WILLIAMSTOWN — The release of secret British diplomatic cables is sparking renewed debate over how many people died when Chinese soldiers crushed the pro-democracy protests in Beijing on June 4, 1989.

While the controversy swirls around the number of people who died during the bloody military action, and at whose hands, the larger issue is over control of the historical narrative. That's a large part of the reason that the number of fatalities counts. The newly released cables include an estimate attributed to a ranking Chinese source that the number killed could have been 10,000 or more.

A subtext to the current debate is the over role being played by Hong Kong's news media at a time when Beijing has been tightening its grip on that former British colony. The issue pitting journalists against journalists is over how the release of the documents has been handled by a Hong Kong-based news website.

Warning of civil war

One of the newly declassified cables was sent back to London by Britain's then ambassador to China, Alan Donald, the day after the army moved on Tiananmen Square to break up the demonstrations by thousands of students and their supporters.

In his cable, Donald said the number of dead could be as many as 10,000, citing an unnamed Chinese state councilor who was deemed reliable. The identity of the source was redacted. There was also a depiction of gruesome events and a warning that China could be on the verge of civil war.

A Red Cross Society of China count that night estimated up to 2,700 dead, before Beijing authorities ordered it to cease issuing figures. Many of the deaths occurred in the streets approaching the capital's vast central square rather than inside it.

On June 30, Beijing's then mayor Chen Xitong said 200 people had died, including 36 students. He also said 3,000 non-military personnel were hurt. Chen is thought to have been a key mover behind the military intervention. (He was later jailed for corruption and died in disgrace.)

Western news agencies' estimates on the number killed are deliberately vague. The formulation widely used is that hundreds and possibly thousands died, including student protesters, local citizens and soldiers. Over the years since, some reporters who were there on the night have revised their original fatality estimates downward.

Beijing denies that anyone was killed within the square, designed to hold one million people. That is part of its usual strategy of seeking out one small thing to declare factually wrong in order to deny the whole.

The government generally says next to nothing about what happened and tries to push the events further into the past. When it has said something, it referred to the "turmoil" or "chaos," and the government's eventual need to restore order. The unchanged official view is that the nation acted in self-defense against counter-revolutionary elements, and it's best not talked about.

No commemoration of the seven-week protests and its crushing is allowed, and mothers of the dead are blocked from visiting graves or holding memorials.

Now the declassified cables obtained by a Hong Kong online news portal have lifted the lid once again on a history that Beijing does not want to remember, but Hong Kong refuses to forget.

In 1989, millions of Hong Kong people marched to show solidarity with the Tiananmen protesters. Even some pro-Communist journalists and politicians joined in. Memories of those events remain fresh. Every year since 1990, thousands of Hong Kong people faithfully attend a candlelight vigil in remembrance of what happened and to demand democracy in China.

Ambassador Donald's cables to Britain's Foreign Office on June 5, the day after the PLA troops moved in, were among materials declassified by the United Kingdom's national archives in October. A Chinese-language online news site in Hong Kong, HK01, obtained the documents and published two of them on Dec. 22. The original documents were in English, shown in photos, and the accompanying report was in Chinese.

But within hours those reports were apparently taken down from the HK01 website, only to reappear later the same afternoon, reportedly after demands from HK01's own news department.

In addition, there are complaints that changes had also been made in the Chinese translations of the original documents, including the translation for "member of the Chinese State Council."

The count matters

The Hong Kong Journalists Association has issued a statement declaring that it was "extremely concerned" about HK01's actions. It said HK01 had apparently planned two days of coverage regarding the documents, but the next day's stories had been pulled. In one of the republished reports, the phrase "over 10,000 civilians dead" was removed from the headline.

Among the paragraphs missing in the updated version was a quote from the original documents: "Students understood they were given one hour to leave square but after five minutes APCs [armoured personnel carriers] attacked. Students linked arms but were mown down including soldiers. APCs then ran over bodies time and time again to make `pie' and remains collected by bulldozer."

"We are extremely concerned about self-censorship owing to the political sensitivity of the reports," the HKJA said, adding that reports being retracted, then republished after changes were made, was "suspicious" and causes "worries over political factors."

Remembering versus forgetting. Sometimes counting really does count.

Francis Moriarty is an independent journalist and broadcaster covering Hong Kong, mainland China and Asia.