John Pomfret Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Covering Human Rights: Conversation with John Pomfret, Foreign Correspondent, Washington Post; 11/18/97 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by L. Carper

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Covering China

So you went to China and the events of Tiananmen Square happened shortly thereafter?

Yes. I was posted to China in the summer of 1988, which was the greatest time ever, I think, to have been in China. The amount of freedom was enormous on a cultural level. Then eight months later, in June of 1989, the crack-down occurred. So I lived for that eight- or nine-month chunk in Beijing.

And how did you deal with the excitement of what you were witnessing? You weren't just telling a story, but a story of revolution in China, and you knew what that meant, having studied China.

I had never before seen a million people on the street. The experience, which I had on numerous occasions, of being in the middle of a crowd of a million people, of being over a crowd of a million people -- in Beijing there are pedestrian walkways which cross some of the major highways -- and I stood on them at major intersections and as far as the eye could see there were thousands and thousands of people with banners. It's very natural, especially as a 29- or 30-year-old man, to be swept up in this emotion, and I was swept up in the emotions of this throng. It is a powerful feeling to be in the middle of a mass of people (who are not a mob, because I have been in mobs in Bosnia and seen them do their work), people who are peaceful and who want what appears to be logically the right things. It's an incredibly intoxicating experience.

So what is a day like when you're covering something like that? You spend a day witnessing stuff and then, were you filing a story every day?

Yes, we were filing more than a story every day. On many nights I was sleeping at the Square, making sure that no crack-down would happen at the Square. I had, effectively, a mobile phone surgically attached to my mouth, calling quotes and details in to the bureau, which was manned by the bureau chief at the time. I was interviewing people who were marching. I was trying to generate features about what was happening in the crowd. I was looking for new participants, specifically military participants or public security participants, or worker participation. Those were the three areas that the government was the most afraid of because if it was simply students, well then it's okay, but once you have workers and military and public security people participating, then there's a real, real problem, and they had that in the end.

My main form of transportation at that time was a bicycle, because bicycles could move though the crowd. Cars couldn't, and so it was much quicker to get through the area on a bicycle. So I was bicycling back to the office, filing, calling in quotes, topping the story. Basically you're working, you know, nineteen or twenty hours a day.

And this dynamic of putting down what you had seen or heard, and then it being transmitted across the globe, possibly affecting American policy or America's response -- kind of giddy, isn't it, for somebody that young?

I never really thought about the policy ramifications at all. The giddiness was not so much in the idea that it was going out for the rest of the world, the giddiness was actually the experience of the thing itself. At that time I didn't really reflect that much on, "Wow, I really have a great influence on how things are going here." Other people that I was working with, like Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn, the New York Times reporters who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, were much more reflective about the role that they could play in this type of an experience. I was really sucked into the maelstrom of the experience itself and was happy just to be living in the middle of this period of time.

In retrospect, now that you have more experience, did you get things wrong? Do you see things differently having had other assignments, having had time to reflect?

Pomfret I made some mistakes during that period of time. Occasionally you have a world exclusive that is still "exclusive," and you have to look into your soul and figure out why you made the mistake you made. Generally my perspective on the movement was somewhat biased. For example, I embraced it as a pro-democracy movement. I bought into it. I had a lot of trouble with the student movement, they were very Leninist in how they made decisions. They were not democratic in how they handed out tasks. They didn't really have votes, like they claimed they did. They were a very difficult organization. On the other hand, because I believed in the general righteousness of their task, I was willing to ignore their foibles. If I had to do it all over again I think I would have paid attention to their foibles and analyzed much more the means by which they were trying to achieve these ends. So yes, I was somewhat biased in how I handled the job there. But in retrospect, I couldn't see doing it any other way at the time. I was caught up.

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