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Where Were You On June 4, 1989?

6/04/2009 09:29:00 AM

Where were you on June 4, 1989?

I was in Tiananmen Square in Beijing during the pro-democracy protests that eventually resulted in the deaths of hundreds of protesters by Chinese troops.

Well, not really. But I felt like I was thanks to technologies developed by the consumer electronics industry.

I was in my hotel room in Chicago on the eve of the Summer Consumer Electronics Show and saw and heard the story unfold half a world away.

That’s how the world first saw “tank man,” an unknown citizen who stood in front of a line of Chinese Army tanks to stop them from going to Tiananmen Square on June 5.

Back then, cable TV news was in its infancy and the Internet didn’t exist as it would 10 years later, so it was up to major broadcast networks to cover the story. One of them, CBS, provided the dramatic color images of what looked like a democratic revolution in China and it had a unique angle on the story.

In Chicago, I got a phone call from my wife Marion late in the evening of June 3, the night before Summer CES would begin, telling me to put on CBS immediately because the Chinese were about to kick anchorman Dan Rather off the air by pulling the plug on his satellite feed.

This had to be big because CBS cut into the hit series “Dallas.” In this true-to-life drama you had Rather negotiating with the Chinese to stay on the air via interpreters and then turning to his audience to tell us how it was going.

Eventually we found out how freedom of speech works in China — government officials pulled the plug.

Marion went to visit her brother that weekend in northern Virginia and they were watching the hit series “Dallas” with friends. She told her brother and friends back in Virginia watching the scene unfold, “I bet Steve wishes I were home to put the VCR on and tape this.” When asked why, she said, “He likes taping live news like this,” and she was right. I always felt that live, unscripted TV was designed for VCRs.

Coverage by CBS and other television, radio and print news organizations from around the world immediately spread the story of the protests and the tragic deaths of those protesters.

The result was that China was condemned worldwide for its actions, and sanctions by the United Nations and many other countries were put in place. Why? They couldn’t deny the raw satellite broadcast video that was sent around the world, thanks in part to this industry’s technologies.

I can recall that the events in China that weekend cast a shadow over Summer CES the next few days, and in checking our archives I found my memory was correct.

In his post-show editorial for TWICE’s June 12-16, 1989, edition, our founding editor Bob Gerson wrote this: “When it came to chit-chat at CES … the No. 1 topic wasn’t product, prices, availability or even the weather. A great deal of the attention wasn’t even centered on Chicago. Instead it zeroed in on events … in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.”

Gerson continued, “The expression was one of shock, as China had seemed well on its way to adopting more liberal political and economic policies. Over the last five years or so China has evolved into a major player in the international consumer electronics business and a center of new investment.” He went on to comment on the effect of the protests might have on the CE industry to “to disrupt the flow of products from Hong Kong as well.”

Well, product continued to flow from China, which has become an economic miracle in the past 20 years. A New York Times story today suggests that China’s economic success “was erected on the bodies of Tiananmen demonstrators.” In China, discussions of June 4 are still illegal and freedom of speech is still a dream. (Click here and here for two stories from the Times.)

The irony of it all is that China’s plants now manufactures more consumer electronics products than any other nation in the world. And if it wasn’t for now-antique satellite TV broadcasts to viewers around the world, the leaders of the People’s Republic of China might not have changed its economy as rapidly as it has.

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