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Friday, May 30, 2014

Chairman Mao and the Goddess

-- by Tom Phillips

Twenty-five years ago this May, I went with CBS News to cover what turned out to be historic events in Beijing.  We were the only crew from a major U.S. network on the scene, but it wasn’t because we knew what was going to happen.  We were planning to cover the meeting of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and China’s communist party leaders – a summit conference that became just a footnote to the tumult in Tiananmen Square, and throughout China

The pro-democracy protests that swept China in 1989 had been building up for weeks, and climaxed in mid-May with a huge demonstration that filled Tiananmen Square with more than a million people.  Protests were also reported in hundreds of other Chinese cities.  It came about because of a confluence of factors – mourning for the death of a leading party reformer in April, spring weather and spring fever, the presence of foreign reporters and loosening of press restrictions for the Gorbachev visit.   But it also had to do with the global atmosphere – Gorbachev’s reforms, the implosion of the Soviet empire in Europe, the rise of democratic aspirations everywhere.  It felt like an unstoppable movement – democracy was coming to the People’s Republic, for a billion people in the world’s largest civilization.    

America, or the idea of America, was the ultimate inspiration.  The students tried to build a papier-mache replica of the Statue of Liberty, but the torch sagged when held with just one arm, so they rebuilt it with the other hand holding the wrist for support.  They called it the “Goddess of Democracy,” and installed it in the square, facing the huge portrait of Mao Zedong.  This reportedly enraged the communist party hard-liners. 

Demanding democracy, the student leaders set up their own little democracy in the square.  Everything had to be voted on.  We discovered this when producer Susan Zirinsky and I, rushing back to the hotel, took a shortcut across the square.  When we arrived at the edge a security fence was in the way, right next to one of the student command posts.  Zirinsky, never one to be denied, was not about to turn back.  She pleaded with the students, dropping the names of their leaders, saying all we were trying to do was get their story out.  They huddled and voted, all their hands shooting up simultaneously.  We won, and jumped the fence. 

The students were the leaders, but many others were represented, too.  They came in groups identified with banners – nurses, artists, hotel workers, street cleaners waving their brooms.   The protesters loved the presence of an American TV news team, and they welcomed us every morning as we arrived to broadcast the Evening News, at dawn Beijing time.  They would crowd around and watch everything we did.  As long as we were getting their story out, they felt a measure of protection. 

It was hard to believe a demonstration of this size could fail, especially when its goals were so modest.  The students were calling for reform, not a revolution:  more freedom of the press, a more open and representative government, a crackdown on official corruption, and curbs on inflation.  From their mood, it seemed most of them would have been satisfied with a statement of intent from the government. 
We heard nothing, though, from party leader Deng Hsiao-ping and his ministers.  They were all inside the Zhongnanhai, the former imperial compound where they lived just a few blocks from Tiananmen Square, with protesters camped outside its heavenly gates.  But it was evident from their silence that a power struggle was taking place, and as the days went on it became clear that the hard-liners had the upper hand.  The first signs were in the nightly coverage on Chinese TV.  At first, it was sympathetic to the protesters.  It even seemed the reporters and announcers were part of the movement.  But after a few days the coverage shifted and began emphasizing the “dangers” to the protesters.  Doctors and nurses were interviewed about the health hazards of fasting, and living outdoors in such close quarters, with only opened sewers for sanitation.

Then they stopped interviewing the student leaders, and instead some middle-aged protesters materialized on the nightly news, talking angrily about overthrowing the government.  It struck me as strange at the time.  Later I realized they were probably government agents, sent in to manufacture evidence of the “counter-revolutionary plot” the old guard was determined to crush. 

At 4 a.m. on May 19, the communist leaders came out of their compound to “visit” the student leaders, camped out in a bus on the square.  Li Peng, the leading hard-liner, walked briskly down the aisle, shaking hands perfunctorily with each of the students, not looking at them.  He was followed by Zhao Ziyang, the party general-secretary, soon to be ousted and placed under house arrest.  Zhao was nearly weeping as he took the students’ hands in both of his.  “We came too late,” he told them.  “We should have come before.” 
A few hours later in the square, we saw a half-dozen military helicopters coming over the horizon, flying low.  “Get down,” said our Beijing correspondent John Sheahan.  We were afraid they would open fire, with bullets or tear gas.  Instead they just buzzed the perimeter of the square, flying right over us as we huddled by our truck.

