‘Bearing Witness Is Really All We Have’: Memories Of Covering The Tiananmen Aftermath

In June 1989, days after Chinese authorities cracked down on protesters in Tiananmen Square, NPR international correspondent Deborah Amos landed in Beijing to cover the aftermath. Fresh off a reporting stint covering Poland’s first democratic election — which took place on June 4, the same day as the Tiananmen crackdown — Amos spent the next six weeks reporting in and outside of Beijing, sometimes in secret. It was her first time covering China.

Speaking with NPR digital editor Hannah Bloch, Amos — who also teaches journalism at Columbia and Princeton universities — shares some of her memories of covering this turning point in China’s history.

You arrived in Beijing soon after the crackdown. Why do you think Chinese authorities allowed foreign journalists in at that point?

It was surprisingly easy. We got to Hong Kong and we got on the plane and the plane was relatively empty. But there was no doubt who we were — because when I arrived in Beijing, the baggage carousel was filled up with television equipment.

I had not been to China. It was not my area of coverage. But what I understood, because I’d been a Middle East correspondent for so long, is how you cover autocratic governments in the middle of a crackdown. I’d been in Iraq. I’d been in Syria. And so I knew what those kind of governments do.

And you know, part of I think why they wanted us there was to show that things were “back to normal” — because Chinese television was saying that, but they needed us to say it.

Although things were not normal.

Describe what the situation was like when you landed.

The streets were — I mean, there was palpable fear when we arrived. It was almost impossible to get Chinese people to talk to us.

The thing that was striking to me is how many bicycles were on the street. There were still troops on the ground and we could see them. The tourists had all fled. We were staying in a tourist hotel. So it was fairly empty, but it was certainly comfortable. And we could watch Chinese television — which is what you do in repressive regimes, you watch what they put on television and you decipher what they have in their newspapers, and that’s how you figure out what’s going on.

And what we saw on television was hundreds of arrests. You could see students, union leaders. The authorities were labeling them scoundrels and criminals and they’d be frog-marched into police stations.

What the Chinese government did with the American television networks is they were monitoring all of their feeds. And so they took an interview that one of the networks had done with somebody on the street who called the Chinese leaders “killers” — and then the screen froze and they put a telephone number up on the screen and they urged anybody who recognized this guy to call the police right away.

And sure enough, later in that day, he was again on television. But now he is being forced into a police station.

How were you able to do your work?

We did have people in the hotel who could help us. I was very lucky. There was a guy who had been doing some work with NPR named Bill Hinton and Bill Hinton was a China specialist.

He was American. He had lived in China most of his life. And he’d written about Mao [Zedong] and what happened in the countryside. And he was a big supporter of Mao and still was, to the day that we met him. He lost his [U.S.] passport in the 1950s because of it. But he knew China like nobody’s business. And he spoke the language. He was an old man by the time I met him and he helped us with a lot of the translations.

But there was also English on Chinese television, so we could watch that; we could listen to the BBC, listen to the Voice of America. There were a lot of things that you could listen to and you could watch that. You could check what was going on.

And the Chinese version of events was this was, you know, an American-backed revolution — it was against the Chinese military.

What were some of your reporting experiences?

That first week that I was there, the U.S. [Embassy’s] visa section opened for the first time. So we went to do what radio journalists do – vox pop. And boy, people did not want to talk to us. But they wanted their visas, they wanted to get out.

We went to a Catholic church on a Sunday and a young woman talked to us. And you know, all of a sudden, an older man came and grabbed her by the arm — I didn’t know who he was — and whispered in her ear furiously, you know, walked her away from us. It’s like, “Are you crazy? You know don’t talk to these people. This is how you get in trouble.”

There was one day, I was in a cab and my cabdriver tapped me on the arm, below the dashboard. There were soldiers everywhere. And he didn’t move his eyes. He just kept looking straight ahead. But he wanted me to see where the soldiers were because Tiananmen was still filled with soldiers and they cleaned everything up. It was now spotless. There was not one bit of evidence when I got there that anything had happened on the square. It was very surreal.

Was it easier to report outside Beijing?

With Bill Hinton, we went to Chengdu. And we went to a tourist hotel. And he spoke fluent Chinese, so he could speak to the proprietor, who was complaining about what had happened in Beijing and in Tiananmen Square, and you know, he was angry about bribes that he had to pay to the local authorities.

That was why people in the countryside had joined with the protesters on the square. They were angry about how the system was now working. This was, you know, not how Mao intended things to be. And these two mean-looking guys walk in, and all of a sudden, the proprietor shuts up because he sees that this is now dangerous for him.

And so he just kind of quietly gives us this noodle dish and and he doesn’t want to talk anymore.

Meanwhile, the authorities were trying to project an air of normalcy.

