My interview with Li Wangyang

Lam Kin-seng - Guangzhou Correspondent, Cable TV News

[中文] [Jul 2012 - The Journalist] Li Wangyang was not a familiar name to me. Nor one of any significance. I had come across it occasionally during previous human rights researches. That's it.

Cable TV news Guangzhou correspondent Lam Kin-seng (right) with
LiWang-yang (left). (Provided by Lam Kin-seng)
About a month before the 23rd anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen massacre I was fully involved in reporting the fourth anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake and other story ideas. Of course I had not forgotten June 4 and had been thinking of story ideas related to it. But it was a topic somewhat distant for a Guangzhou correspondent. I was guessing that colleagues in Beijing would be filing some June 4 stories.

Then late one April night a friend talked to me about Li's situation and asked if I was interested in interviewing the dissident. Sure, I told him, but it would also depend on the timing.

Li was in hospital under heavy guard. Security would be stepped up as June 4 approached. That made the hospital an impossible choice for an interview.

After confirming Li had agreed to be interviewed, I went through various stopovers - from Guangzhou via Hengyang, Hunan - to reach Shaoyang. Credit must go to friends in Shaoyang for making the arrangements. Then over dinner I specified to them the materials - especially the documents - I would need to shoot.

Time was tight so I spent the night in a hotel to take footages of all documents and materials. I also prepared a back-up copy in the camera. I repeatedly urged Li's friend to bring the activist to the hotel before 8 am.

This minimised the risk of any incident as experience informed me that 4-6 am was when the guards were least vigilant. The guards would not be so diligent to arrive at the hospital before 9 am.

The next morning, sharp at 8 am there was a knock on my room door. By then I had been waiting for two hours. Li was guided in by his friends. I urged everyone in the room to switch off their mobile phones. Li had lost both sight and hearing. I wrote questions on his palm with my fingers. It was a time-consuming process. Fortunately Li had a clearer mind than I imagined so he had no difficulty understanding my questions. The words recorded were concise and not repetitive.

To my surprise Li had a good knowledge of the democratic development outside China. The following was not broadcast: "Even the Burmese military leaders have given up one-party autocracy to proceed towards a democratic society. The whole Eastern Europe, Russia, and a lot more, have all abandoned one-party autocracy. They are all democratic societies now."

I could hardly imagine how he - with all his physical disabilities – could manage to have such a clear grasp of the world politics. While it showed his younger sister and other comrades have fed him with much information, how much time did it take to relay all these messages to a blind and deaf elderly man? I was grateful, yet sad. When Li talked about the tortures inflicted on him in prison, especially the abuses in the small-sized cell, tears welled up in my eyes.

I had never cried in front of my interviewees in all my years of reporting. This time I just could not hold.

Towards the end of the interview, two friends of Li joined us, telling us the guards had discovered that Li had left the hospital. I spent the last 10 minutes with Li asking him: "Do you have any words for Hong Kong people?"

The following is a verbatim answer:

"Hong Kong people commemorate June 4 every year. I know this very well. Let me take this chance to pay my tribute to all Hong Kong people. So far Hong Kong people are advanced in democratic thoughts and commemorate the June 4 every single year. I am very gratified. I hope the memorial activities of Hong Kong people [on June 4] can spread in the whole China, that it is memorial for June 4 everywhere in the country."

And I asked the very final question: "Do you have any words for the Tiananmen Mothers?"

This is the verbatim reply:

"I hope Professor Ding Zilin can persist until the day of vindication. The June 4 incident must be vindicated. The souls of the martyrs have to rest in peace. They should all be vindicated. Professor Ding Zilin is a great mother. She is the Tiananmen mother. She has been speaking for the martyrs in the June 4 incident for over 20 years. Her action is very touching and it touches me. The Chinese government has to make the decision to vindicate the June 4 incident as soon as possible."

Since the Yu Man-hon incident in 2000 I have never left China news. For about half of the 12 years of reporting I have fully devoted myself to covering the Mainland. I have lost count of previous coverage of conflicts, human rights, accidents, disasters and pollution news.

As far as I can remember, I was attacked twice while at work, and ordered to write "letter of repentance" on more than 10 occasions. I have left footprints in all Chinese provinces, municipalities, autonomous regions, including some very small ones that I had not previously heard of. I need to rely on my own experiences and judgement, as when coming across a line in the official press release which simply states: "A peasant in a city diagnosed with the bird flu is already discharged from the hospital", to find this man out of thousands in an area. I also need to ensure the videos reach the newsroom before the deadline.

Counting the records does not translate into any experience or achievement. To the contrary, I still keep asking myself from time to time what makes a China correspondent. There was a reporter who had been stationed in Beijing for a short period of time who told me - not very politely – "One is not qualified as a China correspondent without having been stationed in Beijing."

On that definition I am not a China correspondent. China news is extraordinary, difficult to cover and diversified. Width and depth are extensive.

After more than a decade of covering China news I have realised how little I know. I had never imagined that what I thought was a simple interview could have brought such a tremendous shock to society, even triggering international concerns. The Li Wangyang case has brought me to the edge. I keep asking myself: With 10-odd years of experiences I could not predict my interviewee would die mysteriously. Could I not have foreseen this?

Life is short but knowledge is without limit. Covering China news is a subject that I can never genuinely master.

I look forward to other comrades in journalism who can put some light on China news in the future, that they can project the ideals of freedom of speech and freedom of the press to the Mainland China, raising from the depths a closed China to civilisation.

I believe this is the hope of many journalists who love to cover China news.