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The 32nd anniversary of the June 4 Incident|Veteran journalist’s account of the 3 days of press freedom before Beijing’s martial law: Hong Kong’s current situation is worse than that post-June 4

“Press in the Capital City: We Want to Tell the Truth! Don’t force us to spread lies!” On May 4, 1989, a month before the violent crackdown on June 4th, the media industry in the mainland joined an unprecedented march in the capital city in solidarity with the World Economic Herald, one of the most liberal and outspoken newspaper then in all of China, which had been taken over by Chinese authorities for publishing the contents of a symposium to mourn Hu Yaobang, former General Secretary for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). With the fermentation of the pro-democracy movement and Zhao Ziyang, then party’s General Secretary, expressing his recognition of the protesters in the Xinhua News Agency and other official media, the media outlets in the mainland had enjoyed the greatest press freedom since the founding of the CCP for three days preceding the martial law. However, things quickly deteriorated after Li Peng, then Premier, declared martial law on May 20th, and the bloody crackdown on June 4th wiped out what had once been the dawn of press freedom in China.

In the past 32 years, despite being in her seventies, Gao Yu, who had participated in the movement and been imprisoned thrice, still insists on speaking the truth, with her main battleground being Twitter. The veteran journalist spoke of fear, saying, “What’s the use of being afraid?” The then reporter of the World Economic Herald (hereafter referred to as the “Herald”) advised the Hong Kong media to be prepared for the long haul if they are determined to persist, and to be confident that press freedom will be revived. The backbone of the reformist newspaper, who was heavily sentenced for 13 years for the June 4 Incident, is concerned about Hong Kong and Apple Daily, and believes that the abolishment of Apple Daily will mean the complete loss of freedom in Hong Kong.

June 4, 1989, marked the bloodbath of the Tiananmen crackdown. One month earlier was the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, about half a month into the student movement, when Zhao Ziyang said that conflicts should be resolved through consultation. However, his remark was seen as contradicting to Deng Xiaoping’s and Li Peng’s opinion that the student movement was a subversive incitement to unrest, as described in the April 26 Editorial (a front-page article published in People’s Daily titled “We Must Take a Clear-cut Stand against Disturbances’’). On that day of the May Fourth march, students from a number of universities organized their own rallies, and the Chinese media industry also took part for the time in history, holding banners such as “I want to say no,” and “We are also Qin Benli.”

Qin Benli was the chief editor of the “Herald,” the Shanghai-based newspaper that published on April 24th a five-page symposium in memory of Hu Yaobang, which angered Jiang Zemin, then secretary of the Shanghai Municipal Committee. This is also known as the “World Economic Herald incident.”

“At that time, the entire staff at the World Economic Herald, from the editor-in-chief to every editor, reporter, and employee in the office and managerial department, was deeply passionate and fully committed to the work.” Zhang Weiguo, a Beijing-based reporter of the paper at the time, conducted a written interview with Apple Daily on the eve of June 4th this year. “We kept thinking that through the liberalization of China’s press, we could break open a window of opportunity for political reform, which was extremely difficult. We hoped that ‘one step forward would lead to ten years of progress, while one step back would mean ten years of regression,’ and I did not feel any fear when the tide was rising.”

Last month, Apple Daily contacted a former journalist who participated in the movement and who is still in China. “Since this year is the 32nd anniversary of the June Fourth Incident, can you do an interview and share some of your history?” “What 32nd anniversary?” “June Fourth, the June Fourth of 1989.” “No, no, not convenient.” Then the line went dead.

Gao Yu, then a Beijing-based independent journalist who also participated in the May Fourth media rally, was interviewed by Apple Daily. “At that time, I believed that China was gradually opening up. Like the great liberation of ideology before and after the 1911 Revolution. It was not only a well-defined discussion, but it was driven by the entire academic and intellectual circles, including the public.”

Tsoi Wing-mui, who was in Beijing for the Kuomintang (KMT) outlet Hong Kong Times, still remembers the enthusiasm of the mainland press in May of that year. “The media was the second most active, apart from the students, because before the student movement, there was also the World Economic Herald incident, so the media industry was extremely active. There were two fronts at the same time, one was the students and the other was the press demanding freedom of the press.”

The Herald was suspended from publication as of May 8th that year. Zhang Weiguo said, “The paper was playing edge ball back then, so that not only would people from above in the CCP come to give warnings, but many times, task forces were sent by the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic or the Shanghai Municipal Commission to rectify the newsroom.”

In the past, the 77-year-old Gao Yu had been “taken traveling” around every anniversary of the June Fourth Incident. However, she is expected to be hospitalized for surgery shortly, so she will not need to be “taken traveling” this year. On the other end of the line, Gao Yu was quite candid, stating, “The current situation is worse than the days of the June Fourth Incident!” When asked about the history of 1989, she said, “Deng Xiaoping began the reform and opening up, and after his comeback…the results of the opening up gradually faded…we have interference again!” At this point, the line was getting staticky, but Gao Yu could not care less about the interference and continued with what she was about to say: “In the end, it led to the June Fourth Incident, and the bloodbath ended the decade of reform.”

Originally a reporter for the China News Service, Gao Yu was transferred to the Economics Weekly (hereinafter referred to as the “Weekly”) in 1989 as deputy chief editor. Both the Beijing-based Weekly and the Shanghai-based Herald were regarded as two major “reformist newspapers.”

