Watch CNN footage below
Several major news organizations have pulled back from coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, one even canceling an interview with a leader of the Chinese Uighur dissidents, under pressure from Chinese authorities.
An interview with Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the slaughter, but according to e-mail correspondence obtained by the Huffington Post, it was canceled in response to pressure from the Chinese government.
The network explained in an email to Kadeer's representative that hosting her at such a sensitive time would damage the company's long-term relationship with the government of China. A second network also canceled a Kadeer appearance, citing translation issues, and a third asked for her book to be mailed discreetly.
Kadeer is the author of the just-released, anti-Chinese-government book Dragon Fighter: One Woman's Epic Struggle for Peace with China. She was previously a political prisoner in China and now lives in the United States.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese leadership is no fan. One international media network said in an e-mail that it felt the need to have Kadeer's book mailed to its China bureau discreetly because "...the Chinese authorities can be a little oversensitive when it comes Ms. Kadeer."
In exchange for access to these e-mails, the Huffington Post agreed not to name the network that cited pressure from the Chinese government as reason for the cancellation. In addition, the Huffington Post agreed not to quote directly from the e-mails from that company because Kadeer's backers did not want to compromise their relationship with the network, which had asked that the e-mails be kept private.
The company is based in the United States but has a heavy presence in China. Tiananmen Square was put on lockdown by Chinese government leading up to the anniversary.
The first e-mail canceling the interview explained that the network has been under intense scrutiny from the Chinese government during the weeks leading up to the anniversary and had decided not to do any special programming about the massacre. To do so might damage the company's long-term relationship with Chinese authorities, it said.
A second e-mail from the network to Kadeer's representative confirmed that the interview was canceled and went into a lengthier explanation: Direct confrontation, the network representative said, would be ineffective and even jeopardize the network's long-term relationships in China. The argument was a familiar one: that they need that access to continue to cover important issues. As it does so, the network will ultimately be promoting human rights, greater press freedoms and, not incidentally, economic freedom.
The network has, over the years, broken news out of China as a result of relationships that took time to build and interviewing Kadeer at this moment could jeopardize what had been built so far, the representative argued.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in an interview with the Huffington Post, rejected that reasoning. "If you don't speak out for human rights in China and Tibet, you lose all moral authority to speak out for them, similarly if you [buckle to] the pressure of the regime to interfere with the free press," said Pelosi, a long-time critic of China's human rights record.
Pelosi believes that these sorts of compromises do not lead to more freedom over the long-term, but less, as China wields its economic influence outside of its own borders.
"I'm not surprised by it, but this is part of the frustration we've had with China," Pelosi said. "It's the long arm of the Chinese government reaching into other countries in terms of freedom. So it's unfortunate, but it shows the fear that they have."
On Thursday, CNN aired footage from May 20, 1989, when Chinese officials shut down CNN's Beijing facility and cut the cord on the network's broadcast from China. Former CNN correspondent Steve Hurst said of China's move to shut down CNN, "I've never seen anything like this." And this was two weeks before the June 4th protests. Watch the footage:
Ryan Grim is the author of This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America, due out later this month