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‘The June 4th Incident’

Tiananmen Square and truth-telling.

Jun 9, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 37 • By DENNIS P. HALPIN
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The statue was placed in the square facing the Tiananmen Gate, casting what could be considered an accusatory glance at the portrait of Chairman Mao. This was the same Chairman Mao who once famously pledged the benevolence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) toward the Chinese people with the dictum: “The people are like water and the army is like fish.” The reputation of the PLA was forever blemished by the bloody events that occurred a few days after the statue’s unveiling on May 30, 1989, to shouts of “long live democracy!” Those shouts changed to calls on June 4 of “Down with fascism!” and “bandits, bandits!” as the statue, pushed by a tank, was toppled in a scene viewed on television screens throughout the world.

While the students prudently denied any connection between the Goddess and the Statue of Liberty, -others, including Chinese people, were certainly aware of the resemblance. So were American officials. While attending one Fourth of July party at the U.S. embassy during my mid-1990s diplomatic tour in Beijing, I noticed that a replica of the Statue of Liberty displayed for this celebration of freedom had been placed behind the chancery building out of view from any passersby on the street.

I asked a colleague why the U.S.  government was hiding the Statue of Liberty, and she replied that there was a public relations problem. “People in China associate the Statue of Liberty with the Goddess of Democracy and the failed democracy movement at Tiananmen Square. We don’t want to rub the Statue of Liberty in the Chinese leaders’ faces.”

As the ghosts of Nanjing cry for righteous retribution, so also does the memory of the slain students and workers from Tiananmen Square. On the evening of June 3, 1989, an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 people remained in the square as 38th Army armored personnel carriers and paratroopers of the 15th Airborne Corps, armed with live ammunition, along with other military units mobilized under martial law, headed toward the city’s center. It was a show of force that reportedly exceeded that displayed for China’s border wars with Vietnam and India.

The civilians killed in Beijing on the night of June 3-4, according to city police, “included university professors, technical people, officials, workers, owners of small private enterprises, retired workers, high school students and grade school students, of whom the youngest was nine years old.” Estimates of the number of casualties vary widely, ranging from several hundred to several thousand.

And it was not just Chinese civilians who were fired on. The late James Lilley, the American ambassador during the Tiananmen events, recalled in his memoir China Hands that military attaché Larry Wortzel received a telephone call on the night of June 6 “warning me not to be near my apartment tomorrow.” Ambassador Lilley noted that “it was a classic tip-off. We ended up getting all Americans out of their apartments except for seven dependents. Two small children of one of our diplomats may well have been saved by their alert Chinese amah who threw herself over the children when bullets crashed through the windows.”

Through his contacts, Wortzel had learned that the Chinese Army wanted to teach the international community a lesson for reporting on the Tiananmen events from their balconies. The idea was to “close the door to beat the dog,” as the Chinese proverb states. “The PLA planned to close the door by firing on the diplomatic compound, thus chasing out the snooping foreigners, and then, in the privacy of their own country, Chinese security forces would carry out a massive crackdown.” (This echoes efforts made by the Imperial Japanese Army to conceal atrocities from the small number of foreign missionaries, medical and business personnel, and journalists gathered in the Nanking Safety Zone during the 1937-38 massacre.)

The same Chinese Communist leadership that repeatedly calls on Tokyo to come clean on history has stubbornly defied all demands for an explanation of what happened at Tiananman Square. Even more disturbing, Chinese security forces continue their campaign of harassment and intimidation of victims’ families to this day.

Radio Free Asia reported on April 7 that “Members of the Tiananmen Mothers advocacy group, which represents all victims of the crackdown who died or were maimed, told Hong Kong media they were prevented from traveling to the graves of their loved ones ahead of the Qingming (Tomb Sweeping) holiday, which fell on Friday (April 4) but is honored throughout the weekend.” 

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