Chinese President Jiang Zemin used the words "mistakes" and "shortcomings" for the first time in public Saturday in response to a question about the 1989 crackdown on student-led protests around Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
The 71-year-old leader did not repudiate the suppression of the demonstrations against corruption and one-party rule, and used the terms in an oblique reference to Tiananmen. But his remarks after a speech at Harvard University marked the second time during a weeklong tour of the United States that Jiang has surprised China watchers by departing from a formulaic justification of China's limits on human rights and political dissent.
"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, answering a question about why the Communist Party had chosen confrontation over dialogue in dealing with Chinese students in 1989.
The suppression of the student sit-in on Tiananmen Square left hundreds dead and hundreds more either jailed or exiled. The crackdown badly damaged U.S.-China relations and, more than eight years later, has been a shadow over last week's U.S.-China summit, the first since 1989 and designed by both governments as an opportunity to outline common interests and areas of cooperation.
Jiang's appearance at Harvard was met by the largest, loudest and most emotional protest of his U.S. visit. As drizzle turned into a chilling rain, a throng of activists chanting slogans for freedom and democracy in China and Tibet and "Shame on Harvard" overwhelmed a competing group of Chinese student organizations who waved Chinese and American flags to welcome the Chinese leader.
Although protests have shadowed Jiang at every stop, he had been well shielded from demonstrators before Saturday. As his motorcade of black limousines arrived outside Memorial Hall on the Harvard campus, Jiang came within a few yards of several hundred demonstrators. He was confronted by huge white and black "Free Tibet" banners and Chinese dissidents bellowing in Mandarin over loudspeakers, "Down with Jiang Zemin," "Down with One Party Dictatorship" and "Jiang Zemin Go Home!" One protester set afire a small Chinese flag.
Throughout his 45-minute speech the muffled yells of protesters outside filtered into Sanders Theater, which is part of Memorial Hall.
"Although I am 71 years old, my ears are very sharp," Jiang said after his speech, "and while I was speaking I could hear the bullhorns outside. I believed the only approach for me was to speak even louder than them."
Jiang's statements about Tiananmen probably do not presage an immediate change of policy, as the Chinese government has moved in recent years to silence political dissent even as it embraces more open markets. In Beijing, reports earlier this year that some Communist Party officials were pushing for a re-evaluation of the Tiananmen Square crackdown have not yielded a change in the government's position. The government has termed the demonstrations a "counter-revolutionary rebellion" and has denied that they were motivated by patriotism.
In a news conference Wednesday in Washington with President Clinton, Jiang called the Tiananmen demonstrations "political disturbances" and defended the violence against demonstrators as "necessary measures according to the law."
Still, Merle Goldman, a professor of Chinese history at Boston University, said she found Jiang's use of the two words _ mistakes and shortcomings _ unprecedented. "The very fact that he admitted there were problems in the broader context was very unusual," she said.
Jiang made the remarks at the end of a speech about U.S.-China relations in which he appealed to his audience to look at China not through the prism of Western eyes but with an understanding of its culture and history. The address reflected themes that Jiang has been voicing during the past week: that human rights are relative concepts and that China's need for stability and economic development is more important than political liberalization.
He said that having been to Harvard as a young bureaucrat 40 years ago, he already understood "the general concept of democracy." But he added, "During my current trip to the United States, starting from Hawaii, I felt more specific understanding of the American democracy _ more specific than I learned from books."
The remarks Saturday marked the second time on this trip that Jiang appears to have broached publicly subjects that Chinese leaders have considered taboo. On Thursday, for example, in a speech in Washington, Jiang predictably defended China's policy in Tibet, saying people in that troubled part of China are living "in happiness and contentment."
But Jiang also said: "We believe that without democracy, there can be no modernization." The statement was remarkable, Goldman and other China watchers have noted, because it was an echo of assertions made by China's most famous dissident, Wei Jingsheng, who was jailed in 1979 for uttering the same thing. Wei has spent all but six months of the last 18 years in jail.
Jiang left the Boston area and flew to Los Angeles. He returns to Beijing today.
_ Information from the New York Times was used in this report.