Tiananmen - The Particularity of Evil

Chris Burford cburford at gn.apc.org
Sat Mar 25 01:35:59 MST 1995

"Tiananmen" Massacre, or The Particularity of Evil

Last night I heard a BBC radio programme which repeats
interesting clips from the week. Although I feel Alfred Joseph's post was
inevitably one sided in a highly polarised discussion, the item provided some
evidence of the need to check out exactly what gets reported.

The British Ambassador in Beijing at the time of the "Tiananmen" massacre
was saying what really happened. He used the word "carnage" but not in
Tiananmen and the story starts to become more explicable, albeit still as

He denied that thousands were killed in Tiananmen square: only 28, although
the square was cleared by machine gun fire. The worst deaths occurred
very severely in a stretch of about 6 kilometres along one of the roads
leading to it. The soldiers were very frightened and were shooting even at
people coming to the window. The British ambassador said that about a
thousand died altogether, of whom only about 40 were students. He recalled
the following morning how the servants came into the embassy in tears, saying
repeatedly, "But it was the People's Army; but it was the People's Army."

He confirmed that students were crushed by tanks, and gave details of
how they had turned back to the square apparently taking a wrong turning.

The picture appeared to be overall that the square was undoubtedly cleared
with brutal force, but the appallingly high level of deaths was the result of
the citizens, trying to force their way back into the square, and also of the
soldiers being scared and firing freely.

He gave another slant on the famous picture of the lone student holding up
a tank. The commentator noted that it was repeatedly shown in England as a
message of David stopping Goliath. The ex-Amabassador said that at the time
it was also being repeatedly shown by the official Chinese media, with a
different meaning, to report how the tank driver had stopped, got out of the
tank, gone to talk to the lone student to persuade him to change his mind,
and then driven the tank around him. The commentator and the former
ambassador agreed, I thought appropriately that there may be some truth in
both explanations.

My own feelings remain that "Tiananmen" was a stomach churning episode, and
I remember exactly where I was when I heard the troops had gone in. The
regime was certainly determined to exercise dictatorship over the students and
their supporters in the city.

Ironically it would not have happened with such violence if

a) people on both sides had not deeply believed for the very long period that
the cliff-hanger went on, that the army was a "People's Army".

b) which is an expression of this, they had no water cannon, or tear gas.

That has undoubtedly now been remedied. We can be certain that the Chinese
government has learnt from more "democratic" countries such as our
own ones. Really for a regime that believed it was a "Democratic People's
Dictatorship", it was manifestly naive about the possibility of things getting
out of hand.

So I have risked reporting this because it might be lost for ten years. If
anyone is seriously researching conflict and change in China post Mao, they
might try to get the transcript from the BBC.

It is easier to believe in ogres out there. It is harder to realise that if we
have any political ideals, we might find ourselves in a violently antagonistic
resolution of what should be a contradiction "among the people". If we
thought we were seriously threatened, and could not back down, has it never
crossed each of your minds that you might kill.

Hal Draper argues a nuanced understanding of Marx's use of the phrase
"The Dictatorship of the Proletariat", but if Marx had been in a position of
power in 1848, are we sure that there were no circumstances in which he might
have ordered people to be killed?

If we purport to be at least democrats, we need to be grown up enough to
admit that the ogres are potentially within us too.

Chris Burford

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