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The Tiananmen Papers

Published to predictable international controversy, this sensational trove of documents, chronicling events leading up to and following the violent quashing of student protests in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, vividly details for the first time what previously had only been surmised. Zhang Liang, the pseudonym for the high-ranking Chinese official who leaked the documents, has revived the memory less to tell the truth than in a bid to advance political reform in China, which stalled as a result of Tiananmen Square. In that sense, the book is as much about hidden struggles now as in 1989. The Chinese government unsurprisingly has condemned it as "fabrication", and while a post-Hitler Diaries world is understandably cautious, with experts admitting they cannot guarantee authenticity "with absolute authority", the feeling is that the records are largely credible.

What they reveal is the paranoia that gripped the Chinese rulers when the death of Hu Yaobang sparked public demonstrations that showed no signs of abating. The biggest villain appears to be former Premier Li Peng, the so-called "Butcher of Beijing", who whinges and conspires to bring about an aggressive end to the "turmoil". Yet it's Deng Xiaoping, although officially long retired, who still wields most power, as he and his fellow Elders intervene to enforce martial law. The moderate Zhao Ziyang favours negotiation and dialogue, but as a consequence is crushed and replaced by Jiang Zemin, the present leader, plucked from obscurity and appointed in defiance of procedure. The gripping scenario that unfolds, in compulsive detail, is akin to parents bickering over the best way to control unruly children, with carrot or stick. Preceding a much longer Chinese edition, the American editors, Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link, have performed their duties with acuity and flair, providing a lucid commentary to link the whistle-blowing government papers, minutes of meetings, speeches, eyewitness accounts, poster text and foreign observations. The Tiananmen Papers affords a wide audience the opportunity to watch the drama unfold, blow by blow. It proves to be as brilliantly enthralling and explosive as a fictional thriller, allowing a rare snapshot of Chinese Communist Party factionalism in action, and a significant lesson that still needs to be learnt. --David Vincent


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