American Pravda: Gaza Protests and the Legend of the Tiananmen Square Massacre – Ron Unz 5/13/24


The Israel/Gaza conflict is now well into its eighth month as the slaughter and starvation of Palestinians continues unabated, with many tens of thousands of helpless civilians already dead.

Despite occasional bleats of feeble disapproval by members of the Biden Administration, America’s government has continued to fully support that massacre, providing all the necessary money and munitions that enable it. Although as far back as January, the jurists of the International Court of Justice had issued a series of near-unanimous rulings that the Palestinians were at risk of suffering genocide at the hands of an Israel consumed with bloodlust, the leadership of America and the West totally ignored that verdict. Just a couple of weeks ago, our government passed new legislation providing an additional $26 billion in financial and military support to that genocidally-minded country. When word came out that the International Criminal Court might be planning to indict several Israeli leaders for war-crimes, twelve U.S. Senators published a letter directly threatening the ICC and its leadership if it took that step.

For many months, horrific images of dead or dying Palestinian children have become widespread on relatively uncensored social media platforms such as TikTok and Elon Musk’s Twitter, and across America large numbers of college students have reacted to that carnage. Over the last two generations, they and their predecessors had been heavily indoctrinated in the story of the Holocaust and the terrible shame of those who stood by and did nothing as innocent men, women, and children were murdered. So with grisly scenes of what they consider a present-day genocide unfolding in real-time on their smartphones, a huge wave of protest demonstrations has swept across our colleges and universities, a campaign far greater than anything since the late 1960s movement opposing the Vietnam War.

College protests on a wide range of different social and ideological issues had been common for decades and these have sometimes focused on foreign policy controversies. But unlike all those previous examples, the protests criticizing Israel immediately provoked an enormously harsh and hostile reaction from our political and media establishment. When the presidents of Harvard and Penn were hauled before a Congressional committee and they emphasized their commitment to maintaining political free speech at their universities, both those Ivy League leaders were quickly forced to resign, an absolutely unprecedented development in American academic history.

Then last month the president of Columbia University sought to avoid a similar fate after she faced a grilling before that same House committee, so she quickly called in 100 NYC riot police who broke up the pro-Gaza demonstrations taking place on her campus and arrested many of the protesters. Images of burly, helmeted police manhandling peaceful students on their own campus for protesting a possible genocide went viral on social media, inspiring a huge wave of sympathy protests at dozens of other universities, many of which were soon broken up in similar fashion by local police raids. As of last week, some 2,800 college students have been arrested at dozens of schools for peacefully exercising their freedom of speech. This crackdown seems far more severe than anything since the late 1960s and in some respects may have even exceeded that previous peak set more than a half-century ago.

As I emphasized in an article last week, the scenes from Emory University were particularly shocking, with Georgia’s Republican governor ordering his state police to invade the grounds of one of the most prestigious local academic institutions and arrest the protesters. In one particularly dramatic incident a 57-year-old tenured professor of Economics named Carolyn Frohlin was distressed to see one of her own students being violently wrestled to the ground and approached him. For merely walking across her own campus, she was immediately grabbed by a hulking police sergeant and another officer, thrown to the ground, hog-tied, and arrested. CNN anchor Jim Acosta expressed total shock at this when he reported the story, and the video has now been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube.

Consider that a seemingly very respectable-looking middle-aged college professor was brutally man-handled and arrested by the police on her own campus merely for trying to closely observe the arrest of one of her own protesting students. I’m not sure whether anything like this had ever previously happened in American college history even during the height of the 1960s protest movement, and it seemed more what we would expect to see on the college campuses of turbulent Latin American dictatorships.

Others had similar reactions. Someone distributed a shorter clip of the same incident on Twitter, with that Tweet viewed some 1.5 million times.

This isn’t CHINA.. This is AMERICA..

Emory Professor, Caroline Fohlin is violently arrested by police at her workplace…

This is Fascism, this is in violation of her 1st Amendment

— Pelham (@Resist_05) April 26, 2024

Although my main focus was on the video clip itself, the first line of the Tweet’s introductory text also caught my eye:

This isn’t CHINA.. This is AMERICA..

In recent years our government and its subservient media have become intensely hostile towards China. As far back as January 2020, both the Trump Administration and the Biden Administration had together declared that the Chinese government was guilty of committing “genocide” against its Uighur minority of Xinjiang Province despite failing to provide any evidence that significant numbers of Uighurs had been harmed let alone killed. Our leading media organs enthusiastically endorsed and promoted that story, which merely seems to be a ridiculous propaganda-hoax.

