Monday, December 17, 2018

People of 1989: Yuan Mu (袁木)

In the 1980s, the title of a government spokesperson was still a new curiosity. As such, Yuan Mu was a virtual unknown at the beginning of 1989 but he eventually came to personify the role of Spokesman for the State Council (国务院发言人) throughout the student movement that year.

After the mass demonstration of April 27, 1989, the government adopted a limited conciliatory approach toward dialog with students. It was Yuan Mu who hosted the first such session on April 29, which was broadcast live. Yuan Mu promised more dialogues in the future but emphasized that government would never talk to "illegal student organizations." Students, however, quickly questioned the representativeness of the invited attendees and some even walked out in protest of Yuan Mu's condescending tone.

Yuan Mu (front center) meets with students on April 29, 1989.
On May 3, the eve of a planed student demonstration, Yuan Mu held a press conference to reject Beijing Students Autonomous Federation's demands.

Yuan Mu (far right) at press conference on May 3, 1989.
Later in May, Yuan Mu seemed to be sidelined somewhat as other government officials, such as Zhao Ziyang, Hu Qili, and Yan Mingfu, took more significant roles in various dialogues. Along with Li Peng, Yuan Mu had become one of most hated target of the movement by then.

After the massacre, Yuan Mu re-emerged and continued his role of the chief government spokesman. He held a press conference on June 6 to "reveal the truth of a counter-revolutionary rebellion" and announced the first government statistics on casualties.

But it was ten days later, when he was interviewed by Tom Brokaw of NBC News that he gained worldwide infamy. Yuan Mu repeated the government line that no death had occurred during the clearance of Tiananmen Square. Since the "clearance period" was left undefined, his assertion was summarily condemned. He also became the personification of Chinese government's lies. (In his memoir China Hands, The US Ambassador James Lilley recalled an incident that, when Yuan Mu's daughter came to the consulate to apply for a student visa to US, she was openly ridiculed.)

Yuan Mu graduated faded out of public view after 1989 and retired in 2000. He died on December 13, 2018 in Beijing. He was 90.

People of 1989

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