Tiananmen Square “Massacre” is a difficult story to handle

Jun 16, 2021

The event, when it occurred on 4 June,1989, aroused deep emotions in Hong Kong. It led to a mass street demonstration in which tens of thousands participated; many office workers left their desks to join in the march from Central to Victoria Park. It was entirely spontaneous and peaceful. Since then it has been “commemorated” by a candle-lit vigil in Victoria Park each year, until last year when it was banned.

The problem is that the narrative is false.

There was no massacre on the square. But after the people gathered at the square had dispersed there was a clash between the soldiers and civilians in the Western suburbs of Beijing; the numbers killed were considerable, estimated at between 200 and 450. These were not numbers revealed by the government and came from estimates made by journalists from casualties treated in hospitals.

There has never been TV footage of the clash in the Western suburbs, but the scenes we all saw on TV of the happenings on the square on that day revealed no killing of civilians there. I recall vividly an armoured vehicle driven erratically on fire; and the scene of a bicycle towing a sort of trailer with an injured person lying on it; this was shown repeatedly many times over – as if the journalist following the event had nothing more to say.

The optics do not favour the Chinese government. The problem, as the Premier later explained, was that they simply did not have crowd control equipment to deal with the demonstrators; the square had been “occupied” by the demonstrators – mainly students – for well over a month, to the great embarrassment of the government, particularly during Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing. And this was the administrative heart of the city. Most of the demonstrators had in fact heeded the warnings to pack up and leave the square. And many had, on June 4th, done so. To call in the army was a grave mistake. And the deployment of tanks was absurd.

When a narrative has been so ingrained in popular consciousness, it is almost impossible to change the script. An entire generation has grown up believing in the story of the massacre of students on Tiananmen Square, and many have participated year after year in the candle-lit vigil in Victoria Park to commemorate the event – some, in all probabilities, since their childhood years.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a good reason to ban the candle-lit gathering and those who defied the ban are rightly prosecuted. But next year? The Hong Kong government has a real problem on its hands.

The problem is more than a domestic one. Many Australians will, for instance, recall Bob Hawke’s emotional speech when he announced relaxing the immigration rules to permit some 40,000 Chinese students to settle in Australia. How could he have acted on a false narrative on such an important issue?

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