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Chinese president speaks at Harvar

Nov. 5, 1997

Chinese president


at Harvard

Reuters News Service

BEIJING -- By suggesting 'mistakes' were made in China's handling of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Chinese President Jiang Zemin made a startling departure from a hardline script that had deeply offended his U. S. hosts, diplomats said on Sunday.

But they said Jiang's comments at Harvard University fell far short of an apology for the crackdown by the People's Liberation Army in which hundreds, if not thousands, died.

Still less, was it a signal that China was ready to reverse its official verdict on the protests as a 'counter-revolutionary rebellion,' a move that could have far-reaching consequences for China's domestic politics.

'I think the main danger is to say that Jiang has apologized. He hasn't,' one Western envoy in Beijing said.

Jiang did not specifically mention Tiananmen Square in answering a question after a speech at Harvard on Saturday about Beijing's use of tanks to confront the demonstrators.

'It goes without saying that naturally we may have shortcomings and even make some mistakes in our work. However, we've been working on a constant basis to improve our work,' Jiang said.

The vague language left open the possibility that Jiang had uttered the first public words of contrition by a Chinese leader about Beijing's fateful decision to send in tanks.

'It's an oblique comment that implies that things weren't done as they wanted it,' said the diplomat. 'But the official verdict still stands.'

Jiang's comments, nevertheless, were in stark contrast to his robust defence of the crackdown that sparked a verbal clash over human rights at a joint news conference with U.S. President Bill Clinton on Wednesday.

At the time, Jiang had said China had taken 'necessary measures' to maintain social stability.

His comments on Wednesday were perceived by many in Washington as offensive and damaging, making it much harder for Clinton to sell his policy of engagement with Beijing to critics who accuse him of betraying fundamental U.S. values.

Jiang had also sparked anger by asserting that Tibetans lived in ``happiness and


``He may have got advice from his spin-doctors,'' another diplomat said, referring to

Jiang's apparent change of tone in his comments at Harvard. But he cautioned about

reading too much into Jiang's unscripted remarks.

``He would not have been startled into saying something completely new,'' he said.

The Chinese Communist Party does not still claim to be infallible, and has in the past

admitted mistakes of gigantic proportions, such as the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, which

killed millions of people.

But, while acknowledging its errors, the Communist Party has never loosened its grip on


Nor have its admissions of failure led to automatic disgrace and punishment for those


Former Chairman Mao Zedong, who launched the ultra-leftist Cultural Revolution, is still

revered. Blame was mainly assigned to his wife, Jiang Qing, and her infamous ``Gang of


Diplomats said any reassessment of the Tiananmen Square tragedy would be similarly

complex, dragging in the main actors from that period, some living and some dead, as part

of an intricate power-play.

It would not necessarily lead to a mass release of pro-democracy activists jailed after the

Tiananmen killings.

``You're certainly not going to see a ticker-tape parade for Wu'er Kaixi, said one diplomat,

referring to one of the student leaders from Tiananmen.

It was long assumed that Premier Li Peng, who signed the martial law order that lead to the

bloodshed, would be dealt a fatal political blow in any reassessment of Tiananmen.

Yet his position has never appeared more secure. Just last month he emerged from a

Communist Party Congress entrenched in his status as number two in the hierarchy.

Jiang himself rose to power on the back of the military action, replacing former Communist

Party leader Zhao Ziyang who was judged too sympathetic with the protesters.

In a letter released at last month's 15th Communist Party Congress, Zhao created a stir by

calling for a reassessment of the killings. Officials at the time indicated no change

whatsoever in Beijing's hard line

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