The June 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square was the climax of a momentous human rights drama that had been building for years in China. But the U.S. media had rarely mentioned human rights violations in China since the Democracy Wall movement was crushed in 1979 and its leaders were thrown in jail.
"Look at Wei Jingshen," Deng Xiaoping said of a prominent Democracy Wall dissident (Progressive, 3/87). "We put him behind bars and the democracy movement died. We haven't released him, but that did not raise much of an international uproar."
Shortly after the suppression of the Democracy Wall movement, Deng introduced economic and legal reforms. "A wave of euphoria swept through U.S. government and press circles," recalled Roberta Cohen, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights under Carter. "The enthusiasm for free-market initiatives and other reforms became the new rationale for turning a blind eye to the continuing repression in China."
According to the State Department's 1987 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, between 2 million and 5 million people languished in Chinese labor camps and prisons. New York Times correspondent Fox Butterfield reported on the existence of Chinese gulags when he was based in China in the early 1980s, but there wasn't much follow-up in the U.S. press.
U.S. media remained tight-lipped when President Ronald Reagan approved sales of police equipment to China's internal security force, expanded military ties and encouraged loans and investment despite serious human rights abuses by the Chinese government. The brutalization of Tibet and the relentless suppression of dissent in China were off the press agenda until late in Reagan's second term. Meanwhile, according to Amnesty International, thousands of Chinese prisoners were being tortured, while others faced illegal arrests, unwarranted search and seizure, and other forms of harassment.
Journalists were outraged when Deng and company imposed harsh press restrictions during the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, but U.S. reporters appear to have practiced a form of self-censorship with respect to Chinese human rights violations for nearly a decade. "American administrations yawned at reports of repression of basic freedoms in China.... So, much too often, did American journalism," A.M. Rosenthal wrote in the New York Times (6/13/89) shortly after the massacre at Tiananmen Square.
Rosenthal's complaint rings hollow, for it was during his tenure as New York Times executive editor that reporting on Chinese abuses virtually ceased. No news stories on China and human rights are listed in the Times index from 1984 through 1986. Ditto for Time magazine, which selected Deng Xiaoping as "Man of the Year" in 1985. Newsweek managed only one story on the subject for these three years.
The media silence was all the more deafening in light of what transpired in China during this period. Vice President George Bush visited the People's Republic in 1985, but this provoked none of the concern for political prisoners that journalists displayed when U.S. officials met with Soviet leaders. And another round of student protests was put down in December 1986 by Deng Xiaoping, who stated at the time (Progressive, 3/87):"When necessary one must deal severely with those who defy orders. We can afford to shed some blood." This is the man Bush hailed as a "forward-looking" leader.
When President Bush visited Beijing again in February 1989, Chinese authorities prevented Fang Lizhi, a prominent human rights advocate, from attending a banquet at the U.S. embassy, even though he had received a highly publicized invitation. Bush subsequently failed to raise the human rights issue with Chinese officials. The best he could muster was a statement of regret channeled though his spokesperson Marlin Fitzwater. In a case of too little, too late, editorials in major dailies chided Bush for not taking a tougher stand in Beijing (Miami Herald, 2/28/89; New York Times, 3/1/89).