We have previously covered on the massacres at Tiananmen Square were featured on Western media. On the opposite side of the world, the Communist Party of China was also using power of images to shape the narratives around Tiananmen.
Busy was the Chinese Communist Party in the first few days after it brutally suppressed pro-democracy demonstrators on June 4, 1989. As bloodstained cobblestones were replaced out of Tiananmen, the government stuck to an official line: a violent “counterrevolutionary turmoil” had been staged by civilians, who attacked the government institutions and soldiers.
Central to this narrative was a series of horrifying photos, which were gruesomely reproduced all over state media outlets.
The photo on the left of the charred corpse of Cui Guozheng — a soldier who was stabbed to death on a pedestrian bridge and subsequently lynched from it — is perhaps the tamest of those.
The Sunday Times wrote about this photo: “Daylight after the night’s violence revealed the gruesome sight of the charred and mutilated body of a soldier, hanging above a pedestrian bridge. He had been lynched by vengeful crowds during the initial advance on Tiananmen Square. Although the body was soon removed and the place marked with wreaths placed by the army, this picture was repeatedly shown on television to justify official claims that the army had acted in self-defense against the chaos caused by the violent counter-revolutionaries.”
Even more gruesome and vividly written up by the Communists were the accounts of the death of a 25-year-old soldier named Liu Guogeng. His burned corpse had been disemboweled and hanged from a blackened public bus, naked except for his socks and an army hat. The government’s news channel alternated between his corpse and his family while announcing in somber tones that Liu was killed, trying to rescue a man from a boisterous crowd. He became an instant martyr, while his weeping father was shown on television being consoled by the country’s leaders. (Photos are reproduced in the slideshow below, and maybe too graphic).
The government’s official history was published in a book called The Truth about the Beijing Turmoil, which claimed that the students protestors were unruly elements intent on overthrowing order, the killings the result of stray bullets or the actions of hooligans. There are pictures of injured soldiers and angry protestors alongside short captions – “Rioters seized and were beating up a soldier with bludgeons”.
(The book is linked below)
The book’s foreword read, unconvincingly:
“At 1:30 a.m. on June 4, the Beijing municipal government and the martial law headquarters issued an emergency notice asking all students and other citizens to leave Tiananmen Square. The notice was broadcast repeatedly for well over three hours over loudspeakers. The students on Tiananmen Square, after discussion among themselves, sent representatives to the troops to express their willingness to withdraw from the square and this was approved by the troops. Then at about 5 a.m., several thousand students left the square in an orderly manner through a wide corridor in the southeastern part of the square vacated by the troops, carrying their own banners and streamers. Those who refused to leave were Forced to leave by the soldiers. By 5:30 a.m., the clearing operation of the square had been completed.
During the whole operation not a single person was killed. The allegations that “Tiananmen Square was plunged into a bloodbath” and “thousands of people were killed in the square” are sheer rumours, and the true state of affairs will eventually be clear to the public.”
The book devoted a full two-page spread to Liu: “A group of rioters turned upon [the soldiers] ferociously. Bricks, bottles, and iron sticks rained on their heads and chests. The driver was knocked unconscious there and then. Liu Guogeng was first beaten to death by some thugs, then his body was burned and strung on a bus. Afterwards, his body was disemboweled by a savage rioter.”
Demonstrators told a different story. Liu had shot four people with his AK47 and was lynched when he ran out of ammunition. In fact, on the bus next to the corpse were students’ angry condemnations: “He killed four people! Murderer! The People Must Win! Pay Back the Blood Debt!” “The Truth about the Beijing Turmoil” featured four photos of Liu, all framed in such a way as to exclude those words next to his corpse.
Tellingly, The Truth about the Beijing Turmoil which was once a sanctioned publication was later banned in China. By then, the Communist Party did not merely want to rewrite history but to erase it altogether. The party stopped talking about “counterrevolutionary turmoil”. Instead, it euphemistically became “turmoil”, then “political storm” and later “June 4th incident”. The book was a reminder of the chaos and atrocities that the state wanted to wipe away from the country’s memory and history and the Communist Party decided that outright censorship of the massacre was more effective than unconvincing lies.
Footnote: Demonstrators indeed killed seven soldiers that night. According to the Chinese Red Cross, 2,600 demonstrators were killed — a figure confirmed by the Swiss ambassador who visited Beijing’s hospitals and claimed 2,700 had died.