Monday, August 11, 2008

Beijing Olympics

The $300 million Beijing Olympics opening ceremony spectacular combined ingenious uses of technology, five thousand years of Chinese history and 15,000 performers to overpower its more than one billion viewers worldwide. But in China not everything is exactly as it appears. For example, a little girl with a beautiful voice and crooked teeth was replaced during the playing of "Ode to the Motherland" by a lip-sinking mime with a pretty face and perfect teeth.

Nonetheless, the Beijing Olympics is a great source of pride, nationalism and identity for most of the 1.3 billion Chinese. For many the games can briefly divert attention from poverty and offer a sense of hope, the kind of hope that is controlled by the state. To the world China is saying, "we are a major superpower that must be respected."

In the weeks leading up to the Beijing Olympics, much attention was focused on the heavy smog that saturated the environment, threatened athletes and obscured the view. Now winds seem to have cleared the air somewhat and the sun is shinning through more brightly on the thirty-one event venues where superb athletes are smashing records free of political interference.

I first visited China as part of an advance team in February 1984 planning President Reagan's visit. The team was made up of government officials and members of the press. This would be President Reagan's first visit to a communist country, and he would be the first sitting U.S. President to visit China after the two countries established diplomatic relations. Our team visited potential event sites in Beijing, The Great Wall, Xian and Shanghai. We each took careful notes and voluminous amounts of pictures from every angle. The U.S. government team would return to the White House, review their material and propose a schedule to the Chinese government.

China was shrouded in a cloud of uncertainty in 1984. Deng Xiaoping had implemented a "socialist market economy" and the "one-child policy" to stimulate economic growth and limit the country's population. It was "socialism with a Chinese characteristic," and came in the wake of Mao's disastrous Cultural Revolution. The Chinese were struggling with their identity. Communist or capitalist? Closed or open? Soviet or Western?

In 1984, Beijing was in the early stages of modernization. Large modern skyscrapers were being built next to clay and wooden hovels, down the street from intimidating Soviet designed buildings, and not too far from the glorious Forbidden City. Our party stayed in the exclusive Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, and every meal was a multi-course feast.

In Xian, an immense crowd surrounded the entire runway as our military plane landed and taxied; apparently it was the first time a U.S. aircraft had landed at this military airport. Peasants lined the road to the city and gathered outside our hotel. Xian was home to several Chinese dynasties, and it was where thousands of amazing terracotta warriors and horses were buried underground for more than 2,000 years only to be discovered less than ten years prior to our visit. Shanghai was stunning, vibrant and breathtaking, then with a population approaching 15 million people. I jogged in the glorious Bund and shopped for jade at street markets.

That April, I returned to China with President Reagan, via Honolulu and Guam, for his official visit that was generally described as "long on symbolism and short on diplomacy." Following the trip, Reagan is said to have opined that the Chinese "weren't really communists."

In 1989, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made a state visit to China. The Western press had been invited in to cover the visit, so I dispatched CBS News anchor Dan Rather and a team to Beijing, which included my wife, Susan Zirinsky. We were prepared to originate the CBS Evening News live from Tiananmen Square. Simultaneously, a group of Chinese students, who were protesting the lack of political reforms in China, began to gather in Tiananmen Square. Gorbachev departed, and the student protests and hunger strike appeared to be in a lengthy standoff. Some of the CBS News team returned to the U.S. As I arrived in Los Angeles for an affiliates conference, where I would meet the returning Susan, the Chinese government began moving against the students under cover of darkness using unsympathetic troops from rural China. Needless to say, Susan, who had a valid Chinese visa, only spent a few hours in L.A. before she raced back to Beijing to join Dan Rather.

Rather and our local CBS News team dominated the Tiananmen Square uprising. Our satellite uplink, parked at a nearby hotel, made it possible for CBS to provide live coverage. Correspondent Richard Roth was arrested in Tiananmen Square for several hours, details were scarce, and panic ensued, police cracked down. John Sheehan and Bob Simon were among those filing reports and updates for CBS News. (Then English teachers in Beijing, Bob Woodruff and his wife Lee, now with ABC News, worked for CBS News as translators.)

I ran the CBS News coverage from our main New York control room, and I broke into network prime time programming with a live report whenever there was a major development. But the Chinese government finally got around to shutting us down. I received word from CBS News producer Lane Venardos that he was with a government representative who was ordering us to immediately stop using our uplink. There was no negotiating room, shut it down or the Chinese government would shut it down. Instead, I requested that we be allowed to broadcast a little while longer, which would give me time to coordinate a live broadcast across the country where Dan could dramatically "pull the plug." The Chinese representative agreed to wait. So at approximately 11:15pm Eastern Time Dan Rather signed off live for the final time and signaled to our technician to shut the dish down.

No one knows exactly how many people died at Tiananmen Square, estimates run from a few hundred to several thousand. But this would be the first revolution to take place live on television.

In 1994 China had threatened to close down the CBS News Beijing bureau. We had aired controversial reports on China's one-child policy. I went to Beijing to argue the CBS News case with the Chinese Information Ministry. The Chinese capital looked much more modern and built up than in my previous visit 10 years earlier. While I waited for my meeting, I went to the hotel gym. There I worked out on a treadmill next to my CNN counterpart, senior vice president Ed Turner, who was also on a treadmill. Both of us were riveted to the live pictures of OJ Simpson eluding authorities in a white Bronco on a California Highway, courtesy CNN. This would be the first police chase broadcast live around the world.

I had to break off my exercise session to get ready for my meeting. I met the Information Ministry representatives at a restaurant where we enjoyed several courses of Chinese food, including sea slugs. At some point my hosts spent five minutes gently but firmly chastising me for our "misleading" coverage while explaining the necessity of the one-child policy. I made no concessions and no apologies, but they got to issue their warning in person. I recently read that without the one-child policy China's population today would be 300 million larger. That is the size of the U.S. population.

I again returned to China in 1997 with Susan to adopt our daughter, Zoë. This time we traveled from Beijing to Hefei, a city of nearly 5 million inhabitants, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. There were no crowds lining the roads. Zoë was 10 months old when we first met her in a hotel lobby. Later, as we walked through the street markets carrying our precious little child, Chinese women frequently lectured us on how to properly care for our baby. Americans have adopted several thousand Chinese babies, overwhelmingly girls, over the past decade. However, China has recently slowed the process down, perhaps concerned that they will be viewed as the largest exporter of babies. For sure, this problem has nothing to do with crooked teeth.

The Beijing Olympics are certain to be long remembered as a bright shining moment in China's already formidable history. I hope that freedom's winds blow across this great country replacing the dark shroud of a controlled state with the bright optimism of a more open and free society. I believe the Beijing Olympics may be an important step in that direction.


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