So surely if there existed any video footage of Chinese security forces attacking a Chinese professor at a Chinese university in such a manner, the global media would have been blanketed with that story for days or weeks and it would have been featured on the front page of the New York Times. Indeed, I think that merely a credible report of such an incident would have gotten heavy media coverage, and I haven’t seen any such thing. So although that Tweeter’s accusatory comparison was certainly well-intentioned, he was probably mistaken. There’s no evidence that anything like that has happened in China in recent years, let alone on a regular basis.

What then inspired those words? Obviously the proximate cause was the unrelenting wave of anti-China rhetoric and propaganda that has poured out of nearly all of our media outlets during the last few years. But I strongly suspect that a crucial factor had been the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, which for 35 years has been regularly revisited on every June 4th anniversary by our media.

In that notorious atrocity, euphemistically known within China itself as “the June Fourth Incident,” many hundreds of peaceful pro-democracy student protesters were massacred by the Chinese military, with some senior American officials even later claiming that the true death-toll was vastly larger, perhaps numbering many thousands or more. Those huge anti-government protests in Beijing had gone on for many weeks so large numbers of Western reporters and camera crews were already on the scene covering the story. This allowed them to document the events as they unfolded and their gripping photographic images and video footage were widely broadcast all across the world, becoming an indelible part of our historical memory. Who can forget the famous, tragic scene of a single, lone civilian courageously blocking an advancing column of Chinese tanks with his own body? The story of “Tank Man” became world famous, with that image often appearing in our standard textbooks.

For more than three decades, the legacy of that horrific 1989 Chinese massacre has been a weighty one, greatly coloring Western perceptions of China, even among writers who were focused on entirely different matters.

For example, two weeks ago I published an article on the origins of the Covid epidemic and my analysis discussed important books on that topic by Sen. Rand Paul, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and an independent Canadian journalist named Elaine Dewar.

All those authors strongly believed that the virus had been created in China’s Wuhan lab and then leaked out, resulting in the global epidemic that has killed perhaps thirty million people worldwide. The writers were firmly convinced of the nefarious nature of China’s government and although the leak of the virus had been accidental, China’s stubborn denial of what had happened demonstrated the notorious dishonesty of its regime.

Although 1989 was decades in the past, all those books also included mention of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of that year, in most cases several times, citing that incident as proof-positive evidence of the cruelty of China’s dictatorial government, which had slaughtered so many of its own young college students merely for peacefully seeking democratic freedom. The authors also suggested various conspiratorial plots by China’s dictatorship, and although the evidence for most of these seemed extremely thin, there was an underlying assumption that a government willing to butcher its own idealistic young students was capable of almost anything.

Back in late 2021 I’d published an earlier article that reviewed and analyzed several other books on Covid origins. These had similarly blamed the epidemic on a virus bioengineered by the Chinese, and once again they mentioned the Tiananmen Square Massacre in much the same way. Indeed, Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin cited that 1989 massacre five separate times in his book, while Sharri Markson of Rupert Murdoch’s SkyNews quoted former Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who suggested that up to 10,000 Chinese civilians had been killed at the time. The subsequent denial of that brutal massacre by the Chinese government merely demonstrated its total dishonesty, indicating that it could not be trusted on matters related to Covid or anything else.

Rather than fading away over time, the story of the 1989 massacre still very regularly appears in our media. When I did a quick search of the New York Times for the last five years I found more than 100 different references to the “Tiananmen Square Massacre” while a similar search of the Wall Street Journal returned 95 results. Given the enormous influence of those elite newspapers on so many other publications and journalists, I’m sure that searches of lesser outlets would return comparable totals. With that story of Tiananmen Square still appearing in the news so frequently, it’s hardly surprising that all those books and authors would have mentioned it, believing that it provided important insights into the behavior of China’s government and the Communist Party that controlled it.

Just as Auschwitz and the Holocaust have permanently branded Germany with a mark of Cain and the 1937 Rape of Nanking has similarly blackened Japan’s reputation, China will long suffer the international political consequences of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, at least while its Communist Party remains in power.

Those books mentioned above were focused upon the origins of Covid and uniformly blamed the Chinese for the creation of the virus and its accidental release. But from the earliest days of the epidemic, my own analysis has been very different and over the last four years I’ve published some two dozen articles making my contrary case. The first of these appeared in April 2020, and in it I suggested that the story of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre provided a useful means of weighing the credibility of China’s government and media against that of our own:

Consider, for example, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which every June 4th still evokes an annual wave of harsh condemnations in the news and opinion pages of our leading national newspapers. I had never originally doubted those facts, but a year or two ago I happened to come across a short article by journalist Jay Matthews entitled “The Myth of Tiananmen” that completely upended that apparent reality.

