How Many Really Died? Tiananmen Square Fatalities

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Of all the Chinese figures the world came to know in the course of last year's tumult, the most memorable was anonymous: that wiry young man who halted a column of tanks near Tiananmen Square by simply standing in front of them. Later, human rights groups identified the man as Wang Weilin, the 19-year-old son of a Beijing factory worker. Wang was reportedly arrested soon after his brave deed and accused of being a "counterrevolutionary, a traitor and a political hooligan" who attempted to subvert members of the army. Because of the severity of the charges, it was widely feared that he had been executed. In an interview with ABC's Barbara Walters aired two weeks ago, Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin said he could not say what had happened to Wang, but added, "I think ((he was)) never killed."

In the current climate in China, it is virtually impossible to confirm the fate of such an individual. People who might know something are too frightened to speak to reporters, and official pronouncements are suspect. These reasons -- plus the fact that authorities instructed hospitals and crematoria not to release casualty figures -- also explain why no reliable death toll exists for the June massacre.

In his official report on the upheavals, Chen Xitong, Beijing's hard-line mayor, claimed that 200 civilians were killed and more than 3,000 were wounded. "Several dozen" soldiers died, he said. His figures for civilians are almost universally dismissed as outrageous underestimates. On the day of the crackdown, Chinese Red Cross sources told reporters that 2,600 people died and 10,000 were injured, although the organization later denied it. Amnesty International and some of the protest participants put the number of dead closer to 1,000.

Outside of official circles in Beijing, however, no one will know the true cost in human life that day until China gets a leader with enough courage to throw light on one of the country's darkest episodes.