In a startling about-face, the former mayor of Beijing has called the Tiananmen Square protest killings "a tragedy that could have been avoided and should have been avoided—nobody should have died if it had been handled properly.” Chen Xitong's initial, official report of Chinese troops' deadly crackdown on protesters 23 years ago called the response "correct" and unavoidable. Now Chen, 81 and battling cancer, says he played no role in writing the official report on the tragedy presented to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, but merely read out a script prepared by unidentified party officials. "I couldn't not read it," he said.
The revelations were made in a series of interviews with a retired Chinese government researcher, and were published last week in a book in Hong Kong in time for today's anniversary marking the crackdown. In the interviews Chen also praises reform efforts of Zhao Ziyang, who was purged from party leadership and placed under house arrest for refusing to support the use of the military force. Chen, however, doesn't clarify numbers of Chinese killed by troops, saying only that "several hundred" were killed in Beijing—not the thousands many suspect—and that no one was killed in the actual plaza in front of the Forbidden City. The interviews offer a glimpse into the leadership's continued concerns about the protests. The party “does not let people talk about Tiananmen, but can never forget what happened because it is living with the consequences,” the book's publisher tells the Washington Post. “The crackdown fundamentally altered the relationship between leaders and the people. It created deep mistrust.” (Read more Tiananmen Square stories.)