Monday, June 14, 2021

Interview with Juan Restrepo - RTVE correspondent for more than three decades and a direct witness to the events in Tiananmen Square.


Interview with Juan Restrepo - 

RTVE correspondent for more than three decades and a direct witness to the events in Tiananmen Square

Juan Restrepo -- «Journalism cannot be a job for fanatics and partisans»

Guzman Urrero: Although lately we seem to forget it, the center of journalism does not lie in the business of opinions, but in facts and their balanced description. This commitment to the truth is what drives the admirable career of Juan Restrepo, RTVE correspondent for more than three decades and a direct witness to some of the decisive events in our recent history. Among other experiences full of meaning, Restrepo headed the only television team present in Tiananmen Square during that tragic night of June 3-4, 1989. Talking with him is equivalent to recovering the essential principles of this profession that allows us to put reality between quotation marks. And, as Ciryl Connolly said, "the best journalism is to talk with a great conversationalist."

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EXCERPT OF THE INTERVIEW TO Juan Restrepo journalist of RTVE mentioning Tiananmen


Juan Restrepo: From Manila I began to cover the Far East until in 1989, a series of circumstances made me to witness, precisely in the country that most interested me, an event that was a milestone in the contemporary history of China.


Guzman Urrero: That's what I was going to refer to now ... In the early morning of June 3-4, 1989, you were in Tiananmen Square with cameraman José Luis Márquez and assistant Fermín Rodríguez. You were the only journalists who witnessed that eviction. That day you got a world exclusive, one of those that go down in the history of the profession. Before the Army acted, did you ever think that the student movement was going to end the communist regime?

Juan Restrepo: Yes, I did. And not only me, and so did many colleagues who were there for more than two months of crisis, as well as many foreign ministries in the world. What was happening in the countries of Soviet influence and in the Soviet Union itself made us believe that China would also open up, that the communist regime was living its last days. We do not consider that in China the parameters are always different from those with which we measure things in the West.

Guzman Urrero: The issue that brought so many Western journalists to China at that time was the meeting between the two great leaders of world communism. What happens when a great event is transformed, when you have to improvise, when circumstances change? Are working conditions also changing?

Juan Restrepo: As I already said, I was then based in Manila as a correspondent in the Far East. From there I would travel around the region with a team made up of a North American camera operator and her Filipino assistant. We worked in great harmony and, as always happened when there was a foreseeable event, we had applied for a visa to travel the three of us to Beijing, on the occasion of Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to China on May 15 of that year.

We were getting ready to leave when I received a telex from Torrespaña telling me that I should leave my two collaborators in Manila and that in Beijing I would work with the teams that were going from Madrid, also to cover that meeting between the leaders of the two great communist countries of the world, Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping. The instructions did not please me, but I had to follow them and I had to go alone to Beijing to meet the people who had come from Madrid.

It happened that the director of the News had changed not long ago due to the resignation of Pilar Miró, due to the scandal that arose with the purchase of a personal wear (personal ladies’ clothing). Here I must add that the transfer of powers had not exactly been a Versailles ceremony. The new director of the News, Diego Carcedo, who came to replace Julio de Benito, arrived from New York with an important memorial of grievances in his suitcase. Julio de Benito had stopped him a year before in the TVE correspondent in New York, according to what Julio himself told me, by direct instructions from Pilar Miró, because the general director (Pilar Miró)did not like the way the correspondent in that city covered the illness of the American President. Ronald Regan had nose cancer and for Pilar the way in which Carcedo reported that matter was similar as a joke, so she ended up giving the order to dismiss him from office.

Pilar Miró was in the ideological antipodes of Reagan but was clear that he was the president of a friendly nation and deserved respect. Carcedo, who for various personal reasons did not want to leave New York, managed to be appointed as delegate of the EFE Agency in that city until he was called by the new General Director in Madrid to assume the position of News’ director. So he arrived in a little bit touchy with all of us who belonged to Pilar's team, so that when I received the order to travel alone to China, I couldn't even suggest that I be allowed to take the Manila team. I was not trusted by the new Director of the News.

I arrived at the Sheraton Great Wall hotel in Beijing, in the northeast of the city, near the Embassies’ area, and there I met my colleagues who had come from Madrid. For reasons that are not relevant now, the work environment was tense, small discussions arose between them daily about the most banal and inconsequential things. I remember that, almost every day, a photographer from the Interviú magazine passed by our makeshift offices in the hotel who, when he heard our discussions, said that those from Televisión Española were in moments of daily catharsis.

