New story emerges of an infamous massacre
On the 15th anniversary of one of the most cataclysmic events in modern China, a wealth of eyewitness testimony and interviews suggest that one stubbornly popular picture of what happened in Tiananmen Square needs revision: There was no massacre of students on the Square.Skip to next paragraph
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Standard histories such as that by Yale's Jonathan Spence, as well as the recent groundbreaking "Tiananmen Papers," suggest that Chinese soldiers did not fire on students before they left the square in the early hours of June 4, 1989. But in popular references, most recently in the first paragraph of a major retrospective wire story this week stating that "thousands were killed in Tiananmen Square," the myth persists. A massacre did take place in Beijing 15 years ago, eyewitnesses say - just not in Tiananmen.
What is famously known as the June 4 massacre actually began on the evening of June 3. The night was cool and windless, eyewitnesses remember. The student uprising that shocked China's leadership with calls for democratic reform, and that captured the attention of the world, was nine weeks old by then.
One exhausted protest leader remembers retiring at 10:15 p.m. on June 3 in one of hundreds of makeshift tents in the square - unaware, in a pre-cellphone era, that Army columns were already rolling in on a westerly road.
Many journalists and observers had earlier strolled three blocks to the Beijing Hotel for a relaxed dinner. By June 3, in fact, the Tiananmen story seemed in a lull, and many reporters were pulled back to Tokyo or Hong Kong. Just weeks earlier, 2 million people were arriving each day to China's most sacred public site. They were reacting to the imposition of martial law and the dismissal of reform leader Zhao Ziyang, who was sympathetic to the students, and who among other things appeared to favor the policy of glasnost that was changing the Soviet Union.
Yet by June 3 the numbers were down; the students were tired and squabbling.
Rumors came of an Army crackdown. But such rumors had swirled for weeks. Most students on the square at this point were not the original cast from the elite colleges of Beijing. These protesters had come from the provinces. Some arriving June 3 said they wanted to contribute to a "new China, less corrupt."
Few observers were prepared for what happened next.
In two hours, between midnight and 2 p.m., the slightly riotous, unorganized festival of meetings and exhilarated free speech on the square became a grim confrontation with an Army that surrounded the students, and was using live rounds against citizens in neighborhoods all over the city.
That night still lives in infamy to many who remember it. Chinese leaders remain silent about the event 15 years later. No mistakes have been admitted nor has any government accounting been done. In today's bustling commercial China, moreover, few speak of the brutal putdown. New generations here profess lack of interest in the question of who was and wasn't a patriot, or what transpired, not that there are any rewards for such curiosity.
What actually did happen June 3 - 4 is still often confused with myth and misreporting.
Early wire reports, including a second-day account by a Tsinghua student, now widely regarded as disinformation, and several assertions to the media by student leaders who were not present, planted some of the misconceptions that persist today. A British reporter (who left the square at 1:30 p.m.) for example, wrote a widely read account based entirely on secondhand sources who claimed a massacre took place in the square.
In fact, the panic was so intense that most impartial observers left the square by midnight. In those days, says one European journalist who was there, "no one ever believed that the Army would actually shoot people."
As few as 10 foreigners actually witnessed events on the square during the crucial early morning hours of June 4 , according to eyewitnesses interviewed by the Monitor, and an unpublished 52-page document compiled entirely in the weeks after by Robin Munro (then of Human Rights Watch) and Richard Nations (a Le Monde reporter) of 14 testimonials of journalists, diplomats, and students present on the square after midnight.
Despite orders that the People's Liberation Army was to clear Tiananmen Square using whatever means necessary, there is no credible eyewitness testimony of a massacre of students there. No eyewitnesses at the Monument to the People's Heroes, where students were centered, ever saw one. No "rivers of blood" flowed on the square. No rows of students were mowed down by a sudden rush of troops, as reported in European, Hong Kong, and US publications in the days, months, and years that followed.