Tiananmen Square (again?)

I know, it’s been over-discussed and picked over. But China Daily actually has an op-ed piece today on the subject, and it begs for comment. It’s rare to see any mention of this topic at all in the Chinese media, but it’s depressing (though not surprising) to see a story that is totally one-sided.

The gist of it is that the massacre is all a big myth, concocted by a Western press that lies its head off. Everyone’s lying about it. Reporters who I know personally are lying about it. The only ones telling the truth is the government.

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.

The usual Western media conspiracy, always out to harm China.

The editorial’s “argument” is that they found “some reporters in the square at the time” who said they saw no massacre, and that’s good enough for them, despite a mountain of evidence. Case closed.

This is weasly, because as everyone knows by now there was no massacre inside the square, as was first reported during “the fog of war.” Sometimes an uninformed journalist continues to refer to a massacre inside the square, and that is sloppiness. That there were shootings and deaths on side streets and other parts of town on June 4 — in other words, a massacre — is a matter of fact, just as it’s a matter of fact that an angry crowd killed a handful of soldiers. What is not known is how many were killed, but even if it was just a few it’s still a massacre. (My country had its own massacre, Kent State, in which four students were killed. A massacre is a massacre.)

I won’t labor the point with my own interpretation. Instead, let’s just go to some eyewitnesses.

First, Chinese author Ma Jian writes of his interview with a man who was in the crowd who had his arm crushed by a tank and is now an amputee.

“It happened right here,” he told me, “just by these white railings. A tank charged down Changan Avenue, and sprayed tear gas into the air. There was a big crowd of us. We were coughing and choking. We rushed on to the pavement, and I was squashed back against these railings. A girl dropped to her knees. I was grasping the railings with one hand to stop myself falling and with the other I offered her a handkerchief and told her to use it as a mask. Just as I was leaning over to hand it to her, another tank roared up and careered into us. Thirteen people were crushed to death but I only lost my arm. The tank commander knew exactly what he was doing.” He stared down at the patch of asphalt at his feet and then glanced nervously at the police vans parked on the other side of the road. It was rush hour; cars and taxis were streaming past us.

What a terrifying experience, I said, gripping the white railings.

“Yes, it was,” he replied quite calmly. “But I wasn’t truly afraid until I saw Deng Xiaoping on television, telling the martial law troops: ‘Foreigners say that we opened fire, and that I admit, but to claim that army tanks drove over unarmed citizens, that is a disgraceful slur.’ My scalp tightened. I was a living witness to the truth. What if one day they came to get me? … For two years I never dared go out at night, I never spoke about what happened. Policemen came to interrogate me almost every day, but none of us ever mentioned the tanks. Every anniversary of 4 June, the police would come to my house with pillows and mattresses and sleep on my bedroom floor. Just to stop me speaking to foreign journalists.”

Timothy Brook, who received a Ph.D. in History and East Asian Languages at Harvard University and taught in Shanghai:

The first rounds of fire catch everybody by surprise. The people in the streets don’t expect this to happen. There are a couple of hospitals right near Muxidi, and the casualties start showing up within 10 or 15 minutes of the first round of gunfire. The casualties run very high because people didn’t expect to be shot at with live ammunition. When they start firing, people say, “Oh, it’s rubber bullets.” Even after it becomes clear, even after they realize that the army is going to go ahead at any cost, people still pour into the streets. This is the amazing thing: People were just so angry, so furious at what was happening in their city that they were not going to step back and let the army do what it was doing. This is why the casualties from Muxidi on east towards Tiananmen Square were so high. This is the major military confrontation of the evening.

Self-described former Maoist and reporter for the Globe and Mail Jan Wong (same link as above):

That Saturday night the army started coming in … the city, and so the people rushed out again. This was becoming a regular occurrence: Every time people said, “The army’s coming,” everybody would rush out and stop them. And they rushed out this time, except the army shot them, and so they started running down the alleyways.

People in [the Muxidi] apartment buildings could hear all this. It was summertime and the windows were open, so they heard the gunfire; they heard people screaming; and they saw the soldiers shooting at people. They would lean out their windows and scream at the soldiers and curse them and throw things. I had that feeling myself. I wanted to throw things out the window of the Beijing Hotel because you just felt anger: “Why are you doing this to the people?” …

What they did was they just raked the buildings with their gunfire, and they were shooting people. People were being killed in their own kitchens because these bullets were very lethal. … They just shot at them because they were trying to get into the city. They had been ordered to take Tiananmen, and they were going to get there no matter what it took.

