David Pierson, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times since 2000, discusses his experiences of reporting in China.
Talking Points, June 3 - 18, 2014
June 3 - June 18, 2014
This latest segment in the Assignment:China series focuses on the coverage by American news organizations of the dramatic events in Beijing in 1989. Students marched in cities all over China, but it was the demonstrations in China's symbolic center, Tiananmen Square, that captured the attention and imagination of people worldwide and especially in the United States. You can watch the new segment at the USCI website or on our YouTube channel. The next public screenings of the segment are tonight at the University of California, San Diego and at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong.
Since the restoration of formal diplomatic ties in 1979, which included a triumphant visit to the U.S. by Deng Xiaoping, ties between the two countries had improved significantly. Deng's policies of economic reform and opening to the outside world had invigorated China and won the admiration of many. Two signs of how interested Americans were in China and how optimistic they had become about China's future were that a) twice, for 1978 and for 1985, Time Magazine's editors selected Deng Xiaoping as their "person of the year," and b) the Gallup Organization survey of American "favorability" toward China in February-March 1989 found that 72% of Americans saw China in a favorable light, an increase from 64% in 1979. Trade was increasing steadily, Americans were visiting China, and increasing numbers of Chinese were coming to the U.S., mostly on business or to study.
Economic gains and greater openness in China led many, and especially university students, to increased awareness of the outside world and rising expectations for life in China. Many expected that with economic development, China's political system would change to permit them greater freedom and to hold officials more accountable to those they governed. Some joined protests, most notably in winter 1986-87 when protests erupted in 17 cities. Deng Xiaoping and his fellow elders held Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang for having failed to effectively battle "bourgeois liberalization" among young Chinese and intellectuals and compelled his resignation, replacing him with Premier Zhao Ziyang.
By 1989, Zhao and Premier Li Peng had sought to cool China's economy and impose an austerity program. Inflation was high, more people had been charged with official corruption, and rumors abounded that the families of party-state leaders were unfairly cashing in on their connections. Unrest in Tibet boiled over in March, and Tibet Party Secretary Hu Jintao imposed martial law there.
When Hu Yaobang died on April 15, students seized on the opportunity to remember him and to criticize his successors. Chinese leaders were divided on how to handle the protests that ensued. What followed was an extraordinary seven weeks where large numbers of Chinese in dozens of cities marched and demonstrated to express their grievances and to call for change. As the political center of China, most of the world's attention was focused on the protests there.
The American press corps in China had grown since the first journalists arrived with the establishment of diplomatic relations, but it was still relatively small compared to today. Covering China remained (and remains) complicated and difficult. In December 1986, for example, two television crews were detained and had their videotape confiscated as they attempted to cover student demonstrations. This segment of Assignment:China focuses on the stories of journalists who struggled to understand what was happening in Beijing that spring and to help Americans get a sense of the issues and forces at play. We hear from them about the political, cultural, physical, and technological challenges of covering the demonstrations, how they were being seen by the larger society, and the response of the party-state.
The press corps grew as the protests continued, especially as the mid-May Soviet Union-China summit meeting drew near. The upcoming meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and his Chinese counterparts would be the first meeting between the leaders of the Communist giants in three decades. Gorbachev, of course, had made headlines worldwide with his perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) reforms.
Assignment:China - Tiananmen Square shows how Gorbachev's arrival and his departure affected the ability of television networks to broadcast news via satellite directly from the square and how reporters used early mobile phones to report from China. But we also learn how essential less-cutting edge technology, such as bicycles, was as well.
For the participants, for the correspondents, and for audiences, an overriding question from April to June 3 was "how will this end?" For many outside China, the ending is most of what is remembered.
The documentary shows how journalists sought to make sense of the party-state's restraint and why the April 26 People's Daily labelling the unrest as "a grave political struggle facing the whole Party and the people of all nationalities" nor the declaration of martial law on May 20 did not end the protests. When the armored personnel carriers and tanks did roll and armed soldiers were sent in, several of the journalists interviewed in Assignment:China were there. We hear how they sought to document the extent of the violence and we learn the story behind the "tank man" image that has come to symbolize the demonstrations and their violent end.
We learn how journalists knew what they reported, but also how their values, expectations, or sources caused them to overemphasize some things and to miss others. And we hear from U.S. Secretary of State James Baker how the immediacy of the coverage meant that the administration needed to react in real time.
Twenty-five years have passed since students and others waved banners calling for greater freedom and official accountability in Tiananmen Square. The patriotism and optimism of the demonstrators and the violence that ended the demonstrations deeply moved people worldwide. Those seven weeks have had a profound influence on what Americans and others think about China. Assignment:China - Tiananmen Square tells how those stories were brought to American audiences.
