Alternative Insight

The Legacy of Tiananmen Square

Part I- Harrison Salisbury's "Tiananmen Diary"


The Significance of Tiananmen
The opposition to a peaceful engagement with China clutch at emotional words to support their views- Tibet, human rights, state corruption, and most of all, the words Tiananmen Square massacre.
After many years,Tiananmen is still "plugged in" to antagonistic reports on China. Western media have irregularly debated and unevenly obscured the essential facts leading to the Tiananmen confrontation and the happenings throughout Beijing during those fateful months . Conventional history has not proprerly related truths, exact number of civilian and military deaths, the cause, and the faults of the tragedy. Nevertheless, the confrontation at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 has been well documented and can be verified. Was there a "massacre" of students at Tiananmen Square as reported by the BBC? Were rumors presented as facts, and if so, what does that tell us about the media and their presentation of other events on the Chinese mainland?

The Chronicle of Tiananmen
The book Tiananmen Diary, written by famed correspondent Harrison E. Salisbury and published by Little Brown & Company, provides a partial answer to the above questions. The documentary, "The Gate of Heavenly Peace", that circulated in institutions and was presented on PBS Frontline, completes the answers. Part I of this two part report examines Salisbury's Tiananmen Diary.

Harrison E. Salisbury journeyed to China to collaborate on a documentary marking forty years of the Chinese People's Republic. His assignment by Japan's NHK TV coincided with the events in Beijing during the first days of June, 1989. The Tiananmen Diary resulted from his brief stay during those fateful June days.

The Stage for Misrepresentations
The Publishers Note to Salisbury's book states:

In the study of history, we are taught to distinguish between primary and secondary documents, between voices that speak directly from their own experience and those that are filtered through another's memory or perceptions.

Through an outstanding coincidence, Harrison E. Salisbury has provided us with a firsthand account of the brutal massacre in Tiananmen Square, those days in June 1989 that shook the world. On assignment with a Japanese film crew making a documentary about the fortieth anniversary of the People's Republic of China, Salisbury found himself in a hotel room with a window on Tiananmen just as the student demonstrators and government troops slowly wheeled into position for their bloody confrontation.

The pages that follow record not only the terror and confusion in Beijing, but also the reaction in the countryside, where Salisbury traveled in the aftermath of the tragedy, and later, his reflections on why and how it could have happened.

The Publishers Note misrepresented the book. The narrative did not agree with the Notes.

The Contradictory Evidence in Salisbury's Words

June 2, Beijing Hotel, 4:00 PM- I was given a ridiculously elaborate three room suite on the seventh floor on the Changan side. The only virtue is the view from the balcony up to Tiananmen (Ed: not overlooking Tiananmen Square).

June 3, Beijing Hotel, 2:00 PM- (Ed: He is in Tiananmen Square for the first time in his trip.) As I stood staring at the scene a couple of young men took up their powerful loudspeakers and began to harangue the sparse crowd. What they were saying I could not guess. I wished that I had sense enough to learn the language so that I would not forever be having to depend on an interpreter or asking someone what was going on. No one seemed to pay attention to the speech.

I was almost out of the square when I bumped into a tall, thin Englishman in his early thirties. I think he was a Reuters correspondent. He told me what he thought had happened. About 2 AM, two or more bodies of troops had approached Tiananmen from different directions. Those coming from the east were on foot, marching up the street unarmed. They had been surrounded by ordinary citizens as they approached the square and had turned back in the direction from which they had come in a state of bewilderment. A second column from the west, was more impressive. It consisted mostly of troops in trucks escorting more troops in buses. The truck troops were apparently not armed. those in the buses were. The motorized outfit had moved at a fairly rapid pace and without opposition until an accident occurred, a truck hit some civilians and, the English reporter thought, two people had been killed, possibly more. The students said four were dead. (Ed: Note that Salisbury only thought the person was a Reuters correspondent and then later identifies him as an English reporter. Salisbury has not seen anything, and only repeats what he heard. And all he has heard is that there was an accident and not a deliberate killing.)

June 3, Beijing Hotel, Late Afternoon- I went back to my room and listened to a BBC broadcast. There had been some fighting between troops and the students in or around Tiananmen Square. That was new. So far as I had heard there hadn't been anything like that before. (Ed: Note that he had just come from Tiananmen and not seen anything unusual.)

