Chinese President Jiang Zemin's admission during his speech here on Saturday, that the Chinese government may have made "mistake" in suppressing political movements, may have significant implications for U.S.-China relations.
Jiang was responding to a question about Chinese leader's decision to use military force to suppress the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement. The question was submitted by the Joint Committee for Protesting Jiang Zemin's Visit to Harvard.
In his answer, Jiang omitted any mention of Tiananmen, saying that China has "enjoyed the support from our people."
"It goes without saying that naturally, we may have shortcomings and even make some mistakes in our work," he said. "However, we have been working on a constant basis to further improve our work."
Jiang's answer to the question may have been the first time a Chinese official offered the possibilty that China was misguided in its handling of the affair, said Ford Professor of the Social Sciences Ezra F. Vogel, who is also director of the Fairbank Center for East Asian Studies.
"I haven't heard a public leader come that close to acknowledging it publicly," said Vogel, who played an integral role in bringing Jiang to Harvard.
Vogel, who has visited Beijing multiple times, said Jiang's near-admission of China's failure could bode well for U.S.-China relations.
"As they become more open and acknowledge their problems, that makes communication between the U.S. and China much easier," he said.
But Robert S. Ross, a professor at Boston College and research associate at the Fairbank Center, said Jiang's remarks may only go a short way toward improving American perceptions of China, a country that many view as a bastion of civil injustice.
"We're talking about a slow evolution of China," Ross said. "It's going to be a long time before the American people start to look on China differently."
Nieman Foundation Curator Bill Kovach, who sat on the Faculty committee that vetted the pre-submitted questions the Chinese president answered after his speech, said that Jiang's allusion to Tiananmen was veiled but still recognizable.
"He studiously avoided the wording of the question," Kovach said. "He never mentioned Tiananmen or ordering the tanks in, but clearly that was the point of reference."
Jiang was mayor of Shanghai during the Tiananmen democracy movement.
Ross said Jiang's visit, regardless of its impact on U.S. foreign policy, can be regarded as a domestic triumph for Jiang.
"I think the outcome of this is that he has further consolidated his position in Chinese politics as the leader of China," Ross said. "He can turn to his colleagues and say, 'I went to America. I faced American reporters, and I handled it in a sophisticated way.'"
Kovach said the event was important in that it promoted dialogue with the world's largest Communist state, saying: "One of the greatest mistakes in this century was the refusal of the government of the U.S. to talk to, in any meaningful way, the Russian government in the 1920s."
Kovach also expressed his wish that Jiang will have gained insight from the protests: "The only real hope is that, in the course of his visit, he began to realize a little more clearly how it's possible for a leader to function in a society where people have a free voice."