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"Assignment: China" - the Americans Sent to Report from Beijing in '79

UPDATE: The documentary is now available online.


By Will Bland

Negotiating with CCTV for footage from the trial of the Gang of Four, standing among shacks in a Guangdong village called Shenzhen, discovering wall charts tracking each local woman’s mensuration cycle – the American correspondents admitted to in China in 1979 wrote the first chapters in one of the most stunning stories of the last thirty years.

Assignment: China, an hour-long film made by former CNN correspondent Mike Chinoy, likens their experience to landing on the moon.

It’s made up of interviews with those first reporters, the dispatches they filed and the footage that they shot of each other. The film shows not just how much the world has changed, but also how much has changed in the way we learn news from faraway countries.

The New York Times, NBC, the Associated Press and their peers weren’t quite sending the first men to the moon – the BBC, Reuters and other non-American media had already got there – but their reporters’ daily lives still seem pretty alien.

The print journalists depended on telex machines to file their copy back to New York and Washington; those in television had wait a day to send their footage back by satellite links. 

With 400 million Chinese now publishing their own stories online to be scrutinized by thousands of foreigners, it’s easy to forget the role that foreign correspondents once played. Their viewpoint was a prism through which millions of Americans formed their image of China.

The challenge facing those newly admitted correspondents – arriving after one of the biggest upheavals in China’s history and trying to get inside its society of a billion people, almost none of whom wanted to talk – might be typical of some warzones today. However, unlike foreign reporters in Kabul or Baghdad, the Americans in Beijing were among the only conduits through which the personal stories of China’s transformation could have reached the U.S.

Like foreigners in Kabul, many of the characters in Assignment: China lived in hotels; the diplomatic compounds where other foreigners lived were full, so the government gave them permanent rooms at the Beijing Hotel.

The film shows how the assignees lived much of their lives in common – from bedroom guitar sessions to state-organized press trips and official dinners – as well as some of the stories and images that kept them busy.

Among them was the Associated Press’s Liu Heung-shing. His nighttime photograph of students reading under the Tiananmen Square streetlights gives a sense of how much has changed.

Listening to the journalists recall another of their early stories – the opening of China’s first private restaurant – you get a sense that China’s changes over the last three decades really were unimaginable in 1979.

That’s an antidote to contemporary coverage of China, which often assumes the inevitability of the country’s ascent. I wonder if any of today’s stories will have the same resonance for audiences in 2040 as that thirty-year old report on Beijing’s first private restaurant.


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