A Journalist’s Decision: What Happened Before Li Peng’s 1991 TVB Interview?

A Journalist’s Decision: What Happened Before Li Peng’s 1991 TVB Interview?
Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

What you need to know

In 1991, two TVB reporters had the opportunity to interview Li Peng exclusively for the first time after the Tiananmen Massacre, but as journalists, they were faced with an ethical dilemma.

At the age of 90, Li Peng (李鵬) is finally dead.

I can only recall two vivid instances about the "Butcher of Beijing," the first being Li's hideous face when declaring martial law in May 1989 during the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests and the second being his scripted interview in 1991 with Hong Kong's prominent broadcaster TVB, where a famous anchor humbly asked his rehearsed questions.

I am going to retell the story of the 1991 interview. It is neither a secret nor an insider story. TVB veterans often discussed the tale over casual drinks and several magazines have written about it. However, anger penetrates our generation in endless waves and we tend to forget things quickly. Our caution against TVB has only emerged in recent years, and even the younger TVB reporters are unaware of the 1991 incident, so please forgive my persistence on reiterating facts.

TVB's Exclusive Interview with the Premier of China

I keep staring at those faces these years and I have not been able to let go of the incident. It was not simply an interview, but an enlightening moment to humanity and a representation of the era we live in.

TVB interviewed Li Peng two years after the Tiananmen massacre. In 1991, China was still being sanctioned internationally as a punishment for the massacre. No foreign journalist had interviewed any Chinese leader, and no authority had openly explained the causes and consequences of the Tiananmen crackdown. The popular opinion of the time regarded Li as the leader of the suppression, calling him a "butcher" with blood on his hands and someone whom one should be ashamed of working alongside.

Photo Credit: Vincent Yu / AP Photo / TPG Images
A Hong Kong student denounces Chinese Premier Li Peng at a rally on May 24, 1989, to support the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests in China.

In 1991, TVB aired a special program named Exclusive Interview with the Premier of China (中國總理專訪) without even mentioning Li Peng's name. The channel might have worried that an explicit program title would scare viewers away and so it decided to use a vague title instead.

To interview the leader, TVB sent a team of reporters to Beijing, which included a male anchor and a female anchor. At the time, only the most experienced reporters were qualified for the anchor position.

The unspoken rule of interviewing the leader in Beijing was that the government would not give a scheduled time. One could only wait around and hope. The TVB team, then, just waited in the hotel rooms and even avoided heading out in fear of running into other media competitors and tipping them off. Everything was treated like military secrets, and everyone had to wait inside the hotel for the government's signal.

A Journalist's Choice

The following situation is essentially a classic case study for journalistic ethics.

When the government finally revealed its interviewee, Li Peng, it allegedly demanded a few preconditions. For instance, the reporters had to first submit their list of questions and they were not allowed to ask anything in addition to the approved questions.

If you were a journalist, how would you decide?

At the time, the public and even some TVB insiders thought the exclusive interview was only giving an unnecessary platform to a murderer. But from the media perspective, could you refuse an exclusive interview with a controversial premier who had not been questioned at all for two years? For a media owner, this was an opportunity to establish friendly relations with the authorities. As for an anchor, interviewing the premier was the perfect chance for a career leap. Profits and fame aside, the interview was crucial based on its news value because the Chinese government had never publicly explained any questions related to the Tiananmen massacre. The key, then, depended on what attitude to adopt and what questions to ask.

The preconditions, of course, were very restrictive. The interviewee demanded the reporters only ask pre-approved questions without straying from them. However, should the reporters and editors agree to these demands?

There were only three options:

  • 1. Reject the preconditions and reject to interview
  • 2. Accept the preconditions and conduct the interview as agreed
  • 3. Pretend to accept the preconditions, and then assert additional questions by confusing the interviewee (this would, of course, jeopardize their relations with the Chinese authorities and trouble the boss and the mediator).

To any reporter, this was a life-altering challenge that tested one's character and integrity.

In the end, only one of the two assigned TVB reporters remained for the interview with Li Peng.

The female journalist chose the first option, rejecting the preconditions and stressing that she had to raise her own questions. As a result, her seat was removed from the interview.

