The Disputed History of the Tian An Men violence


The recent WikiLeaks release of cables from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing has helped finally to kill the myth of an alleged massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3-4, 1989.

But how did that myth come to exist in the first place?

After all, those embassy cables have long been available, at the Tiananmen site on Google, provided courtesy of the U.S. government. As well, several impartial Western observers in the square at the time, including a Reuters correspondent and a Spanish TV crew, have long insisted, and written, that they saw no sign of any alleged massacre.

Recently the massacre believers have begun to tell us that while maybe the “massacre” did not occur in the square, it certainly did occur in the streets and alleys leading to the square. But here, too, the Embassy cables tell a very different story. Relevant details include:

• Beijing sent in unarmed troops in its bid to clear the square of remaining students as the demonstrations wound down. When those troops were mocked and blocked by protesting crowds, Beijing hurriedly decided to send in armed troops, whose vehicles were also blocked.

The vehicles were also fire-bombed with their crews incinerated inside. (Reuters has yet to release a photo of an incinerated soldier being strung up under an overhead bridge.)

• Wild shooting then broke out, mainly from an out-of-control unit, which other units sought to restrain sometimes by force. Chaos reigned and casualties, on both sides, were heavy in the streets leading to the square.

• There were also disturbances near the square entrance, after students attacked and killed a soldier trying to enter.

• The remaining 3,000 students in the square left peacefully when requested by the troop commander early on the morning of June 4.

So whence the story of a Tiananmen Square massacre?

A lurid BBC report at the time was one important source. Other reporters may then have felt compelled to chime in even though none of them, including the BBC, had actually been in the square.

The best expose of what happened can be found in a detailed 1998 report from the Columbia University School of Journalism titled “The Myth of Tiananmen and the Price of a Passive Press.” Prepared by Jay Mathews, a former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief, it notes how the Western media’s pack instinct not only created the false massacre story; it also led those media to miss the far more important story that night, namely a popular uprising against the regime in its own Beijing streets. (A summary of the report can be found at

Mathews traces much of the problem to a Hong Kong newspaper that immediately, after the 1989 disturbance, ran a long story under the name of an alleged student protester. He claimed he was at the square when troops arrived with machine guns to mow down students in the hundreds.

Distributed around the globe, the article was seen as final proof that the original BBC and other massacre reports were accurate. But the alleged author of that report was never located, and for good reason: The article was almost certainly planted — one of the many black information operations organized by British intelligence over the years.

U.K. black information efforts are much more pervasive than most realize. They began in the Cold War years with the creation of an International Research Department within the Foreign Office whose job was to provide gray and black information propaganda for use from unattributed sources.

Black propaganda was, according to an Australian researcher into the topic, Adam Henry, “the strategic placement of lies and false rumors,” while gray propaganda was “the production of slanted, but not fictitious, nonattributable information.”

According to Henry, it played a key role in helping to justify or downplay one truly dreadful postwar massacre in Asia, namely the slaughter of up to a half a million leftwing Indonesians in 1965.

Its Forum World Features was also active in planting seemingly impartial articles endorsing the Saigon version of the Vietnam War.

Ironically, after seeking to cover up real massacres by pro-Western regimes in Asia, the U.K. operation then seems to have excelled itself by inventing a phony massacre by a Chinese regime.

The fact is that for seven weeks the Beijing regime had tolerated a student protest occupation of its iconic central square despite the disruption and loss of face to the regime. Some regime leaders even tried to negotiate compromises, which some of the student leaders later regretted having rejected.

When eventually troops were sent in to clear the square, the demonstrations were already ending. But by this time the Western media were there in force, keen to grab any story they could.

Ironically, the Western media, which barely noticed the massacres of protesting students in Mexico in 1968 and Thailand in 1976 (no hint of negotiations for compromises there as the killings were immediate and brutal), still goes out of its way to paint a false picture of a brutal Chinese regime willing to march in and massacre its protesting students in the hundreds, if not thousands.

This is not to deny that the regime can be highly insensitive, even brutal, at times. I was once a minor victim, back in the bad old Cultural Revolution days. Despite having organized single-handedly a visit by an Australian team to join the all-important 1971 ping-pong diplomacy, I was first threatened with expulsion and then formally reprimanded by the Chinese Foreign Ministry for the sin of having tried to help non-Chinese-speaking Australian journalists cover the visit.

I could sense, even then, the simmering anti-regime hostility that would erupt on Beijing streets in 1989. And diplomatic sources tell me that there was a real massacre of protesting students back in 1976 following anti-regime protests after former Premier Zhou Enlai died.

That was China then — when more media coverage of regime excesses would have been better than gushing reports of ping-pong friendship. But that is no excuse for the later media excesses over Tiananmen.