From Dr. Jiang Yanyong, the whistleblower who blew the cover of the conspiracy to convince the world there was no SARS in Beijing, and who was later harassed for his efforts:

I was chief of the department of general surgery on June 4, 1989. On the night of June 3, I heard repeated broadcasts urging people to stay off the streets. At about 10 p.m., I was in my apartment when I heard the sound of continuous gunfire from the north. Several minutes later, my pager beeped. It was the emergency room calling me, and I rushed over. What I found was unimaginable–on the floor and the tables of the emergency room were seven young people, their faces and bodies covered with blood. Two of them were later confirmed dead by EKG. My head buzzed and I nearly passed out. I had been a surgeon for more than 30 years. I had treated wounded soldiers before, while on the medical team of the PLA railway corps that built the Chengdu-Kunming Railway. But their injuries resulted from unavoidable accidents during the construction process, while before my eyes, in Beijing, the magnificent capital of China, lying in front of me, were our own people, killed by our people’s army, with weapons supplied by the people.

Even eyewitness Philip Cunningham, who often supports the CCP, wrote of that day,

The Tiananmen demonstrations were crushed, cruelly, breaking the implicit pact that the People’s Liberation Army would never turn its guns on the people and burying student activism for many years to come, but not before inspiring millions in China and around the world to push for reform and change, heralding the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

The editorial repeats all the cliches of the deniers. Referring to a book by Philip Cunningham, it says:

It quotes one of the student leaders, Chai Ling, as having said that creating a “sea of blood” might be the only way to shake the government. If frustrated students leaving the square carried out those petrol bomb attacks on troops, then the anger of the government 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.

There were some attacks on troops, and that hasn’t been denied. But most of the demonstrators leaving the square did so peacefully. Most of the shooting was not in response to petrol bomb attacks. And one foolish and out-of-context quote from Chai Ling does not make for an excuse for a massacre. Blogger Xu Eberlein, one of my favorites, adds some nuance:

Reading excerpts of the newly published Tiananmen Moon by Philip Cunningham, the very journalist who interviewed Chai Ling 20 years ago, made me feel that Chai Ling might have been more innocent than some have thought. Although her idea of using bloodshed to arouse people was hardly a moral one, she appeared to be sincere and serious about the student movement and was indignant toward some other selfish power-thirsty student leaders. As such, I’d like to believe the young Chai Ling twenty years ago was a humanly imperfect idealist, as young activists are. If she sometimes took herself too importantly, it was largely because of the situation: being young and the leader of a mass movement can carry anyone away.

I can go on and on with more testimony from reporters and Chinese citizens who were all there and whose stories are strikingly similar. I can cite the Tiananmen Mothers. There is no shortage of proof. And this isn’t about whether the students were right or wrong, or whether there was or wasn’t violence on both sides. There remain many unanswered questions about June 4, and there’s no doubt blame on all sides. And there’s no doubt that in the confusion and violence there were contradictory stories that got large public play (just as we saw after the killing of Bin Laden). Fog of war. There are myths, such as reports of a massacre inside the square. But the fact remains, many peaceful citizens who had left the square were fired upon in back alleys and many died. Hundreds? A thousand? We’ll never know, but the CCP, which keeps meticulous records, does know.

It’s good that China Daily is at least discussing the subject. A pity it’s the same old China-as-victim, Western-media-as-villain nonsense.

June 4th may not mean much to most Chinese today, and even those who were directly involved have moved on, and some would rather just forget about it. I understand that. But truth is truth, history is history, facts are facts. The CD editorial is another effort to bury the truth and cast all the blame on foreign media. This is an easy out, and is used whenever China has something to hide. Claiming all the media are lying seems kind of crazy. It’s a conspiracy theory, as nutty as claims by some that China is conspiring to take over the world. Do they really believe all the reporters and eyewitnesses colluded to mislead the world? Only China would make a claim like that.

Update: Gotta love this line from the comments:

The Chinese press is truely independent from the truth and our wise leaders make sure that there is no wrong or incorrect information in the news. This is the correct and scientific way with Chinese characteristics. And it makes me proud to be a Chinese.

I am assuming this is parody. At least I hope it is.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 84 Comments

For the sake of newcomers, you should leave Math’s comments up, Richard, even if they are old ones. Kids deserve a chance to read classics from the past (it’s not like we expect the Rolling Stones to keep creating new hits). I think we can all agree that Math, unlike Merp, Pug or Red Star who are just pricks, really took bat-shittery to a new level.

July 19, 2011 @ 5:53 pm | Comment

@Jason – I have no argument with people saying that the massacre should be accurately described, my problem is with those who try to make out that because the majority of people killed were not killed in the square, then the massacre did not happen. I also have a problem with those saying that because some of the people in the square fought back after the army entered the square, then it was not a massacre.

