Iconic Photos

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Tiananmen — The View from the Communist Party

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This is the time of year when this blog remembers the massacres at Tiananmen Square. Somebody has to. But this year, we change our tactics a bit and will recount how the Communist Party also used power of images to shape the narrative of 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; charred corpse of Cui Guozheng, a soldier who was stabbed to death on a pedestrian bridge and subsequently lynched from it (reproduced above), is perhaps the tamest of these photos.

Still more vivid are 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 a bit too graphic too publish on the front page, but they are linked here, here, and here.)

The second link is from the government’s official history was published in a book called The Truth about the Beijing Turmoil, which 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 who had been there that day 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 the words next to his corpse (which are shown in the last link photo above). But by then, history has been rewritten. The Communist Party stopped talking about “counterrevolutionary turmoil”. Instead, it euphemistically became “turmoil”, then “political storm”, and eventually “June 4th incident”; the party decided that outright censorship of the massacre was more effective than unconvincing lies. Just one year after the massacre, the Chinese president was on American television, telling an interviewer, the killings had been “much ado about nothing.”

(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).

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

May 15, 2015 at 7:19 am

Posted in Politics, Society

3 Responses

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  1. Wow. It shows me how the photo we saw in the US “Man in Front of Tank”–as powerful and moving as it was, definitely was NOT the entire truth. Most disturbing was how the West used it as useful propaganda.


    May 15, 2015 at 9:33 am

  2. Once again, Alex, thank you for making us all think, even when it is hard to bear. The power of the image to move (or deceive) is truly amazing. So, we must use our critical thinking tools at all times, in all places.

    I value this blog so much. It truly stands out as a gem compared to much of the garbage on the web.


    May 15, 2015 at 4:26 pm

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