Rumour — a Pipe Blown by Surmises, Jealousies, Conjectures

Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
I, from the orient to the drooping west,
Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold
The acts commenced on this ball of earth:
Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.

Rumour in a costume covered with ears blows a trumpet leading the way for Mars, God of War. Source: Vincenzo Cartari, Images Deorum, 1582


During the early hours of the 4th of June 1989, the authorities reoccupied Tiananmen Square in the heart of the Chinese capital by force of arms. As the repression of nationwide rebellion unfolded in Beijing and dozens of other cities, often with great local violence and always with punitive glee, the work of convincing the nation, including the army and the Communist Party itself, that the official account of events starting with the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi’s appeal to Deng Xiaoping to release the dissident Wei Jingsheng in February, up to and including the Beijing Massacre of 3-10 June, commenced. (For more on this, see ‘A Writer’s Desk & the Vastness of China — 1989, 2019’China Heritage, 4 June 2019.)

In the Other China — that is Hong Kong and Taiwan — as well as internationally, the saturation coverage of the 1989 Protest Movement from the time of the first demonstrations following former Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang’s death in mid April up to the iconic moment when the anonymous ‘Tank Man’ confronted the army on Chang’an Avenue shortly after Tiananmen Square had been cleared, led many observers to presume that it would be impossible for the ‘truth’ about 1989 to be covered up.

For Chinese observers in Hong Kong and Taiwan it was not a particular surprise that the official account of the events of February-June was a calculated caricature of reality. After all, for thirty years the mainland media had tirelessly pumped out wildly distorted accounts of reality and it had been doing so on a scale and with a kind of hyperbolic chutzpah that both predated and outdid the grotesqueries of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

The People’s Republic of China, as we have previously observed, was founded not merely as a result of military conquest, but also by Communist leaders and propagandists capturing the hearts and minds of large numbers of students, rural activists and the urban intelligentsia during the Civil War of 1946-1949. The extent of the pretense and its devastating consequences was felt for decades, indeed, it is still being felt today. (For an account of that early betrayal, see Dai Qing, ‘How Peaceful was the Liberation of Beiping?’, trans. Geremie Barmé and John Minford, China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 14, June 2008).

The ‘engineered amnesia’ related to 1989 has both official origins and an element of commonplace necessity. To hold on to one’s own memories and a personal version of reality in the face of the distortion field of the official world view — one promoted relentlessly through the education system, in the academic world and via the state media — has been difficult if not impossible for many people for the last thirty years. Outsiders have been naïve to think that 4 June 1989 would be treated any differently from the breath-taking lies foisted by the Chinese party-state on its own population in regard to other aspects of its modern history — including the extent of the purges of the 1950s, which included the elimination of millions of ‘class enemies’, random executions and purges that, according to recent figures, left some 40 million people incarcerated by the end of the decade. Then there are the historical lies regarding the Great Leap Forward, the mini purges of the early 1960s and the Socialist Education Campaign. Although some details regarding the Cultural Revolution are now part of the official account, the extrajudicial killings that took place during the Strike Hard Campaign that ran alongside the Anti Spiritual Pollution putsch of 1983, as well as the arrests and executions carried out as part of the 1986-1987 purge of Bourgeois Liberalisation are unknown. (Then, of course, there is the panoply of other lies, distortions and cover-ups, including those related to the repression of Tibetan protests in 1988, the purge of Falungong in 1999, the actions in Tibet and Xinjiang over many years, and so on and so forth. In each case, lived experience is crushed by local expediency and national party-state interest. Thereafter, historical memory is distorted, research on the past forbidden and the possibility of an accounting, or even a memory, of the particular event elided from the history.)

