The Tiananmen Square Massacre Myth (slightly expanded version of my Japan Times article of 7/21/07)

Begins: With the Beijing Olympics looming we see more attempts to remind the world about an alleged June 4, 1989, massacre of innocent students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The New York Times, which did so much to spread the original story of troops shooting student protesters in the Square with abandon, has published several more massacre articles recently, including one suggesting there should be an Olympic walkout. Other media, including the usually impartial UK Guardian and Independent, and Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, have chimed in. None are interested in publishing rebuttals.

What Did Not Happen

So what actually happened in Tiananmen Square on the night of June 4? Fortunately we have some eyewitness reports, and they all say one thing – absolutely nothing. Graham Earnshaw, a Reuters correspondent, spent the entire night close by the iconic monument at the centre of Tiananmen Square – the alleged site of the massacre. There he interviewed students in detail, until those allegedly massacring troops finally arrived in the early dawn. As he writes in his memoirs ‘I was probably the only foreigner who saw the clearing of the square from the square itself.’ He confirms that most of the students there had already left peacefully much earlier that evening, and that the remaining few hundred were persuaded by the troops to do likewise.

His account is confirmed by Xiaoping Li, a former China dissident, now resident in Canada, writing recently in Asia Sentinal and quoting Taiwan-born Hou Dejian who had been on the hunger strike on the Square to show solidarity with the students:

“Some people said that 200 died in the Square and others claimed that as many as 2,000 died. There were also stories of tanks running over students who were trying to leave. I have to say that I did not see any of that. I myself was in the Square until 6:30 in the morning.”

“I kept thinking,” he continued, “Are we going to use lies to attack an enemy who lies?”

Then there is the recent book (in Spanish only, unfortunately) by Madrid’s ambassador to Beijing at the time, Eugenio Bregolat, which denies angrily the massacre stories. He notes that Spain’s TVE channel had a television crew in the Square most of the evening, and that if there had been a massacre they would have been the first to see it and record it. He points out that most of the reports of an alleged massacre were made by journalists hunkered down in the safe haven of the Beijing Hotel, some distance from the Square.

What Did Happen?

True, much that happened elsewhere in Beijing that night was ugly. The regime had allowed the pro-democracy student demonstrators to occupy its historic Tiananmen Square for almost three weeks, despite the harm caused, or that would be caused, to regime prestige as foreign dignitaries arrived (including Gorbachev) and as Western media flocked to cover the demonstrations, not to mention the inconvenience to traffic, problems of garbage removal etc. Twice senior members of Deng Xiaoping’s regime, including Communist Party chief, Zhao Ziyang, had tried unsuccessfully to negotiate compromises with the students – compromises that some of the student leaders have since said they should have accepted. Eventually the regime lost patience and sent unarmed troops into Beijing to clear the Square. But those troops had quickly been turned back by barricades set up by the angry pro-student crowds that had been gathering in Beijing for days.

Zhao Ziyang

Zhao Ziyang (with megaphone) addressing the student protestors at Tiananmen on 19 May 1989. 
Years later when Zhao wrote about his efforts that day in his memoirs,  it was picked up by the media as proving how he had condemned a Tiananmen 'massacre.' 

Photo Source:

The following day armed troops were sent in to do the job. They too quickly met hostile crowds but this time they continued to advance and this time some in the crowd began throwing Molotov cocktails. Dozens of buses and troop-carrying vehicles were torched, some with their crews trapped inside. Not surprisingly, the largely untrained troops began panic firing back into the attacking crowds. As a result it is said that hundreds were killed, including some students who had come from the Square to join the crowds. But that killing was the result of a riot, not a deliberate massacre. It was provoked by the citizens, not the soldiers. And it did not happen in Tiananmen Square.

The Myth is Born

So why all the reports of soldiers setting out deliberately to create a ‘massacre’ in Tiananmen Square?’

In a well researched 1998 article in the Columbia Journalism Review entitled ‘Reporting The Myth of Tiananmen, and the Price of a Passive Press,’ former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing, Jay Mathews, tracks down what he calls ‘the dramatic accounts that buttressed the myth of a student massacre.’ He notes a widely disseminated piece by an alleged Chinese university student writing in the Hong Kong press immediately after the incident, describing machine guns mowing down students in front of the Square monument (somehow Reuter’s Earnshaw chatting quietly with the students in front of the same monument failed to notice this). Mathews adds: ‘The New York Times gave this version prominent display on June 12, just a week after the event, but no evidence was ever found to confirm the account or verify the existence of the alleged witness.’ And for good reason I suspect; the mystery report was very likely the work of the US and UK black information authorities ever keen to plant anti-Beijing stories in unsuspecting or cooperative media.

Mathews notes that the New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, who had been in Beijing at the time, challenged the report the next day but his article was buried on an inside page and so ‘the myth lived on.’ Ironically, this was the same Kristof whose colorful reporting of military actions during the riot had earned him a notable press award and had done much to solidify the ‘massacre’ story. If anything it was his willingness after the event to challenge the phony Hongkong report in his own newspaper that deserved the award.