Hardline Communist Party leaders signaled their intentions in the April 26 editorial:
"The whole Party and all the people must realize the seriousness of this struggle and take a clear-cut stand against the turmoil and firmly safeguard ... stability and unity which has not been easily attained.... No illegal organizations will be allowed to be set up.... Those who fabricate rumors and defame will be held responsible for their crimes.... Illegal demonstrations and parades are forbidden, as is the establishment of contacts in factories, villages and schools...."
What the Party deemed turmoil (动乱) would be quelled and those involved in setting up autonomous student and labor organizations would be arrested along with those involved in spreading news or criticizing leaders. Some spent more than a decade in prisons, others, including student leader Wang Dan, received shorter sentences. Liu Xiaobo was among those serving time in jail for Tiananmen protest activities. He was returned to prison in 1995-1999 and again in 2009 for continuing to push for democracy in China. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 but remains in jail serving an eleven year sentence for ""inciting the overthrow of our country's people's democratic dictatorship system and the socialist system." Perhaps the best known 1989 prisoner, though, was Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party secretary Deng Xiaoping blamed for not taking a sufficiently firm line against the demonstrations. Zhao was under house arrest until his death in 2005. However, he was not expelled from the party and enjoyed visits with family and some friends and was even permitted golf outings. Those who were jailed endured much greater isolation and much tougher conditions.
American reaction to the crackdown on peaceful and unarmed demonstrators and their supporters was swift. On June 5, Pres. George H.W. Bush suspended government sales and weapons exports to China as well as military visits. He ordered sympathetic reviews of requests by Chinese students in the U.S. to extend their stays. Asked by a reporter if he was still optimistic about democracy in China, Pres. Bush said,
"Yes, I still believe that. I believe the forces of democracy are so powerful, and when you see them as recently as this morning -- a single student standing in front of a tank, and then, I might add, seeing the tank driver exercise restraint -- I am convinced that the forces of democracy are going to overcome these unfortunate events in Tiananmen Square."
In Los Angeles and elsewhere, candlelight vigils were held. In the days and years since the crackdown, communities have put up replicas of the goddess of democracy statue created by students at Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts and erected facing the portrait of Mao Zedong on Tiananmen on May 30, 1989. Below are some of those memorials.
The largest memorial events have always been held in Hong Kong. Many student leaders and others were smuggled out of China through Hong Kong. The role of criminal gangs in this effort has been highlighted in recent articles. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, however, has become less welcoming to visits by former student leaders and other dissidents. Artist-activist Chen Weiming's Tiananmen Massacre relief and his replica of the goddess of democracy were seized by Hong Kong authorities which also denied Chen admission in 2010. Earlier this year, though, the June 4th Museum opened its doors in Hong Kong.
In China, the official verdict on the movement and the crackdown remains what it was in 1989. Then, the government said patriotic students were used by black hands supported by foreign entities. On June 9, Deng Xiaoping, as chair of the Party's Central Military Commission, told martial law commanders,
"This storm was bound to happen sooner or later.... It has turned out in our favor, for we still have a large group of veterans who have experienced many storms and have a thorough understanding of things. They were on the side of taking resolute action to counter the turmoil.... It was also inevitable that the turmoil would develop into a counterrevolutionary rebellion."
Deng's words were circulated to be studied by all. An event to commemorate the quelling of the turmoil was held on June 17. Publications in Chinese and foreign languages were rushed into print (the cover of The Beijing Riot - a photo record is below) and an exhibition at the Military Museum of the Chinese Revolution was created featuring vehicles set afire by those seeking to block the military's advance into the center of the city.
Web censorship and internet filtering is always strong as the June 4th anniversary nears. Several citizens, including lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who met in a Beijing home in early May for an "anniversary seminar" remain in detention. The campaign to suppress discussion inside China is so well known outside China that it was mocked in a 2005 episode of the cartoon series, The Simpsons.
In 1989, Deng insisted that China needed to continue to open up and to continue to reform its economy, but that the CCP must maintain firm control and the army must be the ultimate defender of its rule. Current CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping's has echoed this.
China, of course, has changed in dramatic ways since 1989. Ordinary people enjoy much greater freedom in their personal lives. They are also able to freely express themselves more easily and on a greater range of topics than in the past.
Of course, the relationship between China and the United States has changed, especially in economic terms. We are now far more intertwined economically than we were in 1989. After the crackdown, some 81% of those surveyed by the Los Angeles Times thought it was not safe to invest in China and 60% told Gallup they favored restricting investment in China. But 59% told ABC/Washington Post, they opposed a ban on trade with China.
