This week marks twenty-five years since the People’s Liberation Army slaughtered hundreds, possibly thousands, of unarmed civilians while cracking down on the student-led protest movement in Beijing.
The Chinese government has marked the occasion, as it does every year, with a campaign of increased censorship. Authorities have detained, arrested or questioned dozens of dissidents in recent months, as Internet scrubbers work around the clock to expunge any reference to June 4, 1989, from the record. Few young Chinese know what happened that spring, and most who do dare not speak of it openly.
On the other hand, Western media far too often tells a distorted, simplified version of the story. Robin Munro, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in 1989, was one of few foreigners to witness the final moments in Tiananmen Square that fateful night. Writing for The Nation one year later, Munro sought to correct the popular misconception that students bore the brunt of state-sponsored violence, and that the massacre took place in the square itself. Not so, observed Munro, who watched firsthand the 3,000 or so remaining protesters safely exiting Tiananmen Square at dawn. In reality, “the great majority of those who died were workers, or laobaixing (“common folk”) and they died mainly on the approach roads in western Beijing.”
Munro’s clarification, “Who Died in Beijing, and Why,” shed essential light on the Communist Party’s true fear in 1989: a “full-fledged insurrection” by working-class citizens, who had come out in droves to support the young protesters in the weeks leading up to bloodshed.
“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,” Munro wrote. “Western criticisms based on a false version of the clearing of Tiananmen Square have handed the butchers of Beijing needless propaganda victories in the UN and elsewhere.”