The massacre that wasn’t
Twenty-five years ago today, every U.S. media outlet, along with then President Bush and the U.S. Congress were whipping up a full scale frenzied hysteria and attack against the Chinese government for what was described as the cold-blooded massacre of many thousands of non-violent “pro-democracy” students who had occupied Tiananmen Square for seven weeks.
The hysteria generated about the Tiananmen Square “massacre” was based on a fictitious narrative about what actually happened when the Chinese government finally cleared the square of protestors on June 4, 1989.
Tank set on fire by protesters outside of Tiananment Square, June 4, 1989
The demonization of China was highly effective. Nearly all sectors of U.S. society, including most of the “left,” accepted the imperialist presentation of what happened.
At the time the Chinese government’s official account of the events was immediately dismissed out of hand as false propaganda. China reported that about 300 people had died in clashes on June 4 and that many of the dead were soldiers of the Peoples Liberation Army. China insisted that there was no massacre of students in Tiananmen Square and in fact the soldiers cleared Tiananmen Square of demonstrators without any shooting.
The Chinese government also asserted that unarmed soldiers who had entered Tiananmen Square in the two days prior to June 4 were set on fire and lynched with their corpses hung from buses. Other soldiers were incinerated when army vehicles were torched with soldiers unable to evacuate and many other were badly beaten by violent mob attacks.
These accounts were true and well documented. It would not be difficult to imagine how violently the Pentagon and U.S. law enforcement agencies would have reacted if the Occupy movement, for instance, had similarly set soldiers and police on fire, taken their weapons and lynched them when the government was attempting to clear them from public spaces.
In an article on June 5, 1989, the Washington Post described how anti-government fighters had been organized into formations of 100-150 people. They were armed with Molotov cocktails and iron clubs, to meet the PLA who were still unarmed in the days prior to June 4.
What happened in China, what took the lives of government opponents and of soldiers on June 4, was not a massacre of peaceful students but a battle between PLA soldiers and armed detachments from the so-called pro-democracy movement.
“On one avenue in western Beijing, demonstrators torched an entire military convoy of more than 100 trucks and armored vehicles. Aerial pictures of conflagration and columns of smoke have powerfully bolstered the [Chinese] government’s arguments that the troops were victims, not executioners. Other scenes show soldiers’ corpses and demonstrators stripping automatic rifles off unresisting soldiers,” admitted the Washington Post in a story that was favorable to anti-government opposition on June 12, 1989.
The Wall Street Journal, the leading voice of anti-communism, served as a vociferous cheerleader for the “pro-democracy” movement. Yet, their coverage right after June 4 acknowledged that many “radicalized protesters, some now armed with guns and vehicles commandeered in clashes with the military” were preparing for larger armed struggles. The Wall Street Journal report on the events of June 4 portrays a vivid picture:
“As columns of tanks and tens of thousands soldiers approached Tiananmen many troops were set on by angry mobs … [D]ozens of soldiers were pulled from trucks, severely beaten and left for dead. At an intersection west of the square, the body of a young soldier, who had beaten to death, was stripped naked and hung from the side of a bus. Another’s soldier corpse was strung at an intersection east of the square.”
The massacre that wasn’t
In the days immediately after June 4, 1989, the New York Times headlines, articles and editorials used the figure that “thousands” of peaceful activists had been massacred when the army sent tanks and soldiers into the Square. The number that the Times was using as an estimate of dead was 2,600. That figure was used at the go-to number of student activists who were mowed down in Tiananmen. Almost every U.S. media reported “many thousands” killed. Many media outlets said as many 8,000 had been slaughtered.
Tim Russert, NBC’s Washington Bureau Chief, appearing later on Meet the Press said “tens of thousands” died in Tiananmen Square.
The fictionalized version of the “massacre” was later corrected in some very small measure by Western reporters who had participated in the fabrications and who were keen to touch up the record so that they could say they made “corrections.” But by then it was too late and they knew that too. Public consciousness had been shaped. The false narrative became the dominant narrative. They had successfully massacred the facts to fit the political needs of the U.S. government.
“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,” wrote Jay Mathews, the Washington Post’s first Bureau Chief in Beijing, in a 1998 article in the Columbia Journalism Review.
Mathews’ article, which includes his own admissions to using the terminology of the Tiananmen Square massacre, came nine years after the fact and he acknowledged that corrections later had little impact.
“The facts of Tiananmen have been known for a long time. When Clinton visited the square this June, both The Washington Post and The New York Times explained that no one died there [in Tiananmen Square] during the 1989 crackdown. But these were short explanations at the end of long articles. I doubt that they did much to kill the myth.”
