Twenty-two years later, we still believe the Tiananmen myth

Twenty-two years after Tiananmen, and the fairy tale is still told with gusto.

On Wednesday, June 1st, 2011 I attended an event called "From Tiananmen to Tahrir Square," (TtoT) where five speakers attempted to draw parallels, distinctions, and lessons from the events of May-June, 1989 in China and the revolt in Egypt earlier this year.

Most of us, including that night's presenters, believe the Tiananmen myth, not the facts. That limits us. You can't really draw useful conclusions from what didn't happen.

The following statement pretty much sums up that myth: On June 4th, 1989, thousands of students demonstrating in Tiananmen Square for freedom and democracy were killed by soldiers of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), and their movement was crushed.

That statement is largely false. But most of us prefer to believe it in preference to what really happened. To be fair, it's the only story promoted by our media, so it takes some effort to find the real one. And few do, unless they get really interested, and go looking for further information. But the real story is the one we can actually learn from, and is much, much more interesting.

Among the TtoT presenters was Jan Wong, who was the Globe and Mail's China correspondent for six years, including during the events in question. She was among the creators of the above myth. She likes to regale audiences with the Chinese government's statement, shortly after the incident, that "no one died in Tiananmen Square." Audience members shake their heads in bemusement, tut-tutting over the perfidy of those communist liars, and Jan smiles prettily.

But, in fact, the statement is more true than Wong would have us believe. (And, of course, it's partly not.)

Here's what happened. I set out these facts with full confidence, having read many, many pages of reporting and analysis over the years, especially the reporting of those who, like Wong, were witnesses to the events in question, and I can say they're not really in dispute. We're just looking at the violence of that day, not who was right or wrong. That comes pretty easily from the facts.

  • The government of China declared martial law on May 20th, but very little happened initially.
  • The Politburo decided that the protesters were to be cleared from the Square, and authorized the Army to use force if necessary. There was some difficulty in setting up the operation, as some army units refused to participate. Eventually the 27th Army was brought from elsewhere in China, and set up positions around the city in late May.
  • Beijingers knew very well that troops were coming and what they had been sent to do, and organized to block them from reaching the Square. They were successful at one point in blocking a contingent of unarmed (unarmed!) soldiers from advancing.
  • Late the evening of June 3rd, armed soldiers advanced toward the square. That force too was met by protesters—students, workers, government functionaries, Beijingers of all stripes—in the area of the Muxidi apartments, several blocks from the Square. The protesters set upon the soldiers and their vehicles, attacking them with iron rods, Molotov cocktails, and other rudimentary weapons. Several soldiers were burned alive, and others were beaten to death. Though initially surprised by the ferocity of the attack, the Army began to fight back. Heavily outgunned, protesters were killed in the hundreds. However, this and other battles around but outside the Square were fierce enough that the Army columns were delayed for over two hours from reaching the Square itself.
  • When the Army reached the Square, they quickly surrounded the few hundred students that were left (many had joined the battles outside the Square), and a tense standoff occurred. After a couple hours, at the urging of Army officials, and possibly under the offer of an amnesty, the students decided to leave the Square, and walked in groups back to their universities.
  • As one group of students was proceeding back to university, several blocks outside the Square, a tank veered off the street and rolled over several of them. A photo of the dead and injured students is one of the icons of the Massacre. Young, world-class athlete Fang Zheng (who was also present at the TtoT event) was maimed in this incident, losing both his legs. (Fang reports that one of the students, seeing the tank about to drive past them, shouted obscenities at it. Good idea.)
  • There were many, many incidents subsequent to this of confrontations between unarmed civilians and soldiers, usually ending badly for the civilians. As Wong has reported, angry Beijingers would inexplicably edge forward in groups, confronting soldiers, and then flee when they were fired upon. Many were shot. The "tank man" photo, another icon of the incident, comes from this time period.
  • Subsequent to the crackdown in Beijing disturbances occurred in many cities in China, some of them violent. The most significant was in Shanghai, where students and workers left their classes and factories and blocked traffic and railways. In one incident, protesters attacked the crew of a train that had inadvertently run over some of them. Several people died as a result.

When Jan Wong talks about the 'Tiananmen massacre,' she's happy to leave the impression that the PLA murdered several thousand students in the Square as they demonstrated for freedom and democracy and sang "Kumbaya." However, there has been for many years no doubt that the huge majority of those who died were killed outside the Square. That includes the 70 or so police and soldiers who died, whose deaths are completely unexplained and forgotten by the Tiananmen Square myth.

Civilians died not because the perfidious Communist government ordered soldiers to shoot unarmed civilians, but because the soldiers involved found themselves in the position of having to defend themselves, and did what soldiers do. And, as in all such difficult, chaotic situations, once the soldiers start shooting, it's very, very difficult to get them to stop. Especially when they're scared.

While many critics of the Chinese government, including some at the TtoT event, claim the government ordered that the soldiers shoot protesters, we can be pretty sure that's not true. How do we know this? The government said the soldiers were actually under orders not to shoot, and when they reached the Square, and were no longer threatened, they did not shoot any of the protesters that were still there.

