‘No one died that night in Tiananmen Square’

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Classic misnomer The iconic image of the protester stopping a row of Chinese tanks actually showed the restraint exercised by the army
Classic misnomer The iconic image of the protester stopping a row of Chinese tanks actually showed the restraint exercised by the army. Photo: AFP

Was the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 one of the biggest disinformation coups of the 20th century? Was it a myth spun by western governments and given the stamp of approval by the pliable media in these countries in the hope of destabilising China? Or did the Chinese army really shoot point blank at student protesters?

If you go by the western narrative, on the night of 4 June 1989, after seven weeks of occupation by pro-democracy student protesters, the Chinese government sent in tanks and heavily armed troops to clear the iconic Beijing square. Hundreds, if not thousands, of students were allegedly massacred.

Here are some snapshots by westerners of the events of that night.

A BBC reporter watching from a high floor of the Beijing Hotel said he saw soldiers shooting at students at the monument in the centre of the square. US diplomat Richard Solomon claimed he “saw on CNN Chinese soldiers firing on students in Tiananmen Square”. Tim Russert, Washington bureau chief of NBC television channel, referred to “tens of thousands” of deaths in Tiananmen Square.

The Encyclopaedia of the World notes: “June 3-4, PLA troops entered Tiananmen Square during the night and fired directly into the sleeping crowd.”

Even Lonely Planet-China, 2000, a travel publication, thought fit to twist the knife: “The number of deaths is widely disputed. Eyewitness accounts have indicated that hundreds died in the square alone, and it’s likely fighting in the streets around the square led to another several thousand casualties. The truth will probably never be known.”

Sorry, but the truth is very much out there.

Different take
The latest salvo against the massacre myth was fired on 17 June, just days after the 25th anniversary of the ‘massacre’. Paul Craig Roberts, former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy and ex-associate editor of the Wall Street Journal, says, “Washington and its puppets condemned China for an event that did not happen.”

“There was no massacre in Tiananmen Square,” Roberts writes on his website. “It was just another Washington lie like Gulf of Tonkin, Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Iranian nukes etc… (Amazingly) the world lives in a false reality created by Washington’s lies.”

Among the most authoritative accounts is that of The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews, who was at ground zero during the demonstrations. In a report for the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), he writes: “Many American reporters and editors have accepted a mythical version of that warm, bloody night. As far as can be determined from the available evidence, no one died that night in Tiananmen Square.”

Let’s hear that again: “No one died that night in Tiananmen Square.”

So if no one died at the square, how did the rumours begin?

Peace & stability The vitriol directed at China during the Beijing Olympics showed the West’s envy of Chinese prosperity
Peace & stability The vitriol directed at China during the Beijing Olympics showed the West’s envy of Chinese prosperity. Photo: AFP

What really happened?
The best propaganda is that which has a kernel of truth in it. Yes, there were fatalities — but those who died were workers who had joined the protesters, and certainly not in Tiananmen Square. The Chinese government actually admits some 300 were killed.

“Many victims were shot by soldiers on stretches of Changan Jie, the Avenue of Eternal Peace, about a mile west of the square, and in scattered confrontations in other parts of the city, where, it should be added, a few soldiers were beaten or burned to death by angry workers,” says Mathews. “Most of the hundreds of foreign journalists that night, including me, were in other parts of the city or were removed from the square so that they could not witness the final chapter of the student story. Those who tried to remain close filed dramatic accounts that, in some cases, buttressed the myth of a student massacre.”

One of the few eyewitness accounts comes from Graham Earnshaw, a Reuters correspondent, who spent the entire night near the square, interviewing students till early dawn when the troops allegedly started shooting. “I was probably the only foreigner who saw the clearing of the square from the square itself,” he writes in his memoirs. According to Earnshaw, most of the students had left earlier that evening, and the remaining few hundred were persuaded by the troops to do likewise.

In fact, the Chinese government had exercised great restraint in the face of grave provocation by the students. Regime-challenging demonstrations were prohibited by the communist regime, but Beijing allowed the students to occupy the historic square for weeks.

In contrast, student demonstrators were publicly massacred in Mexico in 1968 and Thailand in 1973, yet the West looked the other way.

So why did China get so much flak?

Australian diplomat-turned-author and journalist Gregory Clark says the massacre stories were planted by US and British intelligence as part of a disinformation campaign against the Chinese government.

Clark writes on his website that senior members of Deng Xiaoping’s regime had twice tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with the students. “Eventually the regime lost patience and sent unarmed troops into Beijing to clear the square,” he writes. “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.”

“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.”

Clark suspects the reports that were published by American newspapers, such as the New York Times, were “very likely the work of the US and UK black information authorities ever keen to plant anti-Beijing stories in unsuspecting or cooperative media”.

Perhaps the most iconic photo — splashed across newspapers around the world — was that of a solitary student stopping a row of army tanks. But the story not told is that it actually exemplifies the restraint showed by the Chinese military.

“Photos of lines of burning troop carriers are also used, as if they prove brutal military behaviour against innocent civilians. In fact, they prove the exact opposite, namely some fairly brutal behaviour by those civilians, leading to the deaths of quite a few fairly innocent soldiers,” writes Clark.

Photos of solders incinerated or hung from overpasses are yet to be shown by the western media. According to Earnshaw of Reuters, a photo of a Chinese soldier strung up and burned to death was withheld by the news service.

The real story
In trying to focus on the story, the western media missed the uprising of the workers and civilians who were undergoing great hardships because of the botched policies of the communist regime. Beholden to their corporate paymasters, these journalists pitched the Tiananmen Square protests as that of an evil regime killing innocent students.

The workers were much more numerous and had much more to be angry about than the students. “This was the larger story that most of us overlooked or underplayed,” Mathew writes in CJR.

This basic lack of judgement and scepticism has been a defining characteristic of the western media. Think about it. The same journalists later went on to swallow and then regurgitate the lies about Saddam’s nuclear bombs. Not having learned from that $2 trillion — and counting — mistake, they bought the lie about a popular uprising against another Arab leader, Muammar Gaddafi. In the process, they contributed to the destruction of Libya’s beautiful cities and its welfare state. It continues with Crimea, Syria and Ukraine.

In fact, Tiananmen Square has an uncanny parallel to the Gujarat riots of 2002, which was in response to the massacre of 57 Hindu pilgrims, including children, in Godhra. A key source for the original Tiananmen massacre myth was the student leader Wu’er Kaixi, who claimed to have seen 200 students cut down by gunfire at the square. But he was later proven to be a liar. Turns out, several pro-democracy students were feeding such lies to western observers.

Similarly, in Gujarat, the number of Muslims who died in the riots kept ballooning — until it reached “over 3000”. It was a lie peddled by the entire Indian mainstream media, and gleefully picked up by the western press.

In a news item dated 11 May 2005, the Indian Express quoted Congress leader and then MoS (Home) Sriprakash Jaiswal’s statement before Parliament that 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed in the riots.

After the government disclosed the above figures, the Indian media stopped saying “over 3000 Muslims were killed”, although the fact that 254 Hindus were also killed is never mentioned. However, the western media continues to describe the riots as a pogrom.

Do these commentators have any idea what a pogrom means? From 1933 to 1945, many European nations witnessed riots against their Jewish citizens. Thousands of Jews died without a single German, Ukrainian, Croat, Romanian or Pole dying in retaliatory attacks by the Jews. Those were pogroms.

That such blatant lies hurt the image of their country did not matter at all to the social activists. All they wanted was a pat on the back by the West. Mumbai-based activist Teesta Setalvad was accused of tutoring witnesses of the riots by none other than her former associate Rais Khan Pathan. A court later held that she was only “guiding” the witnesses.

Why target China?
Among all the nationalities of the world that have felt the jackboot of colonial oppression, the Chinese stand alone in wanting to pay the West back — at an opportune time. The West knows this very well. The volley of vitriol directed at the Chinese during the highly successful Beijing Olympics showed the West’s unconcealed envy of Chinese prosperity and fear of its growing influence.

Tiananmen was an ideal opportunity for the West to paint the Chinese as cold-blooded murderers. Indeed, it was part of the standard western game plan of demonising those they consider future threats. It was China then, Indian nationalists in 2002, Saddam in 2003, Gaddafi in 2011 and Russians today.

According to Lee Kuan Yew, the Singapore strongman, and one of the keenest minds of the 20th century, mass demonstrations were happening not in Beijing alone but spreading to other cities. “Deng Xiaoping understood that if you released the forces, unless you do it in a controlled way, the system will collapse. And he did not allow the system to collapse, because if you allow that, nothing is achieved,” he told PBS television. “The Chinese will judge him not from whether he was humane or he was brutal, but whether he saved China, or he allowed China to risk disintegration.”

Had Beijing allowed the demonstrations to snowball into a revolution — like the US-UK engineered “colour revolutions” of Eastern Europe — there would be no Chinese economic miracle. The BRICS group would have remained on Russian papers. It would have been the West rather than the East that would have been rising today.

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(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own)

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