BEIJING — days after China's "night of the black cloud"--when Chinese soldiers opened fire on thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing--Western military analysts combed the streets, sidewalk cracks and cement crevices near Tian An Men Square and the scenes of other clashes in the city, searching for hard evidence of what had really happened.
They collected hundreds of spent machine-gun cartridges and flattened bullet heads. They scanned bullet-pocked walls and scorched patches of concrete where, according to some reports, the soldiers had stacked and burned scores of bodies. And, ever since, they have been analyzing the few bits of
physical evidence they have gleaned from a night that may have altered the course of the most populous nation on Earth.
Behind this macabre international post-mortem is a question that will affect whether China's current leadership faces a long international isolation or gradual forgiveness: Just how high was the toll of human life on the night of June 3-4?
The international media have reported that the blood of the Chinese people flowed freely that night in central Beijing, that perhaps thousands died. The Chinese leadership says that just 200 soldiers and civilians were killed.
Almost predictably in a nation with one of the world's most sophisticated security and propaganda machines, none of the analysts has been able to document initial Western reports that as many as 3,000 civilians were shot, beaten or crushed to death under tanks and armored personnel carriers that night.
Although many Western experts still contend that, based on their limited physical evidence, at least 1,000 civilians perished in the Chinese army's crackdown on the pro-democracy forces, their findings have been all but buried by China's high-tech propaganda campaign, which was intensified this week.
"We're looking at a fantastic propaganda campaign that's beginning to work--the seed of doubt has been sown," said one of the Western military experts who has been collecting and analyzing the evidence. "Even in America, people are starting to say, 'Gee, that's right, we don't have any proof' " of a huge death toll.
"The Chinese took some time to digest all this information--digesting and trying to find fault in Western news coverage. Obviously they found some gaps and holes in the coverage and are now exploiting them. And what they are doing now is quite sophisticated. They are using the Western coverage for their own aims."
An example appeared in Thursday's edition of the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily in a column headlined, "Criticizing Rumors in the Modern Times."
Declaring that, at the peak of the pro-democracy demonstrations, "Tian An Men Square, awash with rumors, became a rotten flesh on the body of the People's Republic," the column included a lengthy and specific discussion of the Western media's reporting on the death toll from the army's advance into central Beijing.
Citing the reports from the three major U.S. television networks, the Associated Press, the British Broadcasting Corp., the British news agency Reuters and the French news agency Agence France-Presse, the column listed figures that varied from 500 dead to 2,000.
"In short, they (the numbers) were purely fictitious, and they (the media) cared not if their numbers came to blows with each other, or that, if they pushed them on the world, they would slander China," the newspaper said.
Asked about reports published in the American press last week that backtracked radically from the original Western estimates of thousands of deaths and putting the toll at somewhere between 300 and 800, the source said, "Nobody has any absolute proof. But I talked to a lot of people, and I personally come up with an absolute, conservative minimum of 1,000. I've heard a mid-range number of 2,500 which I don't find exaggerated at all. The truth probably lies somewhere between those numbers."
Another Western diplomatic source also put the death toll at more than 2,000, but, when pressed, fell back on an often-quoted estimate of 2,600 that was announced--and later vehemently disowned--by the Chinese Red Cross.
But several of the Western analysts insisted that they are basing their estimates on more than the Red Cross report.
Using ballistics and other physical evidence gathered in the days after the army attack, they are attempting to build an empirical case that would establish what they call the "killing potential" of the soldiers that night, if not an actual death count.
Most of the spent shells recovered during their investigation are 7.62-millimeter, the standard ammunition used in the Chinese army's AK-47 automatic rifles. But the bullets themselves are of special design, capable of piercing metal and causing maximum damage in the human body.