Tsoi Wing-mui recalled that at the beginning of the student movement, the Chinese media could only play edge ball in reporting the incident, “It was not completely unreported, but we played edge ball. For instance, Zhao Ziyang’s May Fourth speech was widely covered.” Looking through the old reports, the People’s Daily never featured students in its coverage of the student movement until mid-May, but it was only brought about by Zhao Ziyang’s response to student demands. For instance, the headline on May 8th was “Zhao Ziyang meets with Turkish visitors, pointing out that China will push ahead with political system reform to strengthen the development of democracy and the rule of law through resolving the many concerns raised by students.”

On May 17th that year, mainland journalists at one point thought they had seen the light at the end of the tunnel and were finally able to report truthfully without having to play edge ball. This was because, on that day, the People’s Daily published a written statement by Zhao Ziyang on behalf of the Standing Committee of the Central Politburo, which expressed the position of the entire Politburo Standing Committee. Thereafter, Chinese newspapers, including the People’s Daily, intensified their coverage of the student movement and rallies. The front pages of papers published photos of medical staff attending to students on hunger strike in Tiananmen Square, and the radio broadcasted solidarity with the student movement from all walks of life… Between May 17th and 19th, later generations said that these were the three most liberal days in the history of the Chinese press. The front page of May 18th reads “Zhao Ziyang, Li Peng, Qiao Shi and Hu Qili visit university students who fell ill on hunger strike at the hospital this morning” and “More than one million people from all walks of life marched in solidarity in the capital city with university students who went on hunger strike.”

As a reporter for the KMT’s newspaper in Hong Kong, Tsoi Wing-mui made an unprecedented decision when she saw that the mainland media could finally report the student movement objectively in those days. “I even called our newsroom and said, ‘I’m not going to write about the hunger strike, just go copy Xinhua.’ That was the first time ever because we were a KMT newspaper so we never used Xinhua’s articles. At that time, for just a few days, there was a brief period of press freedom in mainland China.”

The short-lived celebration of press freedom came to an end when Li Peng imposed martial law on May 20th. After martial law was enforced, the media industry continued to take to the streets in support of the student movement, and the press continued to uphold the cause in their own ways. “For example, from the first day of the martial law, the People’s Daily published a front-page column entitled ‘Day X of Martial Law in Beijing,’ which reported the latest developments in Beijing in a timely manner to the whole country, and continued to do so for 10 days. After it was canceled, two articles were released: ‘A quick view of Tiananmen Square’ and ‘A glimpse of Tiananmen Square on June 1’,” recalled Zhang Weiguo.

By the 21st, the Weekly was still calling on the government to face up to the demands of the people, with four pages of content directly related to the pro-democracy movement and an article by commentator Wang Juntao, “Written on the fifth day of the university students’ hunger strike”: “No one has the right to pass a political verdict on this student movement.” Wang was originally appointed deputy editor-in-chief of the Weekly, but because of his sensitive status as the editor of the banned reform publication Beijing Spring in the 1970s, his post was removed, but he continued to work at the newspaper.

The morning before the June 4 crackdown, Gao Yu had already been arrested, “I was the first one to be arrested, except for Bao Tong…They were arrested on May 28th, they were officials, and I was an intellectual.” As a journalist, she was arrested for her beliefs, but 32 years later, she still persists and introspects. “That movement was the most important experience of my life, and I’m still wondering to this day why they ordered the massacre. Could it be like the Chinese saying, ’200,000 dead could bring 20 years of peace’?”

On the day of June 4th, the Weekly continued to issue an article urging the government that “force and the threat of force are ways to deal with the enemy and are often ineffective in resolving internal conflicts among the people…” Nevertheless, repression by force still occurred.

A week later, on June 11th, the Weekly also ceased publication, “Mainly because of our involvement in the 1989 democracy movement,” Wang Juntao told Apple Daily. Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming, then general manager of the Weekly, were both accused by Beijing of being the “masterminds behind the June Fourth Incident” and were sentenced to 13 years in prison. Wang was released on medical parole in 1994 and went to the United States; Chen Ziming was not released until 2002.

During the interview, Wang said that although having experienced being hunted, jailed and exiled, there was no need to lament, “I don’t have that much lament, I just knew the communists are that evil.” Wang expressed his concern about the current situation, saying that if Apple Daily is really banned, including the online version, then it would signify a complete loss of freedom in Hong Kong, “Just like the mainland, foreign enterprises will not be able to remain.”

Zhang Weiguo was imprisoned for 20 months after June 4th and then went to the United States. Gao Yu was released after more than a year in prison, then arrested two more times in 1994 and 2014 and sentenced to six and seven years in prison respectively. Gao Yu is now active on Twitter and still speaks out for injustice, “What’s the point of being afraid?” She insists on the truth, “I am speaking the truth, from the bottom of my heart, and it is the reality.” Gao Yu is also very concerned about Apple Daily, which she said is “Now the only thing that represents the freedom of speech in Hong Kong…I am looking out for it every day. The day when Apple Daily is suspended, that will be the final slit of the throat.”

Having lived through the Cultural Revolution, witnessed the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and living in Hong Kong today, Tsoi Wing-mui said, in the face of fear, she will persist in what she believes is necessary, “History is hard to predict. The darkness is unimaginable, and I would have never anticipated the fall of the Soviet Union.” Zhang Weiguo believes that the media industry in Hong Kong has done its best, and he believes that true “freedom of the press” will eventually return.

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