Liu Xiaobo and the Tiananmen Non-Massacre

Beijing seems to be its own worst enemy. By continuing its seemingly vindictive pursuit of activists involved in the May-June, 1989, Tiananmen student protests - the persecution of recently deceased human rights advocate, Liu Xiaobo, in particular - it risks enormous harm to its international image, in the West especially. Why does it do this?

The fact is that the West and Beijing have very different views about what happened in May-June 1989. In the West it used to be called the 'Tiananmen Square massacre.’ Now it is described as a crackdown on harmless protestors. But would a Chinese regime headed by a reformist, Deng Xiaoping, which had allowed reform-demanding students to occupy its large, iconic Tiananmen Square for almost a month want suddenly to massacre or violently suppress those students?

In fact there were two ’Tiananmens.’ One was the student protest in Tiananmen Square - an embarrassment to the regime but never a threat. Some in the regime even sympathised with it; the communist party general secretary Zhao Ziyang, even tried to negotiate with the students. The eventual removal of the students from the Square was done peacefully. Would that the same had been the fate of student protestors in Thailand (1976, more than 100 killed), Mexico (1968, 300-400 killed) and in many other non-democratic nations.

The other and much more violent ‘Tiananmen’ was a very different affair. It began with deadly petrol-bomb attacks by angry citizens on the vehicles carrying government soldiers sent to remove students from the Square. Some of the petrol-bombed solders then lashed out with revenge attacks on the angry citizens and any students supporting them. Somehow in the eyes of our lazy, bigoted Western media (President Trump is right) the violence of those counter-attacks against the angry citizens and students outside the Square became a brutal attack on the students inside the Square even though any number of eyewitnesses, including a Spanish TV crew, inside the Square say they saw no such violence. The absurdity of it all is well shown up in the report by Jay Williams of the Columbia School of Journalism, and who saw what happened: ‘The Myth of Tiananmen - And the price of a passive press' (available on the internet, along with the objective reports of the US Embassy in Beijing at the time.)

Ironically if the regime wants to blame anyone for the violence outside the Square it should begin with itself. It had badly mistreated its citizens for much of the previous thirty years - the stupidities of Mao Zedong’s 1959-62 Great Leap Forward resulting in millions of starvation deaths followed by the cruelties of the 1966-76 Great Cultural Revolution with colleague set against colleague, student against student, in a bitter, senseless ideological war. The resulting national mood was poisonous, as I discovered on 1971-73 visits.

With the death of Mao and the downfall of his satraps - the notorious Gang of Four - normalcy slowly returned, thanks mainly to the reformer Deng Xiaoping and his predecessor, premier Zhou Enlai, who in 1971 launched the pingpong diplomacy as a way to force China to open up to the outside world. But improvements were slow. As late as 1989 the mood in the nation was still sulfurous. In the streets around Tiananmen Square during the student protests the anti-regime crowds were gathering ominously.

Eventually, fearing the crowds but ostensibly for hygiene reasons, the regime decided to clear the students from the Square. At first it tried to use unarmed troops sent in by the subway system. But they were easily blocked, and mocked. So armed troops in buses and trucks were sent in. The waiting anti-regime crowds exploded, raining petrol bombs on the troop vehicles. Dozens, possibly hundreds, of soldiers were badly burned or incinerated; some had their charred bodies strung up under overpasses (one Western news agency refuses to publish the photos saying they are too gruesome, but they are available elsewhere).

Little of this was reported in the West. Instead the headlines were stolen by an allegedly first-hand report in the pages of Hongkong’s main English language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, which spoke of regime troops storming the Square and mowing down students in the hundreds with machine guns. The author was never found, for the very likely reason that he did not exist; the story was almost certainly planted by the UK intelligence agencies long active in Hongkong. But that did not stop the world media, the New York Times especially, from flashing the story of an alleged Tiananmen Massacre around the globe.

This has created an even more absurd situation. Western media continue to ignore the petrol-bomb attacks on soldiers while playing up photos of rows of burned-out buses as if it was students rather than solders who were in the buses. Australia’s then prime minister Robert Hawke was shedding tears over the alleged fate of the students even as his own embassy in Beijing was reporting the brutal killing and mutilation of a government soldier outside its gates. An iconic video taken by AP photographer, Jef Widener, of a man playing around with shopping bags in front of tanks leaving Beijing the day after the riots is represented as a brave citizen seeking to prevent aggressive tanks from entering Beijing. (The usually editorially strict New York Times likes often to use this photo to condemn Beijing and refuses any correction.) Widener also reported soldiers in the tanks being dragged out and killed by crowds the day before, but few media are interested in that detail.

Needless to say Beijing takes a very jaundiced approach to Tiananmen events. The current Western media rush to condemn Beijing for its treatment of the literary-minded Liu Xiaobo - a 11 year prison sentence and the lack of medical attention that could have led to his death by cancer - is understandable. But in Beijing’s eyes what it faced in 1989 was a civil war, encouraged by student activists. And to some extent some of the more extreme activists admit to being involved. There could also have been some unsavory people from abroad; Chinese protestors never use petrol bombs, but someone during the weeks before the citizen attacks may have done something to educate them. Beijing claims to have their photos. It has been ruthless in tracking down any and all activists who might have encouraged the crowds.

Liu Xiaobo was probably only marginally involved but all the same it is reported that in 1989 he received a two year sentence for activist activity. But his real ‘crime’ came much later, in 2009, and had nothing to do with Tiananmen. Like some other communist regimes Beijing does not fret greatly over open criticisms but it does clamp down when the critics begin to recruit others into some form of organisation opposed to the regime. Liu invited such repression when he began actively to seek signatures for his Charter 08 calling for major political reforms.

The world is right to pressure authoritarian regimes to respect human rights. On balance regimes conscious about their image tend to respond even as they complain about foreign meddling. But the foreigners should first get their facts right before making complaints.