How an iconic phrase was misattributed for thirty years – Zachary Haver
Then-candidate Bill Clinton criticizing President George H.W. Bush for coddling the “butchers of Beijing” remains one of the most striking moments of the 1992 US election. This denunciation was so biting it continues to receive media attention today. You can find the quote in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and just about any other news organization ranging from the mainstream to Breitbart. It appears in the writings of former secretaries of State, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, influential scholars and conservative firebrands. The phrase even materializes in foreign media on occasion, including in Chinese state-run papers. There is just one problem.
Bill Clinton never said “butchers of Beijing.” Newspaper articles quoting the phrase either do not source the quote, cite other articles that also lack a source, or incorrectly cite speeches in which Clinton did not say the phrase. Books and academic journal articles commit the same errors.
Given that Clinton never uttered these three words, where did the phrase come from? Why have credible voices been erroneously quoting him since the 1990s? And, aside from careful observers such as Robert Suettinger in Beyond Tiananmen, why has noone noticed?
The phrase “butchers of Beijing” first entered the American lexicon on June 6, 1989, three days after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Three newspapers – The Boston Globe, USA Today, and Newsday – featured the phrase. The latter two papers attributed it to the same individual, Jia Hao, a Chinese doctoral student studying at George Washington University. Regarding President George H.W. Bush’s punitive response to Tiananmen, USA Today and Newsday quote Jia Hao as saying “[the response] will be a big blow to those responsible for the massacre, those butchers of Beijing.” In the following weeks and months, the phrase proliferated, as many American journalists and politicians used it to deride the Chinese leadership.
If Bill Clinton never uttered the phrase, what did he say? While delivering his acceptance address at the Democratic National Convention on July 16 1992, Clinton offered a vision of “an America that will not coddle tyrants, from Baghdad to Beijing” – a jab at H.W. Bush’s efforts to salvage US-China relations amid the intense post-Tiananmen backlash. Several journalists incorrectly cite this speech as the occasion during which Clinton railed against “coddling the butchers of Beijing,” perpetuating the incorrect attribution of the phrase.
If Bill Clinton never uttered the phrase, what did he say?
Based on a thorough comb-through of archival materials, it appears that mainstream newspapers first attributed “butchers of Beijing” to Clinton on October 15 1992, when an article published in The Record, a regional New Jersey paper, claimed that Clinton “says Bush has ‘coddled the butchers of Beijing.’” The quote appeared in a sidebar, omitting a source or context.
If Clinton had campaigned against the “butchers of Beijing” or Bush’s weak response to their crimes in 1992, you would expect newspapers to have quoted him during the election. However, the October article in The Record seems to be the only piece that attributes the phrase to Clinton during campaign season. Every other instance emerged after 1992.
The next indirect attribution that I could find appeared on April 1, 1993, in an article in The Washington Post. Placing the reader in the shoes of President Clinton, the author narrates, “You have been sharply critical of the butchers of Beijing for their human rights abuses in your winning campaign.” Given the lack of quotation marks around the phrase, it is unclear whether the author was attributing the phrase to Clinton, or merely employing the parlance of the time.
Later that month, another article in The Washington Post reported that Bill Clinton “campaigned last year against ‘the butchers of Beijing,’” this time placing the phrase in quotation marks. Whether the punctuation was intended to mark the phrase as an actual quote is, again, uncertain; the author may have been simply calling out the Chinese leadership as the so-called “butchers of Beijing.” But so-called by whom?
Newspapers began directly attributing the quote to Bill Clinton in 1994. In one article, originally published in The Los Angeles Times and reprinted in The Seattle Times and The Oregonian, the author writes that “Clinton has found the prose of governing far more troublesome than the poetry (‘coddling the butchers of Beijing’) of campaigning.” From 1994 onward, many journalists who attribute “butchers of Beijing” to Clinton are unambiguous in doing so.
One explanation why this phrase came to be attributed to Clinton lies in the twists and turns of US-China relations in the 1990s. Entering office in January 1993, Clinton championed a moralistic approach to US-China relations, tying the renewal of China’s “most favored nation” trade status to improvements in China’s abysmal human rights record. During his second term in office, however, Clinton engineered a complete reversal of US policy, emphasizing the importance of building a “constructive strategic partnership” with China. Highlighting Clinton’s pivot from “butchers of Beijing” to “strategic partner” allowed journalists and pundits to illustrate Clinton’s flip-flop.
The attribution of the quote to Bill Clinton peaked in the late 1990s and during the 2000 presidential campaign, but it remains in circulation to this day. Reporters and analysts continue brandishing the phrase to illustrate Clinton’s dramatic reversal of policy towards China in the 1990s. What’s more, every time a presidential election rolls around, observers invariably write up histories of candidates bashing China, perpetuating the link between Clinton and the “butchers of Beijing.”
Though not quite a grand conspiracy, the process through which “butchers of Beijing” came to be attached to Bill Clinton demonstrates that in the early internet era, inaccuracies spread just as easily – if not as quickly – as in our current digital world. Having been debunked, hopefully this small piece of misinformation can now fade into disuse. As the US-China relationship becomes increasingly strained, it is important that we accurately understand its history and its rhetoric, and not misquote former presidents. ∎