The Tiananmen Square massacre myth

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China’s recent ceremonies to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of former leader Deng Xiaoping have given the Tiananmen massacre myth yet another lease of life. Most media commentators, the BBC especially, have rehashed the standard condemnation of Deng as a hardliner who instigated a massacre of harmless demonstrating students in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

Why someone who had suffered cruelly at the hands of Cultural Revolution hardliners and who did so much to push China on the path of liberalization should himself become a hardliner is not explained. Even less does anyone seem to have felt any need to check out just what actually happened in Tiananmen in 1989. Eyewitness accounts that say there was no massacre have been conveniently ignored. Blatantly anti-Beijing propaganda accounts have been unquestioningly accepted. Fortunately we now have a source whose sober impartiality cannot possibly be doubted, namely the de-classified reports from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing at the time (see Google under Tiananmen, Document 30 especially).

They confirm that there was no massacre in the square, that almost all the students who had been demonstrating there for two weeks had left the square quietly in the early hours of June 4, and that the real incident was panicky fighting triggered by crowds attacking troops, initially unarmed, as they headed for the square on June 3.

In the process a still indefinite number of troops, students and civilians were killed and many military vehicles were torched. Call it a mini civil war if you like, with troops eventually getting the upper hand over unarmed insurgents. But that is not a deliberate massacre of innocent students.

Curiously, the photo that most media use to illustrate the alleged student massacre shows a row of blazing army vehicles, some with crews trapped inside, in a long avenue that clearly is not part of Tiananmen Square. Indeed, the U.S. Embassy material speaks of troops only finally entering the square after some students attacked and killed a soldier in a vehicle at the entrance.

True, the Communist Party leadership under Deng later rounded up and imposed severe jail terms on student leaders involved in the Tiananmen demonstrations. But the same leadership had tried in vain to offer concessions to the students when they were camped in the square, and some of the student leaders have since admitted they were foolish to reject those concessions. Troops were only sent to remove the students when things were getting out of hand and the square needed to be cleaned up in advance of a Beijing visit by Soviet leader, Mikail Gorbachev.

Leader Li Peng later admitted that the real problem had been Beijing’s inexperience in crowd control. Lacking the devices and trained police squads commonly used in the West for such control, it had had to rely on inexperienced troops.

If Beijing is to be faulted, it is for creating the conditions that encouraged the June 3 fighting outside the square. Years of insane Cultural Revolution economic policies and political oppression had created a sullen and impoverished proletariat only too willing to seize any excuse for antiregime violence. The attempt to remove the students from Tiananmen gave them that excuse.

Surprisingly, the media moralists so upset over the nonexistent Tiananmen massacre have little to say about the very brutal massacres of student demonstrators in Mexico (1968) and Thailand (1973). There, no effort was made to negotiate with or tolerate the students. They were rounded up immediately and killed in the hundreds. Yet both governments continued to enjoy Western approval. Meanwhile Beijing has had to suffer more than a decade of Western odium and sanctions for a non-massacre.

The New York Times, which should know better, recently ran an article by David Brooks opposing a EU move to lift some of these sanctions. He writes blandly of Beijing killing 3,000 students in the square. No sources are quoted. It is taken for granted that a massacre occurred.

This is not the first time Beijing has been condemned for something that did not happen. Perhaps the worst example was the Sino-Indian 1962 frontier war. As China desk officer in Canberra’s foreign affairs bureaucracy at the time, I had to watch on impotently as the world, including Canberra, accused China of making an unprovoked attack on India when the evidence in front of me proved clearly that it was India that had first attacked China, across even the furthermost line of control demanded by India. It would be more than a decade before that evidence finally found the light of day. In the meantime, the myth of Chinese aggressiveness would be used to justify a raft of Western atrocities in Asia, the Vietnam intervention especially.

Another favorite of the anti-Beijing media has been alleged genocide in Tibet. This, when Tibetans, along with other minority peoples, have been allowed to have as many children as they wanted and Chinese have been subject to Beijing’s one-child policies.

The latest sledgehammer aimed against Beijing, and a major reason for perpetuating the Tiananmen myth, is a claimed lack of Western-style political freedom. Whether Sinitic-culture nations with collective leaderships able to claim moral or revolutionary legitimacy — Singapore is a good example — should have to abide by Western-imposed standards of political conduct is debatable, particularly given the political circus we are seeing now in the U.S. But that aside, has anyone thought seriously of what would happen if China had our system of rival political parties competing for votes? First victim would be Beijing’s one-child policy. The next victim would be the rest of the world as it tried to cope with the resource shortages and pollution created by a booming Chinese population. China is already destined to become a leading economic and political force in the world. The Western media should try harder to take it seriously.