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?