In China, Qiao Collective, Tiananmen protests

By Qiao Collective, June 4, 2020:

This reading list compiles primary sources, Chinese state documents, and media fact-checking reports to challenge the hegemonic narrative of the Tiananmen protests. Far from the Western fairy-tale, these texts understand the June 4 tragedy in the context of the erosion of actually-existing socialism in the Soviet bloc, the contradictions of the reform and opening up period, antagonisms between student protesters, urban workers, and rural peasants, and the long challenge to China’s socialist past by “reformers” seeking to replicate the Western neoliberal model.

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More than thirty years later, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 remain a touchstone of a Western mythology spun to challenge the fundamental legitimacy of the Communist Party of China. By collapsing the diverse and often contradictory demands of protesters into a simplistic call for Western-style capitalist democracy, the West’s selective memory of June 4 continues to inform liberal platitudes to “stand with the Chinese people” against their government, reifying the universality of Western capitalism and U.S. global hegemony in the process.

This reading list compiles primary sources, Chinese state documents, and media fact-checking reports to challenge the hegemonic narrative of the Tiananmen protests. Far from the Western fairy-tale, these texts understand the June 4 tragedy in the context of the erosion of actually-existing socialism in the Soviet bloc, the contradictions of the reform and opening up period, antagonisms between student protesters, urban workers, and rural peasants, and the long challenge to China’s socialist past by “reformers” seeking to replicate the Western neoliberal model.

Also recommended: Read Qiao Collective’s “A Note on Tiananmen.”


Reading List

Table of Contents:

  1. Introductory Texts

  2. Official Chinese Accounts

  3. Corporate Media Distortion

  4. Further Readings


1. Introductory Texts

These readings provide an introduction to the 1989 Tiananmen protests, the historical context of China’s economic reforms of the 1980s, and the mythology of the Tiananmen protests as symbolic shorthand for the political illegitimacy of Chinese socialism in Western discourse.

  • Sun FY and Roderic Day, “Another View of Tiananmen.” Redsails.org, March 03, 2021.

    • This crucial text surveys Western misrepresentations of the Tiananmen protests, contextualizing the right-wing tendencies of student leaders such as Chai Ling, the spurning of workers issues by the movement’s bourgeois liberal intelligentsia leadership, and admissions of media distortion from Western journalists who covered the protests.

  • He Zhao, Robert K Tan, and Dennis Etler. “Notes for 30th Anniversary of Tiananmen Incident.” Medium. May 30, 2019.

    • This text similarly compiles resources debunking the Western narrative of an unprovoked civilian massacre in Tiananmen Square, situating U.S. influence in the protest movement in the context of contemporaneous “color revolutions” in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union which similarly sought to weaponize idealistic students and youth in order to erode actually-existing socialism in favor of the liberal capitalist Western model.

  • Kelly, Mick. “Continuing the Revolution is Not a Dinner Party.” Freedom Road Socialist Organization, May 7, 2009.

    • Originally published in 1989, this account historicizes the Tiananmen protests in the context of a longstanding historical conflict between those maintaining China’s socialist path and those advocating the road of capitalist reform. Surveying the economic reforms of the 1980s, the roots of urban discontent in price inflation and the rising cost of agricultural commodities, Kelly presents an account of official Communist Party of China debates which led to the labeling of the protests as counter-revolutionary in nature.

  • Li, Minqi. “Preface: My 1989” in The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy. London: Pluto Press, 2008.

    • Chinese political economist Li Minqi offers a personal account of his participation in the Tiananmen protests and his “unusual…trajectory from the Right to the Left…from being a neoliberal ‘democrat’ to a revolutionary Marxist.” In particular, Li expounds on the distaste of student protesters for affiliation with workers issues: “Just weeks before, we were enthusiastically advocating ‘reform’ programs that would shut down all state factories and leave the workers unemployed. I asked myself: do these workers really know who they are supporting?”

  • Polin, Thomas Hon Wing. “Tiananmen: The Empire’s Big Lie.” Counterpunch. June 6, 2017.

  • Rahman, Abdul. “The Mythmaking Around Tiananmen Square.” People’s Dispatch. June 10, 2019.

2. Official Chinese Accounts

In the face of a hegemonic Western discourse which presumes that an authoritarian, all-powerful Chinese state has silenced all discussion of the events leading up to June 4, this section presents a selection of official Chinese accounts detailing the Party’s assessment of the protest movement, its roots, and the aftermath of the violence of June 4. While public discussion of the Tiananmen Protests remain highly circumscribed, these accounts contradict the common myth that China has wiped the events of 1989 from its historical record.

  • Deng Xiaoping, “Bourgeois Liberalization Means Taking the Capitalist Road.” May and June 1985.

    • These excerpts from talks delivered in Taiwan in May and June 1985 reflect Party leadership’s recognition that an ideological trend of “bourgeois liberalization” had taken root as a consequence of the reform and opening up policy. Critiquing “people who worship Western ‘democracy,” Deng Xiaoping effectively predicted the ideological currents that would take sway during the Tiananmen protests.

  • It Is Necessary to Take a Clear-Cut Stand Against Disturbances.”人民日报 (People’s Daily), April 26, 1989.

    • In April 1989, the People’s Daily denounced the “small number of people” who subverted activities mourning the death of Politburo member Hu Yaobang in order to “[call] for opposition to the leadership by the Communist Party and the socialist system.” The editorial marks the official recognition of these activities as counter-revolutionary, marking a “serious political struggle confronting the whole party and the people of all nationalities throughout the country.”

  • Deng Xiaoping, “June 9 Speech to Martial Law Units.” Beijing Domestic Television Service, June 27, 1989.

