This 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.
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.