It used to be said the first casualty of war is the truth. But today we do not even need wars to see truth destroyed. Even domestic conflicts in distant countries can do the job, with a flood of black information and news distortions produced, some causing enormous harm. The distorted interpretation of Sri Lanka’s war against Tamil insurgents is one example. Another has been the way Beijing continues to be pilloried for a mythical student massacre during the June 3/4, 1989, Tiananmen incident.
Let’s begin with Sri Lanka. Western governments now have the bad habit of using indiscriminately the word “terrorist” to denounce groups they do not like but which use force to promote causes. At last count the British had listed more than 50 such groupings around the globe as terrorist organizations, the United States more than 40, and the Australians more than 30.
The United Nations might still be struggling to give us a definition of “terrorist.” And if using force to promote a cause is terrorism then what was the American revolution against the British, or the French resistance against Nazi occupation? But for our Western governments these are not problems. Those fighting on our side are the good guys. Those opposed are “terrorists.’
Afghan Islamists are heroes if they are fighting Soviet occupation but terrorists if they are fighting Western occupation. Kurdish militants are terrorists if they fight Turkey but deserve support if they fight Iran. The Chechnya separatists who fought so bravely against Russian troops are terrorists simply because they are Islamists whose victory might encourage other Islamists. The Russian troops who tried to defend South Ossetian separatists from a savage Georgian attack are invaders simply because they are Russians. And so on.
As in Chechnya, so in Sri Lanka. Elements in the Sri Lanka regime — not necessarily the government itself — have long had a reputation for extreme measures against dissidents. The 1983 of suppression of Tamil dissidents objecting to racial discrimination led to the growth of an antigovernment guerrilla movement there, supported by many in an educated and politically conscious diaspora, and able to survive with extreme skill and bravery in very difficult conditions against the overwhelming might of government forces. But since the insurgents were labeled as “terrorists,” the government was able to claim global approval for what some reports claim was an excessive use of force to defeat the insurgents, causing immense civilian casualties.
Which brings me to Tiananmen. The true record of events there has long been clear. In 1989 the Chinese regime was still only gradually emerging from long-lasting incompetence, Cultural Revolution traumas and petty despotism. Student activists, supported by long-suffering Beijing citizens, protested by occupying the iconic Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. Even the regime to some extent realized why the students were demonstrating, which is why they were allowed to remain in the Square for so long.
But clearly the regime could not allow the students to remain there forever, particularly after they had rejected concessions offered by Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. The first move was to send in unarmed troops to clear the square. That was quickly stopped by angry citizens.
When armed troops arrived, the citizens, helped by students, set up blockades and fire-bombed the trucks, incinerating many inside. Inevitably the troops panicked and began shooting wildly in return. In short, on the night of June 3/4, in the streets of Beijing leading to Tiananmen, there was something close to civil war, with dozens, maybe hundreds, of citizens and students shot and killed and quite a few soldiers beaten or burned to death. But by the time the troops finally reached the square, U.S. Embassy and other reports confirm that the fighting had largely ended and most of the students had left.
The popular version of events is quite different, however. It says the troops simply marched directly into a square crowded with students and began to mow them down with machine guns. This, despite the fact that several observers, including a Reuters correspondent and a Spanish TVE television crew, who were in the center of the square the entire night of June 4 not only deny the massacre story; both also confirm how the remaining students negotiated peacefully with the troops and left quietly.
There may have been killings on the periphery of the square. A U.S. Embassy report speaks of students killing a soldier at the square entrance and photos suggest a vicious tank response. But the machine-gun massacre story is fabricated.
So how did we get the fabricated story? Researchers have tracked it down to an anonymous front-page Hong Kong newspaper report by someone claiming to be a student who had fled the Square. No one has been able to find the author ever since. But that did not stop the report from traveling the globe, and continuing to be regurgitated ever since despite published denials by some of those researchers, including the then Spanish ambassador in Beijing (I have a copy of a book he wrote indignantly denying the massacre story).
That anonymous report has had its effect, however. It is now journalistic license to write about the “blood-stained Tiananmen Square,” “thousands of students mown down by machine guns” (commentator David Brooks in The New York Times) and so on. Along with Tibet, where reports are also distorted, it has entered the pantheon of Beijing evils that critics who ignore far worse outrages against student demonstrators in other countries love to use to denounce China.
Ironically those critics miss the true ugliness of events that night, namely the violence of the proletarian citizen revolt against a government that based its legitimacy on claiming the full support of those proletarian citizens.
No wonder Beijing has been angry ever since against the students who triggered that revolt. But that anger in turn is then turned around to perpetuate the claim that Beijing remains quite unrepentant for the mythical machine-gun massacre.
Indeed the EU governments still use the massacre myth to deny arms exports to China, including the riot police equipment that, if available at the time, could have prevented the riots and killings. The casualties from truth denial are many and varied.
Gregory Clark is a former Australian China-watching diplomat, correspondent and academic. A translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net.