|The book Conversations with Chen Xitong|
And now the mayor of Beijing at the time is trying to fix his place in history by claiming "a regrettable tragedy could have been avoided" and downplaying his role in the incident.
Chen Xitong was seen as a hardliner at the time, pushing for military force against the students. Some accuse him of deliberately exaggerating the situation and misleading paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to get him to authorize the People's Liberation Army to use arms against the protestors.
After the June 4 incident, Chen was promoted to Beijing party secretary and made a Politburo member.
But he must have made someone higher up angry because he was arrested in 1995 and three years later convicted of corruption for which he was sentenced to 16 years in prison in one of the most dramatic downfalls of a senior Communist Party official -- before Bo Xilai this year. Chen was later released on medical parole in 2006.
Chen is trying to set the record straight by giving his side of the story in Conversations with Chen Xitong by scholar Yao Jianfu that will be published Friday by New Century Media in Hong Kong.
The book features eight interviews Yao conducted with Chen from early last year. The 81-year-old claims he didn't know much about the discussions senior government officials had and was only following orders.
Chen claimed he only wanted a quick end to "the turbulence" and believed the incident could have been resolved without bloodshed.
"Nobody should have died if it was handled properly," he told Yao. "Several hundred people died on that day. As the mayor, I felt sorry. I hoped we could have solved the case peacefully. Many things are still not clear, but I believe one day the truth will come out."
The ailing Chen who is in the last stages of colon cancer, claims he was the victim of a purge by then president Jiang Zemin.
Chen says the rumours he had been plotting to under mine Jiang's power were "pure fabrication" but led to the corruption charges against him.
He also disputes an unpublished diary of former premier Li Peng that said Chen was "the chief commander" of the Beijing Martial Law Command Centre.
"One day, if I had the opportunity, I'd want to ask Li Peng about this," Chen said. "I know nothing of this role I allegedly played. I don't know what his [Li's] purpose is [for claiming that].
"I believe that one day the party will declassify all the documents and history will give a fairer judgment on Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng and [purged party general secretary] Zhao Ziyang," he said. "I believe this is only a matter of time. As our country is now getting stronger, so we should have a more democratic system. [Premier] Wen Jiabao has said on many occasions that [we need] political reforms... We need to do this step by step... Unfair and unjust things will be readdressed one day."
Chen claimed he had never been to Deng's home and did not attend the meeting on May 18, 1989 when Deng and other party elders defined the growing protests in Tiananmen Square as a counterrevolutionary riot and decided to depose Zhao, who had sympathized with the students.
He said that as mayor he was more responsible for daily logistics than the political discussions and decisions.
In any event it's intriguing Chen has come out now to set the record straight and release the book on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Does he think it's safe to stir up discussion about this taboo subject? Or is it all about him trying to tell his side of the story and get sympathy votes?
For Chen to believe the government will eventually declassify documents for the public to see is wishful thinking; does he really believe "democracy" -- which he does not clearly define -- will really happen in China under the Communist Party's watch?
Seems like he is more keen to resolve his own demons before helping the country exorcise its own.