For me that situation was very unpleasant and more, as I have said, having had to do without the team with which I worked in harmony. In addition, I had not worked for more than two years with cameramen from Madrid. And here it is necessary for me to stop again on the way that we take to the Tiananmen night. In Spanish Television, at that time - I don't know what the habits/trends (abitudini/tendenze) are today - there was a hidden confrontation between some cameramen - not all of them, I have to say - and the editors. To begin with, they did not allow themselves to be called "cameramen" but "photojournalists." In addition, there was a small group, among which was José Luis Márquez, who considered themselves the true factotum of television. "We take the images, television is image, therefore we are the ones who make television" was more or less their motto, and even openly, they tended to disregard what the editor asked of them or to do it reluctantly.

That attitude was unpresentable/smart to me. In all work there are hierarchies and no matter how much Spanish cameramen considered themselves above editors, the way of doing television around the world worked like this: an editor gave the order and the cameraman had to attend to what was asked of him, for more than they thought otherwise. If to this is added the tension that I have already described before between different members of the team from Madrid - editors, producers, image’ editors - we have the picture of the environment in which I had to work.

We all arrived before Gorbachev's visit, but the street demonstrations and occupation of the square by students and people from the people of Beijing had been going on since April 15, when was learned the death of Hu Yaobang, who was the fuse that fired the protest against the Beijing regime. Two days before the army seized the square, a column of very young and inexperienced military police from the provinces tried to clear the square, and in the vicinity of Tiananmen they were disarmed and publicly subjected to strong reprimands by students in the early morning hours.

That was one of the many strange episodes that we lived in Beijing those days, but I bring it to mind to better illustrate what I have told you so far. At a certain point, when we were recording all those somewhat surreal sequences, it occurred to me to ask the cameraman to take some shots of a bag with food that was lying around on the ground. I remember perfectly. Then Márquez, absolutely furious, put the camera on the ground and left. The assistant, Fermín Rodríguez, then took the device and did what he could, because we could not lose what was happening on that street.

It was close to three in the morning. An episode like these on a North American television, for example, would have allowed the editor to call his headquarters, report what happened and his protagonist being fired. In TVE it is not this way, there could happen those things and other more serious and nothing happened. I had already worked with José Luis Márquez on other occasions. We had traveled outside of Spain, I knew he was a good professional, brave when the issue required it, intuitive, but with some personal shortcomings that I don't want to mention.

Guzman Urrero: I know you have referred it many times, but could you tell me some significant scenes that you witnessed that night?

Juan Restrepo: Yes, I have told it on numerous occasions, but this time I am trying to put some context to the work circumstances, not only to the events of that day, so that will be clear what happened to the material recorded by the TVE team during the night of June 3-4, 1989 in Tiananmen.

June 3 arrived and the tension was palpable/visible in the atmosphere. Márquez, Fermín and I were in the crowded square at dusk. Not only students but ordinary people and many journalists; It was a sunny day, but in the middle of the afternoon, some clouds covered the sky of Beijing giving a slightly heavier and oppressive air, and to make the atmosphere more disturbing, some military helicopters began to fly over the square and its surroundings.

The 38th brigade of the army was already inside Beijing and there was talk of dead and wounded. Around 5:00 in the afternoon, a boy appeared with a bloody shirt and a soldier's helmet in his hand. I didn't know what he was saying at the time. Our translator was not with us. The thing is, that indicated that some more or less serious incident had happened outside the square and that boy was bringing news.

We went to the hotel because a piece had to be edited and a telephone chronicle dictated. It had started to get dark. It would be after 7:00 when we got to the Sheraton. I sat down to write the chronicle when I received a call from Alicia Relinque, our translator, telling me that near the neighborhood of the diplomatic legations a tank had attacked a group of people, that there were shots being fired and that there were probably some wounded people. Around 9:30 at night I heard on an English radio, I don't remember which one, maybe the BBC, that the square had been completely cleared of journalists. It seems to me that CBS radio was the last team to leave Tiananmen that night.

One fact that supports the precariousness of the means we had was not having a permanently hired car and that we moved by taxi at all times. By this time, most of the people who had come from Madrid to cover Gorbachev's visit to Beijing had already returned and (taxis) with them. Also, they had been taken editing teams with them. In Beijing there were only Márquez, Fermín and I, and a producer, Santiago de Arribas, who was in charge of managing everything related to the transmission and shipment of the material to Madrid.