Read the history of any great historical event and you will find seemingly conflicting accounts.

As an example, during the Falklands war, on several occasions Argentinean pilots swore that they had seen their comrades hit and sink British ships when in fact nothing of the sort had happened. These men were not lying, but merely had made the wrong interpretation of rapidly moving events. The same happened with dozens of British sailors claiming to have seen aircraft shot down which they had actually failed to hit – once again, they were not lying, but were merely deceived by the evidence of their eyes.

However, after the conflict, once all the reports and records were gathered, there was a striking agreement as to what had happened. Differences in reports could all easily be explained as heat-of-the-moment misinterpretations, or over-optimistic interpretation of known data (like the several Argentinian claims to have sunk HMS Invincible).

Similarly, there is a striking agreement between those eye-witnesses in and around the square and the journalist’s description of events. They both describe gunfire from the army. They both describe the people killed as unarmed. They both describe the majority of those shot as ordinary citizens.

Watch John Simpson’s report above – all of it can be seen quite clearly – you see the army enter the square, and then afterwards you see and hear heavy gunfire – whether from the square or from the area around the square it is impossible to tell from his vantage point. Watch Kate Adie’s report – all those in the hospital are civilians, most of them appear to be ordinary citizens, she states quite clearly that the gunfire she saw was in the area around the square.

Then watch the eye-witness accounts. They appear in the main to have been ordinary civilians. They describe being pursued down the alleyways by soldiers firing live ammunition. They describe tanks running over civilians – something that there is also photographic evidence of.

From all the evidence available this was a massacre.

July 19, 2011 @ 7:10 pm | Comment

Jason, a simple question to you (once you’ve read FOARP’s post). Do you deny that civilians were massacred by the PLA or Chinese paramilitary forces in BEIJING?

July 19, 2011 @ 11:30 pm | Comment

The “inside or outside” the Square garbage is the only thing that trolls like Jason could cling on to felt better about themselves for every single year since 1989. Just give it to him as a consolation candy.

July 20, 2011 @ 1:30 am | Comment

Apologies if anybody here mistakenly thought I was joking about Nanking.

July 20, 2011 @ 8:36 am | Comment

@Jason, a simple question to you (once you’ve read FOARP’s post). Do you deny that civilians were massacred by the PLA or Chinese paramilitary forces in BEIJING?

Why would you think I would deny that protestors were killed by PLA? I have always stand that this massacre happened but not in Tiananamen Square.

@The “inside or outside” the Square garbage is the only thing that trolls like Jason could cling on to felt better about themselves for every single year since 1989.

@sshole. (Sorry about the language, Richard)

July 20, 2011 @ 1:22 pm | Comment

“I have always stand that this massacre happened but not in Tiananamen Square.”

I guess what people are failing to see is the relevance of this in the grand scheme of things.

It matters greatly that people were killed that night, but whether they were killed on the square or within the few square miles around it is not so important, although it is something that has been clarified in reporting.

Much the same goes for the identity of those killed -as far as I am concerned the fact that it was ordinary people rather than students who were killed is important mainly in that it indicates the general level of support the students had, and the indiscriminate nature of the army’s crackdown.

July 20, 2011 @ 2:28 pm | Comment

I have read essays by Ding Zilin documenting people who were killed in the square- hence, those who say that there was no blood shed on the square are not being honest. Sure, “Tiananmen Massacre” might be something of a misnomer, but I wouldn’t cast doubt on Nanjing just because some killings took place outside of the city limits- as they did, of course, in the areas between Yangzhou and Nanjing. But I’m not about to write an article called the Myth of Nanjing because logically this makes no sense- no matter where killings occured.
ANyway, I can’t find the names of people killed in the square, as I don’t have Ding’s books with me at the moment- because I’m in China, of course. Speaking of which…
I think that in order to clarify this entire affair, and to make sure that there are no more misunderstandings, China should allow open discussion of the events of 1989! That would make it easier to clear things up. But I’m not holding my breath….

July 20, 2011 @ 9:16 pm | Comment

If a massacre didn’t happened on the exact place where it was said to have happened, the massacre didn’t happened at all!

No matter if the massacre occurred 10 meters (+/- 1cm) beyond that location….

Like if we said that the jews were gassified in small buildings outside the concentration camp, therefore… there were no death concentration camps at all!!

