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Remembering Tiananmen Square | The Nation

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Remembering Tiananmen Square

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AP ImagesA Chinese protestor blocks a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. June 5, 1989 in front of the Beijing Hotel.

About the Author

Robin Munro
As a researcher in 1989 for Human Rights Watch in Beijing, Robin Munro witnessed first hand the weeks of pro-democracy...

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.

This account seeks to explain why the real massacre took the shape it did. It points to the regime's relative tolerance of the students and to its horror of the working-class unrest that threatened to turn the protests into full-fledged insurrection. It also looks at the critical implications of the fact that sections of the Chinese Army were clearly not prepared to carry out orders on the night of June 3-4.

Some people do accept that the bulk of the killing took place outside Tiananmen Square. Koppel, for example, in his June 29 special, noted the distinction but downplayed it as a "loophole" to be exploited by the Chinese government. But insisting on factual precision is not just a matter of splitting hairs. For the geography of the killing reveals much about the government's cold political logic and its choice of targets— as well as the likely scenario of the next round of pro-democracy struggles in China. The regime squandered its remaining popular legitimacy in a single night of bloodshed, and unless it can somehow learn the art of compromise, the fact that a sizable section of "the masses" was ready to fight back, together with the potential unreliability of the army, provides the ingredients for a possible replay of a Romanian-style revolt.

Journalism may be only the rough draft of history, but if left uncorrected it can forever distort the future course of events. Nothing serves the cause of China's students and laobaixing better than the unvarnished truth, for it speaks eloquently of their heroism and of the regime's cowardice and brutality. But Western criticisms based on a false version of the clearing of Tiananmen Square have handed the butchers of Beijing needless propaganda victories in the U.N. and elsewhere. They have also distracted attention from the main target of the continuing repression: the mass movement that eventually superseded the students' protest actions. The credit for inspiring the movement and upholding the banner of nonviolence will always belong to the students. But only by refocusing attention on the laobaixing will we understand why China, a year later, continues to be ruled by the jackboot, the rifle and the thought police.

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