing's mayor at the time, saying that the Tiananmen massacre was "a tragedy that could have been avoided."
It's the first time that a senior Communist official involved in the crackdown has publicly expressed regret. "Nobody should have died if it was handled properly," Mr. Chen is quoted as saying. "Several hundred people died on that day. As the mayor, I felt sorry. I hoped we could have solved the case peacefully. Looking back, I consider it a tragedy that could have been prevented, should have been prevented but was not prevented."
The book, Conversations with Chen Xitong, is based on a series of eight interviews Mr. Chen gave to the author, Yao Jianfu, an academic and former government official. Mr. Chen was one of the most powerful figures in China until 1998, when he was sentenced to 16 years in jail on corruption charges. Now out on medical parole, the 81-year-old likens his dramatic fall to the recent purge of former Chongqing boss Bo Xilai.
Beijing long ago declared its investigation into the events of June 4 concluded, saying that about 200 people – including many soldiers – died during the suppression of a "counter-revolutionary riot." Other estimates, including that of the Chinese Red Cross at the time, put the number of dead at 2,600 or higher, with civilians making up the large majority of those killed.
Discussion of the protests and the crackdown that followed is forbidden in China's official media, and the topic is barred from classrooms and textbooks. As a result, many Chinese youths either know nothing about the events of 1989, or only the government's version of what happened.
But that information control has started to fail in recent years as more and more Chinese have gone online. Despite tight censorship, Chinese netizens have taken to discussing the Tiananmen crackdown in oblique ways – such as referring to June 4 as "May 35th" in an effort to avoid blocks on certain terms – and circulating foreign media reports of what happened.
In a sign that the Communist Party leadership may be willing to tolerate greater discussion of the dark parts of its history, the magazine Southern People Weekly recently published an 18-page report on the millions who died during the famine caused by Mao Zedong's failed Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Some hope that if debating the Great Leap Forward is now tolerated, the murderous decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976) might soon get similar treatment, and then eventually the events of 1989.
The slight opening comes ahead of a planned transfer of power from the current generation of Chinese leaders headed by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to a new one headed by Xi Jinping, the current vice-president. Mr. Wen has spoken out repeatedly in recent years about the need for political change in China. Less is known about Mr. Xi's politics, but his late father, the revolutionary veteran Xi Zhongxun, criticized the Tiananmen crackdown shortly after it happened.
Wu Guoguang, a former adviser to Zhao Ziyang, the reformist secretary-general of the Communist Party who was deposed for siding with the students in 1989, said that by coming forward with his own version of events, Mr. Chen had recognized that the official silence couldn't last forever. "From my reading, the reason he wants to talk about 1989 is because he doesn't agree with the official version of 1989," said Mr. Wu, who is now a professor of political science at the University of Victoria and wrote the introduction to Conversations with Chen Xitong.
In a sign that he worries how history will regard him, Mr. Chen also tried to distance himself from the decision to use force to disperse the hundreds of thousands of protesters on the square. He disputed the version of history put forward by former premier Li Peng that portrayed Mr. Chen as the "chief commander" of the Beijing Martial Law Command Centre during the crackdown. (Mr. Li's own memoirs have thus far been blocked from publication.)
Mr. Chen is also accused of encouraging a crackdown by exaggerating – in a report to Deng Xiaoping, China's paramount leader at the time – the danger posed to the regime by the protesters on the square.
"I know nothing of this role I allegedly played. I don't know what [Mr. Li's]purpose is [for claiming that]" Mr. Chen says in the book.
"[Mr. Chen]may feel that the tides are due for another shift," said Jerome Cohen, an expert in Chinese law who teaches at New York University. "He may feel that this is a good time to stake out a claim that he shouldn't be the villain of Chinese history."
Mr. Chen seems to believe that China's history, like Russia's, will one day be re-examined. "I believe that one day the party will declassify all the documents and history will give a fairer judgment on Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng and Zhao Ziyang," he said in the book. "I believe this is only a matter of time. … Unfair and unjust things will be readdressed one day."