RAMESH THAKUR. Tiananmen anniversary revisited

Readers of my generation will recall the horror story told to the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus on 10 October 1990 by a 15-year old Kuwaiti girl. ‘Nayirah’ claimed to have witnessed invading Iraqi troops storming a Kuwaiti hospital, ripping 15 babies out of incubators and leaving them to die on the cold floor. On 19 December 1990, an 84-page report by Amnesty International concluded: ‘300 premature babies were reported to have died after Iraqi soldiers removed them from incubators, which were then looted’. The Amnesty story and Nayirah’s testimony were widely circulated around the world and used as a powerful mobilising tool by the George H. Bush administration to drum up public and Congressional support for a resolution to grant the president authorization to use force in Kuwait.

It was all lies and fabrications or, in today’s vernacular, fake news. ‘Nayirah’ was in fact the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the US, Saud Nasir al-Sabah. In March 1991, Amnesty International retracted its December report, saying it had become clear that the allegations were baseless. Worse, Congressman Tom Lantos, co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, knew her true identity but concealed it from others. Lantos was also aware that the story was being promoted by a public relations consultancy firm Hill and Knowlton, as clients of Citizens for a free Kuwait who were lobbying for US military intervention.

The template of planting stories with gullible journalists and then using the press stories as independent ‘credible’ reports to justify a military response – where facts are made to fit the narrative – was used again successfully to sell the Iraq war in 2003. For me at least the Iraq war was a watershed event in permanently destroying the credibility of the major English-language global media brands and instead instilling a deep scepticism about their accounts: both the factual reports and the opinion articles.

The same template was evident with respect to allegations of chemical weapon use by the Assad regime in Syria. He is certainly ruthless and brutal enough to use them if necessary. But against questionable military utility of such weapons in a war he was winning without them, on the one hand, and the high international political costs, on the other hand, I need compelling evidence of his culpability, not ‘plausible’ and ‘credible’ reports. Yet the charges have stuck, going by the balance of media and scholarly articles that simply report them as facts. Journalists worth the name should be sedulous, not credulous, and insert question marks in place of exclamation marks.

Such detached scepticism is a useful antidote to the orgy of 30th anniversary commentary on the entrenched public narrative about the Tiananmen Massacre. There is little doubt about the Beijing spring of 1989 that called for greater openness, freedoms and democracy in China, or about its suppression. But there is a counter-narrative that receives no mention in the China-bashing mainstream media. Moreover, Australian media coverage once again puts us firmly in the global Anglosphere camp rather than in the mainstream of Asian consciousness, including in democratic ally Japan not famed for a love of China, on the larger meaning of the events of 30 years ago.

On 23 December 2017, the BBC reported that in a confidential diplomatic cable on 5 June 1989, Sir Alan Donald, UK ambassador to China at the time, had reported that the number killed was ‘at least 10,000’. There are ‘at least’ three problems with it. First, the cable was sent on the morning after the crackdown on the protestors occupying the square, when the situation was at its most chaotic, emotions were running high, facts were sparse and rumours reigned supreme. Second, the source was supposedly a member of China’s State Council, implying a degree of authoritativeness. Trouble is, Sir Alan’s cable actually says ‘his source was someone who “was passing on information given him by a close friend who is currently a member of the State Council”’. In other words it is classic hearsay. Third and most importantly, it flies in the face of the widely held consensus that the total number killed was between a few hundred to one thousand – and very few were killed in the square itself. (See also the contemporaneous eyewitness account by Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times who too debunked claims of a massacre in the square.) Most of the killings took place along the western approach roads to Tiananmen Square.

Yet the greatly inflated figure and the ‘at least’ phrasing – implying this is a conservative, low-end estimate, continue to be used in widely syndicated columns. Conversely, some journalists cover themselves by using the figure of hundreds but adding the qualifier ‘possibly thousands’, as in this account in The Japan Times: ‘China has never given a full accounting of the bloody crackdown that saw hundreds — possibly thousands — killed in Beijing by People’s Liberation Army troops’. A similar hedging is used in the story in Euronews: ‘The Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4 1989… saw hundreds if not thousands of pro-democracy protesters killed by the Chinese army’.

