An NPR Journalist's Memories Of Covering The Tiananmen Square Aftermath NPR's Deborah Amos arrived in Beijing days after authorities cracked down on Tiananmen protesters. She stayed for six weeks and shares her memories of covering a critical time in China's history.
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'Bearing Witness Is Really All We Have': Memories Of Covering The Tiananmen Aftermath

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'Bearing Witness Is Really All We Have': Memories Of Covering The Tiananmen Aftermath

'Bearing Witness Is Really All We Have': Memories Of Covering The Tiananmen Aftermath

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Thirty years ago today, a democracy movement was snuffed out in China's Tiananmen Square. Tanks opened fire on demonstrators, killing young protesters. This was a pivotal moment in modern Chinese history. And NPR's Deborah Amos covered the crackdown. She joins us to share some of her memories from that time 30 years ago.

Hi, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: So you arrived in the country just after this massacre. Why did the Chinese government allow foreign journalists in?

AMOS: We were so surprised about how easy it was. And it was no secret about who we were. When we arrived, the luggage carousel was filled with television cameras. And, you know, I was no China expert, but I had plenty of experience with autocratic governments. I was covering the Middle East at the time, so I'd been in Iraq. And I'd been in Syria. And I knew how these governments operate, so I figured that the Chinese authorities wanted to show that things were back to normal. And they wanted Western journalists to deliver that message. But when we got there, there was nothing that was back to normal.

SHAPIRO: Explain. What did you see? What was the atmosphere like?

AMOS: There was such fear in the streets. You couldn't interview anybody. Chinese television showed arrests every day - students, union leaders. Within days after getting there, two American reporters were expelled - one from the AP, one from VOA. And VOA was the outlet that Chinese listened to.

SHAPIRO: This was Voice of America.

AMOS: Voice of America - they wanted to know what was going on; the events on Tiananmen. And there was one chilling story that I remember. Chinese television rebroadcast an interview from American TV. A demonstrator called Chinese leaders killers, and then the scene froze, and a telephone number flashed on the screen with a text urging people to turn this guy in.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

AMOS: And within hours, the guy was arrested. And we could see him being taken into a police station.

SHAPIRO: With such fear in Beijing, how were you able to report the story?

AMOS: You know, we couldn't hire translators. That was dangerous. Nobody answered their phones, so we just monitored Chinese television. You know, you could listen to shortwave broadcasts. You could go out on the streets. You know, I reread the transcripts of my first day reporting. And we were out with a taxi. The taxi driver, he tapped my arm under the steering wheel because he wanted me to see all the troops in the street, but he kept his eyes straight ahead.

Then we decided that we would hire a rickshaw - one of those buggies that's propelled by a man on a bike. So I put a microphone down my sleeve and a tape recorder in my bag, and we headed off. And I'm narrating what I'm looking at. And this is what it sounded like 30 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMOS: There's tanks - a row of tanks that stretches from one end of the square to the other. It's clear that that square will have a symbolic meaning to this army for some time to come. We're now moving in front of another long line of soldiers. And as we pass, they lock their eyes on this rickshaw. And they follow us as we move by. We're still moving down the boulevard that's in front of Tiananmen Square. And it's quite remarkable how clean the square is now.

You know, the most memorable thing from that ride was a small, English sign that was hanging from a bridge. And it said, all these things must be answered for. And it was that small flicker of protest that was still there.

SHAPIRO: And for 30 years since then, the Chinese government has worked hard to erase the memory of what happened in Tiananmen Square that day. How successful has the campaign been?

AMOS: Pretty successful. Ari, I have met Chinese students who came to the States to study journalism. And for the first time, they read about Tiananmen Square. And I see what happens in their heads. How could I not know about this? They've come to study journalism, and so many of them - I see that mental landscape shift. And they know that they can't be the kind of journalists that they are studying in America. They can't go back to China to do that.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Deborah Amos remembering her coverage of the Tiananmen Square massacre 30 years ago today. Thanks so much, Deb.

AMOS: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF NANEUM'S "STRATIFICATION")

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