The recent WikiLeaks release of cables from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing has helped finally to kill the myth of an alleged massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3-4, 1989.
But how did that myth come to exist in the first place?
After all, those embassy cables have long been available, at the Tiananmen site on Google, provided courtesy of the U.S. government. As well, several impartial Western observers in the square at the time, including a Reuters correspondent and a Spanish TV crew, have long insisted, and written, that they saw no sign of any alleged massacre.
Recently the massacre believers have begun to tell us that while maybe the “massacre” did not occur in the square, it certainly did occur in the streets and alleys leading to the square. But here, too, the Embassy cables tell a very different story. Relevant details include:
• Beijing sent in unarmed troops in its bid to clear the square of remaining students as the demonstrations wound down. When those troops were mocked and blocked by protesting crowds, Beijing hurriedly decided to send in armed troops, whose vehicles were also blocked.
The vehicles were also fire-bombed with their crews incinerated inside. (Reuters has yet to release a photo of an incinerated soldier being strung up under an overhead bridge.)
• Wild shooting then broke out, mainly from an out-of-control unit, which other units sought to restrain sometimes by force. Chaos reigned and casualties, on both sides, were heavy in the streets leading to the square.
• There were also disturbances near the square entrance, after students attacked and killed a soldier trying to enter.
• The remaining 3,000 students in the square left peacefully when requested by the troop commander early on the morning of June 4.
So whence the story of a Tiananmen Square massacre?
A lurid BBC report at the time was one important source. Other reporters may then have felt compelled to chime in even though none of them, including the BBC, had actually been in the square.
The best expose of what happened can be found in a detailed 1998 report from the Columbia University School of Journalism titled “The Myth of Tiananmen and the Price of a Passive Press.” Prepared by Jay Mathews, a former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief, it notes how the Western media’s pack instinct not only created the false massacre story; it also led those media to miss the far more important story that night, namely a popular uprising against the regime in its own Beijing streets. (A summary of the report can be found at www.alternativeinsight.com/Tiananmen.html)
Mathews traces much of the problem to a Hong Kong newspaper that immediately, after the 1989 disturbance, ran a long story under the name of an alleged student protester. He claimed he was at the square when troops arrived with machine guns to mow down students in the hundreds.
Distributed around the globe, the article was seen as final proof that the original BBC and other massacre reports were accurate. But the alleged author of that report was never located, and for good reason: The article was almost certainly planted — one of the many black information operations organized by British intelligence over the years.
U.K. black information efforts are much more pervasive than most realize. They began in the Cold War years with the creation of an International Research Department within the Foreign Office whose job was to provide gray and black information propaganda for use from unattributed sources.
Black propaganda was, according to an Australian researcher into the topic, Adam Henry, “the strategic placement of lies and false rumors,” while gray propaganda was “the production of slanted, but not fictitious, nonattributable information.”
According to Henry, it played a key role in helping to justify or downplay one truly dreadful postwar massacre in Asia, namely the slaughter of up to a half a million leftwing Indonesians in 1965.
Its Forum World Features was also active in planting seemingly impartial articles endorsing the Saigon version of the Vietnam War.
Ironically, after seeking to cover up real massacres by pro-Western regimes in Asia, the U.K. operation then seems to have excelled itself by inventing a phony massacre by a Chinese regime.
The fact is that for seven weeks the Beijing regime had tolerated a student protest occupation of its iconic central square despite the disruption and loss of face to the regime. Some regime leaders even tried to negotiate compromises, which some of the student leaders later regretted having rejected.
When eventually troops were sent in to clear the square, the demonstrations were already ending. But by this time the Western media were there in force, keen to grab any story they could.
Ironically, the Western media, which barely noticed the massacres of protesting students in Mexico in 1968 and Thailand in 1976 (no hint of negotiations for compromises there as the killings were immediate and brutal), still goes out of its way to paint a false picture of a brutal Chinese regime willing to march in and massacre its protesting students in the hundreds, if not thousands.
This is not to deny that the regime can be highly insensitive, even brutal, at times. I was once a minor victim, back in the bad old Cultural Revolution days. Despite having organized single-handedly a visit by an Australian team to join the all-important 1971 ping-pong diplomacy, I was first threatened with expulsion and then formally reprimanded by the Chinese Foreign Ministry for the sin of having tried to help non-Chinese-speaking Australian journalists cover the visit.
I could sense, even then, the simmering anti-regime hostility that would erupt on Beijing streets in 1989. And diplomatic sources tell me that there was a real massacre of protesting students back in 1976 following anti-regime protests after former Premier Zhou Enlai died.
That was China then — when more media coverage of regime excesses would have been better than gushing reports of ping-pong friendship. But that is no excuse for the later media excesses over Tiananmen.
True, the regime does itself no service by its continuing crackdown on some of the 1989 student leaders. But an April 17 review in this newspaper of Philip Cunningham’s book, “Tiananmen Moon: Inside the Chinese Student Uprising,” — a book whose blurb on Amazon still manages to talk about a Tiananmen Square massacre — provides a clue.
It quotes one of the student leaders, Chai Ling, saying that creating a “sea of blood” might be the only way to shake the regime. If frustrated students leaving the square carried out those petrol bomb attacks on troops (in those days protesting citizens did not use petrol bombs), then the anger of the regime becomes a lot more understandable. But I doubt whether any of those responsible for the original phony story will get round to details like that.
Tiananmen remains the classic example of the shallowness and bias in most Western media reporting, and of governmental black information operations seeking to control those media. China is too important to be a victim of this nonsense.
Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat who specialized in Chinese affairs. A Japanese language translation of this article will appear at www.gregoryclark.net
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.