Memories of reporting a momentous event in late 20th century world history
Throughout the mid-1980s onwards, if there was one event that was being most eagerly awaited worldwide – as a welcome one or as an inevitability – it was the end of the Sino-Soviet schism that had begun with the very founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
However, Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit turned out to be a sideshow to what unfolded in the spring of 1989 in Beijing, i.e. the spectacular student-led pro-democracy uprising that was eventually crushed by the Chinese military.
But I’m running ahead of my story.
There had long been a perception that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) tended to act like a big brother towards parties sharing its ideology in other parts of the world. Beijing having been particularly averse to anything less than respectful treatment.
Soviet leaders in the post-Stalin era, i.e. from early 1950s onwards were preoccupied with the state of the economy at home and standing up to the hostile Western alliance, i.e. the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and had little time for China.
All that changed with the ascent in 1985 of Mikhail Gorbachev as CPSU General Secretary. He set about declaring “Glasnost” (openness) and “Perestroika” (reconstruction or restructuring). He opened out to the West, whose then reigning and virulently right-wing leaders, Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Britain, mostly cold-shouldered Gorbachev, although sections of Western media had been warming up to him. He had turned his back on the decades-long “Cold War”.
China, in an understated way, began preparing for the historic Sino-Soviet rapprochement, but its own advance ran into domestic hiccoughs such as having to deal with some pro-democracy student protests in 1986-87, which led to the sacking of Hu Yaobang as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
By a concatenation of circumstances, China and the then Soviet Union managed to schedule Gorbachev’s Beijing trip in mid-May 1989, exactly a month after the death on April 15 that year of the very same Hu Yaobang, whose reputation as an honest leader inclined towards democratisation led to outpourings of grief on the part of not only ordinary Chinese citizens but well-organised university students who began to stage daily protests on the streets and especially on the sprawling Tiananmen Square in central Beijing.
As correspondent of the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency posted in Beijing in August the previous year, I’d been obliged to hit the ground running, especially as the historic visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi followed weeks after my being posted there.
In May 1989, I had to cover two major events simultaneously: the ongoing student-led pro-democracy protests and the Gorbachev visit.
No choice: I decided to do both, time permitting, skipping between venues.
What the pro-democracy students were staging on Beijing’s streets and on Tiananmen square had the world riveted. And most Western news organisations – many having called in reinforcements – concentrated almost exclusively on the protests.
But a Beijing-Moscow detente was, I figured, equally significant.
I was mindful of the tremendous amount of help the former Soviet Union had rendered India in crucial times, even though India was a leading non-aligned nation, shunning both the NATO and the Warsaw Pact alliance the then Soviet Union headed.
And China was this powerful Asian behemoth India was seeking to normalise ties with ever since the 1962 war, the Rajiv Gandhi trip of 1988 having been a major gesture on the part of both sides.
I decided not to miss a single one of Gorbachev’s public appearances open to the media, starting from his airport arrival. Nor any press conference to do with his historic meetings with China’s most important leaders.
Among the most under-reported ones was Gorbachev’s meeting with the then Communist Party of China (CPC) General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who told the visiting leader that all major decisions in Beijing were being taken in consultation with the then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping: This fact was conveyed to us, reporters, in a stern voice by an otherwise affable Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, who used to take questions at the end of whatever statements he had to make. In this instance, i.e., after his briefing over what Zhao had told Gorbachev, he walked off abruptly.
The reasons for the spokesman’s action became clear a few weeks later: By letting Gorbachev know about the top Chinese leadership’s decision-making processes, Zhao had shared a state secret with a foreign leader. Although the whole world knew that Deng was China’s supreme leader, the fact that despite his not holding a top post in the CPC nor in the state structure, he had a say in the country’s most crucial issues, was deemed a vital matter not for public consumption. It was one of the CPC’s inner-party indictments against Zhao which led to his being stripped of all posts save his primary party membership a few days later in May 1989.
Given the chaotic traffic in central Beijing those days, I was unsure whether I could make it to Gorbachev’s press conference which was held at the Diaoyutai State Guest House in western Beijing. Knowing that Soviet television stations were going to relay Gorbachev’s press conference live, I messaged my editors in New Delhi to say that just in case I could not make it to the press conference, could my Moscow colleague, V.S. Karnic then, watch out for it. In the event, I miraculously chanced upon a mini-van engaged by reporters to go from Tiananmen Square towards the guest house and was well in time to cover Gorbachev’s press conference, during which, needless to say, the pro-democracy protests figured and which he handled deftly, saying nothing that might have offended his hosts.
What lessons China’s then leaders drew from the collapse of the Soviet Union has mostly been a matter of conjecture, as the deliberations among the topmost Chinese leaders have never officially been shared in public. By most accounts, the Chinese leadership held Gorbachev’s political opening without first securing economic strength to have been ill-advised.
P.S.: To return to the experience of covering Gorbachev’s trip, I remember that I was among perhaps two or three Beijing-based foreign correspondents – one of the others being my Associated Press of Pakistan counterpart – who used the now long extinct teleprinters to file our reports. Teleprinters were electronic machines that helped “cut” a less-than-an-inch-wide “ticker tape” which allowed for one tiny hole to be punched in the middle to ensure it “ran” on the other side – the other side being a teleprinter in another part of the city, the country or the world – with the provision for two slightly bigger holes one side and three on the other, each combination of the five holes standing for an alphabet, number, punctuation mark, space or paragraph indication.
After Gorbachev’s press conference, I managed to hitch a ride to a hotel in northwest Beijing where the press centre for the visit was located, to cut my tape.
It was almost deserted: As I said above, most Western correspondents were preoccupied with the students’ movement. I and a Brazilian correspondent were cutting our tapes when in walked the legendary Harrison Salisbury, veteran New York Times correspondent and noted Kremlinologist, then briefly in Beijing covering the Gorbachev trip.
“Where are you guys from?” he asked.
“We gave up this technology ages ago,” he said, sounding not in the least bit patronising: merely factual.
Neither the Brazilian, who seemed to be in his late-20s nor I in my mid-30s had time then to engage the 1908-born Salisbury in conversation. A pity. We might have learned a lot.
Gorbachev was on our mind then. Salisbury passed on four years later.