Spinning the Battle for Bejing

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Much the way supporters of United States government downplay civilian casualties resulting from United States military campaigns, the Workers World Party, a neo-Communist organization, denies that Chinese troops massacred students in Tienanmen Square. The Workers World Daily is not alone in denying a massacre occurred in the Square. The prestigious Columbia Journalism Review published an article in 1998 in which Washington Post education reporter Jay Matthew’s admits his own inadvertent misinformation and says the press fails its duty to the Chinese people by hastily summarizing events of that morning. Yet some shrill propagandists persist in comparing accurate accounts of the June 4 fighting to neofascist denials of mass murder in World War II Germany.[1][2]

According to conflicting accounts, during an urban warfare action designed to regain control of their capital city, Chinese government troops on June 4, 1989, reportedly killed some number between a few hundred and three-thousand of their fellow Chinese citizens, including workers, Bejing residents, dissident soldiers, site-seers and students (source: original interviews with eyewitnesses who were Bejing residents or who visited the capital as students at the time). Peoples Liberation Army soldiers also died, some beaten and burned by civilian combatants. The WWP interpretation of events echoes the Chinese government's claim that no one was killed in the square itself. By all historic accounts, organized non-violent protesters left the Square when soldiers arrived. To this day, ballistic pock-marks found along Chang'an Boulevard but absent in the Square attest to the veracity of the Chinese governments version of where shooting occured. w:Wikipedia has an article on the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, which notes that the Chinese government's claim "appears to be technically true, but misleading in that it does not account for the causalities in the approaches to the square. ... Estimates of the number of civilians killed range up to 2,600 (Chinese Red Cross). Injuries are generally held to have numbered from 7,000 to 10,000."

Note that while Wikipedians acknowledge the truth of WWP and the PRC's language, they make no similar allowance for debate about whether a "holocost" occured in mid-20th Century Germany. And note that Wikipedia does not claim the "civilians" who died along Chang'an Boulevard and elsewhere in Bejing were primarily "students."


From Columbia Journalism Review September/October 1998

The Myth of Tiananmen And the Price of a Passive Press
by Jay Mathews
Mathews is an education reporter for The Washington Post. He was the paper's first Beijing bureau chief and returned in 1989 to help cover the Tiananmen demonstrations. With his wife, Linda Mathews, he is the author of One Billion: A China Chronicle.

"The resilient tale of an early morning Tiananmen massacre stems from several false eyewitness accounts in the confused hours and days after the crackdown. Human rights experts George Black and Robin Munro, both outspoken critics of the Chinese government, trace many of the rumor's roots in their 1993 book, Black Hands of Beijing: Lives of Defiance in China's Democracy Movement. Probably the most widely disseminated account appeared first in the Hong Kong press: a Qinghua University student described machine guns mowing down students in front of the Monument to the People's Heroes in the middle of the square. The New York Times gave this version prominent display on June 12, just a week after the event, but no evidence was ever found to confirm the account or verify the existence of the alleged witness. Times reporter Nicholas Kristof challenged the report the next day, in an article that ran on the bottom of an inside page; the myth lived on. Student leader Wu'er Kaixi said he had seen 200 students cut down by gunfire, but it was later proven that he left the square several hours before the events he described allegedly occurred.

"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.

"A common response to this corrective analysis is: So what? The Chinese army killed many innocent people that night. Who cares exactly where the atrocities took place? That is an understandable, and emotionally satisfying, reaction. Many of us feel bile rising in our throats at any attempt to justify what the Chinese leadership and a few army commanders did that night.

"But consider what is lost by not giving an accurate account of what happened, and what such sloppiness says to Chinese who are trying to improve their press organs by studying ours. The problem is not so much putting the murders in the wrong place, but suggesting that most of the victims were students. Black and Munro say "what took place was the slaughter not of students but of ordinary workers and residents — precisely the target that the Chinese government had intended." They argue that the government was out to suppress a rebellion of workers, who were much more numerous and had much more to be angry about than the students. This was the larger story that most of us overlooked or underplayed.

"It is hard to find a journalist who has not contributed to the misimpression. Rereading my own stories published after Tiananmen, I found several references to the "Tiananmen massacre." At the time, I considered this space-saving shorthand. I assumed the reader would know that I meant the massacre that occurred in Beijing after the Tiananmen demonstrations. But my fuzziness helped keep the falsehood alive. Given enough time, such rumors can grow even larger and more distorted. When a journalist as careful and well-informed as Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief, can fall prey to the most feverish versions of the fable, the sad consequences of reportorial laziness become clear. On May 31 on Meet the Press, Russert referred to "tens of thousands" of deaths in Tiananmen Square.

"The facts of Tiananmen have been known for a long time. When Clinton visited the square this June, both The Washington Post and The New York Times explained that no one died there during the 1989 crackdown. But these were short explanations at the end of long articles. I doubt that they did much to kill the myth.

"Not only has the error made the American press's frequent pleas for the truth about Tiananmen seem shallow, but it has allowed the bloody-minded regime responsible for the June 4 murders to divert attention from what happened. There was a massacre that morning. Journalists have to be precise about where it happened and who were its victims, or readers and viewers will never be able to understand what it meant.

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