Sun, Sep 11, 2016 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in time: Freedom of the press, China style

Shortly after the lifting of martial law, a local newspaper risks it all for two of its reporters to become the first Taiwanese journalists to set foot in China after the Chinese Civil War

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1988.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sept. 12 to Sept. 18

Before Independence Evening Post (自立晚報) reporters Lee Yung-teh (李永得) and Hsu Lu (徐璐) set out on their historic journey as the first Taiwanese reporters to visit China on Sept. 14, 1987, they reportedly requested that they not be hosted by government officials, they would pay their own way and they would be able to report freely.

However, during the press conference upon arrival at Beijing’s airport, a Reuters reporter asked them, “Do you really believe that you will be able to report freely in China?” Lee and Hsu then asked for his opinion. “I cannot tell you,” he replied, and the crowd of foreign reporters erupted in laughter.

Lee and Hsu write in their book, Historic Journey to the Mainland (歷史性 大陸行) that they had already noticed that they were being followed on their first day in Beijing. When the duo questioned their hosts, China News Service, about the situation, they were told that it was for their safety, as there were “some people who did not approve of their visit.”

Even when Lee and Hsu were able to score an interview on their own, the source insisted that they bring their hosts along. In other situations, the hosts would also insist on arranging all the transportation and accompany them for “safety” issues. A foreign reporter told them that sometimes he would have to run as fast as he could to buy a few precious minutes to speak to passersby without supervision.

Phone calls to their hotel were also “filtered” by the operator, who turned away people who wanted to privately contact them without official notice. Those who finally got through told them about all the political hurdles they had to pass to get in touch with them.

“To be frank, all our requests while we were in China were respected on the surface … but we were surrounded by an invisible net and only felt increasing pressure,” Lee and Hsu write. They cite a Taiwanese who once said that upon finally achieving his dream of visiting the “motherland,” he only felt unfamiliarity and fear.

“In those 13 days we reported in China, in the bottom of our hearts were exactly this indescribable ‘unfamiliarity and fear,’” they write.

A DARING PLAN

Frank Wu (吳豐山), then-president of the paper, details his decision to send reporters to China in the introduction of Lee and Hsu’s book.

“On this planet, Taiwan and China are the closest to each other, but also the furthest because of political issues,” he writes. “This is not beneficial to Taiwan’s long-term future. Reporters from other countries have visited China — but the viewpoint of a foreigner or even a Chinese living overseas would be totally different from ours, and would not serve as a useful reference.”

There had been talks of allowing Taiwanese to visit their relatives in China since March 1987, and by September the general guidelines were set, prompting Wu to set his plan into motion.

Wu informed editor-in-chief Chen Kuo-hsiang (陳國祥), and they decided to send Lee and Hsu. Wu also decided not to inform the publisher or chairman until the two left the country. Lee and Hsu flew to Japan first on Sept. 11, upon which Wu made a public announcement.

“While waiting for their flight, the three of us had lunch at the airport,” Wu writes. “The two were calm and collected, with frequent mentions of ‘we are writing history.’”

The government ordered the newspaper to recall the reporters, but Chen refused, stating that it would not only look bad for the newspaper, but also make the government look bad in trying to suppress freedom of the press. By this time, martial law had been lifted for four months.

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