True, the regime does itself no service by its continuing crackdown on some of the 1989 student leaders. But an April 17 review in this newspaper of Philip Cunningham’s book, “Tiananmen Moon: Inside the Chinese Student Uprising,” — a book whose blurb on Amazon still manages to talk about a Tiananmen Square massacre — provides a clue.

It quotes one of the student leaders, Chai Ling, saying that creating a “sea of blood” might be the only way to shake the regime. If frustrated students leaving the square carried out those petrol bomb attacks on troops (in those days protesting citizens did not use petrol bombs), then the anger of the regime becomes a lot more understandable. But I doubt whether any of those responsible for the original phony story will get round to details like that.

Tiananmen remains the classic example of the shallowness and bias in most Western media reporting, and of governmental black information operations seeking to control those media. China is too important to be a victim of this nonsense.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat who specialized in Chinese affairs.

The Tiananmen Square Confrontation
Rewriting History for a new Generation

The Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) caused casualties to civilians in the side streets of Beijing when the army fought its way past barricades to arrive at Tiananmen Square. In the resistance to martial law, many PLA soldiers were also killed. Nevertheless, final examination of eye witness and video reports prove that no students were actually killed in Tiananmen Square. For a short period, the media downgraded the 1989 student protests in Beijing from The Tiananmen Square Massacre to The Beijing Incident. Despite this knowledge, media have once again started to impart conspiracy and horror to the PLA entry into Tiananmen Square and characterize it as a massacre of students.

This falsification of history, which appears deliberate — the facts have become well known – deludes a new generation and prejudices it against China. The distortion of the happenings within Tiananmen Square reduces the media’s credibility and leaves its open to charges of possibly misrepresenting significant current events.

Media Falsehoods

The media quickly sensationalized the 1989 confrontation between students massed in Tiananmen Square and the PLA. The truth of what happened became known after reports from reliable primary sources replaced the less reliable reports from secondary sources. The first hand accounts described a confrontation that came close to a battle but was peacefully settled. Students left the square without fatalities.

The original thesis — that the PLA massacred the students in Tiananmen Square — is being repeated. A few examples of the deliberate manner in which media are once again subtly distorting the1989 events at Tiananmen Square demonstrate media attempts at thought manipulation.

As the first example of exaggeration, the Columbia Journalism Review, September/October 1998 The Myth of Tiananmen and the Price of a Passive Press by Jay Mathews, quoted Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet the Press program of May 31, 1998:

… Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press, recall[ed] the deaths by machine guns on the Square of ‘ten thousand students.’

Ten thousand students? This is the same Tim Russert who received accolades as one of the U.S. most admired and honest commentators

John Pomfret, Washington Post Foreign Service, January 10, 2002, Corruption Charges Rock China’s Leaders, characterized the 1989 events in Beijing as, “the bloody crackdown around Tiananmen Square in 1989,” and an earlier subtle comment in the Washington Post, December 31, 2001, America’s Repressive Allies, moved the “bloody crackdown” into Tiananmen Square:

IN THE PEOPLE’S Republic of China, which is one of America’s new allies in the war against terrorism, a judge recently sentenced Wang Jinbo to four years in prison. Mr. Wang, 29, was found guilty of “subversion” after he reportedly e-mailed to acquaintances articles that were critical of China’s Communist government. Specifically, Mr. Wang seemed interested in promoting the view that Chinese students slaughtered by their government at Tiananmen Square in 1989 were not traitors but honorable champions of democracy.

The Post editorial was followed by an article by Richard Holbrooke, A Defining Moment with China, Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; Washington Post, January 2, 2002:

The Sino-American relationship will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world during the next cycle of history, much as the U.S.-Soviet relationship dominated world affairs for most of the last half of the 20th century. Getting it right is vital for our national interests.

Almost ignored in the current focus on Afghanistan, the Middle East and homeland security is an unexpected opportunity to improve that relationship. Call it a chance to start Phase Three. It began, as did so much else, on Sept. 11. Phase one lasted from Henry Kissinger’s ground breaking trip to Beijing in August 1971 until the massacre in Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3-4, 1989.

Former East Asia and Pacific Affairs diplomat Richard Solomon asserted on the MHz Network program China Forum, January 13, 2002:

I saw on CNN Chinese soldiers firing on students in Tiananmen Square.

Encyclopediaof the World entry for Tiananmen Square, P.1026, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001, 6th edition) includes the distortions in its entries with bold capitals:


Well known travel books describe the recent history of China with a similar distortion. From the Lonely Planet-China, 2000, a well known travel publication.

The number of deaths is widely disputed. Eyewitness accounts have indicated that hundreds died in the square alone, and it’s likely fighting in the streets around the square led to another several thousand casualties. The truth will probably never be known.