I called Márquez and Fermín to their rooms and told them that we should try to go to the plaza. It was crazy seen after what happened, but it seemed normal to me at the time. The three of us left the hotel shortly before 11:00 at night. When we got to the hall, it was dark and quiet, half empty. An impressive contrast to what had been in the previous days that was bustling with people and animation. Several television crews such as ABC, BBC and CNN were staying there, as well as journalists from the written media whose presence helped to bring life to that place. That night, there was nothing there.

When the three of us left, silence reigned in the gloom of that modern hotel. Then one of those strange things that happen in these kinds of circumstances happened and that is that a single and lonely taxi driver, half asleep, was there near the hotel door, inside his vehicle, as if he was waiting for us. It was the only vehicle available. The man only spoke Chinese but understood that we wanted to go to Tiananmen. He accepted our request and we started our tour through the city.

We walked around the northeast of Beijing for about an hour and a half, looking for an exit to the square, but we found the roads blocked by burning vehicles and barricades that people improvised like burning car tires or wheels, until at a crossroads of large avenues - rebuilding later I have always thought that it was at the intersection of Chaoyanmen and Dianmen, although today I am not so sure - we found something that had a great impact on us.

The streets were dark, we stopped next to a group of people who were milling around, almost all young boys who, seeing that we were foreign press, led us a few meters ahead where there was another group of people. There were about ten or twelve bicycles crushed by army tanks hours before, twisted like a mess of wire, and next to them the corpse of a young man, his head shattered and his brain mass spilled on the ground. A few meters from there, we saw, as we were leaving, a military transport truck and inside, quiet and calm as if they were waiting for someone, very young soldiers. The truck was surrounded by people who, obviously, did not allow its movement or the departure of the military.

We resumed our march until we entered the Qinmen hutong minutes later. The Beijing hutongs are old neighborhoods that were close to the Forbidden City, with very narrow streets and low houses with an inner courtyard. Today many of them have disappeared. Paradoxically, those alleys were quiet, outside the houses you could see people talking, as if nothing was happening in the city. Our taxi continued without stopping but at a slow pace, so that I could see through the open windows of the houses people listening to the radio or watching television. We recorded images from inside the vehicle and I remember Márquez commenting: "This is very nice, boy."

Suddenly, without us waiting for it although our taxi driver knew what he was looking for, we found ourselves in front of the square. We had reached the southwest corner of Tiananmen. We had reached the Qinmen gate south of the square. We entered Tiananmen, we left our vehicle next to the pavement on the eastern side when at that very moment a pedal vehicle with a wooden platform that was very common then in China appeared at the scene, loaded with several wounded and perhaps some dead. This was not the time to check it out. The driver of that tricycle was looking for a nearby hospital, he was heading north, towards Changan Avenue, the great artery that passes in front of the Forbidden City and crosses Beijing from east to west.

Shortly after, another vehicle looking in the same direction, this time a small flatbed truck, also loaded with bloody bodies, appeared from the same place. He managed to overcome, not without some difficulty, some obstacles that were there on the ground and continued on his way. Naturally, we recorded all of that.

It was after midnight on June 3 when we entered the great Tiananmen esplanade, past the Mao Tsetung Mausoleum, and headed towards the Heroes' Monument in the center of the square. We found thousands of students gathered around the monument. Then I calculated about two thousand but it could be many more. They were calm, silent. Explosions and shots were heard outside the square. The place was dimly lit and a voice could be heard from the loudspeakers giving some indications from time to time.

From there you could see the glow of fires or bonfires lit outside. The other three corners that gave access to the square were blocked by the army.

When we approached the students and they saw that we had the camera on, they began to sing the Internationale. For me it was one of the most moving and moving moments of that night. A boy broke away from the group and came towards us waving a huge Chinese flag. I did a presentation on camera committing an imprudence which was to turn on the flash, which may have drawn the attention of us from the military under the Tiananmen Gate. A boy who heard me speak came up to us and told us in Spanish what it felt like to be surrounded by the army. No one from the army or the police approached, however, nor did they prevent us from recording, but that was indeed one of the risks we ran, and that is precisely the key to what happened to the material recorded that night.

As we realized that we could be arrested and we were in danger of having our material confiscated, we began to record on tapes that lasted only five or ten minutes for half an hour. We recorded, we changed tapes to protect what was recorded, we camouflaged it as best we could and put a new tape, until they were exhausted and we had to use the already used ones and record in the remaining queues of those already recorded. This meant that the material was recorded loosely on the cassettes. What was recorded did not correspond to the chronological order in which things had happened and that is important to understand what happened later with the material.