(I might add that the New York Times tradition of ignoring anything that contradicts its favorite dogmas, particularly where China is concerned, lives on. A 2004 anti-Beijing piece by Times opinion page writer, David Brooks, claimed blandly that 3,000 students were massacred in the Square. Both the newspaper, and Brooks in his blog, refused to publish the rebuttal I sent.)

Another key source for the original massacre myth, Mathews says, was the student leader Wu’er Kaixi who claimed to have seen 200 students cut down by gunfire in the Square. But, he notes, ‘ it was later proven that he left the square several hours before the events he described.’ Mathews also lists an inaccurate BBC massacre report, filed from that out-of-sight Beijing Hotel.

The Real Story

The irony in all this, as Mathews points out, was that everyone, including himself, missed the real story. This was not the treatment of the students, who towards the end of their sit-in had decided deliberately to court trouble and create a global sensation by forcing the regime to send in troops. The real story, as Earnshaw also notes, was the uprising of the civilian masses against a regime whose grey hand of corruption, oppression and incompetence ever since the Cultural Revolution days of the late sixties and early seventies had reduced an entire population to simmering resentment. It was the concern and embarrassment over this proletarian rebellion rather than over student calls for democracy that explains the ruthlessness of the regime’s subsequent crackdown on alleged perpetrators.

I can confirm this anti-regime sentiment, having visited China several times in the early seventies. Despite having organized single-handedly over Canberra’s opposition an Australia table tennis team to join the all-important pingpong diplomacy I too suffered harassment from bloody-minded, single-track authorities. One had only to walk around the urban backstreets, in Shanghai especially, to feel the palpably sulfurous mood of the frustrated masses.

But that was China then. Today we have a very different China, and one far too important to be subjected to CIA/MI6 black information massacre myths and Western media gullibility. What makes it worse is the way the same media seem very happy to forget the very public massacres of students that have occurred elsewhere - Mexico in 1968 and Thailand in 1973, for starters. There we saw no attempt by the authorities to negotiate problems. The troops moved in immediately. Hundreds died. But Mexico and Thailand were not on the list of regimes the media and black information people love to hate. So the massacre stories were soon forgotten.

Distorted use of photos have helped greatly to sustain the Tiananmen massacre myth. One showing a solitary student halting a row of army tanks is supposed to demonstrate student bravery in the face of military evil. In fact it tells us that at least one military unit showed restraint in the face of student protests (reports from the US Beijing Embassy and elsewhere confirm this, saying only one out of-control rogue unit was responsible for most of the un-provoked ugliness that night). Photos of lines of burning troop carriers are also used, as if they prove brutal military behavior against innocent civilians. In fact they prove the exact opposite, namely some fairly brutal behavior by those civilians leading to the deaths of quite a few fairly innocent soldiers.

Meanwhile we see little photo support for the other side of the story. Earnshaw notes how a photo of a Chinese soldier strung up and burned to a crisp was withheld by Reuters. Dramatic Chinese photos of solders incinerated or hung from overpasses have yet to shown by Western media.

Photos of several dead students on a bicycle rack at the Square periphery are more convincing when it comes to chronicling military brutality. But the declassified reports from the US Embassy in Beijing at the time (which used to be carried in full on the internet and which confirmed the Earnshaw/Hou accounts of Square events, but which have since been heavily censored) recorded how the murder by students of a soldier trying to enter the Square had triggered violence in the Square’s periphery.

Tiananmen Fallout

The damage from the Tiananmen myth has been enormous. And it continues. It has been used repeatedly by Western hawks to sustain an official ban on Western sales of arms to Beijing. It was even used to refuse a request to the UK for the riot control equipment Beijing says would have prevented the 1989 violence. So next time there is trouble in Beijing the regime has once again to send in untrained, panicky troops to face the wrath of the crowds?

Chinese leader Li Peng was later quoted as saying how China needed to train troops in riot control if it wanted to avoid future incidents. Needless to say that remark was distorted to make it look as if he was endorsing the original Tiananmen massacre.

A major lesson from all this is the need to control our Western black information operations. Few seem to realize the depth of their penetration in Western media. Throughout the Vietnam War the British disinformation people ran something called Forum Features, making it look as if some high-minded group of scholars and commentators were cooperating for the benefit if readers and mankind. In fact their insidiously distorted messages did much to perpetrate yet another anti-Beijing myth – that Chinese was responsible for Vietnam hostilities. As for their responsibility for the deaths of millions of Vietnamese, the less said the better.

But for their enormous success in creating the Tiananmen Massacre Myth, here they really deserve some kind of award. For at least a decade, and to some extent right through till today, they have prevented an intelligent understanding of a very important nation and its leadership. Well done!

Note: All sources quoted above are available on the Internet, under Tianamen.