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