When Mike Chinoy arrived in Beijing to open CNN’s bureau there in 1987, it was one of the most open periods for foreign journalists in China.
Reformers led by Deng Xiaoping were in power, and there was a “sense that the society was opening up, and state control over people’s lives was easing,” Mr. Chinoy writes in Assignment China: An Oral History of American Journalists in the People’s Republic.
At a Communist Party Congress that year, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang held a news conference where he took unvetted questions from foreign reporters. Nicholas Kristof, newly arrived for The New York Times and revelling in being able to talk to ordinary Chinese about seemingly anything, called it a “golden time.”
It wouldn’t last. After weeks of mass protests in Beijing and other cities in mid-1989, Mr. Deng sacked Mr. Zhao and enacted martial law, leading to the June 4 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. After the massacre, China entered a “political deep freeze,” Mr. Chinoy writes. Newsweek correspondent Dorinda Elliott said “it was like this was a different country.”
“Nobody would talk to you. Everybody was terrified. It was just the most shocking and depressing thing I’d ever seen,” she told Mr. Chinoy. Journalists were detained and interrogated, and many left the country.
Such a volte-face from openness to control of the media has occurred many times over China’s modern history, as Mr. Chinoy’s book documents. As well as the mid-1980s, there was another golden period around the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when journalists could travel and report relatively freely, but this was replaced by an increasingly hostile environment for foreign media under President Xi Jinping.
“There has been a permanent tension between journalists trying to dig into China’s reality and the Communist Party’s attempt to control what people see,” Mr. Chinoy told The Globe and Mail.
He added that the “way in which the American media have covered China over many decades has been crucially important in shaping how public opinion and political opinion understands or misunderstands China.” Due to the outsized influence of U.S. outlets, this has also had a major impression on global opinions too.
Tracing the history of foreign journalists in China from 1949 to today, Mr. Chinoy’s book is not wholly focused on U.S. media. One of the first foreign reporters to work in the newly established People’s Republic was a Canadian, Frederick Nossal, who opened The Globe’s bureau in Beijing in 1959.
Americans were largely barred from the country after the revolution, as Washington continued to recognize the Taipei-based government of the Republic of China. As late as 1971, when John Burns took over The Globe bureau, there were still no U.S. papers reporting from China. Mr. Burns’ coverage was syndicated by The New York Times, making him their “de facto correspondent,” he said.
Most other foreign reporters were in Hong Kong, doing their best to interpret whatever information made it across the border – via refugees, smuggled newspapers and barely perceptible party broadcasts picked up by long-range aerials.
This did not begin to change until after U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s normalization of relations with Beijing in 1979, after which U.S. journalists joined their Canadian counterparts in the country. Even then, however, reporters struggled with limits on what they could do.
“I think that the informal restrictions, the ones that weren’t written in Chinese law, were the most serious,” said Time correspondent Richard Bernstein. “That is, it was forbidden for ordinary Chinese to talk to you. There’s no law, but people were afraid.”
This disconnect between what was legally permitted and actually possible would be familiar to reporters decades later, even during the relatively liberal period around the 2008 Olympics.
“You pretty routinely would confront local officials who would forbid you from doing any serious reporting or took your notes or otherwise intimidate you, but legally, they had no grounds to do that,” Joseph Kahn, a New York Times correspondent and now the paper’s executive editor, told Mr. Chinoy.
Such limitations had a major effect on the type of reporting that could be done. Even today, when many correspondents – including The Globe’s – are once again stuck outside mainland China or tightly surveilled when they move around the country, harassment by authorities and hostility from ordinary Chinese are common.
“The ability to present a more nuanced picture of a country of 1.3 billion people and humanize China is lost, and instead what tends to be covered is the high-level politics, China’s international relations,” Mr. Chinoy said in an interview.
The risk is that a “one-dimensional portrayal takes hold in the narrative and public mind,” he said. “And that’s China’s loss – and it’s largely China’s own doing.”