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What really happened at Tiananmen?

by Gregory Clark

Over the years the “black information” people in the U.S. and U.K. governments have had some spectacular successes — the myth that the Vietnam War was due to Beijing using Hanoi as a puppet to head its advance into Asia, that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction, that Kosovar ethnic cleansing of Serbs in Kosovo was in fact Serbian ethnic cleansing of Kosovars, and now the claims that Moscow was responsible for the pro-Russian protesters in eastern Ukraine. But the greatest achievement of them all still has to be the myth of a June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre, with talk of hundreds if not thousands of protesting students mowed down by military machine guns.

In recent years the Tiananmen massacre story has taken something of a beating as people in the square that night, including a Spanish TV unit, have emerged to tell us that there was no massacre, that the only thing they saw was a military unit entering in the late evening and asking the several hundred students still there quietly to leave. So the “massacre” location has been moved to the streets around the square, and with the 25th anniversary of the event coming up we see the “unprovoked massacre” story being used for yet another round of Beijing bashing.

And the facts? Fortunately we have the detailed hourly reports from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, available on the Internet, to give us the true story.

Yes, there was something close to a massacre in those streets, with some of the units originally sent to clear the square of students turning their guns wildly on the crowds that had tried to block their approach. And to find out why the soldiers did such an atrocious thing we do not have to look much beyond those widely publicized photos of military buses in rows being set on fire by those protesting crowds.

To date the world seems to have assumed that those buses were fired by the crowds after the soldiers had started shooting. In fact it was the reverse — that the crowds attacked the buses as they entered Beijing, incinerating dozens of soldiers inside, and only then did the shooting begin. Here too we do need not go far to find the evidence — in the not publicized photos of soldiers with horrible burns seeking shelter in nearby houses, and reports of charred corpses being strung from overpasses.

True, the crowds had had their reasons for protesting. I traveled extensively in China in the early 1970s, soon after Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution movement was launched.

I saw firsthand the grotesque and insane abuse to which the entire nation had been subjected. If I had been a Chinese student or citizen in those days, I would have been among the protesters, even as late as 1989.

The regime seemed to realize this, which is why it tolerated the student protest in the square for six weeks despite the enormous loss of face and inconvenience. Its party secretary general even tried to negotiate. It only moved to take back the square after the negotiation failed and the students were beginning to disperse.

But by this time the crowds around the square were both large and ominous. The embassy reports note that the regime’s first move was to send in unarmed troops using the subways and easily blocked by the crowds. Armed troops were then sent in with the results we know. But even then only some of the units went berserk (soldiers tend to go that way when some of the comrades are barbecued: Ask the citizens of Fallujah, Iraq). Other units tried to restrain them. And the action was outside, not inside, the square.

So whence the machine-gun massacre claim? Here too we do not have to look far — to a story a week later in a pro-British, English-language Hong Kong newspaper written under the name of an alleged student demonstrator claiming to have fled China, but whom no one has been able to find. Front-paged by The New York Times on June 12, it quickly traveled the globe, and we have been living with it in one form or another ever since. Not a single Western reporter in Beijing that night seems to have bothered to check out what actually happened; presumably they found a much wider audience for their stories of blood and gore.

Fortunately in addition to the U.S. Embassy reports we now have a detailed 1998 study by the Columbia Journalism Review titled “Reporting the Myth of Tiananmen and the Price of a Passive Press” that tracks down “the dramatic reports that buttressed the myth of a student massacre.”

Right from the beginning we should have had our doubts about the “massacre” stories.

Why would a Beijing regime under Deng Xiaoping seeking reform in so many areas of Chinese society want so deliberately and viciously to attack harmless students, who traditionally have led the reform movements in China — which many pro-Communist leaders had joined in the past?

If one has to fault the regime it is in the failure to train troops in crowd control — a mistake that even hardline regime members later admitted. Ironically their later effort to import crowd control equipment was blocked by the United Kingdom acting under the Western arms embargo imposed as a result of the fictitious machine-gun massacre report that their own black information people had almost certainly helped create.

Other strange details later to emerge included a report that Reuters, the British new agency, refused to publish a photo of a charred corpse strung up under an overpass — a photo that would have done much to explain what had happened. And we now discover that the widely distributed photo of Tankman — the lone student standing before a row of army tanks and heavily publicised as showing brave defiance against a cruel regime — was in fact taken the day after Tiananmen events, and the tanks were moving away from, and not into, Tiananmen Square.

Some have noted the frustration a student leader calling for blood in the streets as the prolonged square protest was winding down with no seeming result, And some have asked how those protesters came to use gasoline bombs against the troops — a weapon not used by Chinese rioters — and why so many vehicles came to be destroyed. This in turn could explain the regime’s anger, and its subsequent efforts to track down and punish student leaders. But even without these details it should be clear that the so-called Tiananmen Square Massacre was not quite the clear-cut evil of much Western imagination.

Gregory Clark, a former Australian diplomat, speaks Chinese and is a long-term resident of Japan. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net

  • andao

    The author ignores a huge gap in the story: if nothing really happened, then why doesn’t the CCP come clean and say so? Certainly they would have evidence to defend themselves.

    Because they won’t even allow discussion of the event, it’s safe to assume that the truth might be much worse than even the most gruesome estimates.

  • Stephen Kent

    What an awful piece. What would western governments and media have to gain from presenting “black information” about the Chinese government given that they are all economically dependent on China now? And if the Chinese government was the victim at Tiananmen and reacted reasonably as the author seems to suggest then why have they made it their number one priority to try and erase it from public memory? If they had been the victims it would have provided a massive propaganda opportunity to show how loyal PLA soldiers were killed trying to save citizens from terrorists.

