Chinese President Jiang Zemin surprised an audience of Harvard students and professors yesterday when he conceded that “shortcomings” and “mistakes” were made during his government’s violent crackdown at Tiananmen Square.
Professors listening to the speech, including some of America’s best-known China scholars, said it was the first time that a top Chinese official has admitted that the military may have done something wrong in killing hundreds of protesters in 1989.
“It’s something a Chinese leader has never said,” said Merle Goldman, a China expert at Boston University who heard the speech. William C. Kirby, chairman of Harvard’s history department, agreed, but cautioned that Jiang left it unclear whether his comments referred to mistakes in quashing the democracy movement or unspecified mistakes in recent decades.
In his 75-minute appearance before a crowd of 1,000 at Sanders Theatre, Jiang shared a hall with protesters for the first time since arriving in the United States a week ago. Tun Hou Lee, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, who was born in Taiwan, stood up and removed his sweater to reveal a shirt that said “Taiwan is not part of China: Two countries two systems,” in English and Chinese characters. Several students stood wearing T-shirts that said “Free Tibet.” And during Jiang’s speech in the auditorium, muted shouts of protesters outside could be heard.
Asked about the protesters who have followed him during his trip, Jiang said, “Although I’m already 71 years old, my ears still work very well.” He added, “I did have my understanding about the general concept of democracy. However, during my current trip I got more specific understanding, more specific than I learned from books.”
After days of sticking to scripted remarks, Jiang was more animated and spontaneous than he has been since arriving in Honolulu last Sunday. Jiang’s most talked-about comment of the day came in response to a written question submitted by a group called The Joint Committee for Protesting Jiang’s Visit. Jiang was asked, if he keeps saying he believes in dialogue instead of confrontation, then why does he refuse dialogue with his own people and why did his government order in the tanks in 1989?
He spoke about soliciting people’s views during his travels around China, then said, “It goes without saying that we may have shortcomings and even make mistakes in our work. However, we are making constant efforts to improve.”
But in his prepared speech, Jiang admitted no errors as China has tried to modernize its economy while keeping the political system under Beijing’s control.
“The practice in (the past) 20 years has eloquently proved that we are right in direction, firm in conviction, steady in our steps, and gradual in our approach when carrying out the reform and opening up,” he said. The result, he said, was “tremendous successes.”
Acknowledging that the invitation to Jiang had stirred controversy on campus, Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine said the university needs to host speakers with differing points of view. In welcoming Jiang, Rudenstine also pointed out that Harvard has a long tradition of China studies: In 1879, Harvard’s first teacher of Mandarin arrived on campus.
Jiang is the first Chinese leader to appear at Harvard. The Chinese government had initially demanded that he be allowed to give a talk and leave, but Harvard insisted on a question period. A committee at the university chose several direct questions from more than 100 that had been submitted last week. In the end, Ezra Vogel, director of the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, read Jiang two of the questions.
Vogel warned Jiang repeatedly that they would be tough questions, and said, “We hope that President Jiang will remember that Harvard is a place where democracy works.” He announced that at the last minute Jiang also had agreed to take a question from the audience.
Two hours later, at a luncheon at the Westin Hotel in downtown Boston, Jiang received a warm welcome from 200 business leaders. After being snubbed by New York’s governor and mayor during a two-day visit, Jiang shared a dais with acting Governor Paul Cellucci and Mayor Thomas Menino.
Cellucci mentioned that Raytheon, Polaroid and other Massachusetts companies last year sold products valued at $550 million to China and Hong Kong. The state is keen on doing more business in telecommunications, biotechnology and engineering, the governor said.
But Cellucci also took a subtle jab at his guest while presenting Jiang with a historical atlas of Massachusetts and a copy of the state constitution. Cellucci said he looked forward to a relationship between Massachusetts and China based on “economics and political freedom.” Several of the business executives smiled and nudged each other.
Jiang grinned, but did not respond. In his speech, though, he said he hoped China would have a culture of democracy in the 21st century.
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