My Take on Tiananmen Square

Just imagine, if you will, that the stories of what happened in Tiananmen Square and the stories we read in the newspapers were not as we believe them to be.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the events of 4th June 1989 didn’t happen, I’m asking the reader to clear their mind and assume that the things they believe to be true, might not, in fact be total truth.

The estimated number of deaths varied at the time from about 180 up to 10,000 which was a number given by the then British Ambassador, Sir Alan Donald, who heard the number from a “good friend” but later revised his estimate downward to between 2,700 to 3,400. So, by all accounts it was a very bad day in Chinese history — How could it have gone so wrong?

The official count is, and remains to this day 241 which included 218 civilians, 10 soldiers and 13 armed police officers. The number of injured remains uncertain as not all sought hospital treatment but is estimated to be between 6,000 and 7,000. Of these over 5,000 are believed to be military personnel or police and less than 2000 are believed to have been students or innocents. These are the official numbers. The United States Ambassador at the time, James Lilley, had members of his team visit the hospitals and reported, as a result of their investigations, between 180 and 500 had been killed

Both CBS and The Washington Post had journalists in Tiananmen Square, Richard Roth and Jay Matthews, on the night these events happened and they both reported that they heard sporadic gunfire but saw no evidence of a massacre.

More than two weeks after the events, on 21st June, presumably with some serious research under his belt, Nicholas Kristof, of the New York Times reported that it was likely that “about a dozen” soldiers or police officers were killed on the night.

There is a group called the Tiananmen mothers, this group has worked under very difficult conditions but has only identified 202 deaths.

Some stories state there were tanks rolling over bodies and 2000 people were killed in the square itself. This part is easily refuted: a Reuters journalist (Graham Earnshaw) who has written memoirs, was in Tiananmen Square all night, he was present during the clean-up at the end of all the events. He stated unequivocally that there was no massacre there. He saw no bodies, no evidence of tanks that had run over people and believe most of the people in the square left peacefully as morning came. Those that didn’t leave earlier, were encouraged to leave by police and military, and did so.

In 2011, cables from the US embassy to the State office supported a Chilean diplomat’s claim that he was inside the square all night and saw no mass firing on crowds, most of the riot police were wearing riot gear and unarmed.

So, if we can easily refute stories of tanks rolling over people and hundreds, or indeed maybe thousands of deaths occurring inside Tiananmen Square, is it not also possible that there might be some untruths in the stories of as many deaths outside the square?

Of course, there’s the argument that it doesn’t matter where the killings took place and I have to agree, but now I’m asking myself questions as I investigate further.

If several thousand people did indeed die, where are the rest of the grieving parents?

Only 202 have been identified and, say what you might about an oppressive regime, my experience of parenthood, no matter how much I feared government, I, and pretty much every parent I know, would be standing up and being counted if they took our sons or daughters away from us, especially in such circumstances. So, why only 202 — which actually includes four people who committed suicide as a direct result of their involvement in these events.

So, perhaps it possible, just possible, that the number the Chinese government has declared, terrible as this number is, is in fact correct.

There seems to be little dispute that 15 military or police personnel lost their lives that night and I haven’t seen anything to reject the premise that 5000 plus, who were injured, were in fact from the military or the police.

Imagine an event such as this in a Western city, New York or London for example. Tens of thousands of angry demonstrators facing a police presence, it’s happened before. Certainly, Los Angeles police veterans and New York too would have this experience. I myself have similar experiences. I was there in London also during the 1980s when Brixton blew up, as a well-trained and prepared police force, the Metropolitan Police were well able to cope with it, yet there was still massive destruction and some loss of life, there were certainly injuries on both sides of the shields.

(Note: I wrote the above a week ago, a day before George Floyd was killed and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement reacted — it wasn’t their first reaction, but by a long way it has been their strongest and widest. Now, the police, the military and the NAtional Guard are involved in quelling riots, preventing looting and attempting to keep order — who knows where that will end).

Now place the same demonstration into a society where the police have no experience of public disorder, no equipment to manage it and not enough numbers to contain it. What should the government do? In this case, they called in the army to help.

Consider now, what kind of army did China have in those days? Probably a massive force of young kids who had no experience dealing with anything outside of a firing range or exercise hall. Young kids who would have been as scared as their opponents, young kids who had weapons with live ammunition when they should have been given gas canisters and rubber bullets.

I’ve been on the frontline of a riot: I’ve been behind a shield serial as a police office and I’ve been terrified of what might happen in the next few minutes. I can put myself into the shoes of a 19-year-old soldier who is out there with a few hundred friends in front of an angry mob of a few thousand protesters. And, with this memory in my mind, I am so glad that I was never given a rifle and told to defend the square or protect my colleagues. A shield and a truncheon with a great deal of preparation and training meant that my colleagues and I could manage the events as they unfolded. Not always without someone getting hurt but always without a massacre.

Now go back to the number of injured police or military officers: somewhere between 5–6000 were treated for injuries after the event. This would be inconceivable in any riot, demonstration or social disorder event in a western city. It demonstrates two things: First of all, a lack of training and preparedness and secondly, a level of restraint to not start firing real weapons if in fact any of them had real weapons, many of the photos I’ve seen show kids with uniforms but no weapons at all, into a violent crowd until you really were worried about being overrun and perhaps even killed yourself. I personally can not imagine how scared a police officer would need to be before firing a live weapon into an unarmed crowd.

Did China do the right thing? No, in retrospect I’m sure they agree it wasn’t the right thing. Did they do what they thought was right? Yes, at the time, with no experience of how to handle an incident like this since the founding of the country, I personally believe they did do what they thought was right. Did they learn anything from it? Absolutely, the purges that followed afterwards, the number of job losses, demotions, even imprisonments, on both sides of the event show that they learnt something. They also have well-trained, well equipped, mobile and highly efficient riot police now.

I approached this research with an open mind, I started with Wikipedia and delved deeper and deeper because I wanted to start with the hypothesis: what if all the stories I read in the paper are wrong?

Seem’s my hypothesis wasn’t so far off the mark after all.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Jerry Grey

I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences