Mathews is an education reporter for The Washington Post. He was the paper’s first Beijing bureau chief and returned in 1989 to help cover the Tiananmen demonstrations. With his wife, Linda Mathews, he is the author of One Billion: A China Chronicle. This piece originally ran in the September/October 1998 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.
President Clinton’s precedent-setting visit to China filled the front pages of American newspapers and led the evening television news for many days this summer. The stories focused on his controversial decision to attend a welcoming ceremony in Tiananmen Square, despite the stain of what reporters called the massacre of Chinese students there on June 4, 1989.
Over the last decade, many American reporters and editors have accepted a mythical version of that warm, bloody night. They repeated it often before and during Clinton’s trip. On the day the president arrived in Beijing, a Baltimore Sun headline (June 27, page 1A) referred to “Tiananmen, where Chinese students died.” A USA Today article (June 26, page 7A) called Tiananmen the place “where pro-democracy demonstrators were gunned down.” The Wall Street Journal (June 26, page A10) described “the Tiananmen Square massacre” where armed troops ordered to clear demonstrators from the square killed “hundreds or more.” The New York Post (June 25, page 22) said the square was “the site of the student slaughter.”
The problem is this: as far as can be determined from the available evidence, no one died that night in Tiananmen Square.
A few people may have been killed by random shooting on streets near the square, but all verified eyewitness accounts say that the students who remained in the square when troops arrived were allowed to leave peacefully. 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 resilient tale of an early morning Tiananmen massacre stems from several false eyewitness accounts in the confused hours and days after the crackdown. Human rights experts George Black and Robin Munro, both outspoken critics of the Chinese government, trace many of the rumor’s roots in their 1993 book, Black Hands of Beijing: Lives of Defiance in China’s Democracy Movement. Probably the most widely disseminated account appeared first in the Hong Kong press: a Qinghua University student described machine guns mowing down students in front of the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the middle of the square. The New York Times gave this version prominent display on June 12, just a week after the event, but no evidence was ever found to confirm the account or verify the existence of the alleged witness. Times reporter Nicholas Kristof challenged the report the next day, in an article that ran on the bottom of an inside page; the myth lived on. Student leader Wu’er Kaixi said he had seen 200 students cut down by gunfire, but it was later proven that he left the square several hours before the events he described allegedly occurred.
Most of the hundreds of foreign journalists that night, including me, were in other parts of the city or were removed from the square so that they could not witness the final chapter of the student story. Those who tried to remain close filed dramatic accounts that, in some cases, buttressed the myth of a student massacre.