Wednesday, May 27, 2009


May 27, 1989

After an early morning walk around the square, I went to the Palace Hotel, where most of the BBC TV crew was now holed up, and took the elevator to the makeshift office fashioned out of a suite of guest rooms. I told BBC this would probably be my last day freelancing for them, and might have called it quits then and there if, had it not been for the day’s intriguing assignment. John Simpson asked me if I would like to join the crew for a shoot in the countryside. The plan was to make an informal visit to a village and ask people what they thought about the student demonstrations. This difficult task was made infinitely more difficult after a government-appointed interpreter struck up a friendship with Simpson and asked if he could tag along. That a government spy had been embedded in the BBC office by official fiat seemed likely to me; barbarian handlers appointed by the state were standard fare in Beijing news bureaus.

I knew from journalist friends such as Jimi Florcruz at Time and John Woodruff at the Baltimore Sun that one had to learn to live with government-appointed minders, some of whom were genuinely nice and could be quite useful at times, but then again, one didn’t invite them along for the ride when pursuing sensitive subjects or when interviewing people possibly at risk.

On the way to the van in the Palace Hotel parking lot, John Simpson introduced the new member of the crew as Mr. Tayng, pronouncing his name like it was a brand of powdered orange drink. The Britisher mangled the name is such an authoritative way that no one bothered to correct him.

Exiting Beijing, what with its roped off protest zones, revolutionary posters, slogan-shouting crowds and general traffic anarchy was like taking a step back in time to the “unchanging China” that had been the norm before the protests had begun. Advertising, what little there was, took the place of banners and wall posters. People were going about their everyday lives, eating, cooking, cleaning, making ends meet.
Once out of downtown, the posters and head-banded traffic wardens vanished and things looked weird in a familiar way, pretty much as they always had.The drive along tree-lined roads to the dusty countryside north of Beijing was pleasant diversion from the revolutionary intensity of Beijing and our excursion went without incident until we actually tried to do some journalism.

The idea was to stop along the roadside to do some spot interviews with farmers on the way to or from the fields. We wanted to know what they knew of recent events in Beijing and what they thought of it. As soon as the government interpreter figured out what was going on, he protested, politely explaining that we needed Public Security permission to interview villagers. He instructed us that we would have to go back to Beijing to get official authorization if we wanted to do something spontaneous.

Fortunately the crew was accustomed to dodging such Orwellian protocol and knew what I meant when I said, "forget about the interviews, let's get some "scenic shots.” If Simpson could only keep Tayng distracted long enough, --they sat next to one another and it seems they shared an interest in “Tayng” poetry-- the crew and I might be able to get away with doing some quick, unobtrusive interviews alongside the road.
With this little subversion in mind, Eric and Fred pretended to be setting up some generic "countryside" shots of corn fields, cattle grazing and farmers at work at this quiet bend in the road while I sought out some farmers willing to talk on camera. Tayng interrupted his lofty conversation with Simpson to exchange a few words with a well-dressed Chinese man who pulled up on motorcycle.

They conferred briefly, and then turned their attention to me. The minute I started to talking to a farmer who I had intercepted on his way home from the fields, Tayng came running over.

"Stop! stop! You cannot talk to these people," he cried out pathetically. "You do not even know who they are!"
"But Mr. Tayng, we didn't come all this way just to take pictures of rice fields," the producer pleaded. "We want to see the real China."
"I see, well, I have a good idea. This man over here said he will take us to his village. As foreigners, you would like to see a real village, wouldn't you?" Tayng said, pointing to a well-dressed man who appeared to have been waiting for us. I gathered he knew the man, judging from a poorly suppressed smile of recognition.
"I think we should interview these people right here," I spoke up, "They told me they are willing to talk on camera."
"Sorry, that is not permissible," Tayng said authoritatively. I begged to differ, but Mr. Tayng won the argument.
We climbed back in the van and followed the well-heeled man on wheels to his home in Zhuang village. Mr. Tayng was giddy with his find. "You see," he told the crew proudly as they set up the camera, "what we have here is a double lucky!"
"What, my good man, is a double lucky?" our senior correspondent asked, trying to keep a straight face.
"Yes. A double lucky symbolizes the success of Deng Xiaoping's dual modernization program, it shows economic reform and open door policy."
"How so?" The Englishman pressed for more detail.
"This man is a rich peasant, that proves the success of Deng's agricultural policies.” He said, beaming. “He is a also a part-time seaman and has traveled around the world doing trade with foreigners, confirming the success of Deng’s open door policy.”

A short time later we found ourselves sitting in Double Lucky's home sipping tea and admiring his household appliances. The august correspondent asked questions and Tayng translated, at one point revealing, incredibly, that this “typical common peasant” had been to England twice in the last year. Why wasn't I surprised when the accomplished peasant voiced complete support of government policies? Tayng did not mistranslate often or intentionally, he didn’t have to; he had the situation totally under control. I watched with jaded interest as he exchanged mysterious little comments to the interviewee, carefully staying off camera but “conducting” the interview nonetheless.