June 3, Tiananmen, 10:00 PM- We went over to the Martyr's Column. Now standing in the declining sunshine. I listened to a student speaking through a bullhorn. I was surprised at the strength of the horn. I had read that the government loudspeakers around the square were so strong they drowned out the student calls. I don't see how that was possible with the volume these horns were throwing out. (Ed: He returns to Tiananmen and everything is still peaceful which contradicts the BBC report.)

June 4, Beijing Hotel, 4:30 AM- ..I am standing half-concealed in the heavy curtains at one side. Pick up my little radio...Can't find BBC so I tune VOA. Troops entered Tiananmen. Fired on crowd. Claim twenty three killed...Odd sensation--listening to broadcast coming from Washington, D.C., to find out what's happening a block and a half up the street.

June 4, Beijing Hotel, 7:00 AM- BBC reports big carnage in Tiananmen..Claim correspondents lay on floor of Beijing Hotel to avoid fire. That is probably an exaggeration. I certainly crouched down but never thought of lying on the floor.

June 4, Beijing Hotel, 7:10 AM- Talked to Charlotte (his wife) in Connecticut. She says a CBS correspondent and cameraman detained on Tiananmen Square. A Japanese correspondent is reported killed. (The report on CBS was correct--they were held about twenty hours. The report on the Japanese correspondent was not true.) (Ed: Salisbury does not state how he knew the facts he placed in parentheses.)

June 4, Beijing Hotel, 10:00 AM- ..young man--terribly excited--tells me that troops were now on the Beijing University campus, killing students right and left. (Ed: See 12:20 PM)

June 4, Beijing Hotel,11:30 AM- I would prefer to go out on the balcony, but I am frightened by the random shooting. So I sit inside beside an open window. I can hear the crowd and the shooting and look out when something is happening. And I have the little radio on the desk in front of me to pick up the news every hour.

June 4, Beijing Hotel, 12:20 PM- I met several exchange students who had walked to our hotel from the Friendship Hotel, which is out by Beijing University. They said that when they left early this morning there was no sign of any shoot-out by the troops surrounding the university, as the excitable young man had told me earlier.

June 4, Beijing Hotel, 6:00 PM- For no apparent reason that I could see, another brisk tatoo of automatic fire, from Tiananmen down Changan Avenue as usual. And the thinning crowd scattered like chickens on a dusty road. Not possible to see if anyone killed. BBC said that in Tiananmen one hundred students linked arms and faced the tanks. They were shot down. It is too sad to write. These brave innocent, idealistic kids. Far worse than MacArthur and the bonus marchers.

June 4, Beijing Hotel, 9:50 PM- Rumor: Students tried to escape the army when it entered the square by rushing into the underground passageway. Army put machine gun at head of steps, and mowed them down. That sounds flimsy. The passageway goes down a flight of steps and then makes a sharp right-hand turn, where it divides--one corridor goes straight up and another goes ahead maybe a hundred feet, then provides another flight up to the surface. So, technically it would have been difficult to mow everyone down unless you could shoot around a corner.

June 5, Beijing Hotel, 3:10 AM- Terrific outburst of cannonading. Just now, as I shake myself awake, there is lot of random shooting. Single shots from some kind of heavy gun and a whole column of tanks or troop carriers roaring and revving in the nearest traffic lane alongside the hotel. I am getting very cautious. I watch the column go by through the iron columns of the balcony. Finally they pass by, huffing and puffing and spitting an occasional shot up toward Tiananmen Square, of all things.

June 5, Beijing Hotel, 4:53 AM- Random firing in the square. What in God's name are they doing there? The fire has been intermittent, but continuous up there for more than twenty-four hours. That is not military action in my understanding of it. Are they carrying out some private executions?

June 5, Airport, 10:00 AM- I was just waiting for the 7:00 AM BBC to come on when Takeda telephoned. CCTV was picking us up in an hour to go to the airport to catch the plane for Wuhan....I listened to BBC. The death toll now believed to be in the thousands. I was astonished. All the calculations I had heard put it in the hundreds, maybe three hundred altogether. They said that more clashes were going on in the city. I could hardly believe that.