A short time later, loudspeakers crackled to life with a tinny female voice.  It was the first official announcement we’d heard in the square.  “Martial law has been declared in Beijing,” she said, repeatedly.  “The situation is very dangerous, go home immediately.” 

I ran to the typewriter and rattled out a bulletin.  After a paragraph I tore it out and ran it to executive producer Tom Bettag, who met me with a rueful expression. “Never mind,” he said.  “They just pulled our plug.” 

We couldn’t broadcast from the square any more, but CBS News had its own satellite dish back at the hotel.  We jumped into a van and peeled out.  Almost immediately the driver slammed on the brakes, to avoid a protester sprinting across the road.  We tumbled around in the van, then started up again, slower this time.  The streets were filling with young people, setting up barricades against an attack.  They waved us through. 
Bettag was shouting over his mobile phone to New York, begging the network to give up an hour of prime time for a special report that night.  He had no luck, but it wouldn’t have mattered if he had.  When we got back to the hotel and rushed onto the air, we were interrupted by a delegation of Chinese officials, who said our permit to broadcast had expired, and requested that we pull the plug on our own satellite.  CBS broadcast that conversation live, but it ended with the Chinese having their way.  After a few minutes of gallant posturing, CBS gave in and Dan Rather signed off.  The lines went black, and there was nothing left to do but get out of town.  
The next morning all roads out of Beijing were barricaded, and the scene at the airport was hysterical.  Everyone with money, connections, or a foreign passport was trying to leave before the shooting started.  We fought our way through the mobs, carrying trunks full of videotape of the uprising.  Customs could have seized the evidence, of course, but the agents were sympathetic to the protests.  They waved us through.  Twenty-four hours after martial law was declared in Beijing, I was sitting in the first-class cabin of a Pan Am jet, bound for Tokyo and New York, with a tray full of fancy food and wine.  I felt like throwing up. 

When the shooting finally began on a Saturday, two weeks later, I was at home.  After listening to the radio for a few minutes, I turned it off, in despair and denial.  I couldn’t believe they were doing this: painting idealism as evil, crushing the brightest and bravest of their own children in the name of “stability.” 

Hundreds, maybe thousands of young people were killed as the army moved in that night to reclaim the square.  Some of them may have been among the students who met us every day on the square, smiling and applauding, treating us as heroes who were there to protect them and show them the ways of freedom.  Some of them may have been among the young people who came to our hotel every day, offering information and guidance.  One told us he knew he could be ruining his future by talking to us in full view of the Chinese officials we had to deal with.  “But I don’t care,” he said, in a quavering voice. 
We left them all behind.  When the attack came, it was done in the dark, with no TV cameras present.  The story got out, in still photographs and eyewitness accounts, but in such fragmentary form that no one was able to disprove the party line: that only a few people were killed as the army put down the vestiges of a “counter-revolutionary riot.”

In later years I consoled myself with the thought that the struggle continues, that the Tiananmen uprising would never be forgotten, and some day the Chinese people would realize their longing for freedom.   But today I’m not so sure.  The events of 1989 were caused by a confluence of factors that may never recur.  People naturally long for freedom, but they don’t always get it, and Chinese people have never had much of it.

When the Goddess of Democracy faced off against Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square, two kinds of politics came directly into conflict.  The students believed in the power of ideas and free speech; Mao wrote that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.   Nearly all of us in the western media assumed that the students were on the right side of history, that the communists were trying to preserve a dying system of repression, and they could only stem the tide temporarily. 

Twenty-five years later, Mao’s one-party system is still entrenched, and the global scene seems to show a rising tide not of democracy, but of repression.   It could be just a short-term shift in the weather, rather than a permanent chill.  But right now, soldiers, cops, censors and thugs hold the whip hand over youthful protesters on all the front lines of democratic struggle – in Russia and Ukraine, in Egypt, Turkey and Iran, in Thailand and Myanmar.  And America’s torch of freedom is sagging badly.  Our once “transformative” president has joined the intelligence and national security crowd, defending Chinese-style surveillance of American citizens, and even the government’s right to kill them summarily if they’re perceived as enemies.  Meanwhile the youthful protester who blew the whistle on the government’s domestic spying is in exile, facing criminal charges if he returns here.  Chairman Mao would love it. 

Even a few years ago, it was unthinkable to suppose that democracy would wane in the 21st century, or that the brief uprising in Tiananmen Square would be the high-water mark for freedom in China.   But it may once again be time to think the unthinkable, or live to see it.

-- Copyright 2014 by Tom Phillips