The Truth about 'Tankman'
Published in the FCCJ Number 1 Shinbun, September, 2017


What’s wrong with this photo? (A print of the famous 'Tankman' photo graces the walls of the FCCJ conference room.)

Ask any news addict and he/she will tell you it shows a brave Chinese student (Tankman he has come to be called) trying to stop a column of Chinese army tanks en route to suppress protesting Chinese students on the night of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 3/4, 1989.

Time magazine has declared it “an iconic picture of defiance in the face of aggression.”

The reality is just about the complete opposite.

According to the man who took the photo, AP photographer Jeff Widener, the photo dates from June 5 the day after the Tiananmen Square incident. The tanks were headed away from, and not towards, the Square. They were blocked not by a student but by a man with a shopping bag crossing the street who had chosen to play chicken with the departing tanks. The lead tank had gone out its way to avoid causing him injury.

I would also add that there was no massacre in Tiananmen Square on the night of June ¾. There was fighting and killing but it was almost entirely outside the Square; Widener notes how that evening he saw a soldier being dragged from his troop carrier by angry crowds and killed.

The New York Times has run the Tankman photo several times, most recently in an article praising publication of some other photos claiming a “new look at Tiananmen protests” (NYT February 25). The paper prides itself on its accuracy, to the point of regularly running a column listing even minor article corrections. Yet it refuses pointblank even to acknowledge receipt of a note from myself pointing out the inaccuracies in its description a photo which is used to fuel anti-Beijing protests around the globe, Hong Kong especially. How can a paper that prides itself as a leader in accurate reporting be so obstinate?

Admission: I like the New York Times. Few other newspapers would dare to squander so many column inches on domestic issues many would see as marginal. But as if to balance a liberal bias in domestic affairs it seems to want to go overboard in criticising foreign regimes. Its mistaken reporting on Iraq’s WMD was notorious, to the point where this time it ended up having to apologize. But it shows no desire to apologize for the enormous publicity it gave to the original myth of a Tiananmen Square massacre – the report of soldiers with machine guns mowing down students in the hundreds.

And talking of photos, when do we get to see photos of the event that triggered it all: the petrol bomb attacks on troops in buses entering Beijing to clear the Square and remove the bitterly anti-Beijing crowds surrounding it. The photos exist. I know Reuters has some – blackened corpses of incinerated soldiers strung up under overpasses, badly burned soldiers seeking refuge in stairways. But we have no shortage of reports telling us that the revenge attacks by soldiers outside the Square against the crowds and students who had attacked them so viciously were a Tiananmen Square massacre. Nor is there any mention of the fact the regime had originally tried to send in unarmed soldiers who were mocked and easily blocked by the crowds.

In the background of the Tankman photo is a burned-out bus. Who was supposed to have done that? This and other photos of burned buses are made to appear that they were burned in revenge for the soldiers’ attacks. In fact, they came before, not after, and remain as a major reason for Beijing’s anger over the protests, protests it originally tolerated for almost a month and with which some regime members had tried to negotiate.

True, the crowds had every reason to be anti-Beijing, having suffered 30 years of crazy government policies. But that is no excuse for the Western media negligence, recorded in excruciating detail by former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing at the time, Jay Mathews, in a well researched 1988 Columbia Journalism Review article titled: “Reporting The Myth of Tiananmen, and the Price of a Passive Press.”

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 numerous Westerners, including a Spanish TVE film team, 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: The mystery report was very likely the work of the U.S. and U.K. agencies based in Hong Kong and only too willing to plant anti- Beijing material in 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.

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.” Wu’er visited the FCCJ on July 21 using his alleged Tiananmen experience in a press conference promoting Press Freedom.

Before criticising others, Western media – the NYT especially – should look at their own willingness to run fake news and fake photos while ignoring real news and real photos.

Gregory Clark is a Chinese speaking former Australian diplomat, university staffer and longtime member of the FCCJ. As a correspondent based in Tokyo in 1971 he organised an Australian team to join in the pingpong diplomacy over Canberra’s opposition. He also speaks Russian and Japanese and grows kiwi fruit in the Boso peninsula.