Assignment China - Foreign reporting then and now | Asia Pacific

Assignment China - Foreign reporting then and now

Assignment China - Foreign reporting then and now

Updated 6 August 2014, 7:52 AEST

Twenty-five years since China's crackdown on pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square, its approach to media, both domestic and foreign, has changed drastically.

The Chinese government recently warned local journalists they risked losing their accreditation, if they "leaked information" to foreign media.

It's a far cry from the heady days of Tiananmen, when foreign journalists camped in Beijing, as momentum built for the pro-democracy protests.

Mike Chinoy, the former China bureau chief for CNN, was there, and tells his story in a documentary, Assignment: China, Tiananmen Square.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Mike Chinoy, former China bureau chief, CNN and currently senior fellow at the US-China Institute, University of Southern California. Mike Chinoy was visitor at the Perth US Asia Centre, University of Western Australia. Assignment: China, Tiananmen Square is one of five films produced by USC US-China Institute,  available online

CHINOY: I think Tiananmen was one of these extraordinary moments. I was there, as the bureau chief for CNN and one of the things for those of us who'd been covering China in the 1980s, was the challenge of trying to get below the surface - in a country where we knew a lot was going on, where we knew there were a lot of tensions and issues generated by the dislocations of the reform process that the Chinese senior leader Deng Xiaoping had initiated. But it was very difficult to get below the surface.

And then, when the student protests erupted and the political crisis that it created, kind of exploded onto the streets, we suddenly had this glimpse of this thing, kind of bubbling up suddenly to the surface. And so, for a student of China, it provided this remarkable glimpse into things that were going on in this society, and then of course, it escalated and had this very tragic ending, and therefore became a huge story that captivated the world, and even today, twenty-five years later, remains one of those defining moments in the way many people look at China.

LAM: And of course, shortly before Tiananmen Square, the prominent Chinese scientist, Feng Lizhi was quoted as saying (in Mandarin), meaning no one is scared of anyone. Do you remember that mood of defiance being quite palpable in Beijing?

CHINOY: Well, 1988 and early 1989 were a very interesting period in China. I think in many ways, intellectually and to some extent, politically - it was the most open period that we'd seen in China. And there was tremendous intellectual foment - there were debates going on, in the major college campuses about the direction that China should take. The economic reforms that Deng Xiaoping had unleashed, that had really begun to change the country, had also triggered a debate about whether China needed to go down the path of political reform, and Zhao Ziyang, who had become the Communist Party chief in early 1987, advocating a more open political system. So you had this period, where intellectuals and students and others, were much more vocal. That sort of created the climate where the student protests then emerged in the spring of 89 and turned into this big movement.

LAM: So in terms of coverage, do you think foreign journalists were also swept up in the drama of the moment?

CHINOY: There's no question that foreign journalists were caught up in the drama of the moment.

One of the great ironies of 1989, is that the coverage and the extent of the coverage around the world, was really the result of an accident of history. That was that, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was coming to Beijing in the spring of 1989, for a summit meeting with Deng Xiaoping.

That summit was going to put an end to the thirty-year old Sino-Soviet rift, and it was a big story and the Chinese were very eager to get international coverage for that story.

As a result, they allowed news organisations to bring in, extra people, extra equipment to cover the summit.

And then the protesting students literally stole the stage on which the summit took place. And so, you had this movement, which many journalists were caught up in, because it was so dramatic and because they students seemed to be asking for western-style changes, and because all of the big networks, not only the Americans, but BBC and others, news organisations from all over the world had beefed up their staffing. You suddenly had a crisis in a country which had been in many ways, cut off and isolated from the rest of the world, playing out 'live' on tv screens, all across the globe.

And so people got I think, as audiences, as viewers, much more engaged with the story than they would've otherwise been. But this was 'live' in everybody's living room and not just for one or two days, but for weeks on end.

LAM: And in the early days, CNN was allowed to get very close to the action, to broadcast on the edge of the Forbidden City, to put a microwave dish on a hotel roof, which one of your former colleagues described as "audacious request which was granted." Do you think that was a much more innocent time, in those days, in the way the Chinese government dealt with foreign media?

