DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, June 13, 2014

CNN News Anchor Looks Back at Tiananmen Square

Shaw speaks at Newseum
Welcome to this week's Friday Flashback. Each Friday in the Flashback will will offer a post about some part of the past and its relationship to DC. Sometimes, we will write a new entry. Others times, we will showcase articles that previously appeared in The Prices Do DC or some other online publications. But no matter who does the writing, you can trust that you will learn something important from the Flashback

25 years ago, then-CNN anchorman Bernard Shaw was in Beijing, shaking in rage as the Chinese government ordered all networks to cease live broadcasting from Tiananmen Square, a massive community gathering place soon to become the site of a massacre in which as many as 2,000 protesters were gunned down by military troops.

"We came to cover a summit and we walked into a revolution," Shaw, now retired, told a studio audience of Inside Media at the Newseum last week.

In 1989, Shaw's network was less than a decade old and still trying to establish itself as the first 24-hour-a-day news network in broadcast history. As soon as it was announced that Chinese officials were going to host a parley with then-Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev, CNN knew it would have to broadcast that historic summit between the 2 Communist powers.

One of the most famous pictures from the 20th Century was taken in Tiananmen Square
But in the weeks leading up to the meeting, Chinese protesters, most of them college-age students, took to the streets of Beijing, demanding widespread political and economic reforms in China. At first, the Chinese officials ignored the protests, but they became so large that government hardliners felt they had to act.

"We watched these mushrooming protest demonstrations. There were more than a million people in the streets. We all knew this was going to explode in their faces," Shaw said.

But, of course, the Chinese government didn't want the world to see its action, so before it moved to quell the protesters, it ordered CNN to halt its broadcasting.

Shaw describes the moment that happened this way:

"I was on the 9th floor of the Great Wall Sheraton and I broke a cardinal rule of broadcasting. You never run; you don't want to go on the air out-of-breath. But I ran. Inwardly, I was seething. I had chills running up and down my back. They had blindsided the whole world. I'm a child of Democracy and as a journalist, I believe in truth. The rulers felt the protest was a threat to their power. After we went off the air, I was so enraged I went back to my room and cried."

At first, the convoys of tanks and troops dispatched to Beijing refused to enter the city. "There were all these people pleading with them 'don't do this. We are your bothers and sisters.'" Shaw said.

Protesters in Tiananmen Square before the bloody crackdown
However, different troops and commanders were dispatched and they did act brutally and bloodily. "These were not riot troops. These were trained combat troops. They would be attacking their fellow citizens. What training prepares you for that?" the veteran newsman said.

When silence in the street finally reigned, reports, never confirmed by the Chinese government, indicated that as many as 2,000 Chinese were killed in the action. "They still deny that it happened," Shaw said. "They still deny that anyone got killed in Tiananmen Square."

But, even though they couldn't broadcast live, CNN and reporters for other major news organizations still were able to tell their story through words and film which was smuggled out of the country,

Shaw said the Tiananmen coverage "meant a lot to our then struggling network."

In was also the beginning of what came to be called the CNN effect. Obviously, American officials had to comment immediately on what was being reported. "Now, government has to respond in real time and thoughtfully come up with a reaction," Shaw explained.

Obviously, much has changed in China in 25 years. As Shaw pointed out they didn't even have a stock exchange then and now they are one of the world's leading economic powers. But officials still maintain a stranglehold on communications in their country. But the newsman says that will change.

"The more China becomes involved in the global economy, the more it will have to be responsible to its citizens," he said. "Imagine trying to control a nation with 1 billion people. It's not going to happen. There will be more Tiananmen Squares. It will change over time. It won't happen overnight, but it's going to happen. It's inevitable."

"The people's voices are muffled and shut out right now, but there will come a time. And when the change does come, it will come mightily," Shaw added. "The old farts are dying off and I guess I just made sure that I will never get a visa to China again."

Shaw also said that China's new position in the world makes it vital for America to remain vigilant about Chinese actions.

"China was a 3rd world country and now it is a military threat to the United States and western  democracies around the world," he added. "This is why it is so serious."

Blog Archive

Popular Posts