One night, the lead of the Chinese news program was about a contest for planting trees in the capital. And it was just bizarre to watch that at the same time that there was this massive roundup going on. But it’s typical. It’s typical of authoritarian regimes. They want everybody to believe that things are back to normal. And it’s not easy to convince people that they are. Everybody’s afraid, you know, your children are getting arrested. You don’t know how many people were shot on the square. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, when you’re gonna get the knock on the door.

Did that young woman who spoke to me at the Catholic church stay out of jail? I have no idea. And so those things were, in some ways, they were chilling, because it was so weird to see how they were trying to convince us that all was well.

And they’re yelling about how this is all an American plot, this was, you know, a Western attack on [China]. And then, as the months went by, they stopped talking about it.

In Chengdu, you could take out your microphone, but it was impossible to do that in Beijing, right?

In Beijing, we couldn’t take our microphones because that would get you busted. And so, you know, it was a game between us and the officials. They knew we were there and they let us be there. They let us report but we couldn’t do it in the open. So you were pretty restricted in what you could see and do.

I mean, of course what we wanted to do is get into people’s houses, but nobody was answering the phone. Not anywhere. You couldn’t talk to officials, so that journalistic standard of you need to talk to an official, you couldn’t do it. So it was just atmospherics. That’s all we had. And then deciphering, you know, what Chinese television meant by putting a tree festival as the lead of the news.

We wanted to actually do some radio, which was really hard to do. You can’t take a microphone out. So we hired a rickshaw driver. And I put my mic cord up my sleeve and I hid the mic in my shirt. The recorder in my bag.

And we did about an 8-minute [story of] here’s what we saw around [Tiananmen] Square. And there is a moment that the soldiers come up to us. And I thought, “Oh, now we’re done for” – because we knew that other reporters had had their equipment taken, you know, all of their tapes confiscated. You were at risk of being deported if you put your head up as a reporter. Once they looked at two American passports, they let us go.

What were you able to see from the rickshaw?

You know, the most interesting was just how many soldiers were still on the square and how watchful they all were. Near the square there was a bridge where a soldier had been hung and burned. And that was part of their narrative — you know, it was soldiers who died. It wasn’t students who died. It wasn’t protesters who died.

But at the same time, there was also one small English sign. And it said: “All these things must be answered for.”

And it was the one tiny flicker that we saw that the spirit of Tiananmen was still alive within those days.

I mean, the Chinese authorities managed to snuff it out with these massive arrests. They hunted down everyone, and all of the video that the networks were putting up on that satellite were essentially part of the Chinese spying operation.

So they looked up everybody that was willing to give an interview and they arrested all of them. And nobody understood that in the beginning – because they didn’t do it right away. Because they wanted us to do more.

And there was a curfew. That’s one of the things that happens when we were on the square in that rickshaw. It’s like, “Oh we’d better get back. We have to be back.” You could get arrested for that.

And you know, what happens is, at some point, you’re more worried for [the rickshaw driver] than you are for yourself. The worst they could do is deport me. That’s not the worst they could do to him.

How successful has China been in keeping the events of 1989 “erased”?

They’re very effective. I have met Chinese students who come to New York to go to journalism school at Columbia. And I remember talking to a young woman who knew nothing about Tiananmen until she got to journalism school at Columbia.

It was so shocking to her that this could happen. And I worried about her, because [as a journalism professor], you fill them with the zeal of investigative journalism and telling the truth and confronting officials. And I think when she understood the enormity of what had happened and how much [Chinese officials] suppressed it, I think she understood that she wasn’t going to be able to be a journalist in China.

There’s something that’s so heartbreaking when you meet people who are in the middle of this mental shift now. And then [they] have to go back. And my guess is that some decide not to — because that mental leap is just too hard.

The Beijing that I saw 30 years ago with all the bicycling has been replaced by cars, nice cars, and a middle class, a thriving one. And the Chinese system has given people progress and industry and universities and education and brilliant IT. But the thing that people were asking for 30 years ago, they still don’t have.

Are there any journalistic lessons you learned from your time in China?

Everything counts. Everything counts. So keep your eyes open. You know, usually what you do is you go interview people. But your eyes are as good as anything. And so, you know, it’s possible to report a small English sign. How many soldiers are on the square. How people look away when you try to talk to them. And all that’s reportable and all that’s content. All of it.

And so, as a journalist, you learn in those situations that you trust your instincts. You actually are a witness, and that counts.

You know, I always say to my students that bearing witness is really all we have. You don’t get to change the world. If that’s what you’re in journalism for, go join an NGO. That’s not what we do. And if you keep that in mind, you will be satisfied in what your job is. If you think that you’re out there to change the world, you will never last.

So that was an example of all you can do is bear witness and, you know, that was the best thing you could bring to the table. That’s what it’s all about.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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