By Roger Strauss, CNN Senior Director, “CNN Newsroom with Don Lemon”
“We are all going to spend time in Chinese jails,” CNN anchor Bernard Shaw told me. “We are never going to get out of this country.” I had just finished working 32 out of the last 38 hours, and this was the last thing I wanted to hear. It was May of 1989 and I was sitting in the makeshift CNN offices at the Beijing Sheraton. The Chinese government had just pulled CNN off the air from Beijing. We were all exhausted and all I wanted to do was sleep. But I had to think about how I was going to get back home to Atlanta, and Bernie’s assessment of our departure was not exactly a sleep-inducing scenario.
I directed all of CNN’s coverage out of Beijing, and I was working in the control room the day the Chinese government shut us down. I remember when the Chinese government official came into the room with two machine gun-toting soldiers and began negotiating with CNN producer Alec Miran. ABC News was watching CNN and sensed trouble, so they sent a nearby camera into our work space. When I saw the cameraman walk in, I told him he could tape all he wanted to, but I was going to put his camera on live until we could get a CNN camera going. That’s how we were able to get the pictures out of the control room when the Chinese troops marched in. After some intense on-air negotiations, Alec was unable to persuade the government representative to let us keep broadcasting, and we shut down our signal.
As Bernie so eloquently said before we went off the air, “we came to cover a historic summit, and we walked into a revolution.” We were in Beijing because Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had come to meet with China’s Deng Xiaoping and normalize relations between the two countries. Little did we know that we would stumble into the Tiananmen Square protests and all learn a first-hand lesson in how the Chinese government handles the freedom of the press.
“Hide everything that says you work for CNN,” I was told two days later, just before I went to the airport. “If Chinese Customs sees that you work for CNN, they will arrest you.” I got rid of everything that said CNN on it. Business cards, pins, pens, t-shirts, and credentials were all given away or deposited in Beijing garbage cans. I breezed through customs and left the country with no problem. When I got back to the United States, I had to go through customs in Portland. “Where have you been?” the customs agent asked. “China,” I replied. “What were you doing there?” “Working for CNN,” I said. “Do you have anything that proves you work for CNN?” he asked. After fifteen minutes of spirited explanation and discussion, I was finally allowed to enter the United States. Although I was hassled a bit at US Customs, it was a lot better than the Chinese alternative. It was good to be home.