What international coverage of Tiananmen got wrong

June 7, 2019

Many Chinese citizens still don’t know the full story of Tiananmen. On June 4, 1989, the Chinese military advanced on a student-led, pro-democracy protest in Tiananmen Square, killing its own citizens. Since then, the government has carefully scripted language about the event and censored mentions in the media and in textbooks. The 1989 demonstrations remain one of the most politically sensitive and taboo topics in China.

Ahead of the thirtieth anniversary this year, some international news outlets focused on this continued censorship. The BBC, CBS, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), and Deutsche Welle all sent reporters to approach pedestrians in China and show them the iconic photograph of the protest: a single man standing in front of a line of tanks in Beijing. In the footage that was published, many of the pedestrians didn’t recognize the image, some clumsily denied their recognition of it, and others physically ran away. The subsequent stories then asserted that China had erased history.

The reality is far more complicated. In China, people’s understanding of what happened in 1989 is shaped by fear, opaqueness, and sometimes folk wisdom. While the Tank Man, as he’s known in the West, isn’t necessarily an iconic image in China, failure to recognize the image doesn’t mean that a person isn’t aware of what happened at Tiananmen.

Below are the Chinese Storytellers’ thoughts on how the international press covered June Fourth, and how to cover ordinary people in authoritarian states.

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In the course of reporting on Tiananmen, CBS journalist Elizabeth Palmer ended up attracting police attention while trying to ask a young woman questions. The police looked over her shoulder and took photos of her. In other interviews for ABC and the BBC, young students dashed away and middle-aged Beijing residents showed clear unease. They might have been worried they would face retribution after appearing on international TV.

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In 1989, days after the June Fourth crackdown, China intercepted footage from an ABC News interview with Xiao Bin, who said thousands had been killed at Tiananmen Square. China broadcast the interview and accused him of being a “counterrevolutionary.” He was sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp. Today, China is increasingly tightening its authoritarian grip on all aspects of society. Regardless of what passersby say or don’t say, appearing in an interview with foreign media about June Fourth may set them up for harassment by the authorities.

This type of reporting — exposing a few Chinese pedestrians’ discomfort in directly speaking about Tiananmen, or their “ignorance” of a photo known widely only in the West — shows only what international media already presumes: that censorship and surveillance are effective in an authoritarian country. It also puts innocent people in needless danger.

—Shen Lu, freelance reporter


Editor’s note: When reached for comment, a spokesperson for CBS News gave the following statement:

In choosing to show Chinese passers-by photos of Tiananmen Square, we committed no crime under Chinese law.

It follows that passers-by who stopped to look at the photos also committed no crime.

There is absolutely no reason to believe that any one of those passers-by was put in danger.

Every person we interviewed chose freely to talk to us (some people we approached refused to talk and went on their way.)

Years of working in authoritarian and conflict-ridden countries have made us mindful of the safety of those we speak to. Our Chinese colleagues understand the written and unwritten rules of operating in China and are particularly risk-conscious.

We made an important point – that the Chinese government has effectively erased the memory of Tiananmen from contemporary history.  It has become literally a non-event for most young Chinese.

BBC Global News writes:

John Sudworth has been the BBC’s Beijing correspondent since 2015, and has been reporting from Asia for more than a decade. We are very mindful of the risks to Chinese nationals when we are reporting. All participants took part voluntarily and were aware they were being interviewed by a western camera crew.


A couple of years ago, I was on the streets of New York getting vox pops from Chinese students about topics that were considered sensitive. Even in the “free world,” it was not an easy assignment: there weren’t many people who were willing to talk on camera, and those who did might have only represented a small group of dissidents. More importantly, many might not have been fully aware of the potential consequences. I spent most of my time explaining myself and the publication, and reiterating their choice to be anonymous.

Students would speak up — when you gave them time, context, honesty, and of course, anonymity. Some who refused to talk on camera shared their views privately with me later.

That’s why I was in shock seeing some of the street interviews about Tiananmen this year. The reporters did not create a safe space for people to speak. The journalists did not make any efforts to contextualize their questions. They knew they wouldn’t get an answer, and the pieces were intentionally structured to highlight that.

This kind of journalistic practice is actually not about Tiananmen, but a conscious — and stylistic — choice that is commonly adopted to frame ignorance and silence. In 2016, Fox News took this to an extreme by sending Walter Scott to Manhattan Chinatown, asking Chinese elderlies basic political questions in English. When they stumbled, Scott’s team dubbed cricket sounds in the background as a joke.