"This is an interview about the success of the open door policy," Tayng said in Chinese, by way of introduction, and added, without translating, the most telling words of all. "We will compensate you for the trouble."
"That guy's a spy if I ever saw one," Wang Li muttered in disgust, walking out of the model farmhouse to spit his venom on the dusty, dry earth of the tidy courtyard outside.

The interview wasn’t a total loss, since the pro-government voice could arguably give our reporting some balance. But I didn’t like the way we were roped into it, and I couldn’t help but notice that Mr. Double-Lucky got even luckier thanks to the interview.
"I think 100 FEC would be enough," Tayng hinted to our correspondent, "to pay him for the inconvenience we have caused."
“Phil, are we close to the Great Wall?” asked Simpson.
“Not really.” I didn’t know what to say. We get steered to this Potemkin village by a government-appointed interpreter, now the boss from London wants to call it a day and play tourist. I was already ill at ease because Tayng was on a par with the most obsequious barbarian-handlers that I had the “pleasure” of working with while freelancing for NBC. But I was a local hire, which put me pretty low on the totem pole, somewhere between barbarian and barbarian handler.

I convinced the crew to save the Great Wall for some other time, suggesting that we instead visit the Ming Tombs, also a tourist destination, with the reed-thin justification that we could get some shots of the adjacent golf course where Politburo members such as Zhao Ziyang were said to play. Ever since marching on May Fourth, it had been my understanding that official corruption and party member privilege were among the core issues at the heart of student protest.

But the situation on the ground was changing quickly. Martial law made it harder to work openly as journalists, and if Zhao Ziyang had indeed fallen from power, our expose on official corruption with him as a focus was oddly off course. Nonetheless we spent an afternoon of hiking around the Ming Tombs, combined with a quick visit, cameras rolling, to the clubhouse of the private golf course that boasted Zhao Ziyang as a member.

Then we headed back to Beijing. Just before nightfall on the outskirts of the city we spotted a military convoy. It had more trucks than we could count and it appeared to be heading south, directly towards Beijing.

Simpson asked the translator to tell the driver to follow the troops.
"But that's impossible!" cried Tayng.
"Mr. Tayng, is that convoy headed for Beijing?" Simpson asked, his sharp news instincts switching on.
"No. Absolutely not!” The translator said confidently.
“Where then?”
“They are not going in the direction of Beijing,” Tayng insisted.
“John, they are going south. That is definitely the direction of Beijing,” I piped up from the back seat where I had been whispering conspiratorially with Wang Li.
“Thanks Phil. Now Mr. Tayng, what do you think the convoy is doing?” the correspondent asked.
“It is not a convoy, sir. It is just routine troop deliveries, I mean exercises.”
"I see, okay," he said, "Let's follow them for a while."
"Yes, I understand, follow for a while," Tayng parroted obediently. He then addressed the driver in Chinese, "Listen to me. You don't have to follow the trucks."

Wang Li overhead the interpreter’s soft-spoken threat and thrust himself into the conversation. He loudly told the driver to ignore Tayng and to go after the convoy. Tayng muttered, “don’t follow,” smiling for the benefit of the BBC reporter who had only a rough idea of what was going on.

The driver turned off the engine and sat quietly, shut down by conflicting orders. A short, but hostile argument erupted, with Wang Li accusing Tayng of being a spy and Tayng accusing Wang Li of being an agitator. Of course, Simpson and the camera crew knew an argument was an argument, but they were unsure as to who was on their side.
Tayng then whispered to the driver. "It is your decision," he said, his lips glistening with saliva. "Say no to them. We are not going to do it, you get it?"
"Now, Mr. Philips," the translator announced loudly in plain English, pretending to talk to me but crafting a message intended for Simpson's ears, "Ask driver if he want to go or not and you translate him the answer."
"Don't be stupid!” I interjected. “I just heard you tell him to say no!"
Things got heated with the three of us arguing in loud tonal Chinese in the back of the van. Fortunately Eric and Fred took advantage of the fray to point the camera at the military convoy while we each tried to persuade the driver to follow a desired course of action.

The poor driver didn't know whom to listen to and just stared out the window at the dust clouds being kicked up by the passing army trucks. In the end, the driver, and I couldn’t really blame him for this, played it safe and refused to follow the trucks. The convoy had since rumbled out of sight, and we were losing light, but the crew shrewdly decided to set up a shot in a field adjacent to the road.
The BBC reporter stared into the camera and made a few authoritative remarks about the vast countryside of China, a passable ruse since we were in the leafy suburbs of Beijing.

A few minutes later, we heard the rumble of a new convoy of trucks and before Simpson could finish a sentence, Eric swiveled the camera on the tripod and zoomed in for the shot. We watched in abject silence as a huge convoy rumbled by, truck after truck packed with men in uniform. Although we could not detect any weapons, the antennae of field radios sticking out of gaps in the canvas topped trucks wobbled menacingly as the convoy groaned forward.
The sight of so many soldiers pressing forward with such purpose made me ache to get back into the protective fold of citizen-controlled Beijing, but it also made me wonder how much longer such a thing could last.