Anne Penketh: Our part in China's brutal crackdown

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The Independent Online

The ghost of Tiananmen haunts China's Olympic Games. For the West, it is the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre by the Chinese army on 4 June 1989 that is commemorated each year. But the Chinese government will never forget the mammoth demonstrations by ordinary Chinese outside the Great Hall of the People for two months that made the Communist Party tremble.

When Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in Beijing on 14 May 1989, Chinese students were already camping out in the giant square in central Beijing demanding greater democracy. But the presence of the Soviet leader, who had launched his own campaign of perestroika and glasnost back home, galvanised the protesters and they swelled to more than a million.

The student protests, triggered by the death of the purged pro-reform Chinese leader Hu Yaobang, turned into an anti-government movement that spread like wildfire through other Chinese cities. Western reporters couldn't believe their luck: they were broadcasting history live via satellite from Tiananmen Square to the rest of the world. Those of us who had travelled with Gorbachev were writing down the names of the Chinese protesters, who were happy to be identified – unlike the Russians whose identities we had carefully protected in Communist Russia for fear of KGB retaliation. We all did it, carried away by emotion, watching the Goddess of Democracy being wheeled into the square, while Dan Rather proclaimed breathlessly: "There is little doubt this is a turning point for China and for world communism. It could well be a people's revolution." How careless and irresponsible we were.

When the crackdown came, following the declaration of martial law, it was merciless. The television pictures were scrutinised by the authorities for faces, and our reports for names. On 10 June, ABC television reported that Central Chinese TV (CCTV) had shown their images of a Chinese man and appealed for his capture for "rumour-mongering". Zhao Ziyang, the Communist party leader who dared challenge his colleagues by going to the square to try to persuade the hard core of hunger strikers to end their protest, became a non-person. When he died three years ago, he was still a pariah – the price he paid for political dissent. That is how powerful the memories of Tiananmen are for the Communist Party leadership.

Chinese authorities have now promised to allow live broadcasts from the square by foreign TV stations for the first time since 1989 – as long as they apply 24 hours in advance. It is to be hoped that the Olympics broadcasters from Tiananmen will have learned from our bitter experience nearly 20 years ago, when the images of the government's critics were sent straight to the studios of CCTV.