—Tony Lin, video journalist at Quartz


The image of the Tank Man is “a code for so many Western values and desires,” as Jennifer Hubbert described to The New York Times, and has appeared in various commercials and throughout pop culture. But it was never widely seen in China. This does not mean 1.4 billion people are unaware of or have forgotten about Tiananmen.

Even the Chinese government, which has successfully nailed Jell-O to the wall, is not capable of wiping out the memories of millions of people. What it’s done instead is create a counter-narrative, calling Tiananmen “political turbulence” and claiming the crackdown was justified. The Tank Man photo was not included in this counter-narrative. State media at the time frequently aired not the footage of the man stopping the tank, but a soldier who was killed and burned by “rioters.”

Some Chinese people learned the history in other ways: with a VPN to circumvent the Great Firewall, through family stories told in private, or from a friend explaining why a Weibo post needs manual review. For most people in China, the Tank Man photo has never been the first memory of the tragedy.

—Sirui Hua, producer at NowThis


In international media, citizens of authoritarian states are often portrayed as “the other” — brainwashed humanoids incapable of independent thought or agency, instead of people with complex emotions and motives. Those interviewed in the vox pop must be brainwashed to forget the Tank Man image, we assume, not silent because they knew plainclothes police could be following the reporters. This kind of coverage is a form of dehumanization. It takes away the trust local populations have towards journalists, at a time when public trust in media is at an all-time low worldwide. Trust in journalists is even more important in authoritarian states than liberal ones, because sources are at more risk.

One example of a story that dehumanized Chinese people is the one-child policy. In Western media, parents were often painted as victims of a blatant human rights violation, ignoring that public opinion considered the policy a sacrifice for better living standards. (China’s birth rate remains low, even after the policy was loosened.)

Focus should be on the tactics authoritarian powers use to manipulate the people; reporters miss this entirely when they assume the people are simply “brainwashed.” Chinese students attending welcome rallies when party officials pay visits overseas — they must be brainwashed. Chinese scholars defending the party’s policies — they must be brainwashed. The recent TV stunts were trying to “prove” an assumption that people don’t remember Tiananmen, not thinking about what would happen to them if they told a reporter on camera that they did. People shouldn’t be reduced to TV props anywhere.

—Mia Shuang Li, adjunct research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism


For safety reasons, Chinese journalists, newsroom assistants, and researchers have no choice but to abstain from public discussion of Tiananmen. However, the news coverage can still be inclusive if necessary protection was provided and basic respect was paid to Chinese nationals. Instead of grabbing random people on the street, what’s needed is thorough research to identify interviewees, prepare locations of the interviews, have open discussions with Chinese colleagues, and stay humble to criticisms. This is what CNN did. Failing to make these efforts is denying already limited access to press freedom from those who need it the most.

An additional note: Chinese news researchers and assistants who help expat journalists overcome language and cultural barriers, and even racial differences in bureaus in Beijing and Shanghai, are rarely given a byline. The inequality of power structure directly leads to unbalanced narratives from outsiders.

—Jin Ding, communications and inclusion manager at the Pulitzer Center


“What should we publish for the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen?” At ChinaFile, we started tossing around ideas in March. The discussion soon transformed into, “What can we publish that hasn’t already been done on Tiananmen?”

Everything that should be said has already been said, though it may never be heard by the people who need to hear it most. My colleagues and I were at a loss. Whatever we publish, I thought, people in China won’t be able to read it anyway.

The memory is being erased — my colleagues and I drew the same conclusion as we sat in the office room. “Or is it?” A sense of skepticism broke in. We realized that this was our story: 30 years on, is the memory of Tiananmen still there? There are stories for Chinese people living under pervasive censorship to tell — they’re just not the stories the West expects.

We launched an open call for personal accounts about “how you learned about Tiananmen.” By June, we heard from many young Chinese telling us about their experience –– how a part of the collective memory has whispered itself into awareness, despite a deafening silence.

Muyi Xiao, visuals editor at ChinaFile


This year, many op-eds have been published in ChinaFile, Initium media, and other publications by a new generation of Chinese writers who grew up in the age of the internet. They went abroad. They found out about June Fourth in their own ways. They learned to tell the stories of what June Fourth means to them in a second language. They are eager to move beyond the simplistic and repetitive ways we talk about June Fourth. They are not OK with international media’s complacency and oversimplification. They are using their own writings to challenge the world to look deeper, ask uncomfortable questions and move forward. They are not afraid. Listen to them.

—Isabelle Niu, video journalist at Quartz

Photo via the AP.

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The Chinese Storytellers is a collective of Chinese journalists working in international media.