Commentary / World

Which Tiananmen narrative is true?

by Ramesh Thakur

On Oct. 10, 1990, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl told a U.S. congressional human rights commission that she had witnessed invading Iraqi troops rip babies out of incubators and leave them to die on the cold floor. Her testimony helped mobilize support for the war to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Later “Nayirah” proved to be the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the U.S. and her story was promoted by a public relations consultancy firm hired by a group lobbying for U.S. military intervention.

In the 2003 Iraq War, facts were made to fit the narrative of an imminent WMD threat from Saddam. That war was a watershed event in destroying the credibility of the major English-language global media brands. Journalists worth the name should be sedulous, not credulous, and insert question marks in place of exclamation marks.

Such detached skepticism is a useful antidote to the orgy of 30th anniversary commentary on the entrenched public narrative about the “Tiananmen Massacre.” There is little doubt about the Beijing spring of 1989 that called for greater openness, freedoms and democracy in China, or about its suppression. But there is a counter-narrative that receives no mention in the China-bashing mainstream media.

On Dec. 23, 2017, the BBC reported that in a confidential diplomatic cable on June 5, 1989, Sir Alan Donald, U.K. ambassador to China at the time, had reported the number killed as “at least 10,000.” However, the cable was sent on the morning after the crackdown, when the situation was at its most chaotic, emotions were running high, facts were sparse and rumors reigned supreme. Moreover, Donald said “his source was someone who ‘was passing on information given him by a close friend who is currently a member of the State Council.'” This is classic hearsay.

The number flies in the face of the widely held consensus that between a few hundred and 1,500 were killed in total — and very few were killed in the square itself. In a contemporaneous eyewitness account, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times debunked claims of a massacre in the square. Most of the killings took place along the western approach roads to Tiananmen Square.

Yet the greatly inflated figure and “at least” phrasing — implying this is a conservative, low-end estimate — continue to be used in syndicated columns. Some journalists hedge by using the figure of hundreds but adding the qualifier “possibly thousands,” as in this account in The Japan Times: “As U.S. rips China on Tiananmen crackdown anniversary, Japan takes a different tack.” A similar wording is used in this story in Euronews: bit.ly/tiananmen30 .

In a 30-year retrospective, David Holley — Beijing bureau chief of The Los Angeles Times and eyewitness to the tumultuous events that night from a hotel balcony east of the square — writes that a few months later, the joint estimate of U.S. and West European intelligence was around 1,000 killed. According to a Harvard University study in 1992, an analysis by Western military attaches put the toll at 1,000 to 1,500.

Contemporaneous cables from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, published by WikiLeaks, confirm key aspects of the official Chinese story: There were no mass firings at unarmed protesters by the army; most of the troops who entered the square used riot gear (truncheons, wooden clubs), albeit backed by armed soldiers; students still in the square when the troops entered were allowed to leave peacefully; and the fiercest fighting took place at Muxidi, about 5 km west of the square.

Jay Mathews, former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post, in an article in the Columbia Journalism Review to mark Bill Clinton’s 1998 visit to China, said “as far as can be determined from the available evidence, no one died that night in Tiananmen Square.”

Writing in The Japan Times in 2008, former Australian diplomat Gregory Clark cites an account by Graham Earnshaw of Reuters who spent the night in the center of the square and essentially confirmed the non-lethal end to the protest there. Earnshaw also noted how a photo of a Chinese soldier burned to a crisp was withheld by Reuters.

An article published six years ago (bit.ly/TiananmenTalk) was deliberately and provocatively titled “Let’s Talk About Tiananmen Square, 1989: My Hearsay is Better Than Your Hearsay.” At the time the author was identified as Dr. Long Xinming; when I checked the site this week, the author’s name had changed to Bhaiaidil Fiverr, which might raise questions about authenticity.

Be that as it may, he points to the need to separate the student protest in the square from an unrelated protest by workers elsewhere in the city. Armored personnel carriers and troop-carrying buses to clear the workers’ protests were torched with soldiers still trapped inside. As Brian Becker put it in Liberation: “It would not be difficult to imagine how violently the Pentagon and U.S. law enforcement agencies would have reacted if the Occupy movement … had similarly set soldiers and police on fire, taken their weapons and lynched them when the government was attempting to clear them from public spaces.”

Which then is the true and which the false narrative? I honestly don’t know. Once we would have believed the mainstream Western media over the Chinese accounts. That we no longer do so is of an indictment of their lost credibility.

A final question is indelicate but necessary. In China’s long history, its dark ages coincide with periods of instability and volatility in the imperial center. Given that and also the breakup of the former Soviet Union and its subsequent history of weakness, impoverishment and serial humiliation by the U.S., on balance would China had been better off without the crackdown?

It’s nice to have both bread and freedom, but what if one has to make a choice between them for the country’s future? Would China have achieved the same pace and sweep of economic and national progress to emerge as a major power courted and respected by one and sundry?

Or, to put it another way, if we examine the relative progress of China and India since 1989 as the world’s two countries with a billion people each, how many would argue that for the average citizen, life has proven better on balance in democratic India than authoritarian China over the last 30 years? What price freedoms and what price progress?

Ramesh Thakur is a professor emeritus at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University. A longer version of this article was originally published in Pearls and Irritations on June 6.