At the time all of the reports about the massacre of the students said basically the same thing and thus it seemed that they must be true. But these reports were not based on eyewitness testimony.
What really happened
For seven weeks leading up to June 4, the Chinese government was extraordinarily restrained in not confronting those who paralyzed the center of China’s central capital area. The Prime Minister met directly with protest leaders and the meeting was broadcast on national television. This did not defuse the situation but rather emboldened the protest leaders who knew that they had the full backing of the United States.
The protest leaders erected a huge statue that resembled the United States’ Statue of Liberty in the middle of Tiananmen Square. They were signaling to the entire world that their political sympathies were with the capitalist countries and the United States in particular. They proclaimed that they would continue the protests until the government was ousted.
With no end in sight the Chinese leadership decided to end the protests by clearing Tiananmen Square. Troops came into the Square without weapons on June 2 and many soldiers were beaten, some were killed and army vehicles were torched.
On June 4, the PLA re-entered the Square with weapons. According to the U.S. media accounts of the time that is when machine gun toting PLA soldiers mowed down peaceful student protests in a massacre of thousands.
China said that reports of the “massacre” in Tiananmen Square were a fabrication created both by Western media and by the protest leaders who used a willing Western media as a platform for an international propaganda campaign in their interests.
On June 12, 1989, eight days after the confrontation, the New York Times published an “exhaustive” but in fact fully fabricated eyewitness report of the Tiananmen Massacre by a student, Wen Wei Po. It was full of detailed accounts of brutality, mass murder, and heroic street battles. It recounted PLA machine gunners on the roof of Revolutionary Museum overlooking the Square and students being mowed down in the Square. This report was picked up by media throughout the U.S.
Although treated as gospel and irrefutable proof that China was lying, the June 12 “eyewitness” report by Wen Wei Po was so over the top and would so likely discredit the New York Times in China that the Times correspondent in Beijing, Nicholas Kristoff, who had served as a mouthpiece for the protestors, took exception to the main points in the article.
Kristoff wrote in a June 13 article,
“The question of where the shootings occurred has significance because of the Government’s claim that no one was shot on Tiananmen Square. State television has even shown film of students marching peacefully away from the square shortly after dawn as proof that they were not slaughtered.”
“The central scene in the [eyewitness] article is of troops beating and machine-gunning unarmed students clustered around the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the middle of Tiananmen Square. Several other witnesses, both Chinese and foreign, say this did not happen,” Kristoff wrote.
“There is also no evidence of machine-gun emplacements on the roof of the history museum that were reported in the Wen Wei Po article. This reporter was directly north of the museum and saw no machine guns there. Other reporters and witnesses in the vicinity also failed to see them.
“The central theme of the Wen Wei Po article was that troops subsequently beat and machine-gunned students in the area around the monument and that a line of armored vehicles cut off their retreat. But the witnesses say that armored vehicles did not surround the monument – they stayed at the north end of the square – and that troops did not attack students clustered around the monument. Several other foreign journalists were near the monument that night as well and none are known to have reported that students were attacked around the monument,” Kristoff wrote in the June 13, 1989 article.
The Chinese government’s account acknowledges that street fighting and armed clashes occurred in nearby neighborhoods. They say that approximately three hundred died that night including many soldiers who died from gunfire, Molotov cocktails and beatings. But they have insisted that there was no massacre.
Kristoff too says that there were clashes on several streets but refutes the “eyewitness” report about a massacre of students in Tiananmen Square,
“… Instead, the students and a pop singer, Hou Dejian, were negotiating with the troops and decided to leave at dawn, between 5 A.M. and 6 A.M. The students all filed out together. Chinese television has shown scenes of the students leaving and of the apparently empty square as troops moved in as the students left.”
Attempted counter-revolution in China
In fact, the U.S. government was actively involved in promoting the “pro-democracy” protests through an extensive, well-funded, internationally coordinated propaganda machine that pumped out rumors, half-truths and lies from the moment the protests started in mid-April 1989.
The goal of the U.S. government was to carry out regime change in China and overthrow the Communist Party of China which had been the ruling party since the 1949 revolution. Since many activists in today’s progressive movement were not alive or were young children at the time of the Tiananmen incident in 1989, the best recent example of how such an imperialist destabilization/regime change operation works is revealed in the recent overthrow of the Ukrainian government. Peaceful protests in the downtown square receive international backing, financing and media support from the United States and Western powers; they eventually come under the leadership of armed groups who are hailed as freedom fighters by the Wall Street Journal, FOX News and other media; and finally the government targeted for overthrow by the CIA is fully demonized if it uses police or military forces.
