Monday, July 21, 2008

Birth of a massacre myth

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 there 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.

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 - the iconic monument at the centre of Tiananmen Square - interviewing students in detail until the 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 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?”

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 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 pro-student crowds.

Finally armed troops were sent in. They too met similar hostile crowds but this time 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 after 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 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 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.’ (The Times tradition of ignoring anything that contradicts its favorite myth also lives on. I once tried in vain to rebut a 2004 anti-Beijing piece by Times opinion page writer, David Brooks, claiming blandly and baldly that 3,000 students were massacred in the Square.)

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.’ He 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 towards 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 grey hand of corruption, oppression and incompetence ever since the Cultural Revolution days of the late sixties 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 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. Meanwhile one had only to walk around the 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 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 shown by Western media.

Photos of several dead students on a bicycle rack on the Square periphery are more convincing. But the declassified reports from the US 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 which mentions how the murder by students of a soldier trying to enter the Square had triggered violence in the Square’s periphery.

The 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 the riot control equipment that Beijing says would have prevented the 1989 violence. So next time there is a riot Beijing has to send in untrained troops again?.

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

Discuss this Article


 とはいえ、それは昔の中国。今では非常にちがった中国、そしてブラックインフォメーションを受けるにはあまりに重要な中国がある。まして地球上の他の場所で起こっている非常に明らかな学生の虐殺 68年のメキシコ、73年のタイをはじめとして を世界が平気で忘れてしまっているときに。そのとき、問題解決のために政府当局による対話の努力は見られなかった。即、軍隊が投入された。そして数百名が死んだ。