Tiananmen Square Hauntings
Sometimes the past comes back to bite you. One of my most searing memories as a journalist was covering the Chinese student protests on Tiananmen Square in 1989. I was working in Beijing as a producer for ABC News.
I spoke Chinese, had lived in the capitol for two years, and was one of a mighty team of correspondents and producers who worked around the clock for six weeks covering the student protests. These student protests were part of a growing nationwide movement against government corruption and in favor of increased democracy in China.
It’s a searing memory because, among the many stories I worked on during that interlude, I helped interviewed a man who was eventually sentenced to labor camp for speaking to us.
But the short version is this: On the day after Chinese soldiers raided Tiananmen Square with tanks, chasing out the student occupiers and killing more than a few in the process, we set out with a camera crew onto the streets of Beijing to find out what had happened. Crowds were everywhere, mingling with the burnt-out buses and barricades that people had put up to try, ineffectually, to keep the soldiers away from the square.
One man had a crowd gathered around him as he shouted and talked wildly. We waded in and interviewed him. He said he saw tanks run over students. I asked him, “You saw this yourself, right?” “Yes,” he said.
After our story was broadcast on ABC World News in the U.S., raw footage from that interview – somehow obtained by the Chinese government – aired on Chinese TV. He was called a “counter-revolutionary rumor-mongerer,” and the Chinese public was asked to turn him in. They did. He tearfully admitted his crimes. He was sentenced to 10 years in labor camp.
This was all part of the massive security crackdown post-Tiananmen. It was a clear and definitive message to the Chinese public that their brief interlude of freedom was over. If you talk to the western media, say only what we tell you to say. Otherwise, you will pay.
My colleague in this story was ABC News correspondent Jim Laurie. He contacted me today to tell me that the story is out there once again. This time recounted, incorrectly, in a Foreign Policy magazine piece about Laurie’s newest role as a consultant for Chinese television’s expansion into the U.S. The reporter talks about the irony of Laurie working for the same network that colluded in putting this man in jail after Laurie’s interview.
For the record, Foreign Policy got this story wrong. First of all, I wasn’t a camerawoman; I was a producer. Secondly, no one, absolutely no one, knew how many people had been killed in the square. We had no way of confirming our man’s account, and we could in no way believe the official account. Thirdly, it didn’t make good television and I never said it did. We didn’t need to find “good television” in those days; it was everywhere we pointed our camera –huge crowds, burning hulks of public buses, ATVs occupying Tiananmen Square, a slight man refusing to budge in front of an oncoming tank.
Just trying to set the record straight on this story. I think its something I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.