LOCATION: Tiananmen Square, Beijing
TYPE OF INCIDENT: Detention, plainclothes obstruction, bureaucratic interference
TOPIC: Tiananmen anniversary
NATIONALITY/ORGANIZATION: International broadcaster. American reporter, German cameraman, Chinese producer
“This is the first time I’ve had a chorus of 30 plain clothes officers say they saw something that didn’t happen. That means they can frame foreign journalists for doing things we didn’t do.”
I planned to do a stand-up in Tiananmen Square. It should’ve taken a maximum of ten minutes. We tried to play by the rules. Three hours later we were sent home from the police station, without the stand-up, having been falsely accused of creating an incident.
I, a foreign cameraman and local producer arrived outside the Great Hall of the People to do the stand-up a week ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. As soon as we arrived, a police car drove up and an officer told us we needed to register. Surprised at the new procedure, we asked officers whether a new law had been enacted. But he insisted “this has always been the case.” The officer proceeded to note down details from our press cards and he said we could enter the Square. He was amiable and said that was all we needed to do. But when we reached the security tent the security personnel said we were not allowed on the Square. “We are in charge, the police are not,” he said. The security officer then went on to explain it was a holiday and there were a lot of people in the Square and his job was to keep them safe. We said we had a right to film in the square. He agreed, but sent us to register at the office on the East of the Square where TV used to register prior to the the 2007 Olympic regulations.
At the office we spoke to two men for about 40 minutes. They said it was a holiday so the regular officers weren’t around to approve our request. They said we are permitted to film in the Square but we need to tell them in advance so they can alert authorities. They declined to say how far in advance we should inform them, or whether there is a legal basis for this supposed requirement. We challenged them about the implementation of the October 17, 2008 free reporting regulation. They left and made some phone calls. When they returned they agreed to escort us to the Square. But we were stopped again at the security tent, and the personnel there explained they had not yet heard word about this approval — despite our escort.
Ten minutes later another man from the Tiananmen office arrived and whispered something to our escort and to security. The escort abruptly said he had to go back to the office to do some work. We asked him not to leave. He said he’d already made arrangements with the security tent and everything was fine.
Ten minutes passed. The security tent officer told us we needed a letter from the Tiananmen bureau to film on the square, so we returned to the same office to find our escort and ask him what was going on.
The person at the front desk phoned around but said he couldn’t find the people in charge. We walked upstairs and tried every door, and on the third floor found our escort and some colleagues watching TV. They said there was nothing they could do for us anymore. “Are you telling me the bureau in charge of Tiananmen Square does not have authority to allow us on Tiananmen Square?” I asked. They refused to answer.
They huddled and whispered, and then finally said they would escort us again to the Square. We got past security and entered the Square about 90 minutes after we arrived. They told us we had 15 minutes to do the stand-up.
As we walked toward the middle we noticed we were being followed by a group of single men in their 20s and 30s, equipped with water bottles, cameras, and cell phones. We assumed they were plainclothes officers. They followed us with very little pretence, watching us and some of them filming us.
We set up our own camera. I then noticed our Tiananmen bureau escort had disappeared. I was in position for the stand-up when two men from the crowd stood between me and the camera and started snapping pictures, as tourists, and making a big scene, taking multiple pictures. Then someone else stood right in front of the camera. We asked them to leave, but the Chinese men did not appear to speak Mandarin Chinese. Our cameraman gestured for the crowd to leave. Another man got in our way, I said in Chinese we just needed a minute or two if everyone would just step back. A third man in red — let’s call him Mr. Red — then stood squarely in front of our camera. Our cameraman, who doesn’t speak Chinese, gently held his arm and moved him to the side.
At which point Mr. Red wailed, “I’m injured! The foreigner — he just hit me!” The chorus of followers started talking about the “incident.” ” A foreigner just hit a Chinese man for no reason!” “How can you hit a Chinese? We all saw it!” “Did everyone see that?” “Yes! Yes we did!”
It was time to leave but the angry crowd surrounded us and wouldn’t allow the cameraman to move one step. If he tried, they accused him of hitting them. Mr. Red who said he had been hit said he needed to go to the hospital.
The cameraman managed to break through the crowd and ran to a police car. The police officer thanked the crowd for their cooperation, told them, “We will handle this issue with the foreigner,” and drove our team and the “victim” Mr. Red to the police station.
While we were waiting at the police station the Mr. Red started asking our producer questions, and insinuating he was at fault for assisting foreigners — suggesting that his presence facilitated the entire incident. I asked Mr. Red why he was asking so many questions, because he was certainly not a police officer, correct? Mr. Red also happened to magically know where the toilet at this police station was without having to ask, which is quite odd for a citizen. He also made comments about my supposed good looks, over the course of a long ten-minute spiel, which I believe was meant to make me uncomfortable.
Police officers also took down my press ID and passport information, along with our local producer’s information. We asked if there was anything we did wrong, and they assured us we were fine but that they needed to get this information down for our records. They asked for our local producer’s home address. He did not give it to them.
After a while an immigration officer arrived, who handles foreigners with J visas. He took our cameraman to another room, filed a report. And we left about two hours later. Mr. Red who had wanted to go to the hospital, at some point disappeared… and we never saw him again. Perhaps he decided to go to the hospital!