Jay Mathews: The Myth of Tiananmen





[Mathews is an education reporter for The Washington Post. He was the paper’s first Beijing bureau chief and returned in 1989 to help cover the Tiananmen demonstrations. With his wife, Linda Mathews, he is the author of One Billion: A China Chronicle. This piece originally ran in the September/October 1998 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.]

President Clinton’s precedent-setting visit to China filled the front pages of American newspapers and led the evening television news for many days this summer. The stories focused on his controversial decision to attend a welcoming ceremony in Tiananmen Square, despite the stain of what reporters called the massacre of Chinese students there on June 4, 1989.

Over the last decade, many American rehttp://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/porters and editors have accepted a mythical version of that warm, bloody night. They repeated it often before and during Clinton’s trip. On the day the president arrived in Beijing, a Baltimore Sun headline (June 27, page 1A) referred to “Tiananmen, where Chinese students died.” A USA Today article (June 26, page 7A) called Tiananmen the place “where pro-democracy demonstrators were gunned down.” The Wall Street Journal (June 26, page A10) described “the Tiananmen Square massacre” where armed troops ordered to clear demonstrators from the square killed “hundreds or more.” The New York Post (June 25, page 22) said the square was “the site of the student slaughter.”

The problem is this: as far as can be determined from the available evidence, no one died that night in Tiananmen Square.

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. Hundreds of people, most of them workers and passersby, did die that night, but in a different place and under different circumstances....

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