In the case of the “pro-democracy” protests in China in 1989 the U.S. government was attempting to create a civil war. The Voice of America increased its Chinese language broadcasts to 11 hours each day and targeted the broadcast “directly to 2,000 satellite dishes in China operated mostly by the Peoples Liberation Army.” (New York Times June 9, 1989)
The Voice of America broadcasts to PLA units were filled with reports that some PLA units were firing on others and different units were loyal to the protestors and others with the government.
The Voice of America and U.S. media outlets tried to create confusion and panic among government supporters. Just prior to June 4 they reported that China’s Prime Minister Li Peng had been shot and that Deng Xiaoping was near death.
Most in the U.S. government and in the media expected the Chinese government to be toppled by pro-Western political forces as was starting to happening with the overthrow of socialist governments throughout Eastern and Central Europe at the time (1988-1991) following the introduction of pro-capitalist reforms by Gorbachev in the Soviet Union in 1991.
In China, the “pro-democracy” protest movement was led by privileged, well-connected students from elite universities who were explicitly calling for the replacement of socialism with capitalism. The leaders were particularly connected to the United States. Of course, thousands of other students who participated in the protests were in the Square because they had grievances against the government.
But the imperialist-connected leadership of the movement had an explicit plan to topple the government. Chai Ling, who was recognized as the top leader of the students, gave an interview to Western reporters on the eve of June 4 in which she acknowledged that the goal of the leadership was to lead the population in a struggle to topple the Communist Party of China, which she explained would only be possible if they could successfully provoke the government into violently attacking the demonstrations. That interview was aired in the film the “Gate of Heavenly Peace.” Chai Ling also explained why they couldn’t tell the rank and file student protestors about the leaders’ real plans.
“The pursuit of wealth is part of the impetus for democracy,” explained another top student leader Wang Dan, in an interview with the Washington Post in 1993, on the fourth anniversary of the incident. Wang Dan was in all the U.S. media before and after the Tiananmen incident. He was famous for explaining why the elitist student leaders didn’t want Chinese workers joining their movement. He stated “the movement is not ready for worker participation because democracy must first be absorbed by the students and intellectuals before they can spread it to others.”
Twenty-five years later – U.S. still seeks regime change and counter-revolution in China
The action by the Chinese government to disperse the so-called pro-democracy movement in 1989 was met with bitter frustration within the United States political establishment.
The U.S. imposed economic sanctions on China at first, but their impact was minimal and both the Washington political establishment and the Wall Street banks realized that U.S. corporations and banks would be the big losers in the 1990′s if they tried to completely isolate China when China was further opening its vast domestic labor and commodities market to the direct investment from Western corporations. The biggest banks and corporations put their own profit margins first and the Washington politicians took their cue from the billionaire class on this question.
But the issue of counter-revolution in China will rear its head again. The economic reforms that were inaugurated after the death Mao opened the country to foreign investment. This development strategy was designed to rapidly overcome the legacy of poverty and under-development by the import of foreign technology. In exchange the Western corporations received mega profits. The post-Mao leadership in the Communist Party calculated that the strategy would benefit China by virtue of a rapid technology transfer from the imperialist world to China. And indeed China has made great economic strides. But in addition to economic development there has also developed a larger capitalist class inside of China and a significant portion of that class and their children are being wooed by all types of institutions financed by the U.S. government, U.S. financial institutions and U.S. academic centers.
The Communist Party of China is also divided into pro-U.S. and pro-socialist factions and tendencies.
Today, the United States government is applying ever greater military pressure on China. It is accelerating the struggle against China’s rise by cementing new military and strategic alliances with other Asian countries. It is also hoping that with enough pressure some in the Chinese leadership who favor abandoning North Korea will get the upper hand.
If counter-revolution were to succeed in China the consequences would be catastrophic for the Chinese people and for China. China would in all likelihood splinter as a nation as happened to the Soviet Union when the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was toppled. The same fate befell the former Yugoslavia. Counter-revolution and dismemberment would hurtle China backwards. It would put the brakes on China’s spectacular peaceful rise out of under-development. For decades there has been a serious discussion within the U.S. foreign policy establishment about the dismemberment of China which would weaken China as a nation and allow the United States and Western powers to seize its most lucrative parts. This is precisely the scenario that cast China into its century of humiliation when Western capitalist powers dominated the country.
The Chinese Revolution has gone through many stages, victories, retreats and setbacks. Its contradictions are innumerable. But still it stands. In the confrontation between world imperialism and the Peoples Republic of China, progressive people should know where they stand – it is not on the sidelines.
