Remembering Tiananmen Square
Jude Wanniski
June 4, 2004


Memo To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: What Really Happened

The Tiananment Square Massacre of June 4, 1989 is being remembered today on its 15th anniversary by editorialists throughout the country and around the world. Most Americans believe there really was a "massacre" at Tiananmen because the reporting at the time said so and it is very difficult for the national news media to correct itself after it has made such a splash. The editorials I've seen today are careful to avoid the term "massacre," when the best evidence is that the deaths of Chinese students, civilians, protesting workers and police and militia numbered in the hundreds, not thousands, and that there never was an order from on high to shoot anyone -- and that there were no deaths on the Square itself. They occurred a mile away under unusual circumstances. Yet the editorials still insist that Beijing "apologize" for the deaths when China's government continues to insist that the events as they unfolded could not have been prevented. I'm not sure if that is correct but I do understand the point of view and the rationale. In early 2001, I wrote about it here as a Memo on the Margin directed at China's then President, Jiang Zemin, relating to documents that appeared at the time that became known as the Tiananmen Papers.

Memo To: President Jiang Zemin, Jan 10, 2001
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: How Tiananmen Happened

According to the NYTimes, you already have reacted to publication of the Tiananmen Papers in Foreign Affairs by having your foreign ministry spokesman defend the crushing of pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989 as “highly necessary to the stability and development of China.” Yet the spokesman, Zhu Bangzao, did not directly assert that the papers are not genuine, only that you would not like to see them used to “play up the matter again and disrupt China by the despicable means of fabricating materials and distorting facts.” Indeed, my reading of the papers has persuaded me they almost certainly are genuine, but instead of leading to another “playing up the matter” with a distortion of facts, the papers are helpful in removing distortions that now exist in the minds of the American people.

While the transcripts of the May/June 1989 meetings of your leadership group clearly have been edited, they do not sound scripted, and it now is much easier to see how the early peaceful gatherings of the students to commemorate the memory of Hu Yaobang, the former Communist Party general secretary who had died on April 15, turned into demonstrations that were interpreted by Deng Xiaoping as threats to both his economic reforms and the Party’s governing authority. In other words, whoever got his hands on the official transcripts and smuggled the Papers out of Beijing has done you a service.

As a friend of China since my first visit in 1983, I have been frustrated to find so many Americans either remembering or being taught about a “slaughter on Tiananmen Square” as evidence of the inhumanity of the leaders of the People’s Republic. More than two years ago, one U.S. journalist who was present in Beijing at the time of the conflict finally decided to correct the record when he saw one of our most respected television journalists, Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press, recall the deaths by machine guns on the Square of “ten thousand students.” Here is an excerpt of a memo I wrote to Mr. Russert on September 15, 1998:

“I hope you saw the lead article in the September/October issue of Columbia Journalism Review on "The Myth of Tiananmen and the Price of a Passive Press." It’s by Jay Mathews, a first-rate reporter for The Washington Post, who was the Post’s first Beijing bureau chief. He returned to Beijing in 1989 to help cover the Tiananmen demonstrations. The point of his piece was that nine years after the fact, the story of the slaughter gets worse as it goes along. He quotes you as having noted on the May 31 edition of Meet the Press that there were ‘tens of thousands’ of deaths on the Square that day, when in fact there is no evidence that anyone died on the Square that day. The myth began with a spurious account of students being mowed down by machine guns that was picked up a week after the day’s events by The New York Times, but Mathews notes the Times has since noted the lack of evidence of even one death. ‘Hundreds of people, most of them workers, and passersby, did die that night, but in a different place and under different circumstances. The Chinese government estimates more than 300 fatalities. Western estimates are somewhat higher. Many victims were shot by soldiers on stretches of Changan Jie, the Avenue of Eternal Peace, about a mile west of the square, and in scattered confrontations in other parts of the city, where, it should be added, a few soldiers were beaten or burned to death by angry workers.’”

The Papers have your colleague, Li Peng, reporting on the casualties to Deng Xiaoping on June 6: “The General Office of the State Council reports that as of noon today the basic statistics -- which have been double- and triple-checked with Martial Law Headquarters and the Chinese Red Cross -- are these: Five thousand PLA soldiers and officers wounded, and more than two thousand local people (counting students, city people, and rioters together) also wounded. The figures on the dead are these: twenty-three from the martial law troops, including ten from the PLA and thirteen from the People’s Armed Police. About two hundred soldiers are also missing. The dead among city people, students and rioters number about two hundred, of whom thirty six are university students. No one was killed within Tiananmen Square itself.”

Alas, neither Mr. Russert or any other journalist in the major media made an attempt to correct the record. You can understand, Mr. President, that given the conventional wisdom of a mass slaughter of defenseless students, no American reporter or American politician was willing to stand up and do so, for they would immediately branded as “apologists” for the “butchers of Beijing.” In his Journalism Review article, Jay Mathews addressed this very point: “Who cares where the atrocities took place? That is an understandable, and emotionally satisfying, reaction. Many of us feel bile rising in our throats at any attempt to justify what the Chinese leadership and a few army commanders did that night... The problem is not so much putting the murders in the wrong place, but suggesting that most of the victims were students... [The] government was out to suppress a rebellion of workers, who were much more numerous and had much more to be angry about than the students. This was the larger story that most of us overlooked or underplayed."

It is still the overlooked, underplayed story. I’d made the argument at the time of the conflict that it was actually the International Monetary Fund which produced the economic climate that so angered the rioting workers. By persuading your government in 1987 that a 50% devaluation of your currency would help spur exports, all that the cheapening of the yuan accomplished was an inflation that stripped your workers of purchasing power. Nobody in our press corps, including Jay Matthews, asked at the time why the workers were so outraged that they would riot, but I had watched the IMF spread its poisonous advice in other countries with the same results. I actually warned my clients of trouble in your country as soon as I learned you had become an associate IMF member and were receiving their economic advisors. This history has yet to be written.

My friendly advice to you now is to either indicate where the transcripts are in error, or to simply certify that the papers basically tell the true story of how things went awry. Any fair reading of the Papers helps take the edge off the worst of the accounts. The transcripts at least enable us to see the debate unfolding among your leaders in a logical progression so we can weigh the errors they made along the way. The man who brought the papers out seems to hope, as do I, that discussion of these events will lead to a fresh approach by you and your fellow political leaders in dealing with the needs and wants of your people, as expressed through their right of assembly.

* * * * *

As we see now in reporting on Iraq, the news media is struggling to find a way to apologize for the poor reporting that created conditions making it easy for the warhawks to trigger what was clearly an unnecessary war. It is easier at times for the media to harken back to events 15 years ago that it reported just as poorly and ask for apologies from others.