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How the Chinese reported Tiananmen

By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Shanghai

Man reading newspaper, Beijing, Nov 08
Attempts at openness, then as now, are often repressed

For most Chinese in 1989 the only source of information about the protests in and around Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in the country was the state-controlled media.

Initially at least, the reporting appears to have been fairly open and straightforward.

On 21 April the People's Daily reported "almost 300 students gathered in front of Xinhua Gate (in Tiananmen Square) and attempted to attack Zhongnanhai (the leaders' compound) throughout the night.

"Some made aggressive speeches, some shouted anti-government slogans and some threw bricks and soda bottles at policemen who were maintaining order."

The paper went on to describe in more detail the events of the previous 24 hours.

Open at first

"There was a lot of openness at first, because the Chinese leadership wanted to show their openness, they wanted to show there was a dialogue with the students," says Professor Joseph Cheng from Hong Kong's City University.

Banner, students, Tiananmen Square 1989
Students gathered in Tiananmen Square in 1989 on Hu Yaobang's death

"Domestically there were a lot of complaints about hyper-inflation, and accusations of corruption, so the country's leaders didn't think at the time the protests were a direct threat to them," he said.

The state broadcaster, China Central Television (CCTV), he says, gave brief and fairly neutral reports initially about what was happening in the square.

But that all changed on 26 April 1989.

That day the People's Daily produced an editorial accusing the protesters of causing "turmoil". From then on the tone of much of the coverage changed markedly.

"After that the state-controlled media had a line defined for them by the authorities, that these protesters were people who were influenced by the West, challenging the government.

"Once that line was established there was more coverage," the professor says.

On 16 May, for example, the paper reported the hunger strike by students and appeals by officials for the protesters to take "calm and reasonable actions".

"The hunger strike in Tiananmen Square," the paper said, "is having a negative impact on our national image".

'Scoundrels'

By June the tone had become more strident describing the protesters as "scoundrels".

Newspaper display box, Beijing park, March 09
Newspapers are often in public parks, putting across the government's view

On 5 June, the day after the crackdown, the paper published a letter to all members of the Chinese Communist Party and people of the country from the Central Committee of the CCP and State Council.

It described the protests as "an appalling counter-revolutionary rebellion" involving "saboteurs" who "humiliated, beat and kidnapped PLA [People's Liberation Army] soldiers, officials and policeman" shouting "pick up weapons and overthrow the government".

My family lived in a remote place, we had no idea what was going on
Ruan Yunfei, writer

Ruan Yunfei, a freelance writer from Chengdu, was 24 in 1989. He remembers "inconsistent" coverage in the media - at first more "liberal" but then after the clampdown on 4 June quite different.

"CCTV aired pictures of people burning military vehicles repeatedly," he says.

"My family lived in a remote place, we had no idea what was going on. I was angry and sad; our own army had fired at our own people."

Cui Wei Ping, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, who was 33 in 1989 and living in the capital, also describes the early coverage as "liberal".

"It was very close to press freedom," she says.

But the journalists who had been very active in covering the protests were subject to directives from "higher authorities" and soon the events in the square were being referred to as a "counter-revolutionary riot" and "playing up the PLA casualties", she says.

Hong Kong sorrow

In Hong Kong, according to Professor Michael DeGolyer from Hong Kong Baptist University, newspapers were "pretty open about reporting events although Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Po, two 'mainland' papers, maintained a pro-government stance".

Candlelight vigil, Victoria Park, Hong Kong, 4 June 2008
Hong Kong is the only place under Chinese rule to mourn 4 June 1989

Prof DeGolyer remembers the phone-in programmes on radio stations in Hong Kong full of "sorrow, anger and fear" for several days afterwards.

The morning shows were extended into the afternoon between news updates with regular broadcasting suspended.

The reality though was that throughout the protests, and after the clampdown, it was hard for people to get accurate information about what was going on.

Even now many people in China do not know much about what happened.

And persuading people to talk to you today about their memories of that time is not easy.

The word people use most often to describe the subject is "taboo". Even anonymously they do not want to be quoted in the foreign media.

Ruan Yunfei says it is almost "a common understanding" among Chinese people that the subject should be avoided.

"Even if you dare to talk about it," he says, "people don't dare listen to it."

Cui Wei Ping, the film professor in Beijing, says that feeling that the subject is taboo exposes the inconsistency of the official verdict on the events of 4 June.

"In the beginning the PLA soldiers were regarded as heroes," she says. "Now even the government doesn't talk about how to commemorate the heroes. If it was a victory the government should celebrate it."



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