STTPML COMMENTARY: Walk a Mile in the Moccasins of Others
Please see Gordon Thomas’ “Seeds of Fire: China and the Story Behind the Attack on America” Dandelion Books, Tempe, Arizona, 2001 (a book hardly friendly to the Chinese Government but by a veteran reporter with solid connections in various intelligence communities and author of over 40 books many on intelligence agencies and issues.)
Imagine if say Occupy Wall Street protests went on for two months, with no violent responses by police or military, yet deaths from “protesters” attacking military forces including hangings and burnings. Suppose that intelligence agents of China, Russia, Vietnam, and other nations were photographed mingling among those “protesters” [at Tiananmen were intelligence operatives of Germany, the U.S., Britain, Ireland, France mixed-in with the “students” over 7 weeks April 11 to June 4th and after]. Suppose the Chinese embassy [as was the U.S. Embassy in Beijing] were using satellite imagery transmitted to the “protestors” by intelligence operators, to tell them where U.S. police and military forces were deployed over that two month period, and, were directing them not away from but toward, conflict with the military forces.
Suppose also, that an important visit had been planned for some time of the leader of say Russia [Ghorbachev visit planned for some time and U.S. was worried about a new China-Soviet rapproachment], and the “protesters” had signaled they planned to do all in their power to ruin the visit and cause the U.S. Government to lose face. Suppose further that “leaders” of this uprising were urging hunger strikes, and that several persons were near death, while these same self-appointed “leaders” were secretly eating well (claiming that as “leaders” they had a special duty not to die of starvation) and later were taken out of China and settled in the West, given financial support and jobs by those same intelligence services that had been involved in covert meetings with the “students”.
There is much much more to this story than meets the eye.
“But many weeks before the first public call for democracy rose over Tiananmen Square, a number of governments knew what was about to happen and, like the United States, had decided their responses would be dictated by wider considerations. For America, among much else, there was the need to maintain its CIA listening posts on the Sino-Soviet border and build upon its ever expanding trading links with China. For the Soviet Union, there was the question of what effects the students would have on Mikail Gorbachev’s historic state visit to China. For Australia and other countries around the Pacific Rim, there were equally pressing economic and political questions to be considered…
In every capital city with ties to China, preparations on how to react to gathered momentum with what was happening on the university campuses in Beijing. There, student factions were increasingly penetrated by intelligence services of the superpowers, and their very change of plan became quickly known in Washington and Moscow. It was, said one intelligence officer over there, the most penetrated student movement since the sixties. Those reports all helped leaders such as George [H.W.] Bush come to a decision.
While the world watched the unfolding drama in Tiananmen Square, President Bush was secretly balancing pressures from the CIA and his military and economic advisors on the one hand to do nothing to endanger the administration’s links to the Beijing regime, and from the American people [sic] on the other to support the students. (Thomas pp. 149)
“Not only could China be plunged into recession if the students created serious unrest, but foreign confidence in China’s ability to honor its commitments would fade.
The Canadian intelligence officer suggested that if the students once more took to the streets, there could be a significant difference in their tactics this time. They might appeal to the West to openly support their demands. Canada could well find itself in the forefront of such an appeal. In the officer’s view, ‘that could rock more boats than a stiff breeze does on the St. Lawrence Seaway.’
A similar decision had already been taken at the French embassy a few compounds along the street. There, Ambassador Charles Malo and his minister-counselor Gerard Chesnees, sat over breakfast with Nicholas Chapuis, the cultural counselor. With them was the embassy’s senior intelligence officer, who operated under the cover of being one of the French attaches.
Chapuis, a likable glad-handing diplomat, had spent the previous day talking to students and their foreign expert teachers at one of the university campuses. He had learned of the meeting held in the nuclear shelter. In Capuis’s view the students were ‘muscle flexing.’
Similar sentiments were being expressed in missions as far apart on the political spectrum as the Soviet Union’s and Australia’s. In a score of embassies throughout the legation quarter, diplomats were beginning to focus their attention on the country’s student population. In the words of Lindsay J. Watt, New Zealand’s ambassador, ‘these young folk had the potential to raise a whole storm–and when the dust settled there’d be no telling what had been blown away.’ (Thomas pp. 184-85)
” Some of the judgments were based on reports from intelligence operatives. Agents from the CIA, the KGB and European intelligence services had tapped their contacts on campuses–students and tutors, some of them ‘foreign experts’–to try to assess how the student leadership would respond to the former Party Secretary’s death. Dogging their footsteps were Qiao Shi’s agents on a similar mission. One European intelligence officer would recall that ‘not since the good old days of Berlin at the height of the Cold War could I remember so many of us out on the hoof.’ (Thomas pp 246)
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.