Looking at Tiananmen as a ‘development opportunity’

The English-language version of the state newspaper Global Times raised eyebrows on Tuesday with an article headlined, “Evolution of Chinese intellectuals’ thought over two decades.” The opinion piece included a quote from an academic referencing the “June 4 incident”–a departure for domestic, state-run media, which never refer explicitly to the peaceful demonstrations that were crushed by government troops in 1989. The article was not carried in the Chinese version of Global Times. The publication, which launched the English version this year, is affiliated with the party stalwart People’s Daily.

Even more surprising was the follow-up front page Global Times article on the “incident,” which was published on the anniversary itself. Though analysts said censors were going to great lengths to interrupt, shred, or delete reports by overseas media outlets covering the anniversary, this home-grown coverage was apparently given the official green light. 

Ground-breaking opinion journalism is published frequently in China. (The University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project Web site regularly translates extracts from some of the best.) This was not one of them.

Granted, it takes backbone to print the words “June 4” in a political context in China, where the government recently arrested writer Liu Xiaobo for spearheading a call for political reform. And there are signs that the editors are playing a delicate balancing act. How, after all, does one cover a historical period which has seen saturation coverage in English but a media blackout in Chinese? The writing, hardly extraordinary in itself, is illuminating because of this context: “It is still a sensitive topic,” journalist Jiang Xueqing writes. “Scholars, officials and businessmen declined interviews with the Global Times on the subject. And searches for ‘June 4 incident’ on the Chinese versions of Google, Baidu, and Yahoo were blocked.” Such a declaration, tantamount to an open acknowledgment of government censorship, is intriguing. 

But the key to the article’s focus lies in its exceptionally bland headline, “Prosperity tangible along Chang’an Ave.” The Global Times is not writing about what happened around Tiananmen Square in 1989 but about the economic growth that came later. As for that “big social turmoil” 20 years ago, Jiang quotes a Chinese academic praising the government’s “sober and sensible decision” to “overcome hard times, restore social stability, and enhance economic reform in the 1990s.” “Thus,” the academic says, “China didn’t miss a valuable historic development opportunity once again.”

A valuable historic development opportunity? It’s not how many independent observers have characterized the military slaughter of unarmed protesters.

Several journalists based in China have already expressed their skepticism about the paper “seeking its share of the buzz created by taking on controversial topics,” as reporter Jonathan Ansfield puts it in today’s New York Times.

“In order to claim some credibility with its target audience, the English-language Global Times has evidently made a conscious decision to run stories on topics that are taboo in the Chinese media, allowing some credulous foreigners to point to its stories and say, ‘Wow, you see how liberal the official media is getting,'” Time journalist Simon Elegant wrote on the magazine’s The China Blog on May 25. 

The previous month, John Guise, in an article titled, “Global Times: Not breaking new ground” published on the China Economic Review Web site, juxtaposed three taglines from Chinese newspapers, “Publicize China, Report the World,” “Connecting China, Connecting the World” and “Discover China, Discover the World.” One is from state news agency Xinhua, one from the staid China Daily. The third is from the Global Times.

Can’t tell which is which? Neither can I.