As Chinese officials rushed to cover up the events of the previous night, Laurie and his colleague managed to send their footage to Hong Kong for transmission by satellite to ABC's studios in New York. But somehow, someone in Beijing was watching.
"The Chinese -- and its unclear to me this day how they actually did it -- intercepted the outgoing signal," said Laurie. The unencrypted signal from Hong Kong had been hijacked. Around the time that ABC's audiences in New York listened to Xiao Bin's testimony, so did 200 million Chinese viewers of CCTV, with a subtitle underneath: "This man is wanted," it read. "'He is a rumor-monger and counter revolutionary. Please turn him in to your nearest Security Bureau office.'"
A few days later, Xiao was turned in, and in a public hearing also broadcast on CCTV, accused of "hooliganism" and forced to apologize for spreading "rumors." He was sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp.
Laurie was horrified. "The Xiao Bin story is probably the most traumatic journalistic event in my life," he said. "Very rarely in a career as a journalist do you, in effect, send someone to prison. The story is very complicated, and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, you can always say ‘that could have been prevented if you had done A, B, and C.' But in the context of the day after the Tiananmen massacre, it was almost unavoidable, in a way."
Laurie returned to Moscow to witness the end of the Soviet Union, and in 1994 reported on South Africa's democratic transition under Nelson Mandela, earning more plaudits along the way. But the memory of Xiao Bin lingered. In 1997, he returned to Beijing, and learned that Xiao had been released after five years. "He was living quietly, but I can't say happily, back in his hometown of Dalian." Through a friend, Laurie sent a few hundred dollars. "Once you go through the Chinese prison system, your life is pretty messed up."
Laurie, who taught journalism at Hong Kong University from 2005 to 2011, acknowledges the irony of his consulting for the network that once turned his reporting against an innocent man. But, now 65, he points out, mustering a chuckle, that the current group of CCTV America's Chinese editors "were all four years old in 1989." And given his experience, he sees his role as nudging the network in a more open direction, an approach he said some elements at CCTV have tried to embrace. "There are limitations, and they're constantly trying to find ways they can work around those limitations. They absorb some ideas [from me], adopt some and not adopt others."
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Despite the challenges, a tough economy with dwindling prospects for television journalists can make the attraction of a job at a place like CCTV hard to resist. Western staff at CCTV like Laurie and Makori have been lured by the promise of highly competitive salaries, bigger responsibilities, and ample resources for travel and production. And it's a chance to be on the ground floor of China's first big foray into Western media.
"China is the emerging/emerged superpower, so it was a no-brainer for me," Makori explained after a taping of her show in April at the NASDAQ site in Times Square. A few blocks away, the square's tallest billboard was cycling through a bucolic slideshow of Chinese landscapes -- an advertisement for Xinhua, the state-owned wire service that's another beneficiary of Beijing's media push.