The butchers of Beijing have long maintained that no one
was killed in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Now
they’re getting support for their grotesquely Clintonesque
position from the hallowed halls of the journalistic
Jay Mathews, now an education reporter for the
Washington Post and the paper’s former Beijing bureau
chief, in the current issue of Columbia Journalism Review
chides his colleagues for making thousands of casual
references to the “Tiananmen Massacre.”
“The problem is this: as far as can be determined from the
available evidence, no one died that night in Tiananmen
Square,” he writes.
Mathews’ piece is titled, “The Myth of Tiananmen — And
the Price of a Passive Press.” It is illustrative of how far
what can only be described as a form of “statist mind
control” has permeated the U.S. corporate media.
“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,”
Mathews writes. “Hundreds of people, most of them
workers and passersby, did die that night, but in a different
place and under different circumstances.”
Mathews says the Chinese government admits to 300
deaths and suggests “Western estimates are somewhat
higher.” Somewhat higher? You bet they are somewhat
higher. I guess you could say that thousands is somewhat
higher than 300. As if to leave open the possibility that the
death toll was a result of provocation by the protesters,
Mathews also points out that some soldiers were beaten or
burned by angry workers.
I discussed Mathews’ piece with David Aikman, the former
Time Beijing bureau chief who was on the scene that
evening. He was as surprised as I was by Mathews’ legalistic
hairsplitting. Even Mathews seems a bit confused about the
purpose of his article.
“A common response to this corrective analysis is: So
what? The Chinese army killed many innocent people that
night. Who cares exactly where the atrocities took place?”
he asks rhetorically. “That is an understandable, and
emotionally satisfying, reaction. … But consider what is lost
by not giving an accurate account of what happened, and
what such sloppiness says to Chinese who are trying to
improve their press organs by studying ours. The problem
is not so much putting the numbers in the wrong place, but
suggesting that most of the victims were students.”
They were not primarily students, Mathews says, but
workers and ordinary residents. That makes a difference,
What nonsense! Amnesty International concludes that at
least 1,000 civilians were killed that night in the streets of
Beijing. There is compelling evidence to suggest that at
least some were killed in the square, though I’m not really
sure what difference it makes. I’m also not sure what
difference it makes whether they were students or workers.
Aikman, who has covered many hotspots around the
world, including the 1967 Six-Day War in the Mideast,
recalls June 4, 1989, as one of the bloodiest nights of his life.
He witnessed the carnage first-hand.
“I think he’s missing the point,” says Aikman of Mathews.
“The most important issue is not the precise location that
Beijing residents were killed, nor whether they were
students or workers. I’m disappointed in Jay for splitting
hairs like this.”
Splitting hairs, indeed. Maybe, inspired by President
Clinton, this will become a new trend in our society. It’s
called missing the forest for the trees — missing the truth
for the “facts.” Maybe we need to define what we mean by
“dead,” so we can all reach consensus on what happened in
If you want to witness the process of historical revisionism,
Mathews’ article in Columbia Journalism Review provides
a case study. I don’t know what his motivations are. I can’t
imagine what possessed him to focus his time and energy
on the topic at this particular moment. But I do know that
his reporting serves one interest — the interest of
furthering Beijing’s official Communist Party line with
regard to the events of June 4, 1989.
Finally, the butchers of Beijing have their validation.
Clinton has his, too. After all, he was criticized for meeting
Chinese officials in the square. But see, it was no big deal
anyway. No one was killed at Tiananmen Square. What’s
all the fuss about?