'Assignment: China' Documentary Looks at Mao's Death and 'the End of an Era'

'Assignment: China - End of an Era' (Mike Chinoy/USC U.S.-China Institute)

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1976 was a year that shook the foundations of the People’s Republic of China, both literally and politically. It saw the death of Premier Zhou Enlai, the second purge of Deng Xiaoping, and the Tangshan Earthquake that killed 250,000 and portended Mao Zedong’s death and “the end of an era.” In the latest installment of his Assignment: China documentary series (shown in the video above), Senior Fellow of the USC U.S.-China Institute Mike Chinoy looks at the events leading up to Mao’s death through the eyes of the foreign correspondents who covered them.

As with previous installments on Nixon’s 1972 visit and the 1989 Tiananmen Movement, the documentary provides new insights on historical events and illustrates how profoundly some things have changed in China, while some things have still changed very little. John Burns, who covered China for the Toronto Globe and Mail in the early 1970s, recalled in the film that he could already see cracks in the political edifice during seemingly innocuous events. At one photo-op with top Chinese leaders meeting foreign heads of state at an airport, he noticed a rift between the more liberal leaders and the radical “Gang of Four,” led by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, with Zhou Enlai commuting between them. “You didn’t have to be a Sinologist with 50 years standing to understand what was going on there,” Burns said.

Henry Bradsher of the Washington Star said that reporting on these fissures brought backlash not only from Chinese authorities, but from U.S. leaders as well. “[Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger on a couple of occasions tried to keep my editors from publishing my articles,” Bradsher said. “He didn’t want anything looking like his policy might be wrong.”

Given the still very tight restrictions on foreign journalists coming to China, some reported clandestinely. Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations, recalled coming to China in 1975 with a group of left-wing activists to organize a "work youth delegation" when in fact he was secretly writing for The New Yorker. When he was found out by his Chinese handlers, he was detained in a cave dwelling for several days. "It was my first intimation of what it could be like in China to run afoul of the man," he said.

The film also includes footage of young students who were still in the Cultural Revolution mentality, Gerald Ford's 1975 visit, and the demonstrations that broke out at Tiananmen Square in 1976 after Zhou Enlai’s death, which tacitly indicted the Cultural Revolution and the “Gang of Four.”

See also this video of Chinoy discussing his Assignment: China series and the pioneering days of foreign news coverage in China with Richard Bernstein, Bruce Dunning, and Schell at Asia Society New York in 2011:

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.