Tiananmen Square erased
“Today, reports abound of young Chinese saying they don’t know or don’t care about events in 1989,” Xiao Qiang, founder of China Digital Times, wrote this week. “Yet all one has to do is go online to the vast number of Chinese forums and blogs to know that the spirit of Tiananmen is still alive.” He described China’s nearly 300 million youthful netizens and their unprecedented capability to express a roar of dissent, despite heavy government censorship.
I shared that essential optimism, albeit cautiously, in thinking and writing earlier this week about the potential of digital communication from Tehran to Beijing. After I published that post, a friend who teaches in the Bay Area emailed me with a striking example of how successful the Chinese government has been at burying the bloody history of June 4, 1989:
I taught modern Chinese history last semester. I had 3 students who grew up in mainland China in my class. They had never heard about Tiananmen. One of them is the son of a top official in China who was heavily involved in the economic development of Shanghai, the miracle city we all saw during the Olympics. This kid was brilliant and incredibly well informed about Chinese history already. He has levels of access you and I can only imagine and is being groomed to be an elite in the Chinese power system. He had never heard about Tiananmen. Interesting to think that a generation of leaders is growing up with a false view of their recent history.
While the student’s ignorance isn’t surprising, it is indeed astonishing to think that even the very people who might soon be running China wouldn’t necessarily know about what transpired at Tiananmen. Imagine Barack Obama being elected U.S. senator from Illinois without having a clue that Chicago had been torn by violent protests in the 1960s.
One place for inquiring Chinese youth to start would be the collection of raw U.S. government reports from 1989 found in the declassified history of Tiananmen Square at The National Security Archive.
An overview section titled “The Crackdown” brings into focus the actions of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the resulting human toll. (In retrospect the initial estimates of people wounded, killed, arrested and executed were conservative. Emphasis here is mine.)
The Secretary of State’s intelligence summary for the following morning (Document 13) reports that “deaths from the military assault on Tiananmen Square range from 180 to 500; thousands more have been injured.” It also describes how “thousands of civilians stood their ground or swarmed around military vehicles. APCs [Armored Personnel Carriers] were set on fire, and demonstrators besieged troops with rocks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails.” …
One section of the Secretary of State’s Morning Summary for June 5th (Document 17), titled “After the Bloodbath,” focuses on developments in Beijing. It reports that “troops continued to fire indiscriminately at citizens in the area near Tiananmen Square.” It also notes the destruction of a large number of military vehicles, threats to execute students, and the potential for violent resistance by students. …
By June 21, the Morning Summary (Document 29) was reporting that, “More than 1,500 have been arrested … including at least six of the 21 ‘most wanted’ student leaders.”
That same section documents how Chinese soldiers also began to turn on each other.
PBS/Frontline has a lucid narrative timeline of the political and on-the-ground developments leading up to the explosion of violence, including the moment when the PLA soldiers began “firing on unarmed civilians with AK-47s loaded with battlefield ammunition.”
“The remainder of the day was spent trying to gain access to hospitals to determine how many had died or were wounded,” photographer Stuart Franklin writes. “In the two hospitals I could get access to, I found young Chinese — probably students — being treated on the floor of hospital corridors. It was mysterious that there were no dead. I understood later that the majority of the fatalities were taken to children’s hospitals in the city to avoid media attention. Chinese officials worked very hard to obscure evidence of the massacre.”
And Chinese officials remain hard at work on that goal today, despite the irrepressible promise of digital technology. As Yang Jianli, who participated in the 1989 uprising and was held as a political prisoner in China for several years, wrote this week: “It is estimated that the Communist Party employs over 30,000 ‘cyber cops’ to censor Internet traffic.”
UPDATE: In addition to the four photojournalists’ accounts and well-known images from Tiananmen, The Times’ Lens blog now has up an image never before published, with a dramatically different perspective on the Tank Man. The image was captured by then AP photographer Terril Jones. The Tank Man can be seen at the left, in the distance, with the tanks rumbling towards him, while other protesters flee in the foreground:
As Times editor Patrick Witty writes, the newly published image encourages a fresh evaluation of the encounter: “Mr. Jones’ angle on the historic encounter is vastly different from four other versions shot that day, taken at eye level moments before the tanks stopped at the feet of the lone protester. Wildly chaotic, a man ducks in the foreground, reacting from gunfire coming from the tanks. Another flashes a near-smile. Another pedals his bike, seemingly passive as the tanks rumble towards confrontation.”
At the above link you can also read Jones’ account from Tiananmen, and why he didn’t seek to have his photo published until 20 years later.