Between midnight and almost 4:00 a.m. on Sunday we filmed all over the square, which was a huge deserted esplanade. The students continued to huddle around the Monument to the Heroes. Shortly after we got there, around 1:00 in the morning, a tank with pneumatic wheels entered the plaza from the western side, from Changan, not a tank, a small tank (una tanqueta). Some students came out of the monument and confronted it by throwing sticks and bottles at it or whatever they found there. The driver turned and went back the way he had come.

The students sang again in chorus, while the authorities continued to broadcast slogans and instructions to evacuate the square over the loudspeakers. This I learned later because at that time I did not understand what they were saying. We even got close to filming up to Changan Avenue, in front of the Tiananmen Tower where, under the large portrait of Mao that dominates the square, about a thousand soldiers remained impassive awaiting orders. On our way through the remaining tents we saw some lonely boy sleeping as if nothing happened there.

Our driver, who was very scared, began to hurry us to leave there and making turns with his hand indicated that the place was surrounded, while saying the only word in English he could pronounce: "Soldiers, soldiers!”.

He understood, probably by talking to one of the students, what the situation was in the place. The square was surrounded by soldiers, and as he felt anguished he wanted to get out of there.

We decided then that I would take him to a discreet and safe place and I went out with him after 4:00 in the morning, when all the lights in the place had gone out. Tiananmen was completely dark and I took the taxi out to neighboring Qinmen Hutong, where we had entered. We agreed that on my return we would find ourselves at the foot of one of the sculptural groups that flank the Mao Tsetung mausoleum to the south.

It was important to keep the vehicle to get out of there later on, so that, in effect, I left it in one of the streets I have described before and walked back to the square, where the eviction had already begun.

When I went to the monument where I had met with Márquez and Fermín, they were not there of course. The chaos was total. Thousands of soldiers emerged from within the Forbidden City, some with truncheons/batons in hand and others with rifles with fixed bayonets, pointed at the crowd.

Thousands of soldiers also emerged from the Great Hall of the People building, on the western side of the square, under the same circumstances as those in the Forbidden City: some pointing their rifles and others with batons in hand. The idea was to move in an inverted L shape towards the monument and move the students towards the south western corner, which was the only one of the four entrances that was not blocked by the army.

Given the confrontational conditions that I had with Márquez during all that work, in the midst of that chaos I had time and courage to prevent another possible upset. As I already imagined what would happen if we did not meet, to leave proof that I returned to the indicated place and appointment, I climbed the pedestal, which was low, just over a meter, and embedded within the folds of carved stone of that sculptural group a small plastic object with the naive pretense of showing it to my colleagues the next day. A naivety, because the square could not be re-entered for several weeks after that tragedy.

As the soldiers advanced, pushing the students toward the southeast corner, they dismantled and burned the remaining tents. A tank toppled the statue of the Goddess of Democracy that the Fine Arts students had installed in front of Mao's portrait, at the north of the square.

The eviction was rude, energetic and firm, but the massacre of which everyone spoke later did not occur. The students left the plaza in an orderly fashion and finished at 6:00 in the morning. They were sad, defeated, some of them were crying, hugging. They carried the instruments that had served them to make propaganda during the weeks of occupation of the square, such as loudspeakers and small manual printers. Then I ran into a colleague from the English magazine The SpectatorRichard Nations, who told me that he had seen my two companions leave at the head of the march.

Márquez and Fermín were accompanying the students who turned right down Qinmen Xi Dajie Avenue and then headed north, towards Peking University, surely. But reaching almost Changan, near the Beijing Concert Hall, tanks and troops appeared and began firing at the crowd. I guess some students wanted to head back down Changan toward the plaza. There, after seven in the morning there were more deaths and injuries, but this happened outside the square, not in Tiananmen as many media reported later.

Guzman Urrero: So why does everyone knows it as the Tiananmen massacre?

Juan Restrepo: Because that was how all the world's media presented it as soon as the tragedy occurred and the TVE images contributed, without our intention, to create that confusion. There was tragedy, yes, and deaths too, many, even today we do not know how many. Throughout these years, there was a dance of figures ranging from 250 to 3,000. In any case, they did not die inside the square, but at night, in the area of Muxidí, east of the square, and in the morning not far from the seat of government called Zhongnanhai, west of Tiananmen. And the fact that the slaughter was outside the square has its importance, because surely the order that the army had was to preserve the entrances to blood and fire and that there was no bloodshed inside because of the symbolic value of the place.

