Birth of a Massacre Myth: How the West Manufactured an Event that Never Occurred
Post Categories: Editorial
GREGORY CLARK / The BearCanada.com | Friday, May 31, 2013, 12:56 Beijing
Birth of a Massacre Myth*
With the Beijing Olympics looming we see more attempts to remind the world about the alleged June 4, 1989, massacre of democracy-seeking students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
The New York Times, which did so much to spread the original story of troops shooting student protesters there with abandon, has recently published several more articles condemning the alleged massacre, including one suggesting there should be an Olympic walkout. Other media, including Britain’s usually impartial Guardian and Independent, and Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, have chimed in. None are interested in publishing rebuttals.
This effort is impressive, especially considering the overwhelming evidence that there was no Tiananmen Square massacre. A recent book by Madrid’s ambassador to Beijing at the time, Eugenio Bregolat, notes that Spain’s TVE channel had a television crew in the square at the time, and if there had been a massacre, they would have been the first to see it and record it.
He points out angrily 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.
Then there is Graham Earnshaw, a down-to-earth Reuters correspondent who spent the night of June 3-4 at the alleged site of the massacre — at the center of Tiananmen Square — interviewing students in detail until the troops finally arrived in the early dawn. He too failed to see any massacre. As he writes in his memoirs, “I was probably the only foreigner who saw the clearing of the square from the square itself.”
Earnshaw confirms that most of the students had left peacefully much earlier 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 Sentinel and quoting Taiwan-born Hou Dejian who had been on a hunger strike on the square to show solidarity with the students: “Some people said 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 I did not see any of that. I was in the square until 6:30 in the morning.”
True, much that happened elsewhere in Beijing that night was ugly. The regime had allowed prodemocracy student demonstrators to occupy its historic Tiananmen Square for almost three weeks, despite the harm and inconvenience caused. Twice, senior members of Deng Xiaoping’s regime had tried unsuccessfully to negotiate compromises with the students. Unarmed troops sent in to clear the square had been turned back by angry crowds of Beijing civilians.
When armed troops were finally sent in, they too met hostile crowds, but they kept advancing. Dozens of buses and troop-carrying vehicles were torched by the crowds, some with their crews trapped inside. In the panicky fighting afterward, hundreds, maybe even thousands, of civilians and students were killed. But that was a riot, not a deliberate massacre. And it did not happen in Tiananmen Square. So why all the reports of a “massacre”?
In a well-researched 1998 article in the Columbia Journalism Review titled “Reporting the Myth of Tiananmen and the Price of a Passive Press,” the 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 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 U.S. and British black information authorities ever keen to plant anti-Beijing stories in unsuspecting media.
Mathews adds that 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.” (I once tried in vain to rebut a 2004 anti-Beijing piece by New York Times opinion-page writer David Brooks, who claimed blandly that 3,000 students were massacred in the square.)
Another key source for the original massacre myth, Mathews says, was 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 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 toward the end of their sit-in had deliberately courted trouble. The real story, as Earnshaw also notes, was the uprising of the civilian masses against a regime whose gray hand of corruption, oppression and incompetence ever since the Cultural Revolution days of the late 1960s had reduced an entire population to simmering resentment.
It was the concern over this proletarian rebellion rather than hatred of student calls for democracy that explains the ruthlessness of the regime’s subsequent crackdown on alleged perpetrators. I can confirm some of this, having visited China frequently since the early 1970s.
Despite having organized single-handedly over Canberra’s opposition an Australia table-tennis team to join the all-important “Ping-Pong diplomacy,” I too suffered harassment from bloody-minded, single-track authorities. Meanwhile, one had only to walk around the back streets, 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 black information massacre myths, particularly since the world seems 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.
Photos have helped 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 shows that at least one military unit showed restraint in the face of student provocation (reports say only one rogue unit did most of the evil that night).
Photos of lines of burning troop carriers are also used, as if they prove military mayhem. In fact, they prove crowd mayhem. 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 be shown by Western media. Photos of several dead students on a bicycle rack near the square are more convincing.
Declassified reports from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing at the time, and which used to confirm the Earnshaw/Hou accounts of square events (they have since been heavily censored), still carry a summary that mentions how the murder by students of a soldier trying to enter the square had triggered violence in the square’s periphery.