July 20, 2011 @ 9:46 pm | Comment

Tangentially off-topic


Civilian starvation

Large numbers of civilians starved in the siege; estimates range from 150,000[4] to 330,000[1]. The besieging Communist forces allowed Nationalist soldiers to leave, but forcibly prevented civilians from doing so, hoping to pressure General Zheng Dongguo, leader of the Nationalist forces, into surrender.
The incident was reported in a book published by the People’s Liberation Army Publishing House in August 1989, two months after the Tiananmen Square incident. White Snow, Red Blood, by Lieutenant Colonel Zhang Zhenglu, stated that 150,000 civilians starved to death during the siege, and that civilians attempting to leave the city were turned back to put pressure on the KMT garrison’s food supply. Lt. Col. Zhang opined that the Chinese Revolution was “not worth the cost.”, and praised Lin Biao’s military skills as superior to Mao Zedong’s[4].

July 20, 2011 @ 9:49 pm | Comment

China Is Wordless on Traumas of Communists’ Rise (The New York Times)


“They only know the propaganda,” he said. “Maybe if they know how horrible war is, they can try to avoid it in the future.”

July 20, 2011 @ 10:13 pm | Comment

@Ecodelta – On the other hand, the Allies besieged both Germany and, even more so, Japan, causing many deaths through starvation. This, as well as the fire-bombing of cities, the demolition of dams, the bombing and strafing of civilian cars, was done both to sap the fighting power of the Axis, and to destroy their will to fight.

As I’ve said with Chiang Kai-Shek’s demolition of the Hua Yuan Kou dams (which I would liken to Operation Chastise ) so I’ll also say about the siege of Changchun – it was a terrible act, but justifiable under the conditions of total war reigning at the time.

July 21, 2011 @ 1:19 am | Comment


Even if retards know that your “argument” wasn’t even worth the fecal waste that comes right through the back orifice because the main point for June 4 was that a cold blooded regime turned its guns and tanks against its own citizens. #59 has just called your bluff.

July 21, 2011 @ 1:40 am | Comment

@SP123 – Actually, on this thread, Jason, who is not necessarily the same Jason as the one we are familiar with, has not denied the massacre occurred. I think it is fair to question the motives of people who do make this kind of criticism, but I think your criticism is over-the-top and un-necessary

July 21, 2011 @ 1:45 am | Comment

FOARP, I agree that sp’s comment is a bit harsh. His point may be correct, but the way he says it is, as you say, over the top.

By the way, it IS the same Jason from the Falun Gong thread. I can see that from the backend control panel.

July 21, 2011 @ 1:56 am | Comment

It’s good to control ones emotions and language. But to be fair, to call sp an sshole is over the top, too.

July 21, 2011 @ 2:10 am | Comment


Justrecently in #66 has done a perfect job in explaining why i used those words on Jason.

Of course, Jason did not deny the massacre. But what’s his motive to move the discussion to whether the massacre took place inside or outside the Square on that fateful night/early morning 22 years ago? It’s a blatant, downright despicable attempt to create a red herring to distract from the real issue: The CCP has committed outright murder, whether inside or outside the Square.

July 21, 2011 @ 2:18 am | Comment

Gotta agree with SP here. This is a very familiar tactic I’ve seen trolls use on thisand other sites to derail threads on the TSM. No one is falling for it.

July 21, 2011 @ 2:54 am | Comment

Do not agree with you foarp. A civil war is different from a war against a foreign enemy.

And a people’s army using civil population as weapon?

In our civil war, in the Ebro offensive, there were atempts to surrender enemy units through starvation. Mostly failed. When a commander asked the reason, a soldier answered. I can kill my brother in a fight, but I will never allow him to starve to death.

What the red army did was totally despicable and can no compare with other acts done in WWII. It is very different, even rather aseptic, to fire bomb a city feom 6000m high or blockade a coutry to starvation, but to send starving people back to a death by hunger…. At gunpoint. Your own people.

A reason to send the officer to he’ll, or shot him if he insist in that barbarity.

July 21, 2011 @ 3:27 am | Comment

If he has not yet been mentioned –there is the courageous Fang Zheng, an elite runner whose legs were crushed by a tank on June 3-4. His story is fairly well documented on the internet, and a few years ago he was fitted with donated prosthetics in the U.S., which generated more news coverage of what happened to him in 1989, and later (how, for example, the Chinese govt prevented him from participating in the 2008 Paralympics because of the “sensitive nature” of his disability.



July 21, 2011 @ 9:45 am | Comment

Have I been blocked/blanked? Confused 🙁

July 21, 2011 @ 11:59 am | Comment

@ecodelta – The firing on civilians I do not condone. But it must be said – had the KMT commander surrendered sooner, the deaths would have been avoided – this was the entire point of the siege. Once the siege was over the Communists did not persist in trying to kill the population of the city (except in as much as they sought to eliminate ‘class enemies’ in every city they captured).

