Friday, May 9, 2008


When the best in the West fail to get it right


As the 19th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown approaches, a book with the iconic image of the man in front of the tank leaps off the bookstore shelf. The Granta Book of Reportage, published in 2006 with an introduction by Ian Jack, offers up examples of Western journalism at its best.

A China-themed cover on a book dedicated to quality journalism brings to mind a new generation of Chinese youth, recently having taken to the streets to protest not against the Beijing government but against distorted Western media coverage of China.

''Don't be too CNN!'' is the Chinese slang of the moment, which is to say, don't be too deceptive.

I flip through the pages of the Granta anthology until I come to the story linked to the cover image, it's an eyewitness report about Tiananmen in 1989 by BBC's celebrated World Affairs Editor, John Simpson.

I read his account eagerly and with interest because I was there, too.

I was freelancing for news networks in Beijing at the time. BBC London had asked me to take reporter Simpson and a crew from Panorama to a disco that evening to ''see what young people were thinking'' (what was BBC London thinking?) but I refused, saying it was more important to be on the Square.

Simpson, to his credit, supported me.

We walked to Tiananmen Square together, mingling with the diminished but agitated crowd.

When the conflict turned violent and individuals in the crowd starting attacking soldiers, we regrouped, filmed what we could and gradually withdrew.

As the crackdown got more violent _ tanks had not yet arrived but armoured personnel carriers were on the move and tracer bullets were flying overhead _ I offered Simpson and the BBC crew refuge in my room at the Beijing Hotel. (I was a freelancer responsible for my own accommodations; BBC was based at the more distant Palace Hotel.)

Simpson accepted the offer and describes it thus:

''I now feel guilty about the decision; it was wrong, we ought to have stayed in the Square even though the other camera crews had already left. Someone should have been there when the massacre took place, showing the courage of the students as they were surrounded by tanks and the army advancing, firing as it went.''

I can accept the mock bravado of a man who, having found safety, laments that he should have faced more danger. But what I cannot accept is the odd assertion that there must have been a massacre on the Square because Simpson wasn't there to witness it.

The brave souls who did stay, including Spanish TV and the hundreds of students who were given safe passage under gunpoint and survived to tell the tale, are quite clear about there not having been a massacre on the Square that night.

This was common knowledge within days and was reported by ABC's Ted Koppel and others in early June.

Why wasn't this corrected?

A terrible bloody crackdown did indeed take place, a tragedy which will remain a stain on China's Communist Party until there is a reversal of verdicts and an honest reconciliation. But the bloodiest incidents took place not on the Square but elsewhere, particularly at Jianguomen and Muxidi intersections.

Simpson's report from Room 1413 in the Beijing Hotel is vivid beyond belief.

''We saw the troops pouring out of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, bayonets fixed, shooting first into the air and then straight ahead of them. They looked like automata, with their rounded dark helmets. We filmed them charging across and clearing the northern end of the Square, where I had signed the student's T-shirt. We filmed the tanks as they drove over the tents where some of the students had taken refuge, among them, perhaps, the young couple I had seen sitting silently, their arms around each other.''

Nice literary touch, artfully dressed with ''real'' people he might have glimpsed earlier in the evening; but the scenes described could not be seen from the hotel.

''Dozens of people seemed to have died in that way, and those who saw it said they could hear the screams of the people inside the tents over the noise of the tanks.''

The operative word here is ''seemed''; it is a chilling but unverifiable scene. ''We filmed as the lights in the Square were switched off at 4am and the tanks moved towards the Monument itself, shooting first in the air and then, again, directly at the students themselves,'' (only the pinnacle of the monument could be discerned from Room 1413) ''so that the steps of the Monument and the heroic reliefs which decorated it were smashed by bullets.''

This is anachronistic information he could not possibly have witnessed.

''Once or twice, we were ourselves shot at, and during the night the security police sent men to our room to arrest us; but I shouted at them in English, and they went away, uncertain of the extent of their powers.''

After he was done shouting, I spoke to them quietly in Chinese; they were checking rooms but taking no action. The cameraman hid some videotapes in the vent afterwards as a precaution.

''Below us, the best and noblest political protest since Czechoslovakia in 1968 was being crushed as we watched. I knelt on the balcony, beside the cameraman and a Chinese woman, one of the student leaders.''

Simpson knelt on the balcony of my room next to me and the British cameraman. There was no Chinese woman, let alone a student leader with us that night.

''She had taken refuge in our room because we were foreigners. I shouted at her to go back inside, but she refused, turning her head from me so I wouldn't see she was crying, her hands clenched tight enough to hurt, intent on watching the rape of her country and the movement she and her friends had built up in the course of 22 days.''

The crying female student leader makes for compelling reading but is utterly fictitious.

The only female in my Beijing Hotel room that night besides Jenny Clayton, a BBC producer, was Patricia, a Hong Kong journalist who sought refuge with us. Not knowing Cantonese from Mandarin, Hong Kong from the Mainland, is it possible Simpson confused a Hong Kong reporter for a Beijing student leader?

Simpson's phantom female also bears an uncanny resemblance to student leader Chai Ling, who was interviewed by me on May 28, 1989 at the Lido Hotel Apartments.

This gut-wrenching confessional interview, impromptu camera work by Lotus Fong, is the only one of its kind conducted with a student leader in the heat of the event itself. Clips of Chai Ling's confession, fists clenched, fighting back tears, were aired on ABC, NHK, TV Asahi in 1989 and was later examined in detail in The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a 1995 PBS documentary by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon.

Furthermore, by suggesting the movement was only 22 days old, when it had been going on for at least twice that long, makes it seem that Simpson, who had just parachuted in, had been there the whole time.

He concludes his eyewitness account with literary flair.

''Beside me, the cameraman spotted something and started filming. Down in the Square, in the early light, the soldiers were busy unrolling something and lifting it up. Soon a great curtain of black cloth covered the entrance to Tiananmen Square. What was happening there was hidden from us.''

We were on the 14th floor looking a kilometre to the west in dim light so a strip of black cloth (other than the metaphorical one Simpson seemed to be wearing over his eyes) would pose little obstacle given our oblique line of sight.

The real problem was not the alleged invisibility cloak, but inaccurate reporting born of frustration with lack of access to key events on the Square in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989.

Simpson has an engaging, literary style and a writer of his stature might assume a bit of poetic licence to make for a more mythic narrative.

But much of what he has to say is demonstrably false and that is bad journalism.

Taking a close look at just one page of one ''reputable'' Western account of a highly charged and emotional chapter in China's history, I can better understand why Chinese students are disappointed by the likes of CNN and BBC.

If it cannot be reported in China and the best in the West get it wrong, where is one left to turn?

Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator.

(published in the Bangkok Post)