The Competing Facts

The most credible reporting of the events at Tiananmen Square is depicted in a video documentary entitled: The Gate of Heavenly Peace, © Long Bow Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved. This report contains video footage by a Spanish television crew and has been shown on public broadcasting (PBS) Frontline program and on nationwide PBS stations. The complete report and video can be accessed at A pertinent excerpt from the narration is shown below. The speakers are students and allied persons who protested at Tiananmen Square.

FENG CONGDE: At around 3:30, the four people on the hunger strike came to talk to the students. They said, “Blood is being spilled all over the city. More than enough blood has already been shed to awaken the people. We know you’re not afraid of dying, but leaving now doesn’t mean that you’re cowards.”

HOU DEJIAN: Chai Ling told us she had heard that leading government reformers hoped that the students could stay on the Square until daybreak. So Liu Xiaobo told her: “I don’t care if it’s true or not, but no leader has the right to gamble with thousands of students’ lives at the Square.”

FENG CONGDE: Finally our student headquarters told them, “You can go ahead and negotiate, but you can’t represent us.”

HOU DEJIAN: So we went ourselves. We got into a van and drove only a few seconds before we saw the soldiers, all lined up on Changan Avenue. As we got closer the soldiers pointed their guns at us. They didn’t know what we were up to. A few minutes later, an officer appeared. He listened to what we had to say and went to report to his superiors. He came back and told us that they had agreed to our request. He said, “We hope you can convince the students to leave the Square.” We rushed back to the monument to tell the students. Their opinions were divided.

NARRATION: There was little time to debate. The troops sequestered in the nearby Great Hall of the People now came out and moved toward the Monument. Soldiers with guns at the ready converged on the students from all directions.

LIANG XIAOYAN: The soldiers came right up in front of us. They were in full battle gear. The students all stood up. I was in the front row, with a gun pointing straight at my chest. It was only a few inches away. The soldiers looked really mean. Only later did the terror hit me. At the time I was simply stunned. I didn’t feel a thing. I can’t imagine what would have happened had they really opened fire.

FENG CONGDE: I was in charge of the vote to determine whether we should leave. I said, “On the count of three, those who want to go, shout ‘Go!’; those who vote to stay shout ‘Stay!'” I couldn’t tell which side was louder.

HOU DEJIAN: I knew that those who wanted to leave would be ashamed to shout very loud, while those who wanted to stay would shout with all their might.

FENG CONGDE: Because of this situation, I felt that when the two sides sounded about the same, most likely more people voted to leave. So I announced the decision to leave.

NARRATION: At dawn on June 4th, after occupying the Square for more than three weeks, all the remaining students and their teachers and supporters left Tiananmen Square.

HOU DEJIAN was born in Taiwan in 1956, became a singer-songwriter, and achieved fame with his 1979 song “Children of the Dragon.” During the protest movement, Hou took part in the four-man hunger strike of June 2nd. Chinese language newspapers (outside of China) published Hou Dejian’s account of the final hours in Tiananmen Squarequare. In one interview, Hou Dejian related:

Some people said that two hundred died in the Square and others claimed that two thousand died. There were also stories of tanks running over students who were trying to leave. I have to say that I did not see any of that. I don’t know where those people did. I myself was in the Square until six thirty in the morning. I kept thinking, are we going to use lies to attack an enemy who lies? Aren’t facts powerful enough? To tell lies against our enemy’s lies only satisfies our need to vent our anger, but it’s a dangerous thing to do. Maybe your lies will be exposed, and you’ll be powerless to fight your enemy.

The following excerpts are taken from Black Hands of Beijing: Lives of Defiance in China’s Democracy Movement, George Black and Robin Munro (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1993), pp. 234 – 246.The complete report can be accessed at:

The phrase “Tiananmen Square massacre” is now fixed firmly in the political vocabulary of the late twentieth century. Yet it is inaccurate. There was no massacre in Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3. But on the western approach roads, along Chang’an Boulevard and Fuxingmen Avenue, there was a bloodbath that claimed hundreds of lives when the People’s Liberation Army found its path blocked by a popular uprising that was being fueled by despair and rage. To insist on this distinction is not splitting hairs. What took place was the slaughter not of students but of ordinary workers and residents – precisely the target that the Chinese government had intended.

Imagination filled the gaps. Into the vacuum rushed the most lurid tales of the supposed denouement in the square. Wu’er Kaixi, flamboyant to the last, reported that he had seen “about two hundred students” cut down by gunfire in the army’s predawn assault, but it was revealed later that he had been spirited away to safety in a van several hours earlier. A widely recounted eyewitness report, purportedly from a student at Qinghua University, spoke of the students on the Monument being mowed down at point-blank range by a bank of machine guns at four in the morning. The survivors had then either been chased across the square by tanks and crushed, or clubbed to death by infantrymen. But it was all pure fabrication.

