Thirty-four years ago this weekend, China’s communist dictators sent tanks into Tiananmen Square to end seven weeks of student-led protests pushing for democratic reforms. Secret cables sent at the time from Beijing by the British ambassador put the death toll at “at least 10,000.”
Even after such a repugnant display of brutality, some liberal journalists absurdly compared the event to American transgressions. “Will the military leaders there [in China] be embarrassed by this, will this be something like Kent State was for our military?” CBS reporter Eric Engberg wondered three days after the massacre, as if the Red Army and their communist masters would experience remorse for the lives lost.
“Thousands may have been gunned down in Beijing, but what about the millions of American kids whose lives are being ruined by an enormous failure of the country’s educational system,” former NBC anchor John Chancellor weirdly argued in a “commentary” later that month about a long-forgotten report on middle schools from the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. “We can and we should agonize about the dead students in Beijing, but we’ve got a much bigger problem here at home,” Chancellor declared.
The bloodbath temporarily derailed the media narrative that China was shifting towards a freer, more capitalistic society. “This is a vastly different China,” CBS’s Dan Rather informed viewers in February 1989, three months before the massacre. “A huge portrait of Mao still hangs from the front gate of the Forbidden City. Mao’s successor’s have kept the picture, but discarded the policies.”
It took a few years, but reporters eventually returned to the idea that it was capitalism, not barbarism, which was the real threat in China. In February 1997, talking about Deng Xiaoping’s modernization push, CNN’s Mike Chinoy asserted that “the burst of development brought with it many of the evils the communists had sought to eradicate: corruption, inflation, a growing gap between rich and poor.”
The following month, Newsweek’s Bill Powell similarly claimed that “for all of China’s economic success, much of the vast country is still either desperately poor or suffering from the excesses of runaway capitalism — or both.”
Western journalists sounded like party ideologues as they scolded the Chinese leadership for permitting the economy to function somewhat normally. “A thin layer of the top of Chinese society has made tons of money, but the masses have been left behind,” Dan Rather griped in June 1997.
“In the good old days, the Communist Party found a job for everyone. Now young people have to fend for themselves,” NBC’s Chris Billing fussed on the February 13, 2000 NBC Nightly News. In 2001, a New York Times headline blared: “Workers’ Rights Suffering as China Goes Capitalist.”
Reporters displayed an amazing gullibility for anecdotes that made the Chinese communists look like geniuses. “From designer clothes to new cars, China is getting rich. Democracies once bragged that theirs was the only way to economic success. China is doing it the communist way,” CBS’s Barry Petersen cheered on The Early Show in 2008. “An American polling company asked Americans and Chinese what they thought about the direction of their country. About 23% of Americans said they were satisfied, but an astonishing 86% of Chinese said they’re happy with where their country is going.”
Even the glaring lack of democracy in China was spun as an asset when it came to developing policies on issues like global warming. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages,” New York Times columnist Tom Friedman admired in September, 2009.
Journalists even pretended China was more committed to the world’s well-being than the United States. Talking about the Paris Climate deal in 2014, former Time correspondent Bobby Ghosh declared on CNN: “The good news is China is going to keep to those [carbon emission] targets regardless of what the U.S. does....There is room for skepticism that the U.S. will keep up its side of the bargain. The Chinese side I think is already baked in.” Five years later, one study concluded that “China emits more greenhouse gas than the entire developed world combined.”
“You know, the good thing I suppose about the Chinese form of government is that they don’t have to deal with the Koch brothers,” left-wing radio host Thom Hartmann enthused in June 2014. “They just say, ‘Hey, you know, what’s the best thing for the country? OK, we’ll do that. And if somebody doesn’t like it, screw them.’ I mean, you know, the downside of that is, if somebody doesn’t like that, and Tiananmen Square.”
Chinese wrongdoing received few headlines. In 2020, during the early weeks of wall-to-wall coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts offered a paltry 3 minutes, 14 seconds of coverage of China’s mishandling of the outbreak and its heavy-handed crackdown on doctors who attempted to tell the truth.
In rare agreement, both the Trump and Biden administrations charged China with “genocide” in its brutal treatment of its ethnic Uyghur minority, including the imprisonment, forced labor and torture. Yet ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts have essentially ignored this despicable conduct.
“Trump views China’s Communist Party as a threat,” a Washington Post headline declared in August 2020. “Young Chinese see it as a ticket to a better future.”
“Who are we to criticize China’s human rights records when we have ongoing attacks by the agents of the state against unarmed citizens and we’ve got assaults on the voting rights of our people of color in various states in this country,” ESPN panelist (and Northwestern University Sports Journalism professor) J. A. Adande insisted on Around the Horn in February, 2022.
American reporters aren’t shy about “speaking truth to power” when it comes to American politicians. But when it comes to the far nastier conduct of the Chinese dictatorship, the media lions too often turn into pussycats.
For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.