Tuesday, May 6, 2008

NYT Archive 1989: Press Freedom in May

Back in April, 1989, when the emerging student movement was showing its unprecedented strength, Party General Zhao Ziyang inexplicably left Beijing, and indeed the country, for a previously scheduled but long state visit to North Korea. The Premier Li Peng was left in charge of handling the trouble. By all indication, however, Zhao Ziyang had personally approved the publication of the infamous People's Daily editorial on April 26, which had poured fuel into the raging fire.

Zhao Ziyang did not get back to Beijing until early May. But he got a window of opportunity to showcase a more moderate approach towards the movement. First, he gave a speech at the Asian Development Bank meeting that was oscillatory to the students, markedly different in tone from the editorial. Somehow this important speech was not covered by New York Times at the time.

Next, Zhao Ziyang made his boldest move yet: opening the press. With his instruction, pretty much all restrictions on news reporting were lifted overnight. On May 6, 1989, NYT noticed this sea change in Beijing's newspapers:
After studiously ignoring pro-democracy protests for the last two weeks, China's official newspapers seemed today to display a new openness in their reports of a mass demonstration held here on Thursday.
Photographs of streets filled with students waving banners as far as the eye could see ran on the front pages of most newspapers. The newspapers also reported details of demonstrations not only in the capital but in many other cities. Some of those demonstrations had not previously been reported.
'Several hundred thousand spectators watched the students marching along the streets, and many of them donated cold drinks and food,'' read part of an article from the official People's Daily. ''As long as there is corruption, this country will never be stable,'' the article quoted a banner as saying.
Such articles were unusual only given the Government's previous determination to avoid references to the demonstrations. It is not clear if today's articles and photos in the official press mark a permanent step toward openness that will let Chinese people learn about events as they happen.
Today's newspapers also quoted the Communist Party General Secretary, Zhao Ziyang, as saying that corruption occurs partly because there is a ''lack of openness in the system of work.'' That seemed to be another call for more openness in Chinese society, one of the major student demands.
This unprecedented and unusual practice of press freedom in China would last the month of May, through the thick and thin of the upcoming drama. It would then become a thing of past, never to be seen again.

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