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The Chinese Democracy Movement in the International Media

From the beginning, international newspapers, political magazines, radio and TV stations (including those in Hong Kong) were highly interested in the big-character posters written by the Chinese dissidents, in their independent journals demanding democracy, respect for human rights and a re-evaluation of the Mao era.

In 1978 there were still very few foreign correspondents accredited to Beijing, all together less than 50, and the majority of those still represented state and party media from other communist countries, more interested in intelligence work for their governments that in journalistic reporting for the public.

The big Western news agencies (Reuters, UPI, AP, AFP, ...) were present though, plus some leading newspapers from France, the United Kingdom, Japan or Germany. Canadian TV was the only admitted Western TV station then, up to the establishment of diplomatic relations (January 1979) US media could station their correspondents only in Hong Kong, with occasional chances to travel to the mainland.   

When China started its policy of reform and opening, substantially more journalists got accredited to Beijing, and more of the understood and spoke Chinese. Personal contacts and journalistic investigations became much easier. Up to 1978 Chinese citizens still risked police interrogations and even arrest when they were caught in an unauthorized conversation or meeting with a foreigner.

With the profound political changes and the beginning of the "Beijing Spring" international media immediately focused on dissidents, on the new cultural expressions and the changes in daily life and the new thinking and personal aspirations of many Chinese.

From late 1978 and through early 1979, the agencies and big international newspapers reported almost daily (and extensively) from China, although much of this reporting remained superficial and focused on more sensational aspects, only few went more into depth or tried to interview the main actors of the movement in China. (For example, the leading activist Xu Wenli later remarked that his first extensive conversation with a foreign journalist was his interview by author Helmut Opletal, as late as June 1979!)

Many Western media drew parallels with the dissident movements in the communist societies of Eastern Europe, especially with Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Another focus of the reporting were the repressive mesures taken by the Chinese leadership, such as arrests and court trials of prominent critics of the regime. And often the question was raised to which extent Western governments should (and could) try to influence these developments in China.

Particularly comprehensive reporting could be found in the Chinese language publications (and in some English language media) in the still British crown colony of Hong Kong. The big independent daily "Ming Pao" (明报) and several bi-weekly and monthly magazines had their own sources who constantly supplied them with photos, interviews and other information from Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou. A number of these journals such as the "Observer" (Guanchajia 观察家), "Zhengming" (争鸣), "The Seventies" (七十年代) oder "Dongxiang" (动向) were even specialized in reporting political insider information and on social and cultural developments in mainland China.

Already in the course of the year 1979, the interest of international media in the Chinese Democracy Movement began to subside, economic developments and aspects of international relations became more important for the news.

The following examples of agency and print media reports just serve to illustrate the journalistic coverage by international and Hong Kong media from that time:



Agence France Press (German service), 5.1.1979
"Reuters", 5.1.1979 on a planned street march
"Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung", 2.4.1979

"International Herald Tribune", 12.11.1979, carrying an AP-report by Victoria Graham
"Süddeutsche Zeitung" (Munich), a political analysis by correspondent Hans Boller (21.12.1979)

The German weekly magazine "Der Spiegel" (no. 48, 1979) reports on the Chinese avant-garde art scene and an open air exhibition by five artists from Guizhou province at the Beijing Democracy Wall.

"Ming Pao" (Hong Kong), 22.3.1979, "Deng Xiaoping Cautions against Extreme Democracy"
"Ming Pao" (Hong Kong), 29.3.1979, "Human Rights Activists Struggle against Repression"
"Ming Pao" (Hongkong), 14.4.1979 reports on the arrest of dissidents

"Dongxiang" (Hong Kong, 1979), with a debate on imprisoned dissident Wei Jingsheng
"The Observer" (Guanchajia), Hong Kong, 1979, advertising on its cover a report on the Democracy Movement in the city of Wuhan, and details on the "Enlightenment Society"
"The Seventies" (Qishi Niandai), Hong Kong, 1981, carrying a wood-block print by Ma Desheng (from the 1980 "Stars" exhibition) on its cover front


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