The Fourth Option

The male journalist chose none of the three options; he chose a fourth, which was to accept Li's demands unconditionally and only recite what was on the script, as well as shake his hand with a bright smile.

Oddly, the interview clips are not found on YouTube and the scenes only lived on in our memories. Our collective memory was something along the lines of the male journalist's friendly smile towards Li; their questions and answers were obviously coordinated since Li was only reading off the answers on his cheat sheet. Li, who was not a great speaker, delivered a great performance during the scripted interview. The burning questions about the Tiananmen massacre were unasked, unanswered.

It was not an interview but a scripted question-and-answer recited by both parties.

No one remembered what Li said exactly. Only the male journalist's smile lingered for generations to come.

I sympathize with the difficulties of conducting a one-on-one interview. Three decades ago, the interview etiquette leaned towards creating a polite, harmonious environment. Societal polarization was not as severe then, and the media was used to putting on their masks of neutrality.

Even in recent years, TVB reporters still have a hard time asking politicians difficult questions, especially during the early policymaking period when the politicians are simply asking for public feedback. When faced with upper-mid-level politicians who are only responsible for the execution and technical details, the reporters also hesitate to "interrogate" them about the policy itself. It has become an unspoken rule to maintain one's public image, and this type of idle talk is only aimed at pleasing the authorities.

Moreover, many media workers think of the "official facts" as facts, habitually trusting politicians' statements and police press releases. For example, there is a recent trend where Hong Kong politicians "govern through blogging," writing about their one-sided perspective on their personal blogs. Surprisingly, many local media outlets would, without asking further questions, quote these blogs as if they were news while upholding high regard for authorities.

However, the male journalist's subject at the time was Li Peng, someone seen as a butcher, a criminal who slaughtered his people. The male journalist did not press any questions related to the Tiananmen massacre but simply obeyed the rules and stayed within the box.

I never forgot his smile towards Li. What was he thinking when he was being so respectful and humble? Was it human nature to submit to the powerful and the rich? When should one compromise and when should one say no? As journalists, how should we deal with situations like this? If it were up to me, would I have chosen the fourth option as he did?

What Happened to the Two Journalists Afterwards?

It was the lesson and the warning of a lifetime.

When the male journalist returned to his office, many of his coworkers disdained him. I was just a junior reporter at the time; I thought his decision was inappropriate, but I did not have a strong opinion about it. Social media did not exist then, and it only took two days for the newspaper criticisms to die down. This male journalist ended up being my direct manager for years — and whenever I looked at him at meetings, I could only see the smile he had on while interviewing Li Peng. It was an indelible stain.

As for the female journalist who rejected to conduct the interview, she returned to Hong Kong and kept working quietly. She was always graceful and trusting of others. Before the 1997 handover, she was one of the producers for the documentary The End of an Era (一個年代的終結). I had once worked under her and it was a pleasant experience.

The male journalist, on the other hand, went through a low tide and several personnel changes. Finally, in 2004, he was promoted to be the TVB news director. He has remained an established journalist for the past 15 years — his name is Keith Yuen Chi-wai (袁志偉).

Photo Courtesy of the Author
Keith Yuen Chi-wai

The End of an Era was the last special program ever produced by the female journalist. After the airing of the program, she was diagnosed with a terminal disease and passed away in 2000 at the age of 43. Her name was Nancy Li (李汶靜).

Photo Courtesy of the Author
Nancy Li

In her memorial service booklet, she left the following words: "Live on well..."

Photo Courtesy of the Author

I never believed that a good person would be rewarded in an unfair world.

Li Peng, whose hands were stained with blood, died at old age without suffering. People said he was forever nailed on the shameful cross of history, but I am not certain whether the cross means anything when history is written by victors. Shame is an honor, and no one cares when the shameful cross has been nailed with too many oppressors.

But don't distress. We will live on, and I wish everyone a long life. Then we too will compete to outlive each other.

The News Lens was authorized to translate and republish this article by the author Allan Au (區家麟).

Translator: Daphne K. Lee
Editor: Brandon Kemp (@thenewslensintl)

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