We are told that on the night of June 3, 1989, there was a massacre of protesting students in Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen Square. The New York Times story reduced Bob Hawke to tears – troops with machine-guns mowing down hundreds of peacefully protesting students at the centre of the Square.
Recently the story has changed to the massacre being ‘near’ the Square. But if it was ’near’ the Square what happens to the machine guns story?
To get the true story begin by entering the word Tiananmen in Google search. There you will find some strange, unexplained photos of large Chinese crowds gazing at the corpses of gruesomely lynched, incinerated or mutilated Chinese soldiers. One photo with the name of the Canadian photo blogger shows a charred corpse strung up under a major Beijing overpass with unconcerned crowds passing below.
The photos clearly cannot be faked. There is too much detail, and I know for a fact that Reuters has the overpass photo, unpublished. So why the lack of Western media attention?
The usual explanation has been that the photos are too gruesome to show or that maybe they simply show crowd hatred of the regime’s soldiers during or after the alleged June 3-4 massacre.
Hatred of the regime makes a kind of sense. I first visited China in 1971 and can understand the feelings of those who had had to suffer the stupidities and cruelties of the Cultural Revolution and the Leap Forward before that. But are we supposed to believe that after or during June 3-4 events people with anti-regime feelings would be free wander displaying mutilated corpses of regime soldiers to be gazed upon quietly by large groups of local civilians?
But what if the butchering came before June 3-4 events? Daily reports from the US Embassy in Beijing at the time, also available on the Internet, help explain that very different story.
As the regime struggled with how to solve mounting problems caused by the lengthy student occupation in the Square – garbage, sickness, national humiliation, anti-regime slogans and banners on display – the authorities, presumably believing their own propaganda about the regime-loving masses, had the brilliant idea of using buses and subway trains to send in unarmed soldiers to clear the students from the Square.
In retrospect, however, sending in unarmed soldiers was a very bad idea. The Square was surrounded by some very unloving crowds that had been gathering in the days and weeks beforehand, some armed with Molotov cocktails. Those unarmed regime soldiers were an open invitation to attacks of the most gruesome kind.
The US Embassy reports have described elderly ladies at subway exits telling the soldiers to go back to their families. But elderly ladies would have been the least of the soldiers problems.
Today we need only to look at the photos of dozens of burned out vehicles in the Beijing streets to have some idea of what did happen. The people with the Molotov cocktails would have done their thing and the unarmed soldiers inside would have been incinerated in droves. And again there are the photos to prove it – badly burned soldiers sheltering in doorways and on over-pass staircases.
What happens when you incinerate soldiers and string up their charred bodies for public display? The formerly unarmed soldiers cease to be unarmed and set out to wreak a violent revenge or anyone and everyone who they think might have been involved in the earlier gruesome atrocities.
Remember Iraq’s Fallujah?
That was the real Tiananmen story – the largely unreported hiatus between the earlier sending in of unarmed soldiers and the June 3-4 sending in of fully armed soldiers. It was largely ignored, I suspect, because on June 12, 1989, the New York Times suddenly splashed a dramatic front page report about an obscure Hongkong newspaper, Wen Wei Po, giving an alleged firsthand account by a 20 year old Tsinghua university student describing those alleged machine-gun attackers mowing down students at the centre of the Square and elsewhere. For safety reasons the student was not identified, we were told.
The fact the many Western media people and others at the centre of the Square had failed to notice the machine-gun massacre clearly did not seem to worry the NYT editors. Flashed around the world, and conflated with the June 4 filmed reports of the revenge-seeking soldiers in the streets leading to Tiananmen, the bogus Wen Wei Po story as narrated by NYT became the ultimate Tiananmen Square massacre story.
True, the next day the NYT ran a story by its Beijing correspondent, the respected Nicolas Kristof, poking serious holes in the Wen Wei Po story. Normally this paper of record will run columns listing even its tiniest mistakes – a Mrs being described as a Ms, for example. Even over Iraq it apologised for its mistaken WMD coverage. But it had nothing to say about the grossly inaccurate Tiananmen massacre story. Kristof’s article was run at the bottom of an inside page.
If anything NYT has doubled down. It now gives heavy coverage to the famous Tank Man photo showing a man said to be bravely stopping a row of tanks during the Tiananmen attacks. ‘The iconic photo of bravery in the face of aggression’ according to Time magazine. But as the man who took the photo, AP photographer, Jef Widener, has since explained, the man in the photo is of a shopper waving a shopping bag, and the photo was taken on June 5 as the tanks are going away from, and not towards, Tiananmen Square. Widener’s report about how on the previous day he had seen a soldier dragged from his vehicle and killed, and how he himself was almost killed, gets no mention.
Nor was that the only ignored report. The US Embassy report of a Chinese soldier being killed by students as he approached Tiananmen Square never got coverage. An Australian Embassy report of a disemboweled soldier in front of its premises wearing nothing more than a penis in his mouth seems to have done little to warn our ABC that the Tiananmen story has two sides. For some reason when it comes to reporting China our Western media feel free to see only the side they want to see, even when it is invented.
Fortunately a few media people have shown some attachment to the truth. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review of September/October, 1998, under the title of ‘The Tiananmen Massacre Myth, and the price of a passive press,’ the former Washington Post bureau head in Beijing at the time, Jay Mathews, gives us some idea of what was really happening. He admits that at the time he had let himself be confused by the pace of events. He now says: ‘A few people may have been killed by random shooting on streets near the square, but all verified eyewitness accounts say that the students who remained in the square when troops arrived were allowed to leave peacefully. Hundreds of people, most of them workers and passersby, did die that night, but in a different place and under different circumstances.’
Those ‘ different circumstances’ were, or course, the crucial early June hiatus when, he adds, ‘a few soldiers were beaten or burned to death by angry workers’.
We get a similar but toned-down account, and the original gruesome photos, in a 1989 Beijing publication ’ The Truth About the Beijing Turmoil.’ Increasingly it seems, we are now having to rely on the ‘other’ side to get the true story of the events around them.
Many in the West will say this niggling over details is not needed. We know the other side does bad things so why worry about who did what to whom and when. But there are people on the other side who are taking note. The Chinese media are now noting those gross Tiananmen inaccuracies in Western media boasting of their ‘press freedom’ superiority.