City Beat

City journalists on mainland work in shadow of Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen marked start of a tense relationship between local media and authorities in Beijing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 June, 2014, 5:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 1:02pm

Pictures of the sea of candles lighting up Victoria Park last Wednesday were splashed across newspapers around the world to mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. But for Hong Kong reporters based in Beijing, June 4 also now means playing a game of "hide and seek" with police, and stories carrying the byline "staff reporter" lest correspondents be accused of illegal behaviour.

This reminds me of events 25 years ago, when as a young reporter, I was lucky enough to be sent to Beijing to cover a meeting of the Asian Development Bank. Dr Shirley Kuo Wan-jung, Taiwan's finance minister at the time, was expected to be the big story, as the first senior Taipei official to visit since the Kuomintang government fled to the island after the civil war in 1949.

I never expected the assignment to become the unforgettable experience it turned into. A few days later, the death of Hu Yaobang , the former party secretary general, sparked the student-led democracy movement. It soon spread across the nation.

I stayed on in Beijing and many other Hong Kong reporters flocked to the capital, remaining until June 6, two days after Beijing sent in troops to crush the movement. Memories of those days and nights live on in my memory. One moment has always been particularly vivid: my interview with Hu Jiwei, a well-known intellectual who was editor of People's Daily from 1977 to 1983.

Hu was also a member of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress until he was stripped of his official titles in 1990 for his opposition to the military crackdown.

At the time, many mainland journalists joined the student-led protest against corruption and for democracy. Hu, who had retired from journalism but remained influential, looked on with great excitement - and concern - as his former colleagues took to the streets.

I visited Hu twice at his home to seek his views on how democracy could develop in China. As a leading member of the nation's top legislature, he kept stressing the importance of urgent legislation to protect press freedom: not only to ensure mainland journalists could report without fear, but also to allow overseas journalists to carry out legitimate work.

How time flies. Hu passed away two years ago at the age of 96, with no sign of such a law.

Instead, June 4 began decades of tense relations between the Hong Kong media and mainland authorities, with the role Hong Kong journalists played in informing the world of what happened in 1989 leading Beijing to tighten its grip.

The authorities realised it was too easy for Hong Kong journalists to travel to the mainland: all they needed was a home return permit. Beijing introduced seven regulations specifically designed for Hong Kong and Macau journalists in October 1989, most notable a requirement to seek approval 15 days before travelling.

Can any news still be news 15 days on? Partly due to complaints from Hong Kong media outfits, the regulations were gradually eased, and finally lifted in 2008 as Beijing hosted the Olympic Games. But a new regulation was issued in 2009, under which journalists had to seek prior approval from the central government's liaison office in the city before setting foot on the mainland.

Beijing argued that the liaison office could issue credentials quickly, even on the same day, and that the rule would protect Hong Kong journalists from engaging in "illegal" newsgathering.

For many Hong Kong reporters, the prospect of covering the mainland is exciting because it involves big news. Hopefully the day will soon come when Hong Kong reporters can cover sensitive issues like June 4 in our own motherland without the fear of being accused of breaking the law.