I remember that a colleague told me, when I told him: "What difference does it make if it was outside or inside, it was a massacre!" Well, it turns out that for the Chinese it did have its importance, Tiananmen is a "sacred" place for Chinese communism. There the mummy of Mao rests, her gaze contemplates the place from the entrance to the Forbidden City. The People's Republic of China was officially born there, there is the monument to the heroes of the anti-Japanese struggle and it is on an axis with the Temple of Heaven whose meaning only the Chinese can understand.

What they could not avoid is that it is known as the "Tiananmen massacre" because of a tremendous paradox derived from our images. When we arrived at the hotel on the morning of Sunday June 4 with those images, several colleagues wanted to have them. I decided to share them with the American ABC, because it was the only way to get them out of China immediately. With all those dead and wounded, all the media were already talking about the Tiananmen massacre when our images arrived, carried by hand by an ABC messenger to send TVE to Madrid and distribute to the whole world; But, as I have told - and that is why I insisted on it before - the recording that was in our cassettes was not in the chronological order as the events had occurred. There were dead and wounded in them before entering the square and then in the morning shooting, but only we would have been able to edit those images in chronological order and not those who did it in Hong Kong and Madrid. Everyone was sure, from what the agencies and other media said, that those images were inside the square. The famous image of the man in front of the tank that everyone remembers and is one of the icons of the 20th century was even attributed to a massacre in the square that did not exist. That image is from the 5th, taken from the Peking Hotel by other colleagues, not by us, when the column of tanks was withdrawing from the square after having cleared and occupied it.

That coverage was very important to me, but it left me some bitterness and frustration with the conditions in which I worked. The version that José Luis Márquez gives of those events, and that anyone who wants can search the Internet on the National Radio of Spain on June 4, and that he has repeated for a quarter of a century, is an insult to intelligence: he only took a taxi, and as he was smarter than the 2,500 journalists who were in Beijing at that time, he went to the square - he did not even have an assistant - he carried, in addition to the seven kilos of camera weight, a bag with fifteen cassettes, cables , microphones, etc., he fell asleep a little sleep while the tanks arrive and amidst the bullets he left there with the students. All a hero. [AudioInterview with José Luis Márquez in RNE]

Guzman Urrero: And what was the fate of all the material recorded? Why hasn't it been used to turn it into a Spanish documentary that records, based on that exclusive, everything that happened during those hours?

Juan Restrepo: I have to say in his defense that years later, already very ill, at his house in Brihuega he asked my forgiveness and admitted his mistake. He did it in front of witnesses. Later on, several private production companies have wanted to use that material, and because it has never been put in order, it has been very difficult for them to locate it. Paradoxically, the best documentary that has been made about those events using TVE images was made by the North American Carma Hinton, but this company gives the credit to ABC and not to Televisión Española. The confusion has been such that people chose for a special program that was made on the occasion of TVE's 50 years among the best images of the man in front of the tank that, as I said, was not ours. It is surely in the TVE archive, in the same disorder in which it was recorded, and a report could never really be made telling how the events occurred. There are even unpublished images such as those of the entire process of making the Goddess of Democracy that were never broadcast. A year later, when Carcedo rewarded my work by closing the office and sending me to Madrid, Manu Leguineche, who was then director of En Portada, commissioned me, on the first anniversary of the tragedy, a program, but insisted on the version of the massacre inside the plaza against my criteria and my personal testimonyHe even gave a presentation of the program telling how the tanks entered the square and crushed the students. It is in the TVE archive in case anyone doubts what I say.

Guzman Urrero: All this confusion that you describe takes me to another point, and that is that it seems that the world has opted for amnesia in the face of the Tiananmen tragedy. Over the years, and with the twists and turns of international politics since then, has your perspective of what that terrible episode meant changed?

Juan Restrepo: No, it has not changed. That was traumatic for China, which took years to return to the political course that Deng Xiaoping had taken. Tiananmen was a slowdown and today integrates that trilogy of conflicting terms for the Chinese nomenclature: Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen.

On the other hand, people stayed with the idea of the "Tienanmen massacre" and it will continue to be used from time to time when it is wanted to remember that in China there is an iron dictatorship. Always, as long as the current regime survives, it will be a way of saying to the Chinese leaders: "Yes, a lot of economic prosperity, but you are violators of human rights."

(End of the excerpt related to the Tiananamen Square events.)



TO INTERNET ARCHIVE -- Re: An urgent request

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What part will your country play in World War III?

By Larry Romanoff, May 27, 2021

The true origins of the two World Wars have been deleted from all our history books and replaced with mythology. Neither War was started (or desired) by Germany, but both at the instigation of a group of European Zionist Jews with the stated intent of the total destruction of Germany. The documentation is overwhelming and the evidence undeniable. (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11)


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