Jeff Widener/AP file photo

How VOA Pressed Ahead to Cover the Tiananmen Square Anniversary

Amid Chinese government’s silence and Internet crackdown, U.S. broadcasts got through.

Bejing’s Tiananmen Square, site of the 1989 Chinese Army massacre of democratization activists, was largely deserted during Wednesday’s 25th anniversary, while the closest commemoration of the event was likely the crowds that gathered in politically semi-autonomous Hong Kong.

But Voice of America, the decades-old unit of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, produced three substantive features reflecting on that turning-point event that Chinese government officials decline to discuss. Additional coverage broadcast within the Chinese mainland in Mandarin has not been translated into English, BBG public affairs spokesman Kevin Lynch told Government Executive.

Shorter VOA items covered the Chinese government’s disruption of Google access, a website with work-arounds that helps the Chinese access blocked websites, and a demand from State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki that the Chinese release imprisoned dissidents who had called for a probe into the 1989 violence.

As the 25th anniversary approached, VOA convened a panel in Washington for broadcast on its Mandarin Service’s Pro & Con TV program featuring two survivors of the 1989 protests who up until then had never addressed the event in public.

Huaguang Zhao and Zhaohui Rui were university students in Beijing at the time of the protests. “Mr. Zhao and Mr. Rui weren’t the student leaders, whom we hear from on major news outlets every time an anniversary passes,” said VOA Director David Ensor of the broadcast, “but their lives were permanently changed by simply being at Tiananmen, and they suffered greatly -- emotionally, physically, financially, in every aspect.”

The Tiananmen Square event was “a life-altering experience that changed all my beliefs and shattered my hopes for the government,” Rui said on the show. After he tried to organize a memorial on the event’s third anniversary, the government put him in prison for three years. Rui now leads a nonprofit in Hong Kong that provides support for activists within China.

Zhao told the panel he was arrested for writing poetry during the crackdown movement, serving 100 days in prison and attempting suicide. He escaped and spent years hiding in fishing villages before leaving China for Thailand in 2009. Zhao is now an activist in New York City with the “League of Roar,” which highlights the plights of Chinese people whose land and houses the government has confiscated illegally.

A second dispatch went out June 2 from Al Pessin, who was VOA’s Beijing correspondent in 1989 and is now in Kiev. He recalled how the pro-democracy movement expanded from a mostly student effort to include average people. “VOA was extremely popular on the square, with students holding up radios so crowds could hear our Mandarin-language newscasts,” he wrote. “Others transcribed our stories and posted them on electrical poles around the city. People asked me if I knew some of our famous Mandarin broadcasters. VOA pulled out one colleague from that service, Betty Tsu, who had come to report on the protests, fearing for her safety if there was a crackdown.”

Fearing for his safety, Pessin himself steered clear of the main square during the June 4 confrontation. But within weeks, he was expelled from the country.

A June 4 VOA broadcast by the service’s current Beijing correspondent William Ide noted that “Authorities blacked out international news channels whenever the anniversary was reported throughout Wednesday. State broadcasts focused on official meetings, a growing wheat harvest in the north, and the environment, among other topics.” Ide interviewed a variety of people on the streets, only some of whom recalled the big event. Some were willing to speak ill of the regime. “Whatever the Chinese government says, goes,” one man said. “Society today is no different from the age of emperors in the past,” a woman added.