WASHINGTON - Speaking to a U.S. audience on International Human Rights Day, China's defense chief asserted that no one was killed inside Tiananmen Square during student demonstrations six years ago.
Responding bluntly to a question posed by a member of the audience of U.S. military officers, Gen. Chi Haotian, the Chinese defense minister, showed no regret yesterday over his handling of the crisis in which hundreds, perhaps thousands of student demonstrators and civilians were killed in Beijing.
"I can tell you in a responsible and serious manner that at that time not a single person lost his life in Tiananmen Square," said Chi, who was the general in charge of the People's Liberation Army crackdown.
There was what Chi described as a "problem" outside the square the night of June 3, 1989, "but that had been deliberately exaggerated" by the media "and the exaggerated coverage did not square with the facts."
Westerners who closely followed the events in Tiananmen Square vehemently disputed Chi's account.
William Triplett, former chief Republican counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, estimates that based on eyewitness testimony, journalistic accounts, reports from the Red Cross and at least one account by a Chinese army defector that 3,700 were killed in and around Tiananmen.
"This is just an outrage," Triplett said. "This is a serious bad guy. . . . It shows that he's totally unreconstructed."
"I was standing under Mao Zedong's portrait, which is in the square, and people were being shot next to me," Jonathan Mirsky said in a telephone interview from Hong Kong.
Now the East Asia correspondent for The Times of London, Mirsky was reporting in Tiananmen Square the night of the crackdown. "These were people from all over China. They were unarmed. They were up against heavily armed units of the Chinese army."
Speaking through a translator, Chi told the officers, students at Washington's National Defense University, that agitators worked up the student demonstrators to the point where they posed a threat to the government's ability to function.
"Under such circumstances, we were compelled to impose martial law," Chi said. "We had to adopt corresponding measures to disperse these people."
Chi's comments generally reflected the longstanding Chinese government line on Tiananmen.
Chi also took a hard line on Taiwan - another highly sensitive issue in U.S.-Chinese relations. He said China remained committed to reunification and "will not stand idly by" in the face of any challenge to that goal.
"We hope to see a peaceful settlement yet refuse to renounce the use of force," Chi said. "The entire Chinese history shows that whoever splits the motherland will end up condemned by history."
To those who worry about an emerging Chinese threat, Chi said "these people have ulterior motives" because they are unhappy that China has strengthened economically.