    • In his first official remarks following the events of June 4, Deng Xiaoping re-asserted the correctness of the four cardinal principles and the policy of reform and opening up. Describing the ideological trend of bourgeois liberalization, Deng insisted that due to the international climate and domestic situation, the “storm was bound to come sooner or later.”

  • Report on Stopping Unrest and Quelling Counter-Revolutionary Riots.” Chinese State Council Bulletin, June 30, 1989 (Translated by Mango Press, 2021).

  • Deng Xiaoping, “Excerpts from Talks Given In Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai.” January 18 – February 21, 1992.

    • These speeches, while not addressing the events of June 4 specifically, reflect an understanding that the Tiananmen protest movement evinced the vulnerability of China’s younger generation to imperialist ideological influence. Decrying the Western push for China’s “peaceful evolution” towards capitalism, Deng called for a recommitment to political education and serving the masses in order to counteract imperialist agendas which “[placed] their hopes on the generations that will come after us.”

3. Corporate Media Distortion

While the official Chinese account of June 4 recorded 200 fatalities, including 36 college students, Western reporting at the time ran wild with reports of more than 1,000 and up to 10,000 deaths, based on rumors and unsubstantiated witness testimony. This Western media narrative depicts the Tiananmen tragedy as a brutal suppression of non-violent protesters, with images such as the infamous “tank man” photograph purporting to foreshadow the onslaught of PLA tanks into Tiananmen Square (in reality, film footage of the “tank man” moment make clear that the tanks were actually existing from the square and did not drive over the man, as often implied).

These texts provide critical perspective on this manufactured narrative, highlighting several inconvenient truths contrary to the Western storyline, such as the fact that no bloodshed was recorded within Tiananmen Square proper, and the fact that factions of protesters armed with molotov cocktails had burned military vehicles, in some cases hanging the corpses of soldiers from the streets. These sources—many consisting of eye-witness accounts from Western journalists who challenge the media’s depiction of Tiananmen—reflect that the Western media “common sense” of June 4 is riddled with hyperbole and outright misinformation designed to challenge the legitimacy of the Chinese state.

  • Brown, Adrian. “Reporting from Tiananmen Square in 1989: ‘I saw a lot I will never forget.’” Al Jazeera. June 4, 2019.

    • Journalist Adrian Brown recounts his coverage of the Tiananmen protests, including violence on June 4 which included witnessing “a burned-out army personnel carrier and the charred corpse of a soldier inside.” Brown’s account adds important context to the nature of clashes between protesters and the Chinese military which are frequently depicted as a one-sided, unprovoked massacre.

  • Clark, Gregory. “Birth of a massacre myth.” The Japan Times. July 21, 2008.

  • Kanthan, Chris. “Tiananmen Square Massacre – Facts, Fiction and Propaganda.” World Affairs. June 2, 2019.

  • Mathews, Jay. “The Myth of Tiananmen.” Columbia Journalism Review. June 4, 2010.

    • Here, Jay Mathews—the Beijing bureau chief of the Washington Post in 1989—takes to task what he calls the “mythical version” of the Tiananmen Square protests forwarded by U.S. media. Contrary to the accepted account that hundreds of peaceful students were mowed down under military fire, Mathews reviews various eyewitness reports from journalists to insist: “as far as can be determined from the available evidence, no one died that night in Tiananmen Square.” Mathews blames “reportorial laziness” for ballooning media accounts which now routinely memorial “tens of thousands” of lives lost within Tiananmen Square the night of June 4.

  • Moore, Malcolm. “Wikileaks: no bloodshed inside Tiananmen Square, cables claim.” The Telegraph. June 4, 2011.

    • Malcolm Moore reports on cables released via Wikileaks which indicate that U.S. intelligence authorities were aware, through first-person accounts, that no massacre took place within Tiananmen Square, highlighting in particular the testimony of a Latin American diplomat who stayed with straggling student protesters within the square until their final, peaceful withdrawal.

  • Roth, Richard. “There Was No Tiananmen Square Massacre.” CBS News. June 4, 2009.

    • Roth, a CBS News correspondent covering the protests in 1989, recounts his recollection of the night of June 4: “we saw no bodies, injured people, ambulances or medical personnel — in short, nothing to even suggest, let alone prove, that a “massacre” had recently occurred in that place.”

4. Further Readings

These texts deal with aspects of the protests not captured under the previous sections.

  • Missing from Western accounts of the Tiananmen protests is the fact that the protest movement was preceded—and deeply influenced—by a more unsavory form of civic unrest. In December of 1988, Hohai University in Nanjing was rocked by quarrels between African exchange students and their Chinese peers. Resentment of African students for receiving scholarships from the Chinese government, coupled with rumors of relationships between African men and Chinese women led 300 Chinese students to destroy the dormitories which housed the African students, chanting “Kill the Black Devils.” Here, Erin Chung surveys Nanjing’s anti-African protests and their overlap with calls for political reform which would spread to Beijing.

  • CIA Man Misread Reaction, Sources Say.” The Vancouver Sun, September 17, 1992.

    • While the full extent of foreign interference in the Tiananmen protest movement remains unknown, this article from the Vancouver Sun includes reports from unnamed Central Intelligence Agency sources who stated that the CIA maintained several sources among protesters, and for months had been equipping student activists to “form the anti-government” movement through the provision of typewriters and other equipment. These activities culminated in Operation Yellowbird, during which the CIA and British M16 coordinated the emigration of student protest leaders to the U.S. and UK in the aftermath of the June 4 clashes.

  • Voice of America Beams TV Signal To China.” New York Times. June 9, 1989.

    • New York Times coverage from 1989 details the extent to which Voice of America, an information arm of the U.S. government, broadcast television and radio signal into China at the height of the protests and their aftermath in order to exploit the conflict and seed distrust. Some present in Tiananmen Square recount VOA being played on radio receivers during the occupation.

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