Why you should care
Without an intrepid band of reporters, the world may have missed so much of what happened at Tiananmen Square — and Tahrir Square and the Jasmine Revolution and Euromaidan.
Fifty days of protest and crackdown in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square 25 years ago this spring made history. They also made careers.
The small group of young, eager journalists that made up America’s press corps in China on the eve the uprising could not have known just how historic the events would be. Or that their coverage — now a slice of history, itself — would help catapult cub reporters like Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times and John Pomfret of the AP and later The Washington Post into media stardom.
Mike Chinoy, CNN’s Beijing correspondent at that pivotal time, collects their reflections and narrates the career-defining experience in a documentary, Assignment China: Tiananmen Square, the newest film in a series on America’s media coverage of China produced by the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute.
Part history lesson, part meditation on the role of a free press, the footage of those few tense months in the spring of 1989 feels both ancient and current, seemingly interchangeable with recent live shots from Ukraine’s Maidan or Egypt’s Tahrir Square.
To see the idealism, to see the bravery, to see the kind of raw excitement — it was, to be honest, very hard not to get wrapped up in that.
Indeed, 25 years later, it feels like history’s repeating itself in different parts of the world.
In April 1989, the Chinese government, after nearly a decade of gradually opening up to the world, at first tolerated the surge of young student protesters that took over Tiananmen, the sprawling granite-paved commons in the heart of Beijing, after the death of reformist political leader Hu Yaobang on April 15.
For more than a month — from mid-April through May 1989 — the protests percolated, with tent cities and a festival-like atmosphere taking over the square, journalists in the film recall. Chinese officials seemed paralyzed, unsure and divided on how to respond.
The situation began to disintegrate when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited in mid-May of that year, to seal a reconciliation deal between the two rival Communist powers. Because of increasingly rowdy demonstrations in the square, the government had to cancel the formal welcoming ceremony, and brought Gorbachev in through a back door of the Great Hall of the People.
“Of course this enraged them,” recalls the U.S. ambassador at the time, James Lilley, who passed away in 2009.
“The embarrassment,” Chinoy narrates, “was compounded by the fact that it was all being broadcast live.”
While the Chinese press remained muzzled, American and other foreign correspondents actively covered the protests, stationing themselves in and around the square and beaming the footage and their reports back to the rest of the world. Dozens of additional journalists were also in town with credentials to cover the Gorbachev summit.
Reporters used all the tricks in the book — trading favors with sources, getting scoops from significant others in high places, ducking Chinese officials trying to limit their access.
The pace and demand for news coverage were relentless. Reporters used all the tricks in the book — trading favors with sources, getting scoops from significant others in high places, ducking Chinese officials trying to limit their access.
Life also intervened. At one point, Dorinda Elliot, a Newsweek reporter, left the country to deliver her first child. Her husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Adi Ignatius, remained in Beijing.
As she was going into labor in Hong Kong, Elliot remembers calling her husband in the middle of the night … at the office. “And Adi says, ’Yeah, yeah, I’m sorry, there’s a rumor there are tanks coming on the square in Tiananmen…’” before snapping to attention and realizing he needed to dash to the airport.
He made it to Hong Kong just minutes before the birth of his son.
”There was no question that I was really introduced to the power of the media for the first time.” — Former U.S. Ambassador James Lilley
Journalists also had to contend with their own sympathies for the protesters, whom they were clearly rooting for.
“To see the idealism, to see the bravery, to see the kind of raw excitement — it was, to be honest, very hard not to get wrapped up in that,” says Ignatius.
Kristof acknowledges that the American journalists covering China at the time used “pro-democracy” as short-hand for a much more complex set of motivations.
“I think it may have also created this false optimism, these raised expectations that this was all going to have a happy ending,” says Chinoy. ”And when it didn’t, the reaction in the United States was even stronger.”
The violent end to the Tiananmen uprising in early June 1989 — the raids, the indiscriminate gunfire that mowed down hundreds if not thousands, the tanks, and the iconic image of the lone man, whose identity is still a mystery, standing, staring them down — were a shock to the reporters, the U.S. government and the public at the time.
”It was a hell of a story, it was breaking all over American TV,” recalls Lilley. “There was no question that I was really introduced to the power of the media for the first time.”