July 21, 2011 @ 12:35 pm | Comment

Had the “people’s liberation army” allowed civilians to evacuate the city, the deaths would have been avoided…

July 21, 2011 @ 1:37 pm | Comment

The fascination with the precise location where the killings occurred is, on some level, pointless. Sure, historical/factual accuracy is important. So reporters should aspire to attain that level of accuracy, and early reports of the event were lacking in this regard. But in this case, is the key aspect of the event the exact location, or the event itself? Clearly, it is the latter. So technically, TAM massacre is a bit of a misnomer…but then so is the Boston Marathon, which actually starts in Hopkinton MA. But the “Hopkinton to Boston Marathon” is needlessly verbose, just as the “neighbouring streets outside TAM massacre” is needlessly verbose.

July 21, 2011 @ 1:37 pm | Comment

The Boston Marathon is a myth.

July 21, 2011 @ 2:41 pm | Comment

… as is the section of Kansas City that’s in Missourri.

July 21, 2011 @ 2:42 pm | Comment

This long within-or-without-Tiananmen thread may not be deemed desirable, but it’s probably good that it has been thoroughly discussed here. As the issue is indeed frequently brought up not for the sake of accuracy, but to create distractions, I’ll link here every time I’m getting involved into discussions with similar characteristics.

The discussion isn’t necessarily pointless, Cheung (#73), but if they need to be discussed, I believe the point Tatiana made much earlier (#8), and possibly my own earlier points (#15, about the possible intentions of the English-language article; #50, about the competing historians) would need to be discussed, too.

July 21, 2011 @ 3:41 pm | Comment

@Kevinnolongerinpudong –
As is the London marathon, and in fact, London itself, most of which is outside the official City of London. Same goes for the Tour De France which often goes outside France.

In fact, most of history hasn’t happened – which, thinking about it, is just as well.

July 21, 2011 @ 7:11 pm | Comment

I think we’ve made our point pretty well.

Annie, no you’re not blocked.

July 22, 2011 @ 12:38 am | Comment

Just to make the point clearer, I forwarded the Boston Marathon scoop to the lovely China Daily. Really hoping they’ll follow up on it… those shady Westerners seem to engage in this type of misinformation quite often- as FOARP demonstrated with his knowledge about marathons in the other waiguo, Europe!
If the foreigners can’t get their own marathons straight, what hope is there for them grasping massacres with chinese characteristics?
Just really have to hope their silly misunderstandings won’t stand in the way of an eventual application for a Guinness Record for “most civilians killed in capital by own army in one night!”

July 22, 2011 @ 3:14 am | Comment

To Kevin,

“westerners” are definitely factually challenged when it comes to locations…especially in sports, it seems. As further examples, the Phoenix Coyotes (hockey) actually play their home games in Glendale. The New York Jets and New York Giants (football) both play their home games in Giants Stadium, which happens to be in East Rutherford, New Jersey. But they tend to be more accurate when it comes to social upheaval events. For instance, Kent State happened on Kent State campus. The LA riots happened in LA. So yeah, absolutely China Daily can question the existence of the event itself simply based on the location inaccuracy as supplied by western media, since they had previously shown themselves to be fairly accurate when it comes to other social upheaval events. I mean, just look at their logic. Western media can be accurate with factual details when reporting social unrest. So when some facts were inaccurate wrt their TAM reporting, it must mean that the entirety of that reporting was inaccurate as well. It’s top shelf stuff.

July 22, 2011 @ 1:23 pm | Comment

All very true. But remember – exact location doesn’t only matter to the CCP when it comes to Tian An Men (the place of many previous patriotic manifestations, but to the Democrats, too. While I can’t really prove my point, I find it easy to believe that the Western press was more inclined to follow the democrats’, than the CCP narrative. The latter became rather absent shortly after the events, and until very recently, anyway.

July 22, 2011 @ 3:48 pm | Comment

[…] are some great sites I like to read and they discuss some important issues. Interestingly, the site Peking Duck recently spoke of an example of the censorship and of rewriting history. I thought it was an […]

July 22, 2011 @ 11:20 pm | Pingback

To be fair, the Boston marathon does end in Boston, the City of London is actually in London, and the Tour de France always goes through France.

If you’re looking for a true misnomer, you should rather go with something like the world-famous Paris-Dakar rally, which has been taking place for some time now in… Chile and Argentina.

Another misnomer would be “The People’s” Republic of China 🙂

July 27, 2011 @ 11:11 pm | Comment

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