The Tiananmen Square massacre remains shrouded in myth. This eyewitness report by a Human Rights Watch observer makes the horror plain.
Among the revolts that ignited the Communist world in 1989, China’s was the great failure. On the night of June 3-4 the Chinese Communist Party showed the world that it would stop at nothing to maintain its monopoly of power.
But what exactly did happen that night? Few modern events have been covered as intensively by the Western news media as the Tiananmen Square democracy movement. Yet in crucial respects the denouement remains shrouded in myth. In the immediate aftermath, some basic notions took hold: Journalists spoke routinely of the slaughter of students, of “the massacre in Tiananmen Square.” A year later, that phrase has become the official shorthand for what happened in Beijing.
A “revisionist” trend currently emerging in some Western circles maintains that there was no massacre. That is preposterous. A massacre did take place—but not in Tiananmen Square, and not predominantly of students. The great majority of those who died (perhaps as many as a thousand in all) were workers, or laobaixing (“common folk,” or “old hundred names”), and they died mainly on the approach roads in western Beijing. Several dozen people died in the immediate environs of the square and a few in the square itself. But to speak of that as the real massacre distorts the citywide nature of the carnage and diminishes the real political drama that unfolded in Tiananmen Square.
Hundreds of reporters were in Beijing that night, but very few were present for the climactic clearing of the square by the army. Many were on the real killing grounds of western Beijing, along Changan Boulevard and Fuxingmen Boulevard, and reported vividly and accurately on what they saw. Some had been arrested, and others were pinned down behind roadblocks. Others still were back in their hotels for early-morning filing deadlines. Most who were in the vicinity of the square when the army arrived, however, left quickly and out of legitimate fear for their safety.
But there were also more profound questions about how the Western media saw their role in the events in Beijing. The whole world was watching, and reporters often saw themselves as guarantors of the students’ safety. There was something in the pacifist idealism of the students that triggered memories of the 1960s and the civil rights movement, riveting Western attention on the students and causing the crucial role of the laobaixing to be largely overlooked.
And there was more: some predisposition, perhaps, on the media’s part to believe in a massacre in the square as the necessary consummation of an allegory of innocence, sacrifice and redemption. The students’ own language may have contributed to this. On May 13 the hunger strikers in the square declared, “Our bodies are still tender and not full grown, and the prospect of dying frightens us all; but history calls us and we must go.” Writer Ross Terrill, interviewed on a June 29 ABC special by Ted Koppel, recalled one student telling him, “We are now ready to face death, and we don’t want you to have to be part of that. Please go home.” And the reporters, for the most part, did so. Into the resulting vacuum rushed the most lurid tales of what then supposedly took place.