Birth of a massacre myth

by Gregory Clark

With the Beijing Olympics looming we see more attempts to remind the world about the alleged June 4, 1989, massacre of democracy-seeking students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

The New York Times, which did so much to spread the original story of troops shooting student protesters there with abandon, has recently published several more articles condemning the alleged massacre, including one suggesting there should be an Olympic walkout. Other media, including Britain’s usually impartial Guardian and Independent, and Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, have chimed in. None are interested in publishing rebuttals.

This effort is impressive, especially considering the overwhelming evidence that there was no Tiananmen Square massacre. A recent book by Madrid’s ambassador to Beijing at the time, Eugenio Bregolat, notes that Spain’s TVE channel had a television crew in the square at the time, and if there had been a massacre, they would have been the first to see it and record it.

He points out angrily that most of the reports of an alleged massacre were made by journalists hunkered down in the safe haven of the Beijing Hotel, some distance from the square.

Then there is Graham Earnshaw, a down-to-earth Reuters correspondent who spent the night of June 3-4 at the alleged site of the massacre — at the center of Tiananmen Square — interviewing students in detail until the troops finally arrived in the early dawn. He too failed to see any massacre. As he writes in his memoirs, “I was probably the only foreigner who saw the clearing of the square from the square itself.”

Earnshaw confirms that most of the students had left peacefully much earlier and that the remaining few hundred were persuaded by the troops to do likewise.

His account is confirmed by Xiaoping Li, a former China dissident, now resident in Canada, writing recently in Asia Sentinel and quoting Taiwan-born Hou Dejian who had been on a hunger strike on the square to show solidarity with the students: “Some people said 200 died in the square and others claimed that as many as 2,000 died. There were also stories of tanks running over students who were trying to leave. I have to say I did not see any of that. I was in the square until 6:30 in the morning.”

True, much that happened elsewhere in Beijing that night was ugly. The regime had allowed prodemocracy student demonstrators to occupy its historic Tiananmen Square for almost three weeks, despite the harm and inconvenience caused. Twice, senior members of Deng Xiaoping’s regime had tried unsuccessfully to negotiate compromises with the students. Unarmed troops sent in to clear the square had been turned back by angry crowds of Beijing civilians.

When armed troops were finally sent in, they too met hostile crowds, but they kept advancing. Dozens of buses and troop-carrying vehicles were torched by the crowds, some with their crews trapped inside. In the panicky fighting afterward, hundreds, maybe even thousands, of civilians and students were killed. But that was a riot, not a deliberate massacre. And it did not happen in Tiananmen Square. So why all the reports of a “massacre”?

In a well-researched 1998 article in the Columbia Journalism Review titled “Reporting the Myth of Tiananmen and the Price of a Passive Press,” the former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing, Jay Mathews, tracks down what he calls the dramatic accounts that buttressed the myth of a student massacre.

He notes a widely disseminated piece by an alleged Chinese university student writing in the Hong Kong press immediately after the incident, describing machine guns mowing down students in front of the square monument (somehow Reuter’s Earnshaw chatting quietly with the students in front of the same monument failed to notice this.

Mathews adds: “The New York Times gave this version prominent display June 12, just a week after the event, but no evidence was ever found to confirm the account or verify the existence of the alleged witness.”

And for good reason, I suspect. The mystery report was very likely the work of U.S. and British black information authorities ever keen to plant anti-Beijing stories in unsuspecting media.

Mathews adds that Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, who had been in Beijing at the time, challenged the report the next day, but his article was buried on an inside page and so “the myth lived on.” (I once tried in vain to rebut a 2004 anti-Beijing piece by New York Times opinion-page writer David Brooks, who claimed blandly that 3,000 students were massacred in the square.)

Another key source for the original massacre myth, Mathews says, was student leader Wu’er Kaixi, who claimed to have seen 200 students cut down by gunfire in the square. But, he notes, “It was later proven that he left the square several hours before the events he described.” Mathews also lists an inaccurate BBC massacre report, filed from that out-of-sight Beijing Hotel.

The irony in all this, as Mathews points out, was that everyone, including himself, missed the real story. This was not the treatment of the students, who toward the end of their sit-in had deliberately courted trouble. The real story, as Earnshaw also notes, was the uprising of the civilian masses against a regime whose gray hand of corruption, oppression and incompetence ever since the Cultural Revolution days of the late 1960s had reduced an entire population to simmering resentment.

It was the concern over this proletarian rebellion rather than hatred of student calls for democracy that explains the ruthlessness of the regime’s subsequent crackdown on alleged perpetrators. I can confirm some of this, having visited China frequently since the early 1970s.

Despite having organized single-handedly over Canberra’s opposition an Australia table-tennis team to join the all-important “Ping-Pong diplomacy,” I too suffered harassment from bloody-minded, single-track authorities. Meanwhile, one had only to walk around the back streets, in Shanghai especially, to feel the palpably sulfurous mood of the frustrated masses.

But that was China then. Today we have a very different China, and one far too important to be subjected to black information massacre myths, particularly since the world seems very happy to forget the very public massacres of students that have occurred elsewhere — Mexico in 1968 and Thailand in 1973, for starters. There, we saw no attempt by the authorities to negotiate problems. The troops moved in immediately. Hundreds died.

Photos have helped sustain the Tiananmen massacre myth. One showing a solitary student halting a row of army tanks is supposed to demonstrate student bravery in the face of military evil. In fact, it shows that at least one military unit showed restraint in the face of student provocation (reports say only one rogue unit did most of the evil that night).

Photos of lines of burning troop carriers are also used, as if they prove military mayhem. In fact, they prove crowd mayhem. Meanwhile, we see little photo support for the other side of the story.

Earnshaw notes how a photo of a Chinese soldier strung up and burned to a crisp was withheld by Reuters. Dramatic Chinese photos of solders incinerated or hung from overpasses have yet to be shown by Western media. Photos of several dead students on a bicycle rack near the square are more convincing.

Declassified reports from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing at the time, and which used to confirm the Earnshaw/Hou accounts of square events (they have since been heavily censored), still carry a summary that mentions how the murder by students of a soldier trying to enter the square had triggered violence in the square’s periphery.

Damage from the Tiananmen myth continues. It has been used repeatedly by Western hawks to sustain a ban on Western sales of arms to Beijing, including refusing even a request for riot-control equipment that Beijing says would have prevented the 1989 violence.

Gregory Clark is vice president of Akita International University and former China desk officer for Australia’s Foreign Service. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net Note: All sources quoted above are available on the Internet, under Tiananmen.