According to Matthews the infamous massacre had likely never happened, but was merely a media artifact produced by confused Western reporters and dishonest propaganda, a mistaken belief that had quickly become embedded in our standard media storyline, endlessly repeated by so many ignorant journalists that they all eventually believed it to be true. Instead, as near as could be determined, the protesting students had all left Tiananmen Square peacefully, just as the Chinese government had always maintained. Indeed, leading newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post had occasionally acknowledged these facts over the years, but usually buried those scanty admissions so deep in their stories that few had ever noticed. Meanwhile, the bulk of the mainstream media had fallen for an apparent hoax.

Matthews himself had been the Beijing Bureau Chief of the Washington Post, personally covering the protests at the time, and his article appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, our most prestigious venue for media criticism. This authoritative analysis containing such explosive conclusions was first published in 1998, and I find it difficult to believe that many reporters or editors covering China have remained ignorant of this information, yet the impact has been absolutely nil. For over twenty years virtually every mainstream media account I have read has continued to promote the Tiananmen Square Massacre Hoax, usually implicitly but sometimes explicitly.

Although I’d only devoted three paragraphs to debunking that non-existent 1989 massacre, I regarded the case as so strong that I’d never considered any further investigation, while occasionally quoting that passage in my later articles or comments. But given such brief and glancing coverage, relatively few probably absorbed it. For example, several weeks ago a commenter who was unaware of what I’d said urged me to write an article on the true history. At the time, I doubted it was worth the effort, but now that I’ve recognized that the false legend of Tiananmen still remains so widespread and has regularly been used to attack the credibility of the Chinese government, even with regard to the origins of Covid, I’ve decided to do so.

An important point is that Washington Post journalist Jay Matthews was hardly alone in asserting that all the student protesters had peacefully left Tiananmen Square just as the Chinese government claimed at the time. Nicholas Kristof, Beijing Bureau Chief of the New York Times, had also been covering those historical events, and in a Times article published about a week later, he’d said much the same thing, citing various credible eyewitnesses to that effect. He also strongly debunked other, anonymous accounts of a massacre that had previously appeared in his own newspaper. Some months later Kristof published a long 5,400 word article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine providing a very detailed chronology as well as an analysis of the political circumstances surrounding the crackdown, and towards the end of the piece he flatly asserted that “There [was] no massacre in Tiananmen Square.”

Knowledgeable observers certainly soon recognized the facts. Steven Mosher is a conservative China researcher who has published a long series of books intensely critical of the country’s Communist government. One of the earliest of these was China Misperceived, which appeared in 1990, and on the very first page of the text he explained that the denouement of the Tiananmen protests occurred just as he was writing his final chapters. Then, towards the end of his book, he described the grisly tales that were widely reported in the Western media and eventually became embedded in the permanent narrative:

The best illustration of this sudden eagerness to believe the worst of Beijing was the wide circulation received by an unsubstantiated report of a massacre of students on Tiananmen Square proper. During the final stage of the assault on the Square, the rumor went, the army had surrounded thousands of students encamped near the Monument of Revolutionary Heroes and cut them down with machine-gun fire. Tanks had run back and forth over their tents to ensure that there were no survivors. The corpses had then been piled into mounds and burned under cover of darkness to destroy evidence of the slaughter. Stories along these lines ran in several major American newspapers, including the Washington Post. Correspondents continued to refer to this episode on the air and in print even after it was publicly disputed by Western eyewitnesses such as Robin Munro of Asia Watch. It was too perfect a demonstration of what Beijing was now believed capable of to be lightly abandoned.

In a footnote, he expanded on what seemed to have been the true facts:

Robin Munro was one of the Westerners with the final group of several thousand students occupying the Square. He reports that they evacuated the Square shortly before dawn on June 5 without loss of life. On the eighth he joined a BBC camera crew as an interpreter and was astonished to hear the BBC correspondent refer to the massacre of these students during the course of a broadcast as if it were an established fact. Robin Munro, personal communication with the author, 18 February 1990.

In 1993 Munro himself joined veteran foreign policy journalist George Black to publish Black Hands of Beijing, a very detailed 400 page account of those 1989 protests that was strongly supportive of the students and sharply critical of the Chinese government and its crackdown, with their book glowingly praised by numerous China scholars. They also very firmly declared that no such massacre had ever occurred, opening Chapter 15 with the following explanation, worth quoting at length:

The phrase “Tiananmen Square massacre” is now fixed firmly in the political vocabulary of the late twentieth century. Yet it is inaccurate. There was no massacre in Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3…

But most of the reporters who remained near the square after one o’clock in the morning, when the first army units got there, left in haste and out of legitimate fear for their safety.

