May 21, 2019

Event Coverage Highlight

At Tiananmen Correspondent Panel, Memories of Optimism

Left to right: Susan Jakes, Bruce Kennedy, Dorinda Elliott, Adi Ignatius, Carroll Bogert and Dori Jones Yang. Photo: Chad Bouchard

by Jonas Ekblom

At the first panel of the Overseas Press Club event commemorating the Tiananmen Square protests, five respected correspondents that were all there in 1989 agreed that what happened there was groundbreaking. Something everyone was struck by at the time was the way the protests brought about a new openness for reporters in China.

“People were so open!” said author Dori Jones Yang, who covered the protests for Businessweek. “They were open about politics: what they were thinking about Deng Xiaoping.”

Jones Yang’s colleague, Caroll Bogert, then with Newsweek, agreed: “It was a torrent of talk!” She also said that there was “the feeling that China was actually speaking. Suddenly everyone would talk to you about what was happening.”

Several members of the panel had been correspondents in China for many years when the Tiananmen protests broke out. They had seen first-hand the increased unrest a stalling Chinese society had led to. “People were frustrated with the slowing of reform,” Adi Ignatius, who reported for the Wall Street Journal, observed. “There was discontent among the students and it had to come out some way.”

Mr. Ignatius also took a longer view and said that if the Chinese authorities had met what he called “moderate demands” from the protesters, “China would have taken off sooner.”

His colleague Dorinda Elliott, who covered the events for Newsweek, also pointed to the protests’ outsize influence for present-day China. “It was a real turning point for China,” Ms. Elliott said. “It is what has led to the distortions in today’s China.”

The moderator for the panel, Susan Jakes, editor at ChinaFile, explained to the audience that she was the only one in front of them who hadn’t been at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and asked the panelists to recall what the reporting was like on those burning days three decades ago.

Bruce Kennedy, who covered the events for CNN and NPR, vividly remembered that “at one point there was such trauma going on. People were wounded and people were shooting.”

The panelists also turned their eyes to the future and reflected upon the reforms the protests led to, such as the presidential term limits that were recently scrapped by current president Xi Jinping. “One thing Deng Xiaoping hasn’t gotten enough credit for is creating term limits for the highest leaders in the land,” said Jones Yang. “I was very optimistic about the future of China until last year.”