A forthcoming book quotes the disgraced former mayor of Beijing as saying that the military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square democracy protesters was an avoidable tragedy and that he regrets the loss of life, though he denies being directly responsible.
The comments by Chen Xitong, made in interviews with a retired scholar that are being released as a book on Friday, are a surprising reassessment of the 1989 crackdown by someone long portrayed as having supported the military assault. Chen was later deposed as Beijing's Communist Party boss for corruption and is serving a 16-year prison sentence, effectively silencing him.
Yao Jianfu, the retired researcher, said Tuesday that he was able to talk with Chen because he was released from prison on medical parole for cancer treatment. He said that during a series of interviews that began last year they discussed Chen's corruption case and the recent high-profile dismissal of Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, but kept coming back to the tumultuous events of 1989.
Yao said Chen told him that the Tiananmen crackdown should never have happened and that he hoped the government would formally re-evaluate the event, in which the military crushed weekslong protests, killing hundreds, possibly thousands, of people.
"Chen said it was a tragedy that could have been avoided and that he hoped in his heart that the incident could have been resolved peacefully but in the end it wasn't," Yao said during an interview in a Beijing restaurant.
"I asked him how he felt as mayor at that time to see so many innocent civilians killed, and he said he felt very sorry," Yao said.
The book, "Conversations With Chen Xitong," broaches subjects too sensitive to be published in China proper but is being released by New Century Press in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory that enjoys freedom of speech and other Western-style civil liberties.
Chen's comments add to a growing debate ahead of a once-a-decade transfer of power later this year from one generation of party leaders to younger successors. Party elders and scholars have been urging the leadership to address politically taboo events in recent history so that the government can avoid repeating mistakes of the past and move ahead with needed reforms.
The student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989 attracted workers, reporters and many party officials to Tiananmen Square, and the party leadership split over how to defuse the protests. Chen was seen as siding with senior Deng Xiaoping and other elders and hardliners who prevailed in the debate and supported a military assault.
Yao said he questioned Chen about the death toll of the crackdown and cited a Red Cross report that said 727 people were killed.
Chen responded that an investigation by a Beijing vice mayor at the time, He Luli, found that around 200 people were killed, but Chen then added that he thought the matter ought to be re-investigated.
"The facts of that time need to be seriously investigated, deserve to be researched," Chen is quoted as saying in an advance copy of the book obtained from the publisher by The Associated Press.
Yao said that Chen maintains his responsibilities as mayor during the protests were largely limited to logistics and that power over the capital's police and other security forces as well as the judiciary lay with Beijing's then-Communist Party boss Li Ximing.
Li, who died in 2008, and Chen were both credited with advocating the assault on the night of June 3-4, 1989 in a compilation of purported internal documents on the crackdown that was earlier published overseas.
According to "The Tiananmen Papers," published in 2001, the two men endorsed a document labeling the protests as an "anti-Party and anti-socialist political struggle," all but eliminating the possibility of dialogue.
Chen also denies writing the only official assessment on the Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown, a document that he read out to the Standing Committee of China's legislature, the National People's Congress, in 1989.
"The (Communist Party) Central Committee was responsible for drafting it," he is quoted as saying in the book. "The Central Committee provided the text for me to read. I couldn't not read it."
Associated Press writer Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong contributed to this story.