A journalist’s view of the suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen protests
Tiananmen killings: Was the media right?
The first draft of history can be crude. Even if the thrust of a story is well described by journalists on the scene, some of its details might need refinement, and sometimes even correction. Such was the case with the massacre in Beijing on 3 and 4 June, 1989. I was one of the foreign journalists who witnessed the events that night….
On the morning of 4 June, reporters in the Beijing Hotel close to the square saw troops open fire indiscriminately at unarmed citizens on Chang’an Boulevard who were too far away from the soldiers to pose any real threat. Thirty or 40 bodies lay, apparently lifeless, on the road afterwards.
That scene outside the Beijing Hotel alone justified the use of the word massacre. But the students who had told me and other journalists of a bloodbath on the square proved mistaken.
Protesters who were still in the square when the army reached it were allowed to leave after negotiations with martial law troops (Only a handful of journalists were on hand to witness this moment – I, like most others at the time, had spent the night in various different parts of the city monitoring the army’s bloody advance). A few of the students were crushed by armoured vehicles some distance from the square after the retreat….
Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, who did some admirable detective work in Beijing hospitals in the weeks after the massacre, said in a report published on 21 June 1989 that “it seems plausible that about a dozen soldiers and policemen were killed, along with 400 to 800 civilians”.
The Chinese government was quick to exploit the weaknesses in our reporting. By focusing on what happened in the square itself, it began sowing seeds of doubt about the general accuracy of Western reports among Chinese who did not witness what happened.
At first this made little difference, since most Beijing residents at least had friends of friends who had seen for themselves that there had been a massacre, even if not in the square. But as the years passed, a new generation emerged with few eyewitness accounts to cling to. Public discussion of Tiananmen was taboo, and those who had lived through its horrors became increasingly disinclined to dwell on them….
Beijing was peaceful in the days leading up to the massacre and many students were beginning to grow weary of the protests. But it is not uncommon to find Chinese who believe the Communist Party’s fiction that there was a riot in Beijing on 3 June that warranted intervention. Rioting did occur, but involving angry residents outraged by the army’s brutal entry into the city.
I believe that eventually, as part of a process of political change in China, the government will revise its official account of what happened. We journalists have long since revised ours, but misleading terms persist. These terms can be faulted on points of detail. But their failing could also be said to be that they understate the magnitude of what happened.
There was no Tiananmen Square massacre, but there was a Beijing massacre.
Miles repeats the accepted view that few, if any, people died in Tiananmen Square itself. However, he is right to point out that the fact many reports were confused about where some deaths took place does not by itself diminish the validity of what else was said. Foreign journalists didn’t get their reporting all right, but much of what they had to say was correct.
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