Covering the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Then and Now

0604_Tiannamen
A paramilitary policeman and pedestrians are reflected on water in front of the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, October 23, 2014. In June 1989 Newsweek examined Chinese state-run media’s coverage of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which took place 26 years ago today. Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Twenty-six years ago today, hopes for democratic reform in China were crushed beneath the tracks of the People’s Liberation Army’s tanks. The Tiananmen Square massacre, widely commemorated outside of the Chinese mainland, is at risk of being forgotten by China’s millennial generation due to government censorship. On June 26, 1989, Newsweek published an article examining the Chinese state-run media’s coverage of the demonstrations and the knowledge of the crackdown, now euphemistically referred to as a political incident, among the general Chinese population.

‘We Know What Really Happened’

In a crowded restaurant in the industrial southern town of Shaoguan, a factory worker sat with his back to an American reporter at the next table and pretended to be speaking to friends around him. His only news about the Tiananmen Square bloodbath came from the state-run central television, he said. Even so, he knew something did not add up. For a brief moment before the crackdown, CCTV had actually flirted with straight reporting on the democracy movement. The contrast with the current version of history was startling. “First they said the students were patriots, now they are ‘bad elements’ and ‘rioters,’” said the worker. “I don’t know myself what happened, but I know the government is lying.”

It was a scene repeated with variations throughout a four-province journey last week. In a country of 1.1 billion people, the number of civilian eyewitnesses to Tiananmen Square is at most in the tens of thousands. And with most of those in hiding or intimidated into silence, the government has a virtual monopoly on news accounts. In Guangdong Province as much as Hebei Province, state television ran endless condemnations of the “hooligans” and “counter-revolutionaries” and praise for the “steel wall of the People’s Army.” Radio stations carried shrill announcements of local arrests and gave telephone numbers of informing on “rumormongers.” Still, said a young mechanic at a highway eatery in rural Guangdong,” I go all the time to the villages, and even there they don’t believe the government.” A student at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou (Canton) said the propaganda reminded him of a Chinese proverb: “The heat from a thousand mouths can melt gold.” But this time, he added, “Everyone knows what really happened.”

0604_Tiananmen A group of journalists supports the pro-democracy protest in Tiananmen Square, Beijing May 17, 1989. Carl Ho/Reuters

Common skepticism: In southern China, where television sets can receive Hong Kong signals, competing accounts of the crackdown are available. But skepticism is common in more remote regions, too. In Wuhan, a steel-making center up the Chang Jiang River, residents said they followed the story on Voice of America radio or saw smuggled videotapes of Hong Kong newscasts. At a rally point at the local university, 300 of the 600 Communist Party members in the student body openly denounced the government’s actions.

“Even during the Cultural Revolution, we didn’t use troops to kill people,” said an older party member encountered at the public telephone office. “This movement has stirred up strong feelings in China. Even most of the party members I know don’t agree with what they did at Tiananmen Square.” Then, as if terrified by his own boldness, he moved away when others saw him talking to a Westerner.

Where Beijing cannot coerce belief, it can often compel silence. On the Beijing train northbound from Hunan Province, passengers in the crowded second-class cars parroted the official news media. Asked again in a private compartment, however, they told a different story. “Anyone with a brain in his head knows CCTV is lying,” said a technician from Changsha. “Most people around me, whether young or old, know how it is. But you won't hear the truth by just asking. Most people know what they should say, and they say it.” With martial law regulations prohibiting Chinese from even talking with foreign journalists, said a woman in Guangdong, “how can you expect us to tell you our true feelings?”

Even if the big lie doesn’t take in China’s heartland, will it matter, if the repression compels silence? Perhaps not, but the intensity of the effort to erase collective memory suggests that China’s leaders think otherwise. They have reason to be concerned. At Sun Yat-Sen University last week, the authorities had torn down all the protest posters on the campus’s democracy wall. But they had not yet managed to scrape the graffiti from the base of a statue of Sun, China’s first modern revolutionary. In characters of red paint, it was a vivid reminder of the June 4 massacre; “They have not died in vain.”