The official media of China’s People’s Republic is arguably the largest, best-funded and most successful rumour mill in the world. Its swathe is undeniable; its efficacy formidable. The Lie regarding 1989 was being concocted from the moment Deng Xiaoping and his advisers composed the People’s Daily Editorial of 26 April 1989 四 · 二六社論, ‘We Must Take a Clear-cut Stand against Disturbances’ 必須旗幟鮮明地反對動亂:

… an extremely small number of people with ulterior purposes continued to take advantage of the young students’ feelings of grief for Comrade Hu Yaobang to spread all kinds of rumors to poison and confuse people’s minds. Using both big- and small-character posters, they vilified, hurled invectives at, and attacked party and state leaders. Blatantly violating the Constitution, they called for opposition to the leadership by the Communist Party and the socialist system. …

These facts prove that what this extremely small number of people did was not to join in the activities to mourn Comrade Hu Yaobang or to advance the course of socialist democracy in China. Neither were they out to give vent to their grievances. Flaunting the banner of democracy, they undermined democracy and the legal system. Their purpose was to sow dissension among the people, plunge the whole country into chaos and sabotage the political situation of stability and unity. This is a planned conspiracy and a disturbance. Its essence is to, once and for all, negate the leadership of the CPC and the socialist system. This is a serious political struggle confronting the whole party and the people of all nationalities throughout the country. …

All comrades in the party and the people throughout the country must soberly recognize the fact that our country will have no peaceful days if this disturbance is not checked resolutely. This struggle concerns the success or failure of the reform and opening up, the program of the four modernizations, and the future of our state and nation. Party organizations of the CPC at all levels, the broad masses of members of the Communist Party and the Communist Youth League, all democratic parties and patriotic democratic personages, and the people around the country should make a clear distinction between right and wrong, take positive action, and struggle to firmly and quickly stop the disturbance.

The work to reinforce this late April 1989 official version of events continued from the announcement of martial law on 20 May that year and it has gone on, without respite, ever since.


As we observed in ‘Deathwatch for a Chairman’ (China Heritage, 17 July 2018):

Political rumours 政治謠言 have featured during various crucial periods in the life of the People’s Republic. Given the Party’s control over the media and the secretive nature of its political processes, gossip and rumours have long been the stuff of informal comment on the issues of the day, and the means by which alternative accounts of Party rule circulate. For example, after the founding of the People’s Republic, when Mao called on intellectuals and others to help the Party ‘rectify its work style’ in light of criticisms of Party rule in the Eastern Bloc in 1956, many took advantage of the invitation to speak out against the secretive privileges and power of Party cadres. They were clamorously silenced and their repression has distorted public life in China ever since.

In 1966, when Red Guard rebels were first allowed to attack the Party, they identified privilege, corruption, and abuse of power as one of the greatest enemies to the revolution. During the unfolding civil war it was word of mouth and big-character posters that were the common medium employed by individuals and groups to speculate about the leaders and to denounce their enemies.

Around the time of Lin Biao’s fall in 1971, there was a campaign against political hearsay involving Jiang Qing and her famous interviews with Roxane Witke. Following Deng Xiaoping’s fall in April 1976, the ‘strange talk and odd speculation’ 奇談怪論 of July to September of the previous year, when Deng was trying to push through educational reforms, were denounced by the official media. Another period of political speculation followed shortly thereafter at the time of the Xidan Democracy Wall in 1978-1979; again, in 1988-1989, in the months prior to 4 June 1989, rumours and speculation were rife.

Political gossip and official attempts to silence it have been the hallmarks of Chinese life for over six decades.

In the lead up to Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012, during the purge of Bo Xilai, rumours again were a feature of the nation’s life. So much so that, on 16 April that year, People’s Daily denied talk of a coup or that military vehicles had been deployed in the capital (See 人民日報:「軍車進京」之類謠言損害國家形象, 16 April 2012). In the days that followed, a series of denials and articles decrying the malign influence of rumour-mongering were published both in the national and local media (張賀, 人民日報: 要認清網絡謠言的社會危害, 16 April 2012).

