Jiang Zemin

Newsman's memorable forays into China

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2012, 12:00am


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Mike Wallace, the legendary American journalist who died on Saturday night, was admired by some on the mainland for confronting top Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin over contentious issues before television cameras.

The iconic 60 Minutes host is believed to be the only journalist to interview both political heavyweights, but it was his 1986 encounter with Deng - then China's paramount leader - that left the most lasting impression with China watchers.

Deng coined some of his best-known catchphrases during his meeting with Wallace - one of his last television interviews - including, 'to get rich is no sin'. Wallace's translation of statement, 'to get rich is glorious', is still quoted widely.

In the interview, the CBS newsman pressed Deng for an assessment of Mao Zedong and to discuss his own personal ups and downs during the Cultural Revolution.

When asked if he had plans to retire, Deng admitted he had abandoned his previous promise to step down in 1985 and was considering further delay because of opposition from 'party rank and file and the Chinese people'.

One of the best-remembered moments of Wallace's interviews came in September 2000, when Wallace wagged his finger at Jiang, calling the Chinese president 'a dictator, an authoritarian'.

'You are the last major communist dictatorship in the world,' Wallace told Jiang in what the journalist described as one of the most spirited exchanges in the question-and-answer session.

Jiang, known for his foreign-language skills and media savvy, was put on the defence.

'Your way of describing what things are like in China is as absurd as what The Arabian Nights may sound like,' Jiang said.

It has been widely reported that Jiang's entourage, including the then foreign minister, Tang Jiaxuan , was outraged by Wallace's challenge and wanted to interrupt the interview. But Jiang held his own.

Zhan Jiang, a media professor at Beijing's Foreign Studies University, said Beijing's leaders opened a new door to the outside world with their interviews with Wallace.

'Wallace was a world-class journalist,' he said. 'His interviews are seen as attempts to create a channel to communicate with the world through mainstream media in the West.'

Jiang later spoke highly of Wallace. In October 2000, Jiang was quoted accusing Hong Kong journalists of asking 'simplistic and na?ve' questions.

'As you all know, Wallace in the US is a lot better than you and we still talk delightfully,' he said, holding up his thumb in praise of Wallace.