Here are some of the very, very interesting facets of the story that the Wong mythology leaves out:

  • One of the main reasons it took so long for martial law to effect the clearing of the Square was that there were huge disagreements in the Politburo itself about what to do. In fact, some Politburo members supported the students (and were later purged, including most notably General Secretary Zhao Zi-yang).
  • There were even elements of the PLA who supported the protests—the Beijing units were thought to be so sympathetic that they couldn't be trusted to get the job done.
  • Most accounts of the "6-4" (June 4th) events leave the impression that everything of any importance happened in the Square. In fact, much of Beijing was alive with protest, convulsed in it, demonstrations all over the place. It wasn't just students who met the Army, it was Beijing. Ordinary citizens were following events with great interest, despite the efforts undertaken to suppress the flow of information. Sympathy with the demands of the students—especially their anti-corruption stances—were very popular with, for example, workers. This was, as you can imagine, deeply embarrassing to a government justifiably known for its thin skins and repressive nature.
  • Ordinary Chinese were deeply disturbed that the PLA would be used against the people. Chinese are taught from an early age that the PLA is the friend of the people. Most found it quite outrageous. Many Beijingers, who can be a tad, er, convinced of their urbanity, were deeply offended that these soldiers with provincial accents had been sent to push them around.
  • The students weren't just demonstrating for freedom and democracy, though certainly they were. One of their demands was that the Politburo admit that it had been wrong when it had expelled former Politburo member Hu Yao-bang from the Party two years earlier, and that subsequent "anti-liberalization" campaigns had also been incorrect. I can imagine the average Politburo member's reaction when they heard that one! As far as the Politburo was concerned, the students were intervening in a Party question that had been decided at the highest levels, and was settled. But despite this and many other provocations over the period of the protests aimed at the Party's higher officials, most likely because the students had supporters at the highest levels, the Army was still under orders to behave itself if possible.
  • Most important, the students had tapped a deep, deep well of discontent in the general population that rocked the government of China to its core. That well of discontent is undoubtedly still there, and is evidenced in some of the protests, rights-seeking campaigns, and strikes we see in China today.

The Jan Wong view of the events of 1989 does an immense disservice to the ordinary Chinese people who were deeply affected by the demands of the students, were in agreement with them, and were willing to put their lives on the line to protect the activities in the Square.

That their astonishing courage in the face of heavily armed soldiers (and disregard of the repression that would inevitably follow) is almost entirely unacknowledged is, to my thinking, an outrage.

I can understand that it will be difficult for the average Canadian to understand that kind of heroism. Most of us can't imagine what set of circumstances we'd be willing to die for, or even that there could be one. We prefer that protesters be unarmed, non-violent, easily dispersed. Protesters attacking authorities makes us pretty uncomfortable.

Myself, I'm in awe of those who take up arms against repressive governments, and revere the memory of those Beijingers who fought so valiantly, if futilely. Violence is not always the best tactic, and may well not have been in China in 1989. But as Chou En-lai said, when asked what he thought about the French Revolution, "It's too soon to tell."

It's easy enough to say, and likely right to say, that if the government hadn't sent in the Army, none of it would have happened.

But consider this. In October of 1971 the Canadian federal government implemented the War Measures Act, in effect declaring martial law, when two citizens were kidnapped (one later killed) by the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ). Many people who had nothing to do with the FLQ were arrested and held without charge. Suppose thousands of Quebec students had marched to Ottawa, set up a tent city in front of the Centre Block, demanded that Pierre Trudeau admit he was a bonehead, erected a 10-metre high red star with a hammer and sickle in the centre, and then attacked and beat to death some of the police sent to expel them.

What would have happened?

On June 4th, let`s remember the true story of the valour of the Chinese people in the face of repression. May they eventually win what they seek.


This not a complete set of references, just the ones I remember and/or still have in my possession.

Simmie, Scott and Bob Nixon, 1989. Tiananmen Square. Douglas & McIntyre, Toronto. Simmie and Nixon were in Beijing at the time, Nixon as a "consultant with Chinese television." They provide a minute-by-minute description, maps, etc.

Fathers, Michael and Andrew Higgins, 1989. Tiananmen Square: The Rape of Peking. The Independent, London, in association with Doubleday. Fathers and Higgins were Asia Editor and Beijing correspondent for The Independent (UK) at the time. Maybe it's just me, but the use of the term "rape of Peking," undoubtedly deliberately evoking the Japanese "rape of Nanjing" during their invasion of China in the so-called "Sino-Japanese War" of 1937, and using the old "Peking" spelling of a city that had been known for several years, properly, as Beijing, should give a clue that the book is more of a cri de coeur for the protesters than a serious treatment of the events in question.

Munro, Robyn, 2009. "Remembering Tiananmen Square." The Nation, June 2, 2009. Ms. Munro's assertion that "[a] 'revisionist' trend currently emerging in some Western circles maintains that there was no massacre" is a surprise to me. I've never seen such a statement, and I would have been very, very interested to see one.

Chan, Anita and Jonathan Unger, 1990. It's a whole new class struggle. The Nation, January 22, 1990

And, of course, the Wikipedia blurb: Tiananmen square incident.


The Tank Man everyone—and no one—knows. This video is raw footage of the entire event (with stupid music added). While the Tank Man is astonishingly brave and deserves to be remembered, isn't this also a story about a line of tanks whose drivers refused to run over the Tank Man, even though provoked? It sure would be interesting to hear an interview with the driver of the lead tank! Note that one point a guy emerges from the tank and talks to the Tank Man.


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