Or, as Feng Chongyi notes in his essay on Tsinghua law professor Xu Zhangrun, the Party’s ‘Opinion Regarding Strengthening and Improving Party Construction in Central Party-State Organs’ (March 2019) directly targeted the highest echelons of the Party with a warning that, henceforth, they:

  • are forbidden from circulating any views or opinions that contravene the Party’s Theory, Political Line, Directions or Policies;
  • are forbidden from engaging in any and all inappropriate discussion of Party Central;
  • are forbidden from formulating or in any way disseminating political rumours or opinions that question or tarnish the image of the Party or State;
  • are forbidden from forming any kind of faction or lobby; and,
  • are forbidden from engaging in duplicitous behaviour or acting in an underhand, two-faced manner.

— Feng Chongyi 馮崇義, ‘A Scholar’s Virtus &
the Hubris of the Dragon’

China Heritage, 22 May 2019

The glaring irony is that China’s media industry is itself nothing less than a state-sanctioned rumour mill. It is also an industry with a portentous global reach.

Below we recall the absurd early official account of the 1989 demonstrations which we juxtapose with the details of what kind of effort was required to clean up after the activities of a ‘tiny handful’ of anti-Party schemers and plotters had been violently repressed. This is followed by the famous ‘Induction’, a soliloquy by ‘Rumour’ at the beginning of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
7 June 2019


Further Reading on 4 June 1989, 2019:

A Tiny Handful …


During late spring and early summer, from mid-April to early June of 1989, a tiny handful of people exploited student unrest to unleash planned, organized, and premeditated political turmoil, which later developed into a counterrevolutionary rebellion in the capital, Peking. …

Chen Xitong, Mayor of Peking,
30 June 1989

Some indication of the amount of damage done by this ‘tiny handful’ of people is given in the following excerpt from a front-page report in the Peking Evening News of August 3, 1989:

After June 4, under the guidance of the district and municipal governments, neighborhood committees organized 649 work teams with 156,000 members to participate in the task of restoring order to traffic and society. Neighborhood committee cadres and activists joined forces with Martial Law Enforcement Troops and the People’s Police to clear away roadblocks, remove posters and slogans, and clean up the city.

Altogether they cleared away roadblocks in more than 570 places, washed away or painted over more than 30,000 slogans, and picked up more than 80 tons of bricks and stones, making a great contribution toward the early restoration of normal traffic and a stable situation in the capital.

— New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices,
ed. Geremie Barmé and Linda Jaivin,
New York: Times Books, 1992, p.108

Enter RUMOUR, painted full of tongues


Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
I, from the orient to the drooping west,
Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold
The acts commenced on this ball of earth:
Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.
I speak of peace, while covert enmity
Under the smile of safety wounds the world:
And who but Rumour, who but only I,
Make fearful musters and prepared defence,
Whiles the big year, swoln with some other grief,
Is thought with child by the stern tyrant war,
And no such matter? Rumour is a pipe
Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures
And of so easy and so plain a stop
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wavering multitude,
Can play upon it. But what need I thus
My well-known body to anatomize
Among my household? Why is Rumour here?
I run before King Harry’s victory;
Who in a bloody field by Shrewsbury
Hath beaten down young Hotspur and his troops,
Quenching the flame of bold rebellion
Even with the rebel’s blood. But what mean I
To speak so true at first? my office is
To noise abroad that Harry Monmouth fell
Under the wrath of noble Hotspur’s sword,
And that the king before the Douglas’ rage
Stoop’d his anointed head as low as death.
This have I rumour’d through the peasant towns
Between that royal field of Shrewsbury
And this worm-eaten hold of ragged stone,
Where Hotspur’s father, old Northumberland,
Lies crafty-sick: the posts come tiring on,
And not a man of them brings other news
Than they have learn’d of me: from Rumour’s tongues
They bring smooth comforts false, worse than
true wrongs.


William Shakespeare
Henry IV, Part 2