In a 30-year retrospective, David Holley – Beijing bureau chief of The Los Angeles Times and eyewitness to the tumultuous events that night from a balcony in Beijing Hotel just east of the square – writes that a few months later, the joint estimate of US and West European intelligence was around 1,000 killed. According to a Harvard University study in 1992, a confidential analysis by Western military attaches put the toll at 1,000-1,500.

In the alternate narrative, let’s begin by noting that contemporaneous cables from the US Embassy in Beijing, published by WikiLeaks, confirm key aspects of the official Chinese story: there were no mass firings at unarmed protestors by the army; most of the troops who entered the square were using anti-riot gear (truncheons and wooden clubs), albeit backed by armed soldiers; students still in the square when the troops entered were allowed to leave peacefully; and the fiercest fighting took place at Muxidi, about 5km west of the square.

Jay Mathews, the former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post, wrote an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, ‘The Myth of Tiananmen and the Price of a Passive Press’, to mark Bill Clinton’s 1998 visit to China. According to Mathews: ‘as far as can be determined from the available evidence, no one died that night in Tiananmen Square’. Authorities were less concerned with the student protest in the square and more worried about mass civilian uprisings elsewhere. Writing in The Japan Times in 2008, former Australian diplomat Gregory Clark cites an account by Graham Earnshaw of Reuters who actually spent the night in the centre of the square and essentially confirmed the non-lethal end to the protest there. Earnshaw also noted how a photo of a soldier burned to a crisp was withheld by Reuters.

An article published six years ago was deliberately and provocatively entitled ‘Let’s Talk About Tiananmen Square, 1989: My Hearsay is Better Than Your Hearsay’. At the time the author was identified as Dr Long Xinming; when I visited the site this week, the author’s name had changed to Bhaiaidil Fiverr, which might raise some suspicions about authenticity. Be that as it may, he points to the need to separate the student protest in the square from an unrelated protest by workers elsewhere in the city. APCs and troop-carrying buses to clear the workers’ protests were torched with soldiers still trapped inside. As Brian Becker put it in Liberation: ‘It would not be difficult to imagine how violently the Pentagon and US 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’.

Which then is the true and which the false narrative? I honestly don’t know. There was a time when I would have believed the mainstream Western media over the Chinese accounts. That I no longer do so is more of an indictment of their shot credibility than of my deepened cynicism.

A final question is indelicate but essential. Given China’s own long history, when its dark ages coincide with periods of instability and volatility in the imperial centre, and given also the breakup of the former Soviet Union and the subsequent history of its weakness, impoverishment and serial humiliation by the US, on balance would China had been better off without the crackdown ordered by Deng Xiaoping? That is, while it is nice to have both bread and freedom, what if one has to make a choice between them for the country? It’s hard to imagine that China would have achieved anywhere near the same pace and sweep of economic and national progress to emerge as a major power courted and respected by one and sundry. Or, to put it another way, if we examine the relative progress of China and India since 1989 as the world’s two billion-strong countries, how many would argue that for the average citizen, life has proven better on balance in India than in China over the last 30 years? What price freedoms and what price progress?


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7 Responses to RAMESH THAKUR. Tiananmen anniversary revisited

  1. Tiananmen Square the night of June 3-4, 1989, was supposed to be a night of Chinese soldiers attacking defenseless students. So how do we explain the following photo evidence by a Greek photographer?:


    Similar German source photos of badly burned soldiers exist.
    Armed soldiers treated this way usually behave with some anger and brutality. Think Fallujah.
    Few seem interested to know who set fire to the dozens of burned out buses and APCs near the Square, or what happened to the crews trapped inside.

    The following interview article with
    Kong Qingdong 孔庆东, a former left wing Chinese student, writing in 2019 gives one unbiassed student assessment:

    His hints of foreign encouragement for student attacks on soldiers are disturbing.

    For a fully researched account of what happened and for the subsequent media distortions I recommend the June 4, 2010, article in the Columbia Journalism Review by former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing, Jay Mathews, entitled ‘Reporting The Myth of Tiananmen, and the Price of a Passive Press’.

