Alternative Insight

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.

EncyclopediaE of 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


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