In 1989, two-way trade amounted to $18 billion. By 2013, it had ballooned to $562 billion. In 1989, American companies had invested $13 billion into China projects.. Chinese business investment in the U.S. amounted to $87 million. By 2013, American investment in China had reached $75 billion. Chinese investment in the U.S. had grown to $36 billion. (This does not include China's purchase of U.S. debt, now over $1.2 trillion.) Some $23 billion of that amount came in just 2012-2013. Many students in Beijing and elsewhere in 1989 dreamed of being able to pursue their studies abroad. Today, of course, about 250,000 students from China are studying in the U.S. In 1989, about 40,000 Chinese students and scholars were in the U.S.
In July, 1989, the Times Mirror's Monthly Newstrack found 79% of adults said they followed news about "the political upheaval in China" closely. 71% said they had discussed it with friends or family. Some 69% said newspapers did a good or excellent job covering the upheaval. TV coverage was considered better, with 80% labelling it good or excellent. Though they condemned the Chinese government's crushing of the demonstrations, Americans wanted to maintain ties with China. 83% favored, according to a ABC/Washington Post poll, maintaining ties and keeping the U.S. ambassador in Beijing.
The close attention Americans paid to the events in Tiananmen did much to shape attitudes towards China's government and its treatment of its people. This helps to explain that although U.S.-China ties have grown in the quarter of century since the crackdown, many Americans remain suspicious and distrustful of China. The distrust is greatest among Americans 30 and over. Americans under 30 tend to have a much more favorable attitude towards China than older Americans. This mistrust is largely mutual. We'll examine it in the next issue of Talking Points. In the meantime, please watch Assignment:China - Tiananmen Square.
Assignment:China is a signature project of the USC U.S.-China Institute. Most Americans continue to learn about China primarily through the media and we feel that it is vital to understand the process by which news about China is gathered and shared. The series is possible only because of the willingness of journalists and others to share their stories, documents, and images with us and through the generous financial support of individual and institutional donors. We are grateful to all those who have helped. Please click here to contact us or here if you would like to contribute.
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USC Pacific Asia Museum
46 North Los Robles Ave, Pasadena, CA 91101
USC Pacific Asia Museum presents the discussion with artist Zhi Lin.
06/03/2014: Assignment China: Tiananmen Square
Gateway Christian Chur
11760 Gateway Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90064
Alan Chan Jazz Orchestra with special guest Wang Hong.
951 N. Broadway Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012
An exploration of Chinese food and culture presented by LA Chinatown & KCRW 89.9 FM.
06/18/2014: Wu Man's Final Concert: A Musical Dialogue
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, Liu Fang Yuan
1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, CA 91108
Time: 7:30PM - 10:00PM
The Huntington hosts the final performance by artist in residence Wu Man, including her commissioned composition created during her residency.
New York, NY
06/05/2014: American Philanthropy in China: Retrospective and Prospective
06/11/2014: Fracking and China's Energy Revolution
06/13/2014: Screening: Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love
Freer Gallery, Meyer Auditorium
Jefferson Drive at 12th St SW, Washington, DC
Time: 7:00PM - 9:00PM
The Freer and Sackler galleries hosts a screening of Wong Kar-wai's period romance In the Mood for Love.
Below are exhibitions ending in the next two weeks. Please visit the main exhibitions calendarfor a complete list of ongoing exhibitions.
ends 06/15/2014: Performing Images: Opera in Chinese Visual Culture
SMART Museum of Art
5550 S Greenwood Ave, Chicago, IL 60637
One of the first major exhibitions of its kind in the West, SMART Museum of Art presents Performing Images, which focuses on the vibrant imagery, rather than ethnographic artifacts, of Chinese opera.
ends 06/15/2014: Alternative Visions: Renditions of Myth, Legend, and Folk Tales from China and Japan
Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
SMART Museum of Art
Honolulu Museum of Art
USC U.S.-China Institute hosted a screening of Better Angels (善良的天使), a documentary film written and directed by two-time Academy Award winner Malcolm Clarke, with post-screening discussion with co-executive producer David Dreier and producer William Mundell.
Please join the USC U.S.-China Institute for a book talk with journalist and author Leta Hong Fincher. Betraying Big Brother is a story of how the feminist movement in China against patriarchy could reconfigure the country and the rest of the world.
The USC U.S.-China Institute presents a discussion with Akira Chiba, the Consul General of the Japanese consulate in Los Angeles, on Japan's relations with China.