Chinese first: Tiananmen Square mentioned in official newspaper

The article referencing the June 4, 1989, 'incident' appeared only in an English-language publication.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For the first time, an official Chinese newspaper Thursday made open reference to the 1989 crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, breaking a two decade-long taboo.

The article referred only to "the June 4th Tiananmen incident," giving no details of the deadly Army operation to clear the square, and appeared in an English-language newspaper aimed almost entirely at a foreign readership.

Some observers here cautioned against reading too much into the front page article published in the Global Times English-language edition, pointing out that the more strictly controlled Chinese-language press is still forbidden by government censors to make any mention of the events of June 4, 1989.

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The article is "clearly part of an effort to guide readers overseas into believing that the decisions to crack down on the movement in 1989 are being reexamined" says Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst. "Even a cursory reading of the Chinese language media here indicates that there is nothing of the sort occurring."

Even so, says Richard Burger, an editor at the Global Times, which is owned by the ruling Communist Party, the story "pushed the envelope" on what can be printed in China.

"It is a small step of progress," adds Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei.com, a website specializing in Chinese media affairs.

The lengthy article, which insiders at the paper say was approved for publication only minutes before the edition was sent to the printers, presents views sympathetic to the government's decision in 1989 to send troops to disperse the Tiananmen protesters violently, and quotes no critic of the move. It does, however, acknowledge the government-imposed media taboo on the subject, and mentions the way in which references to the event are blocked on Chinese Internet sites.

The piece, written by a Chinese staffer, illustrates the ambitions that the Global Times English edition has shown since it was launched seven weeks ago to "go where others haven't," Mr. Burger says.

"Global Times is supposed to be less predictable, more innovative, less staid, younger and fresher" than the established English-language newspaper in China, the government-run China Daily, explains Justin Mitchell, another "foreign expert" brought in to hammer young Chinese journalists' copy into readable shape.

In recent weeks, the paper has run an article about mass protests against local injustice and a profile of Ai Weiwei, the internationally renowned artist whose acerbic criticism of the government has made him a constant thorn in the authorities' flesh.

Global Times "has a little more juice in its story selection" than its rival, China Daily, says Mr. Goldkorn.

The newspaper is the English-language edition of a stridently nationalistic Chinese daily, owned by the People's Daily, the Communist Party's main organ. It has avoided its sister paper's editorial line, however, and generates almost all its stories itself with a staff of around 70, including 10 foreigners, led by editor Hu Xijin, a former war correspondent who covered Iraq and Bosnia for Chinese state media.

The new daily "is definitely part of the 'soft power' push the government has been talking about," including the planned launch of an English-language international TV network, says David Bandurski, a media scholar with the China Media Project at Hong Kong University.

Whether the publication of articles such as Thursday's discussion of China's path since 1989 will establish the paper's credibility in foreign eyes, however, is unclear, Mr. Bandurski warns.

"They are only breaking taboos in terms of the repressive media policies in China," he points out. "If you look at their coverage in the context of global coverage, which is the whole point of projecting soft power, it is irrelevant," Bandurski argues, because it has to skirt around sensitive but important issues.

"It is good that they are pushing the envelope," adds Goldkorn. "But they wouldn't do anything that would get them into trouble. In the Western media context, what they do is extremely tame."

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