Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 8 June 2023


Remembering a Massacre That China Keeps Trying to Erase

A photo that appears to show four dead bodies is held up. A group of men cluster in the background.
In June 1989, people on the Avenue of Eternal Peace in Beijing held up a photo that they said showed dead victims of the violence against pro-democracy protesters on Tiananmen Square.Credit...Jeff Widener/Associated Press
A photo that appears to show four dead bodies is held up. A group of men cluster in the background.

Opinion Columnist

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In all my decades of reporting, one of my most searing experiences came in 1989 in Beijing when I watched the Chinese People’s Liberation Army unleash weapons of war on throngs of unarmed pro-democracy protesters.

So I was appalled on the 34th anniversary of that citywide massacre a few days ago when apologists for the Chinese government insisted that it had never happened. Even worse, I discovered that one of the eyewitnesses they cited to buttress their denial was me.

All this reflects the Chinese government’s effort to rewrite history, so it seems useful to push back and say what I actually saw that terrible night of June 3-4, 1989.

The Chinese democracy movement had been underway for seven weeks, attracting vast support for the students occupying Tiananmen Square, when the government sent an estimated 200,000 or more soldiers to invade the capital from several directions on the night of June 3.

I was on Tiananmen Square as the troops arrived and opened fire on the crowd that I was in. I watched for hours, from whatever cover I could find, as the People’s Republic of China butchered the people.

Defenders of the government say that protesters were violent. That’s partly true: The democracy movement had been peaceful, but that night, enraged civilians hurled bricks and stones at troops and lynched a small number who became separated. I also saw two armored personnel carriers that had been set alight with Molotov cocktails.

Yet only the troops had guns, so what unfolded that night was not a battle but a slaughter.

The brutality is difficult to exaggerate. A student returned that evening from graduate school in Japan, but his taxi from the airport couldn’t cross the Avenue of Eternal Peace. He got out, tried to walk across — and was shot in the back. A teenager in a family we were close to was bicycling to work on the morning of June 4, far from Tiananmen Square or any protesters, and soldiers shot him dead.

My wife and fellow Times correspondent, Sheryl WuDunn, and I worked very hard to get the death toll at hospitals and morgues across Beijing, using every connection we had. Our estimate then, which we stand by, was 400 to 800 killed in the capital and several thousand injured.

I learned something important then: Victims lie along with perpetrators. After any terrible injustice, we’re tempted to distrust the oppressors while cutting the oppressed some slack. In fact, it’s prudent to be skeptical of all sides, for when people survive atrocities it’s natural to respond with a fury that dials up outrage or leads them to claim firsthand knowledge of what they have only heard.

Westerners were too credulous; the British ambassador reported in a cable that at least 10,000 had been killed. The New York Times republished a supposed eyewitness account of a massacre of students at the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square. The Times then published a response from me asserting that there had been no massacre of students at that precise location on the square — those students at the monument had been allowed to leave after frantic negotiations with military officers by a heroic musician, Hou Dejian — but that soldiers had gunned down protesters on the Avenue of Eternal Peace in the northern part of the square, along with large-scale killing farther west and in many other parts of the city.

Supporters of the Chinese government base their denials of any massacre in Beijing in part on that essay by me, suggesting that I reported that there was no massacre anywhere. It’s maddening to have my efforts to ensure an accurate historical record misused to promote Chinese government fabrications.

I commiserated this week with a Chinese journalist friend in the United States. He noted that these denials on social media are outward facing and not normally found within China.

“Inside the country, such denialism is not allowed,” he said. “Who knows whether by denying it, you are playing with irony?” Chinese intellectuals are extraordinarily good at parroting official lines in ways that are satirical and witty.

So within China, the government doesn’t so much convey its version of events as squelch any discussion of the topic whatsoever. It’s unmentionable. Hong Kong had been a repository of memory about the Tiananmen democracy movement, but China has crushed the city’s spirit and imprisoned independent thinkers like the publisher and democracy activist Jimmy Lai.

China has generally been quite effective at rewriting history, in part by co-opting language. In Chinese, the 1949 Communist revolution is called “Liberation,” the Korean War is the “War to resist America and help Korea,” and the famine of 1959-62 resulting from Mao’s policies — probably the worst famine in world history — is benignly known as “the three years of natural disasters.”

There had been some expectation that the internet and the information revolution would open up China; the great dissident Liu Xiaobo described the internet as “God’s gift to the Chinese people.” So far that hope has not been realized, and Liu was imprisoned and died in detention despite being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Twisting history is of course an issue in many countries. Before unleashing a genocide against members of the Rohingya ethnic group, Myanmar denied that they existed at all and referred to them as illegal immigrants. Saudi Arabia has whitewashed its murder of my friend Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist. And even in the United States, culture wars abound over the teaching of history and control over the past.

“Who controls the past controls the future,” George Orwell wrote in “1984.”

Yet Orwell may have been too pessimistic, for in Poland, Romania, Mongolia, Indonesia, South Korea and Taiwan, I have seen suppressed history eventually re-emerge — popping up, as a Chinese saying goes, like “bamboo shoots after a spring rain.” In Taiwan, a 1947 massacre of protesters was once unmentionable; now there is a park honoring the victims.

Some day, I believe, China will also hail its heroes of 1989. In the meantime, all we can do is try to honor truth — often a messy, nuanced truth that still hides mysteries — and thus play our part in what the Czech-born writer Milan Kundera described as “the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

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