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Obituaries

Yuan Mu, Chinese government spokesman who said no one had been killed in Tiananmen Square, dies aged 90

  • The official gained international notoriety following his defence of the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in the Chinese capital in June 1989
PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 December, 2018, 11:09pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2018, 1:00am

Yuan Mu, a controversial spokesman for the Chinese government following the deadly 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, has died at the age of 90.

Yuan, who achieved international notoriety for his defence of the government following the crushing of pro-democracy protests in the heart of Beijing, died in the capital on Thursday, according to an announcement circulating online on Monday.

A staff member at the Babaoshan Funeral parlour in Beijing confirmed to the South China Morning Post that a memorial service for Yuan has been scheduled for Sunday.

Yuan, a former State Council spokesman, was the first Chinese official to face the international spotlight – and outrage – after the People’s Liberation Army carried out the crackdown on June 4, 1989.

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In a televised news conference on June 6 – the first comment from the Chinese government since the crackdown – Yuan ignited fury by claiming that only 23 students had been killed, and that less than 300 civilians and soldiers had died in total.

On June 17, in an interview with American broadcaster NBC, Yuan sparked further indignation when he was asked by American journalist Tom Brokaw to explain to the world what had happened in Tiananmen Square.

“The PLA troops marched into the Tiananmen Square to fulfil their task of imposing martial law, to protect order in the capital,” Yuan said via a translator.

“No casualties resulted from the clearance of Tiananmen Square. Not one [person] died in Tiananmen Square. The military vehicles and armoured vehicles didn’t crush any single person,” Yuan said.

When pressed by Brokaw, Yuan clarified that he meant there had been no deaths in the square itself and continued that the PLA had suffered “huge casualties” while “some thugs and some onlookers” were killed during the “entire process” of the operation.

Estimates of the number of deaths following the crackdown vary, ranging from a few hundred to thousands.

Yuan was shameless at the time in lying about the killings but what was really shameless is the regime that denied the truth of the massacre and instructed him to tell the lies
Albert Ho Chun-yan

The number of casualties inside Tiananmen Square has remained a subject for debate, as many accounts have described bloodshed on streets and road intersections outside the square, including the Muxidi and Gongzhufen neighbourhoods.

The crackdown ended months of student-led demonstrations that had swept the country, following the death of liberal leader Hu Yaobang in April 1989.

It effectively put an end to the Communist Party’s nascent political reforms, and almost derailed the economic liberalisation spearheaded by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping at the time.

Albert Ho Chun-yan, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, said Yuan had come to symbolise the regime that committed atrocities against the people during the crackdown.

“Yuan was shameless at the time in lying about the killings but what was really shameless is the regime that denied the truth of the massacre and instructed him to tell the lies,” he said.

Alliance vice-chairman Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong said Yuan’s death underscored the importance of seeking the truth of the crackdown and campaigning for the vindication of those who died.

Almost 30 years on, the crackdown remains a political taboo in mainland China, but is commemorated every year in Hong Kong with a candlelight vigil in Victoria Park.

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Before joining the government, Yuan spent two decades working as a journalist, first for a number of local newspapers then for Xinhua, the state news agency.

He became a standing committee member of the political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, after the crackdown and retired in 2000.