Excerpts from Columbia Journalism Review, September/October 1998, The Myth of Tiananmen and the Price of a Passive Press, Jay Mathews. For the complete article go to:
Note: Jay Mathews was the Washington Post’s first Beijing bureau chief and returned in 1989 to cover the Tiananmen demonstrations.

Over the last decade, many American reporters and editors have accepted a mythical version of that warm, bloody night (Ed: June 4, 1989). They repeated it often before and during Clinton’s trip. On the day the president arrived in Beijing, a Baltimore Sun headline (June 27, page 1A) referred to ‘Tiananmen, where Chinese students died.’ A USA Today article (June 26, page 7A) called Tiananmen the place ‘where pro-democracy demonstrators were gunned down.’ The Wall Street Journal (June 26, page A10) described ‘the Tiananmen Square massacre’ where armed troops ordered to clear demonstrators from the square killed ‘hundreds or more.’ The New York Post (June 25, page 22) said the square was ‘the site of the student slaughter.’

The problem is this: as far as can be determined from the available evidence, no one died that night in Tiananmen Square. 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.

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.

For example, CBS correspondent Richard Roth’s story of being arrested and removed from the scene refers to ‘powerful bursts of automatic weapons, raging gunfire for a minute and a half that lasts as long as a nightmare. Black and Munro quote a Chinese eyewitness who says the gunfire was from army commandos shooting out the student loudspeakers at the top of the monument. A BBC reporter watching from a high floor of the Beijing Hotel said he saw soldiers shooting at students at the monument in the center of the square. But as the many journalists who tried to watch the action from that relatively safe vantage point can attest, the middle of the square is not visible from the hotel.

The Tiananmen Papers, compiled by Zhang Liang (pseudonym) and edited by Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link, published by Public Affairs, 2001, contains transcripts of high-level meetings between April and June 1989. The Tiananmen Papers have been considered by the editors, both professors at major U.S. universities, to be authoritative transcripts from Chinese authorities. P.382 of the Tiananmen Papers has an excerpt from State Security Ministry, “Trends in Tiananmen Square,” fifth of six overnight faxes to Party Central and State Council duty offices, 6:08 A.M., June 4.

Many investigations have established that in the entire process of clearing the square, martial law troops did not shoot a single person to death and no person was run over by a tank.

Why are media deliberately mis-characterizing the events at Tiananmen Square?

After seven weeks of student occupation of Tiananmen Square the PLA had orders to clear the square of the student protesters who had refused several government orders to vacate. In the government’s view, China’s most important square had become a garbage dump that promoted anarchy and disease. The continous refusal of the students to leave the square threatened the government’s control. The reporting of the PLA clearing of the student protesters from Tiananmen Square is separate from the reporting of the army’s attack from entry into Beijing up to Tiananmen Square. The latter attack caused loss of life for those who battled the PLA in a city under martial law. A discussion of that attack requires other information than shown in this report and should consider the exigencies in combating martial law. The events are not unique to Beijing. U.S. government actions in suppressing riots of its African-American citizens in several U.S. cities also resulted in a huge loss of African American life.

The immediate fabrications of the happenings in Tiananmen Square undoubtedly proceeded from overzealous reporters who did not want to be scooped on their stories. In the turmoil, the confusing atmosphere and the efforts to publish dramatic accounts, the reporters accepted rumors and associated each gunfire sound with willful murder. The recent editorials and other articles, all of which should be aware of the lack of veracity in their accounts, must have other motives:

By intimating that a massacre occurred at Tiananmen Square, the media disguised the careless behavior of the students.The protesters were wise to neither combat the Chinese military nor sacrifice themselves for their cause. That is understandable. However, if they had left Tiananmen Square one day earlier, martial law would not have been proclaimed, the Peoples Liberation Army would not have entered Beijing, and the catastrophe and deaths would not have occurred.

The concocted scenarios exalt the exiled student leaders and create the impression they have already made their sacrifices and are excused from pursuing further actions. The inability of student leaders in exile to continue their protest efforts have made many question the programs and tactics of those who characterized themselves as a pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen Square. The scenario of the events of June 3-4, 1989 at Tiananmen Square has been rewritten to emphasize student heroism and attribute total brutality to the Chinese government.

Although within Tiananmen Square, eye witness accounts validate the restraint of a highly charged PLA, the earlier reports of a massacre within the square still remain as history. That history prevents circulation of the knowledges that within Tiananmen Square (1) no student was detained or arrested (several were detained later), (2) no attempt was made to block student exits, (3) the Chinese government’s statement that the army entered Beijing to clear the square of the protesters appears correct and (4) assertions that the government only intended to brutalize the students into submission are incorrect.

jan 16, 2002