Damage from the Tiananmen myth continues. It has been used repeatedly by Western hawks to sustain a ban on Western sales of arms to Beijing, including refusing even a request for riot-control equipment that Beijing says would have prevented the 1989 violence.
ikileaks: no bloodshed inside Tiananmen Square, cables claim
Secret cables from the United States embassy in Beijing have shown there was no bloodshed inside Tiananmen Square when China put down student pro-democracy demonstrations 22 years ago
By Malcolm Moore, Shanghai
8:00AM BST 04 Jun 2011
The cables, obtained by WikiLeaks and released exclusively by The Daily Telegraph, partly confirm the Chinese government’s account of the early hours of June 4, 1989, which has always insisted that soldiers did not massacre demonstrators inside Tiananmen Square.
Instead, the cables show that Chinese soldiers opened fire on protesters outside the centre of Beijing, as they fought their way towards the square from the west of the city.
Three cables were sent from the US embassy on June 3, in the hours leading up to the suppression, as diplomats realised that the final showdown between the protesters and soldiers was looming.
The cables described the “10,000 to 15,000 helmeted armed troops” moving into the city, some of whom were “carrying automatic weapons”.
Meanwhile, “elite airborne troops” and “tank units” were said to be moving up from the south.
The army came up against “an elaborate system of blockades”, described in a cable from May 21, 1989, which allowed students to “control much of central Beijing”.
Diplomats observed that “there were buses turned sideways to form roadblocks” and students had vowed the army would not be able to cross. “But we doubt it”, one cable added. Students also used teams of motorcycle couriers to communicate with the roadblocks, sending reinforcements where needed.
As the troops moved in, the cables stated that diplomatic staff were repeatedly warned to “stay at home” unless involved in front-line reporting. “The situation in the centre of the city is very confused,” said a cable from June 3. “Political officers at the Beijing Hotel reported that troops are pushing a large crowd east on Chang’an avenue. Although these troops appear not to be firing on the crowd, they report firing behind the troops coming from the square”.
Inside the square itself, a Chilean diplomat was on hand to give his US counterparts an eyewitness account of the final hours of the pro-democracy movement.
“He watched the military enter the square and did not observe any mass firing of weapons into the crowds, although sporadic gunfire was heard. He said that most of the troops which entered the square were actually armed only with anti-riot gear – truncheons and wooden clubs; they were backed up by armed soldiers,” a cable from July 1989 said.
The diplomat, who was positioned next to a Red Cross station inside Tiananmen Square, said a line of troops surrounded him and “panicked” medical staff into fleeing. However, he said that there was “no mass firing into the crowd of students at the monument”.
According to internal Communist party files, released in 2001, 2,000 soldiers from the 38th army, together with 42 armoured vehicles, began slowly sweeping across the square from north to south at 4.30am on June 4. At the time, around 3,000 students were sitting around the Monument to the People’s Heroes on the southern edge of the giant square, near Chairman Mao’s mausoleum.
Leaders of the protest, including Liu Xiaobo, the winner of last year’s Nobel Peace prize, urged the students to depart the square, and the Chilean diplomat relayed that “once agreement was reached for the students to withdraw, linking hands to form a column, the students left the square through the south east corner.” The testimony contradicts the reports of several journalists who were in Beijing at the time, who described soldiers “charging” into unarmed civilians and suggests the death toll on the night may be far lower than the thousands previously thought.
In 2009, James Miles, who was the BBC correspondent in Beijing at the time, admitted that he had “conveyed the wrong impression” and that “there was no massacre on Tiananmen Square. Protesters who were still in the square when the army reached it were allowed to leave after negotiations with martial law troops [ …] There was no Tiananmen Square massacre, but there was a Beijing massacre”.
Instead, the fiercest fighting took place at Muxidi, around three miles west of the square, where thousands of people had gathered spontaneously on the night of June 3 to halt the advance of the army.
According to the Tiananmen Papers, a collection of internal Communist party files, soldiers started using live ammunition at around 10.30pm, after trying and failing to disperse the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets. Incredulous, the crowd tried to escape but were hampered by its own roadblocks.
The cables also reveal the extent to which the student democracy protests had won popular support, and how for several weeks the protesters effectively occupied the whole of central Beijing, posing an existential challenge to the Communist party.
One cable, from May 21, 1989, reports that an anonymous caller had told the US consulate in Shenyang that Ni Zhifu, the chairman of China’s labour unions, had condemned martial law in the capital and warned that unless the students were treated with more respect he would lead a general workers’ strike that would cripple China.
Mr. Gregory Clark is vice president of Akita International University and former China desk officer for Australia’s Foreign Service. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on http://www.gregoryclark.net Note: All sources quoted above are available on the Internet, under Tiananmen.
*This article was originally published in the July 21, 2008 issue of the Japan Times. However, it was obtained through the BearCanada.com. For the sake of The 4th Media’s global viewers, it’s repinted on The 4th Media on the day of May 31, 2013.
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