No country in the world has changed more rapidly and profoundly over the past 65 years than the People's Republic of China.
In the mid-1950s, the People's Republic of China was plagued by famine, at a low point economically, and, for the most part, politically isolated. Today it is the second largest economy in the world. China has become a global power.
China has seen times of big social and political upheavals, such as the Cultural Revolution, the reform and open-door policies of the late 1970s, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and, at least since President Xi Jinping took office in 2012, a viable political alternative to the model of liberal Western democracy. The only constant throughout that time has been the authoritarian rule of the Communist Party.
Deutsche Welle's Chinese program has been a critical companion to these developments since 1965. DW's objective was to give people in China a view to the world from outside. DW reports on events in China and global developments for the Chinese public from a German and European perspective.
Beethoven and Bach as icebreakers
In 1965, DW filled their programming with classical music by Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and other composers from the West who were banned in China as they were labelled “bourgeois.” The people kept listening anyway and a listener who wrote a thank you note to DW was subsequently arrested. He later learned German and visited the editorial staff in the early 1990s to tell his story.
The situation was not always so tense. Helmut Schmidt and Deng Xiaoping agreed in 1981 to an exchange of editors between DW and the German program of Radio China International (CRI) not duplicated with other international broadcasters.
Change came abruptly in 1989. In reaction to the student protest movement rising at the time, DW significantly expanded its radio programs. After China forcefully crushed the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, DW remained as close to the story as possible, speaking to students who had resettled abroad and reported their stories. On the 25th anniversary of the suppression of the revolt, DW broadcast a series of related reports, including an interview with Jeff Widener, the photographer of the famous “Tank Man” photo.
Olympic freedoms were only temporary
After the events at Tiananmen Square, China stepped back from the international stage. This made 2008 even more remarkable, as the country reached a turning point with the Summer Olympic Games, an event that was momentous for DW’s reporting. China presented itself to the world more confidently than ever before. Censorship rules were temporarily relaxed though not for DW programs. Even though editors were allowed to enter the Olympic campus, they discovered that internet access was restricted inside the press center.
That same year, more than 300 Chinese intellectuals and civil rights activists signed the "Charter 08" manifesto. In it, they called for political reforms and the democratization of the People's Republic. Signatories included the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. DW interviewed him for the last time in the summer of 2007, when he stated that "the freedom to lose is part of the job description of a dissident.” Arrested in 2008 and sentenced to eleven years in prison, Liu died of cancer in 2017 while still in prison.
Critics did have a bit of wiggle room up until the Olympics came to Beijing. Since then, the government’s focus has been on Chinese values, Chinese ideas, Chinese interests and the "Chinese dream." In this new China, there is no room for critical thinkers like Liu Xiaobo.
Meanwhile, DW has set up an office in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei. Whether in the Chinese-language offerings or via its English-language TV programs, DW is now able to react even faster to developments in the region giving people access to information despite the obstacles. This is the way DW will carry on with its reporting into the future.