The lack of eyewitnesses was the first problem in establishing what happened on that fearsome night in Beijing. But there were other, more profound questions about how the foreign media saw their role in the Beijing Spring. The pacifist idealism of the young students triggered memories of the 1960s and America’s civil rights movement, and the students’ adept use of Western symbols, like headbands inscribed with Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty, or give me death,” riveted Western attention on the students…

There was more: some predisposition, perhaps, to believe in the massacre in the square, even though no one actually saw it. Whether or not it happened in reality, it was the necessary consummation of an allegory of innocence, sacrifice, and redemption…

Imagination filled the gaps. Into the vacuum rushed the most lurid tales of the supposed denouement in the square…A widely recounted eyewitness report, purportedly from a student at Qinghua University, spoke of the students on the Monument being mowed down at point-blank range by a bank of machine guns at four in the morning. The survivors had then either been chased across the square by tanks and crushed, or clubbed to death by infantrymen. But it was all pure fabrication.

By the time historians began to correct the record, the episode was enshrined in myth: Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students had died in a massacre in Tiananmen Square.

Over time, other highly-credible mainstream journalists who had been present at Tiananmen Square came forward and reported those same facts. I’d highly recommend a long 2019 blogpost by Chris Kanthan that conveniently compiled and linked much of this material, along with a wealth of images and videos that I have drawn upon below.

In 2009, the CBS News website carried a short column by Richard Roth, who had been its correspondent covering the Tiananmen protests, appropriately titled “There Was No ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre.’”

That same year, the BBC published a piece by James Miles, its own correspondent saying much the same thing:

The first draft of history can be crude…I was one of the foreign journalists who witnessed the events that night…There was no massacre on Tiananmen Square.

A few years later, former Australian diplomat Gregory Clark published a piece in the Japan Times taking that position as well as very similar piece in the International Business Times entitled “Tiananmen Square Massacre is a Myth, All We’re ‘Remembering’ are British Lies” that opened with the following paragraphs:

June 4, 2014 will for many mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. What it should actually mark is the anniversary of one of the more spectacular UK black information operations — almost on a par with the mythical Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The original story of Chinese troops on the night of 3 and 4 June, 1989 machine-gunning hundreds of innocent student protesters in Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen Square has since been thoroughly discredited by the many witnesses there at the time — among them a Spanish TVE television crew, a Reuters correspondent and protesters themselves, who say that nothing happened other than a military unit entering and asking several hundred of those remaining to leave the Square late that night.

In 2011 Wikileaks released a trove of secret American cables and these included several sent from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reporting on the events of June 4th and fully confirming this same reality. Moreover, these cables demonstrated that for the previous 22 years the American government had been deliberately deceiving its public about what had happened in 1989, but this explosive story was totally ignored by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and almost every other mainstream media outlet of the Anglosphere so very few heard about it.

The sole exception to that shameful silence was Britain’s conservative Daily Telegraph which ran an article on the June 4th anniversary entitled “Wikileaks: no bloodshed inside Tiananmen Square, cables claim.” The subheading was even more forceful: “Secret cables from the United States embassy in Beijing have shown there was no bloodshed inside Tiananmen Square when China put down student pro-democracy demonstrations 22 years ago.” A sidebar in that same publication quoted the text of some of those explosive secret cables:


2. From 89BEIJING18828 – July 7, 1989. A Chilean diplomat provides an eye-witness account of the soldiers entering Tiananmen Square: ALTHOUGH GUNFIRE COULD BE HEARD, HE SAID THAT APART FROM SOME BEATING OF STUDENTS, THERE WAS NO MASS FIRING INTO THE CROWD OF STUDENTS AT THE MONUMENT.

Under normal circumstances I would have been reluctant to belabor the point by citing so many different eyewitnesses and credible analysts all essentially saying the same thing about those 1989 events. But for more than three decades, perhaps 99% of all Western media coverage has assumed and endorsed the “Tiananmen Square Massacre Hoax” and as a consequence I suspect that 99% of Westerners, including influential journalists and authors, today probably believe in the reality of that fictional event. This completely false narrative has severely tainted both public and elite perceptions of the Chinese government on all sorts of other important matters. Therefore, I felt it was necessary to demonstrate the enormous weight of evidence on the other side.

Although Wikipedia is an invaluable source of basic information, it is notoriously skewed and unreliable on controversial matters, and I naturally assumed this would be the case when I read its 26,000 word article entitled “1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. “ But to my considerable surprise the article was much more even-handed and objective than I’d expected, presumably because the factual evidence was so overwhelmingly against the story of “the Tiananmen Square Massacre” promoted in our mainstream media.

In order to better understand how the legend of the Tiananmen Square Massacre became so deeply embedded in our mainstream media narrative despite such strong evidence to the contrary, we must consider what actually transpired in Beijing on June 4, 1989. Parts of the city, including some of the roads to the square saw violent attacks against the advancing military forces in which considerable numbers of Chinese servicemen were killed. As the Wall Street Journal reported at the time:…

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