    The fact of the matter is that the students, workers, and everyone else who was demonstrating had legitimate grievances that would best have been addressed by dialogue and reform. There would have been no need to relinquish all power on the part of the government (very few people, if any, were calling for full multiparty western-style democracy), but a show of humility and acceptance of accountability would have certainly helped to calm the situation. Instead the government attempted to save their own “face” by sending armed troops into an area packed with emotional people, and after that the consequences were inevitable (whether they took place in the square or on the surrounding streets).

    Deng Xiaoping wanted reforms in only a few areas, the political area was not one of them. He wanted economic reforms but would not compromise in any shape or form when it came to the absolute and unquestionable authority of the communist party, and it was ultimately this stubbornness and vanity that lead to the army being deployed against unarmed protesters who merely wanted more of a say in how their country was run.

    Completely unforgivable and unjustifiable.

    • zer0_0zor0

      Those are valid points, but look at what happened in Russia, for example, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

      Reform didn’t necessarily work to the advantage of the people, as demonstrated by the emergence of a class of so-called “oligarchs” that in many cases illicitly obtained control over public assets that had been privatized.

      Rationalization of the political process is almost always a desirable goal, but people need to have adequate knowledge to make informed decision, and the state of education in many countries doesn’t support that.

      Look at Ukraine now, a so-called “oligarch” has been elected president, and is supported by the president of the USA. There are inherent contradictions there, too. The point is that it is to early to dismiss Deng Xiaoping’s concerns as based on anything other than stability. After rationalizing the economics system, political rationalization would be almost a matter of course, paralleling the overall improved material conditions and education level of the citizens.

      • Stephen Kent

        Yeah, but I don’t think that China was ever just going to implode like the USSR did. In Russia it wasn’t so much reform as a massive dose of market fundamentalist shock therapy coordinated by Chicago School of Economics professors and graduates that lead to the initial chaos and the rise of the oligarchs. In China it was either going to go the way of the reformers or hardliners in the same government (needless to say the latter prevailed), and if the reformists had won they might have negotiated for more public participation in decision and government oversight, which would have had a greater chance of bringing about a more equal society and preventing power from concentrating in the hands of a very small number of men.

        I don’t think Deng was mainly concerned about stability; he was concerned with the absolute power of the party. Yes, he might have been going down the right path with the economy, but you can never justify slaughtering people with legitimate grievances in the name of preserving your own power.

      • zer0_0zor0

        You may be right about Deng, I’m no expert, but I don’t think I want to write him off yet as a man that was simply concerned with perpetuating the power of the party.

        Also, the article has obviously raised some questions among those responding here, but it seems reasonable enough to say that the article fairly calls into question the assertion that the tragic results results of the dispatching of the military were premeditated.

        As for Russia, you may be right that the USSR was going to implode anyway, but I still recall Perestroika and Glasnost. Gorbachev had the right idea by withdrawing from an arms race with the American military industrial complex that it wasn’t fruitful to pursue. On the other hand, the manner in which the reforms were implemented didn’t exactly work out for the majority of people in the USSR.

      • Stephen Kent

        Yes, I wouldn’t claim to be an expert either, but it is a subject that interests me and I think it’s good to have this kind of discussion to try and get everything straight in your own head, so thanks for the discussion!

        As far as I have read (including the diary of Zhao Zhiyang leading up to the events), it seems that Deng was made to think that the protests were directed against him personally by hardliners in the CCP who knew that if he felt the absolute power of the party was threatened and his own credibility called into question then he would sanction use of military force. He has undoubtedly had a much bigger impact on the face of modern China than Mao did and it is true that he freed up the economy, but for me the economy could have been opened up and grown without the need for bloodshed by simply consulting the people. By authorizing the slaughter of many innocent people that night I feel he deserves to be remembered more by his nickname of “the Butcher of Beijing” than he does as the person who put China on the road to economic prosperity (after June 4th he put Zhao Zhiyang, the actual architect of many economic policies, under house arrest until he died – for me that shows what his priorities were).

        I know less about Russia, but yes, they did wisely decide to withdraw from the arms race with America. Their reforms, however, also illustrate what can happen if they take place without consulting the population, because as you say, an oligarch class emerged that now runs everything. Obviously not what the average citizen would have wanted.

  • Anthony Richards

    Weasely and malicious half truths and misdirection. It makes you oh so clever to try and be contrarian and blame everything on a great western conspiracy, but morally abhorrent when these are real peoples deaths we are talking about.

    “If one has to fault the regime it is in the failure to train troops in crowd control” That is simply repulsive. You really can’t see any fault in ordering hundreds of thousands of soldiers and tanks to march on the capital, killing your own young people for protesting against massive corruption? Soldiers from outside Beijing were intentionally used so they would not be able to communicate easily or empathise with the protestors. Can’t see any fault in arresting or “disappearing” thousands in the aftermath so that the crimes were covered up? Some of those families still have no idea what happened to their sons and daughters, or what they were supposed to have done wrong. Can’t see anything wrong with promoting to the top of the party those who carried out the massacres with greatest enthusiasm, while purging those commanders who refused to kill civilians? There were no inquiries, no answers and no consequences for those in power. Can’t see anything wrong with ruthlessly suppressing for 25 years any attempt to even mention people who were killed for standing up for their ideals?

    I could go on but I doubt you’d care. This is the sort of stuff which is usually posted just to get a reaction. There are real heroes from that day – officers who refused to follow orders to kill, residents who setup barricades to try and stop the tanks, photographers and journalists who were savagely beaten and risked death to get stories out. Those are the ones who deserve attention, not callous talking heads.