Anniversaries are always pretexts for news pegs, and when the 20th year since the Tiananmen protests and massacre in China rolled around, it was not surprising that every media outlet outside of China marked the event with pages of reminiscences and commentary. For the first time in recent memory, Chinese writers took over the New York Times op-ed page.
For many, those events in June 1989 were a sign that the Chinese people were embracing US-style democracy. They had built what looked to us, but wasn't, a replica of the Statue of Liberty in the center of Beijing, and sang songs including We Shall Overcome. Then, articulate English speaking leaders emerged happy to talk to American TV networks soon out in force.
What was not really explained in much detail was that the students were supporting the reform of the Communist Party, not its abolition. They sang patriotic songs including the Internationale, a Communist anthem, and their Goddess of Liberty was a universal symbol, not a pro-American one. That said, when the tanks moved in, and the machine guns came out, and when the clamp-down followed, the workers and other people in the People's Republic became sympathetic to the students and the reformers in the party. That's when the paranoid old line bureaucrats and dogmatists panicked and showed how brutal they could be.
Beijing's rulers were condemned politically by the whole world for their barbarity; the real response: much of that world began to trade and invest in the "new China." After all, business is business. As their system moved from Marxism Leninism to "Market-Leninism" criticisms were blunted in the name of pragmatism and profiteering. The martyrs of the movement were forgotten, except by human rights groups who carried on without much impact. The Chinese government rejected them; the US government avoided them. Most Chinese students moved from trying to make change to making money, from communists to consumers.
At the same time, resistance continues. Dissident and former Party higher-uBao Tong told the Wall Street Journal, "June 4 is still here. Tiananmen is still here. However, it's not a Tiananmen massacre, it's suppression in the style of a ‘little Tiananmen.'" ...The 76-year-old holds up four fingers. "Every four minutes there is a protest with more than 100 people."
Repression has been cranked up, not only against Chinese but Tibetans. The Chinese police state grew more sophisticated with spy technology imported from US based companies like Cisco and others. The Great Wall of China became at the same time a Great Mall and a Great Firewall. The internet was censored even as more Chinese students went to school throughout the world and began, in their own way, to challenge the often corrupt commissars and the "Princelings," the sons and sometimes daughters of the ruling elite by the way they lived and thought.
In response to the Party's pervasive presence, many became fiercely nationalistic, not socialistic and then overly materialistic. The same Chinese media that had over-politicized the populations with party line polemics for years now began to depoliticize the population promoting fashion, entertainment and shopping
Our media stopped focusing on the abuses as China started buying up US treasuries and stabilizing our economy. Beijing even bought into subprime loans and was not too happy about their losses which lead to today's threats to dump the dollar and demand "fiscal responsibility. Tim Geithner's trip to China is all about placating them while at the same time looking tough and independent for US eyes. It is all a dance with Beijing playing the music. (The Chinese are not wrong about the lack of US market discipline but they have plenty of corrupt operators themselves.)
As for the US media that is marching down Tianamen's memory lane, their coverage has left lots to be desired from the hyping of the Olympics by NBC which excluded other media outlets to the continuing failure to cover the persecution of Falun Gong with any regularity (with some exceptions) for ten years. The Chinese called them a cult; our media called them a cult. (The word "Cult" is usefully catchy for headline writers!)
Mostly, they were not covered at all by the national press except when something big happened, as in a highly-publicized incident in which practitioners supposedly set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square. The Washington Post, to its credit, debunked the incident. But that hasn't stopped a stream of misinformation and stereotyping.
Just last month CBS, on the entertainment side, referenced Falun Gong as terrorists in an episode of The UNIT, an international cop and intrigue show. It may be a dramatization, but it reinforces a false impression.
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Excerpt from THE UNIT, episode 20
Reporter: "So you admit that [your government is] aiding the Chinese?" ..."But you admit they are identifying cult members around the world for the Chinese..."
Man: "Look... We have reason to believe that the Falun Gong is working with Muslim Separatists to perpetrate an attack on Chinese soil. So we are not helping out the Chinese. We're being a good terrorist watchdog."
Reporter: "So how do you know the Falun Gong was planning an attack on Chinese soil?"
Falun Gong is asking that CBS withdraw the episode, run a disclaimer, and encourage its news division to report on the real story of Falun Gong. The program is scheduled to air on TV in England on July 29th. To date, the network has discussed its complaint and promises to fully respond to their appeal.
But not until after Chinese websites sanctioned by the government already plastered the clip all across the web there. Maybe the government will now turn fiction into faction and classify these folks known for their subversive meditating and exercises as dangerous terrorists.
Here you have a mainstream network not just getting it wrong but actually putting people's lives in jeopardy, all for dramatic effect
"When we saw this episode, we were horrified," says Gail Rachlin, spokesperson for the New York- based Falun Dafa Information Center. "We have been reporting for years about Falun Gong adherents being killed by Chinese police, while the Beijing government uses labels like "cult" and "terrorist" to further their persecution of innocent Chinese citizens. Linking us to terrorism puts those in China at greater risk of abuse. This is incredibly serious."
In 2006, Amnesty International reported that the "official campaign of public vilification of Falun Gong...has created a climate of hatred against Falun Gong practitioners in China which may be encouraging acts of violence against them."
A Falun Gong practitioner told me what happened when he followed up with CBS. "I just talked to xxx the "vice Pres" of whatever who put me in contact with xxx the "senior vice pres" of whatever. I felt like both of them don't know what day it is," He said he was told his complaint is in the hands of "Program Practices," the protocol for shows that get complaints." I asked if he expects any action. His response: "All in all the conversation went well, but again I hung up feeling that she is not the one in charge."
No one even tends to be in charge when it comes to an institution admitting they blew it.
It's not just Falun Gong that gets this type of smarmy uninformed media treatment. Perhaps, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen anniversary in which we once again idolize the man who stood up to the tanks, we will look more closely at how we might stand up for justice in China and real information at home, about the good and the bad there and here.