Mirsky Saw Communist “Soldiers Shoot Parents,” Doctors and Nurses Trying to Help Students in Tiananmen Square

(p. A21) Dr. Mirsky was a professor of Chinese language and history at Dartmouth College when he visited China for the first time, in 1972. An antiwar activist and a self-described “Mao fan,” he went as part of a group representing the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, a radical coalition dedicated to ending the war in Vietnam.

. . .

Not long after arriving in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, the visiting group was whisked off to meet what was described as a “typical Chinese worker family.” Mr. Mirsky came away impressed. The family seemed prosperous, with a nicely appointed home. Crime, the group was told, was nonexistent.

The next morning, on a stroll around the neighborhood, Dr. Mirsky bumped into the father from that “typical” family. He invited Dr. Mirsky, who was fluent in Mandarin, into his real home, a shabby apartment, and explained that the group had in fact been in a show apartment arranged by the Chinese authorities for “foreign friends.” The man said further that there was no shortage of crime.

“I returned to the hotel, stunned by what I had seen and heard,” Dr. Mirsky recalled in an account of the trip that was published in the 2012 book “My First Trip to China: Scholars, Diplomats and Journalists Reflect on Their First Encounters With China,” edited by Kin-Ming Liu. Afterward, he wrote, he became “suspicious of every venue, every briefing, and every account of how everything should be understood.”

In just 48 hours, Dr. Mirsky went from being a “Mao fan” to a disillusioned skeptic, foreshadowing a similar shift in how left-leaning American intellectuals would come to see the Communist government in China.

“He had a sharp eye for the abuses of totalitarian dictatorship,” said Mr. Garside, the author most recently of “China Coup: The Great Leap to Freedom” (2021). “He was early to denounce the evils of the Mao regime before it became fashionable to do so.”

Dr. Mirsky maintained that skeptical stance even as he made the transition from academia to journalism.

As China correspondent for The Observer, he was at Tiananmen Square in the early morning of June 4, 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army, acting on government orders, launched a bloody crackdown on peaceful protesters. About 3 a.m., he was leaving the scene to file a report with the newspaper when he came upon a group of armed police officers. When they found out he was a journalist, they beat him, fracturing his left arm and knocking out multiple teeth.

Dr. Mirsky managed to dictate his article, which would appear on The Observer’s front page, by phone. The next morning he returned to Tiananmen, where, he said, he saw soldiers shoot parents trying to enter the square to look for children who had not returned home. They also shot doctors and nurses who had come to help the injured, he said.  (. . .)

“Tiananmen Square became a place of horror,” Dr. Mirsky wrote in his article on the day of the crackdown, “where tanks and troops fought with students and workers, where armored personnel carriers burned and blood lay in pools on the stones.”

He was named international reporter of the year at the 1989 British Press Awards ceremony for his Tiananmen coverage.

. . .

Dr. Mirsky was unsparing in his criticism of China’s Communist rulers and the Western leaders whom he believed were overlooking Beijing’s rights abuses to preserve economic ties. Throughout his career he wrote of the Communist Party’s insistence on controlling the narrative of China and, in his view, the deleterious effects this had on Chinese society as a whole.

“For the Chinese, lying creates a universe of uncertainty in which one of the commonest answers to questions is ‘bu qingchu’ — ‘I’m not clear about that’,” he wrote in The Observer in 1993. “There is virtually no aspect of life outside the immediate family or close circle of friends where one can be certain about the truth.”

For the full obituary, see:

Amy Qin. “Jonathan Mirsky, 88, Scholar on China Affairs.” The New York Times (Thursday, September 30, 2021 [sic]): A21.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Sept. 29, 2021 [sic], and has the title “Jonathan Mirsky, Journalist and Historian of China, Dies at 88.”)

Mirsky’s account of the experience that changed him “from being a ‘Mao Fan’ to a disillusioned skeptic” appears in Mirsky’s section of the edited book:

Liu, Kin-ming, ed. My First Trip to China: Scholars, Diplomats, and Journalists Reflect on Their First Encounters with China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013.

The book by Garside, mentioned above, is:

Garside, Roger. China Coup: The Great Leap to Freedom. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2021.

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