Charlotte (his wife, who is in Connecticut) was watching CBS. She had seen incremental footage of the PLA mowing down the kids on Tiananmen. There were rumors, she said, that internal air service had been suspended. This was widespread but not true.

There were a handful of bikers on Changchan (Ed: The street that runs by his hotel and after one and one-half blocks go past Tiananmenn Square) as we started out, but we avoided them by doubling back to the narrow entrance on Wangfujing, which flanks the east end of the hotel. This is Beijing's main shopping street, always crowded with people, and I was surprised to see that as soon as we slipped into it and got away from the intersection with Changan, which was still a tangled mass of burned metal and rubble-the carcasses of a number of buses and cars-Wangfujing Street was lively and filled with people on foot and bicycles.

(Ed: Salisbury leaves Beijing without being eyewitness to any killings or "massacre." He does not re-visit Tiananmen Square, which is only one and one-half blocks from his hotel, or attempt to verify the BBC reports.)

June 6, Wuchang, 8:00 AM- (Ed: Salisbury has left Beijing and is now in Wuchang.) I still can't get the situation of the Wuhan bridge straight. Our man claims thousands of students are on the bridge blocking traffic. But he also says they let workers and students and ordinary people pass, not soldiers. Someone broke the rear window of the officials' minibus when they came over. Not clear why. The Wuhan bridge is a double one--vehicular and pedestrian traffic on the top level, train traffic on the one below. I heard train whistles and train rumblings last night, so I am sure the trains are going through. Our man indignantly said, of course the trains are running, never been interrupted. But BBC says the train traffic was twice interrupted for several hours.

June 6, Wuchang, 5:00 PM- Toured Wuchang and I think our Hubei friend has greatly exaggerated the situation. I think that may go for other provincial areas. Not the chaotic picture he painted.....Today I saw the bridge with my own eyes, and in fact the NHK team took several bites of me posed against it for background....The bicycle-pedestrian traffic level of the bridge is controlled in some manner by the students, but judging by the traffic I saw from the riverbank where we did our filming, there is a continuous flow across the bridge that includes trucks, vans, minibuses, and ordinary vehicles.

The important thing I found was in the main shopping street, where 5 or 6 clusters of people gathered around students who had put up posters about the Tiananmen massacre. Some of them were boldly headlined "Nine Wuhan Students Killed in Tiananmen" and gave the names. No way of checking that death toll, but it seems modest considering how many Wuhan students went to Beijing.

There were no military around and no police. In fact, I hardly saw a traffic officer in the main streets.

June 7, Hankou, 6:30 AM- We got up at 5:00 AM, and crossed the Wuhan bridge at fifty miles an hour, the bridge clean as a whistle, a few early birds pedaling their cycles to work, a few trudging along. The reason we got up so early and whizzed across in the still murky dawn was, our Hubei friend insisted, because he heard there was going to be a student demonstration at 6:00 AM and also there was supposed to be a strike of workers. We saw no sign of either. No sign of anyone interfering with traffic. Just a lot of weary people slogging off to work.

June 9, Lushan, 9:00 PM- BBC today reported Beijing University deserted, students gone home or in hiding, waiting for the descent of the troops and police. Security police went to the Academy of Social Sciences, which I think of as China's future..Police moved in and were said to be sorting and carting away papers.

Later I heard this was not true. They did not take away any papers, but the army had moved into the academy.

June11, Nanchang, 9:15 PM- We wound up with one final shot. They wanted to have a picture of me standing at the window, peering past the curtains, as if watching Tiananmen from room 735 in the Beijing Hotel. The windows in the Hotel Jiangxi are much like those in the Beijing Hotel. They put a backlight on the balcony to create a more dramatic shot. I dutifully went to the window, pulled the curtains back and gingerly looked out.

Then I pulled back and said: "If you want a realistic shot, here is what I actually did." I dropped to my haunches and squatted behind the curtains, holding them narrowly apart to give me a slit of vision, as when I was watching the armored columns shoot up (Ed: ambiguous choice of words) Changan Avenue. That broke them up, but I don't believe they filmed the squat.


Part II- The Gate of Heavenly Peace
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July, 2000