    In it he tracks down the origins of the Tiananmen Massacre myth to a New York Times, June 12, 1989, article taken from a Hongkong English language media account allegedly written by an anonymous student claiming soldiers armed with machine guns fought their way into the Square mowing down students in the hundreds (though in the absence of witnesses who saw such a scene the NYT has since moved the location to ‘near the Square,’ with no apology or explanation.) The alleged author of the article has never been found, though I suggest UK intelligence sources as one possibility.

    The famous Tankman photo showing a row of tanks blocked by a man waving shopping bags is welcomed by the foreign media as proof of student bravery in the face of military advance. The only problem with this is that the tanks were going away from the Tiananmen Square the day following the event, not towards. And a man named Wang Weilin subsequently listed proudly by the London Evening Standard as Tankman was found not to exist (It was in fact an ordinary shopper who just happened to be crossing the road).

    One can understand the anger of the crowds, the workers especially, who had suffered decades of insanely misguided polices going back to well before the cruel Cultural Revolution. One can understand the frustration of the students who due to miscalculation by their leaders had been left for weeks in a stinking square for no result. Anti-regime trouble was inevitable when the two combined to face up against an untrained army. But there is no excuse for the laziness and bias of the Western media in misreporting this event, not just once but now annually for thirty years.

    Gregory Clark

  2. Ann Kent says:

    I am disappointed that Ramesh Thakur applies his critique of the press, however warranted in his first few examples, to the case of the numbers killed during the Chinese government’s crushing of the 1989 Democracy Movement. At the time, it was clear to all that, given the large area under military attack, the length of that attack over days, beginning in the dark of night, and the huge numbers of people participating in the movement, the numbers of the dead could only be guesstimates. But, surely the important aspect of the attack was not the cold exactitude of numbers killed, which will never be known, but the fact that a government chose to send ‘the people’s army’ and its tanks against its own people.

  3. Nigel Drake says:

    Now in my 77th year experience has convinced me that truth is something which the general public will never be privy to.
    During my working years I have witnessed gross exaggerations of fact and outright lies relating to work in which I was personally involved; from the mainstream press/radio/TV as well as from politicians and their tamed public servants.
    The continuing propagating of religious mythology as “Gods Truth” is a classic example.
    This most recent Federal election is another example of the ongoing mis- and disinformation which besets our soceity.

  4. Garry Woodard says:

    I shall rise to the bait of Ramesh the provocateur. Australian journalist long based in Tokyo Murray Sayle was the 1st or amongst the 1st to report that the killings took place outside Tiananmen Square. He came to an international conference in Melbourne, attended incidentally by Dick Cheney, to repeat this. The general feeling was that we should not be diverted from the fundamental truth that the massacre exemplified Mao’s dictum that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun”, and that Deng Xiaoping had used the Army to send a signal to the Party and the people. With regard to the former it was not generally known that Deng’s appointed successors Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, together with Hu Quli, whose self abasement is described in the NYRB, had been discussing over the previous 3 years minimal political reform, including non-Party participation in village elections. I am proud to put on record that my American colleague in Beijing, former UAW head Leonard Woodcock, revisiting China, had told Deng that Tienanmen was his worst mistake: he of course would have none of it, riposting by praising “our glorious Army”. It seems appropriate that the 1st public comment in 30 years on behalf of the Chinese government should have been offered by the Defence Minister, a General.

  5. Andrew Glikson says:

    The truth is the first casualty of war

  6. michael lacey says:

    If people are willing to read there are many articles which will never reach the mainstream that give another narrative !



  7. Cameron Leckie says:

    Well said Ramesh.

    It is a sad indictment on our Australian media that no mention that at all has been made that I can find of the recently leaked engineering report into last years alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria, which concluded that the gas canisters had been placed in location rather than dropped from the air; i.e. the ‘attack’ was staged

    An interesting article at Moon of Alabama explains how the world famous man stopping the tanks image has been misrepresented (https://www.moonofalabama.org/2019/06/tiananmen-square-do-the-media-say-what-really-happened.html#more)

    The crisis we are seeing in our so called liberal democracies is a consequence of our mass media either directly/deliberately and/or inadvertently being purveyors of propaganda and disinformation. So much for a free press!

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