From Tibet to Tiananmen
As I read and watched the media coverage of Tibetan “protesters” unleashing their “pent-up” anger against Han civilians in Lhasa on March 14, 2008, I sensed sympathetic sentiment from the reporters who portrayed violent acts as a “test” of “Beijing’s grip” on Tibet, while the victims were almost invisible in their coverage.
Unbalanced coverage, I thought. I looked online and found eyewitness accounts by western tourists. They described mobs gone crazy in riots and showed videos of civilians being chased, stoned and beaten. I felt sympathy for the victims.
Then I came upon a video clip by CTV, a national television network in Canada, showing dark-faced Nepalese police beating Tibetan demonstrators with sticks while a Tibetan talked about Chinese suppressing protests. I felt such grafting a gross fabrication. It didn’t appear to be a mistake as I found similar fabrications in other mainstream newspapers and TV programs in the West. I began to wonder: Is there a Western conspiracy to smear China? Or this is merely a reflection of the West’s sentiment towards the Tibet issue?
Either way, my trust in the Western media’s fairness and objectiveness began to waver. I wonder if I had been deceived by its report of what has become known as the Tiananmen Massacre, the decisive end to student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
While a graduate student at the University of Toronto, I coordinated, immediately after the “Massacre”, the campaign to fax reports with pictures of the killed in Beijing to other parts of China, to tell people the truth. My parents in China had warned me to not participate in any political movement since my father had been jailed for four years without a trial during the Cultural Revolution and everyone in my family had been implicated.
But I would not return to China. I had been driven out by the government’s declaration to the world that “homosexuals do not exist in China.”
For my fellow students “massacred” on Tiananmen Square, I must do my part to spread the Western media’s report of truth to other parts of China, safely from Canada. One of our fax receivers faxed back to us to thank us for telling the truth. Then they told us to stop faxing because guards had been posted by fax machines.
The Chinese government maintained that no one died on Tiananmen Square. I disbelieved it.
Now, after witnessing the distorted coverage of the Lhasa riots by the Western media, I wasn’t so sure if the “Massacre” that had been told to me was true.
I researched online and found a 20-segment video documentary in Chinese. It chronicled the Tiananmen student movement with interviews of the student leaders and other leading figures on Tiananmen Square. It seemed credible. It showed facts that I did not know before.
Some hunger strikers actually ate. I had seen a Chinese government video showing some hunger strikers including the student leader Wuer Kaixi eating in a restaurant and I had dismissed it, partly because I hadn’t seen it in the western media’s coverage.
There was no democracy on Tiananmen Square. Whoever controlled the loudspeaker spoke on behalf of everyone. Factions of students fought to control the loudspeaker. There were almost three to four attempted coups daily.
After the government made one after another concession to the students’ demands, on May 27, 1989, a coalition of the student leaders and supporting workers and intellectuals agreed that the students would leave Tiananmen Square on May 30 so that they could, as student leader Wang Dang had long advocated, continue to pursue grassroots democracy on campuses.
But radical student leaders changed their minds and decided to stay on. One of them was Commander-in-Chief Chai Ling, who confided to an American journalist: “what we are actually hoping for is bloodshed, for the moment when the government has no choice but to brazenly butcher the people… I can't say all this to my fellow students. I can't tell them straight out that we must use our blood and our lives to call on the people to rise up.”
“Are you going to stay in the Square yourself?” asked the interviewer.
“No, I won’t.”
“… I want to live.”
That explained why, in the wee hours of June 4th, when troops moved in from the outskirts of Beijing to Tiananmen, shooting at civilians blocking the roads along the way, Chai Ling insisted that students stay at the Square.
However, a popular Taiwan-born singer Hou Dejian who had been on hunger strike on the Square to show solidarity with the students since June 2, brokered a permission at about 4:30am through a military commander to allow students to leave peacefully.
“We filed out of the square from the southeast corner. I was near the end of the line,” said Liang Xiaoyan, a lecturer of Beijing Foreign Studies University.
(The following day, I began coordinating the fax campaign to tell people in other parts of China about “Tiananmen Massacre”.)
“Some people said that 200 died in the Square and others claimed that as many as 2,000 died. There were also stories of tanks running over students who were trying to leave,” Hou Dejian said in the interview, “I have to say that I did not see any of that. I don't know where those people did. I myself was in the Square until 6:30 in the morning.”
“I kept thinking,” he continued, “Are we going to use lies to attack an enemy who lies?”
Tiananmen Massacre never happened! My heart pounded. I have faxed lies to China. No, this can’t be true. This documentary, in Chinese, is probably made by the Chinese government.
At the end of the film, the credits rolled out:
Produced and edited by
I felt that I would be dealing with my conscience for the rest of my life. Yes, many people died in Beijing on June 4th. A former classmate of mine saw a man falling off his bicycle after being shot when all of them were running away from Tiananmen Square. But there was no massacre on the Square.
I began to see the wisdom in my parents’ warning. True, in any political confrontation, the opposing sides would be tempted to use lies to win justice, and naïve participants would be caught in between. To blindly believe in either side would be dangerous.
I wondered what if the Western media had reported the Tiananmen student movement with a critical eye, instead of with romanticized sympathy. Perhaps the Chinese students on Tiananmen Square, who had admired the West’s democracy so much to have erected the “Liberty of Goddess” statue on Tiananmen Square, might have followed the more practical voices of Wang Dang and Hou Dejian to leave Tiananmen Square and continue their democratic movement at grassroots level on campuses. The bloodshed on the roads leading to Tiananmen Square on June 4th, perhaps, could have been avoided. The democratic force in China could have achieved more progress by now.
I wonder if the Western media’s lack of critical report on the Lhasa riots has encouraged the violent disruption to the Olympic torch relay, which in turn, may further encourage more violent or even terrorist acts in Beijing during the Games.
It is not too late for the media to report on Tibetans’ protests with a critical eye, which will ultimately benefit the Tibetans, the Olympians, China and the world.
Xiaoping Li is a freelance reporter based in Toronto.
1) The above mentioned documentary film is titled “The Gate of Heavenly Peace”. Its six years of production and investigation were funded by The National Endowment for the Humanities, The Ford Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation. It was premiered in New York in 1995, and banned in China. Its complete transcript is available at: www.tsquare.tv/film/transcript.html
2) Events unfolded by the hour on Tiananmen Square in the night of June 3-4, were chronicled in the book “Black Hands of Beijing: Lives of Defiance in China's Democracy Movement”. Excerpts are available at: http://tsquare.tv/chronology/BlackHchrn01.html
3) Chai Lin was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize.
4) Robin Munro (a researcher for Human Rights Watch) and John Pomfret (Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post) gave detailed accounts of their experiences on the Tiananmen Square in the night of June 3-4, 1989 in their interviews with PBS. The transcripts are available at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tankman/interviews