CHINOY: I think that's an interesting way to describe it. This was pre-internet, pre-Twitter. Some people had cell phones but they were very primitive and nothing like this had ever happened before. And I think also, the Chinese leadership was divided and uncertain how to respond to these protests.

So frankly, to the surprise of many of us on the ground, they allowed this large western presence, and you're right, we were given at CNN, permission to broadcast from the rostrum of Tiananmen Square, on the morning that Mikhail Gorbachev was supposed to arrive for his welcoming ceremony. And when we looked out across the square, what we saw were tens of thousands of students and Gorbachev's ceremony had to be moved. And so, all this was broadcast 'live'.

I think one of the lessons that the Chinese authorities learnt from the whole crisis, is the need, from their point of view, for much, much tighter control. So I don't think you'd ever have a crisis played out in that same way, although I think the social media impact of a similar crisis today, would be very interesting to monitor.

But this was a sort of particularly unique moment in time, where all of these factors - the Gorbachev, a divided Chinese leadership, a large (foreign) press presence, the fact that nothing like this had happened before, converged, to create the circumstances.

And that's when we did this project, Assignment: China Tiananmen Square, we felt it was really important to try and explore these issues, because it is a watershed moment. And even today, twenty-five years later, the images from that time are very powerful and they still shape the way a lot of people think about China.

LAM: Moving to the present, twenty-five years since Tiananmen Square, in terms of reporting and how the Chinese Communist Party approaches media, what lessons do you think Beijing learnt in the twenty-five years since?

CHINOY: I think one of the things the Chinese learned is that they're going to do everything in their power to prevent something like this from happening again. And so, you see that in terms of their domestic policies.

In terms of foreign reporting, it's a very interesting and paradoxical picture, because China today is a vastly more open, free-wheeling society, than it was in 1989. It is much easier to travel around the country, to talk to people. The internet has opened parts of Chinese society to outside outside observation in a way that simply did not exist before. Even with the limitations, even with the censorship, you do get a sense now, if you look at Chinese micro-blogs and what's on the internet, of what people are thinking - that you never had before. And also, China's much more integrated into the international economy, and that has forced the Chinese to make certain kinds of information publicly available. For example, about companies doing business and who runs those companies.

On the other hand, as the authorities have become more anxious, about political stability, particularly with the transition to a new leadership in 2012, and leadership crises, such as the ouster and eventual trial of the former party boss Bo Xilai, or the latest crackdown on the former security boss, Zhou Yongkang, there has been increased pressure on foreign journalists.

You've had journalists expelled, news organisations had trouble getting visas, you've had people being threatened and intimidated, so you have this paradox of a much tighter effort to control on the one hand. On the other hand, you have a much more open society, that's easier to access, producing in some ways, remarkable reporting of a kind, that we've not seen before.

LAM: What about the issue of maintaining a presence in China - rebroadcast rights, for instance - do you think that issue might affect foreign media coverage and that some media outlets might be tempted to tone down their coverage, or frankness, if you like?

CHINOY: There is certainly a tension here, and we've seen it most notably with Bloomberg News. Bloomberg produced a very dramatic expose about the wealth of relatives of President Xi Jinping a couple of years ago. And then, late last year, editors at Bloomberg killed the story, and that same team that produced the initial expose was working on, about a wealthy businessman in China and his ties to the leadership and the lead reporter in that was eventually fired, and hired by the New York Times. And top Bloomberg executives have essentially said we made a mistake by doing that kind of coverage, because it's going to affect our business interests selling Bloomberg terminals in China.

There's no question that access to China is a very important factor for news organisations. It's a huge story, it's an enormously important country - these organisations want to be there. If the Chinese make it more difficult, or make it clear that certain areas are off-limits, and news organisations are going to have trouble getting accreditation, getting visas and so on, it creates a chill.

So, again, you have this very paradoxical situation, where there are those pressures and yet you're still getting, I think, some very very good reporting.


Contact the studio

Got something to say about what you're hearing on the radio right now?

Send your texts to +61 427 72 72 72

Add the hashtag #raonair to add your tweets to the conversation.

Email us your thoughts on an issue. Messages may be used on air.