“As far as can be determined from the available evidence, NO ONE DIED that night in Tiananmen Square.” What?! Who would make such a blatant propagandist claim? China’s communist party? Nope. It was Jay Mathews, who was Washington Post’s Beijing Bureau Chief in 1989. He wrotethis for Columbia Journalism Review.
In fact, many western papers – including the New York Times and Washington Post – occasionally have reiterated this point, only to go back to the “massacre” story. For example, in June 13, 1989, NY Times reporter Nicholas Kristoff – who was in Beijing at that time – wrote, “State television has even shown film of students marching peacefully away from the [Tiananmen] square shortly after dawn as proof that they [protesters] were not slaughtered.” In that article, he also debunked an unidentified student protester who had claimed in a sensational article that Chinese soldiers with machine guns simply mowed down peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square.
But did people die in China? Yes, about 200-300 people died in clashes in various parts of Beijing, around June 4 — and about half of those who died were soldiers and cops.
A Wikileaks cable from July 1989 also reveals the eyewitness accounts of a Latin American diplomat and his wife: “They were able to enter and leave the [Tiananmen] square several timesand were not harassed by troops. Remaining with students … until the final withdrawal, the diplomat said there were no mass shootings in the square or the monument.”
But what about the iconic “tank man”? Well, if you watch the whole video, you can see that the tanks stopped and let the tank man jump on the tank. He eventually walked away unharmed. In fact, there are almost no pictures or videos of soldiers actually shooting at or killing people (doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but it’s a point to keep in mind).
Propaganda involves not only exaggeration, but also omission. Western media rarely show pictures of tanks and military vehicles burned down or Chinese soldiers brutally killed by the Beijing protesters in 1989.
In an article from June 5, 1989, the Wall Street Journal described some of this violence: “Dozens of soldiers were pulled from trucks, severely beaten and left for dead. At an intersection west of the square, the body of a young soldier, who had been beaten to death, was stripped naked and hung from the side of a bus.”
So what exactly happened?
Hu Yaobang was the Chairman & General Secretary of the CCP. He was a “reformer” and was liked by young people. And he died on April 15, 1989. Without his death, there would probably have been no drama in China that year! College students initially gathered at the Tiananmen Square only to mourn his death.
Within a day or two after Yaobang’s death, the US realized that hundreds of thousands of young people would be congregating in Beijing. It was the perfect time for a coup, since the rest of the world was dismantling communism that year! Thus, on April 20, 1989 – five days after Yaobang’s death – James Lilley was appointed as the US Ambassador to China. He was a 30-year veteran from the CIA.
An article from Vancouver Sun (17 Sep 1992) described the role of the CIA: “The Central Intelligence Agency had sources among [Tiananmen Square] protesters” … and “For months before [the protests], the CIA had been helping student activists form the anti-government movement.”
To help the US intelligence, there were two important people: George Soros and Zhao Ziyang. Soros is legendary for organizing grassroots movements around the world. In 1986, he had donated $1 million – which was a lot of money in China in those days – to the Fund for the Reform and Opening of China. Over the next three years, Soros’ group had cultivated and trained many pro-democracy student leaders, who would spring into action in 1989. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) also opened offices in China in 1988. NED is also another regime-change organization.
And who would allow all these western fake NGOs? Zhao Ziyang, who was the Premier of China and the General Secretary of the Communist Party. He was a big fan of privatization and Milton Friedman. His close advisor, Chen Yizi, headed China’s Institute for Economic and Structural Reform, an influential neoliberal think tank. By the way, after the protests, Soros and his NGO were banned in China; Zhao Ziyang was purged and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life; and Chen Yizi escaped to America.
Another westerner who played a significant role in the Tiananmen Square agitations is Gene Sharp, who’s the author of Color Revolution manuals and the subject of an acclaimed documentary called “How to Start a Revolution.” He was in Beijing during the protests and wroteabout it. Of course, he didn’t reveal his role, but it’s not hard to imagine. The influence of westerners in Tiananmen Square is obvious, looking at all the large signs in English, expressing American ideals:
Two more facts to be noted are that the Chinese government did not impose a martial law until May 20, and there were no major clashes between the military and the people until the very end. Here’s a picture of protesters giving food to the Chinese soldiers:
As for the students, they were not a monolithic group. They fell under a few different categories:
- Those who suffered from economic malaise. Inflation was going through the roof in China in the 1980s. In 1988, prices of consumer goods and food went up 26%. College tuition was also going up, and many graduates couldn’t find good jobs. Ironically, all these were the result of liberalization and rapid transition to western-style economy.
- Idealistic young people who really wanted democracy, free speech, free press etc.
- Student leaders who were unscrupulous. Most top student leaders escaped from China – the CIA called it “Operation YellowBird” – right after the protests, came to the US, and went to Yale, Harvard, Princeton etc., thanks to generous help from the US government.
- Provocateurs and thugs who were in the minority, but could significantly escalate tension. This strategy based on mob-rule psychology works very effectively all over the world. Very few people, for example, realize that some of these provocateurs also had guns.
One of the student leaders of Tiananmen protests, Chai Ling, said during an interview, “I wanted to tell them [students] that we were expecting bloodshed, that it would take a massacre, which would spill blood like a river through Tiananmen Square, to awaken the people. But how could I tell them this? How could I tell them that their lives would have to be sacrificed in order to win?” She escaped from China a couple of days before June 4, 1989.
A massacre was needed to bring down the communist party. When it didn’t happen, the narrative of massacre was created. Because perception is reality. History is written by winners. And the people with the best narratives are winners. It’s a feedback loop.
China’s leaders may not be very good in the art of soft-power, but they understand that the Chinese history in the last two hundred years is filled with devastation from colonialism and civil wars. Stability and unity are not only core Confucian principles, but are paramount to China’s economic progress now. Furthermore, the geopolitical reality is that the US is trying to stop the rise of China. The propaganda about Tiananmen “massacre” only reinforces the Chinese government’s fear about the West’s intentions.
Will China be better off with free speech, free press and more transparency? Absolutely.However, that’s a journey that the Chinese society has to take in its own terms. Only China can decide the speed and direction of its reforms. While the Tiananmen events are tragic, there’s no doubt that the Chinese people appreciate the incredible progress the country has made since 1989.