By Robert Sullivan

Editorial desks across China should’ve been burning the midnight oil yesterday  – this year’s anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing is one of the most-nerve racking in years for Chinese officials, in the midst of the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions playing out in the Middle East, the continued detention of popular dissident Ai Weiwei, and protests over the past two weeks in Inner Mongolia.

Life is relaxed as ever though at the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, the People’s Daily (人民日报). Among the featured stories on their China news page on the eve of June 4 was a heart-wrenching piece on the plight of 18,000 migratory birds that have been forced to flee Honghu Lake in Hubei province due to the ongoing drought in Central China.

According to Wen Feng, head of marsh protection at the Honghu Wetland Nature Reserve:

Normally, about 20,000 summer birds come to the lake in early April and fly away by the end of August. But this year, most of the birds have come and gone…migratory birds are very sensitive to the marsh environment.

The China Daily (中国日报) also tackled core issues, reporting on a campaign by equestrian enthusiasts to promote riding horses to work this week to mark World Environment Day on Sunday.

Compared to being stuck in traffic jams during rush hour, riding a horse is a much more convenient mode of transportation.

Xinhua (新华通讯社), meanwhile, stuck to slightly more serious matters, leading with a story on a visit to Beijing by a delegation from Mozambique. Of particular note was their use of the word ‘fruitful’ and their insightful summary of China’s policy on Africa:

[China] supports the practice that African nations solve their own problems through dialogues and in the Africa-style way.

Students gather in Tiananmen Square, June 1989. Photo: cromacom

To be fair, even the privately owned and widely respected Economic Observer didn’t cover Tiananmen, though it is occasionally critical on certain economic and political policies.

The Southern Metropolis Daily in Guangzhou has, however, tested the waters recently and is one of the more daring papers in the country. Last year it briefly ran a cartoon on its website to mark International Children’s Day on June 1, which depicted a child drawing a row of tanks very similar to the famous ‘Tank Man’ photo. And three weeks ago, the paper reposted a daring editorial on the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that had previously been taken down from its site.

Tiananmen may seem to be too sensitive a starting point towards a freer press, but put in context with other taboos such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, which killed millions, it shouldn’t be.  Thankfully the rapidly developing presence of the blogosphere and social media in China has ensured that mainstream Chinese media outlets feel the pressure to get a little more assertive if they want stay relevant and maintain their readership. In the future, hopefully the big Chinese papers will have something more substantial than stories on migratory birds to contribute on June 4.

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The Chinese Media Project run by the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at The University of Hong Kong is great site that tracks media reform in China.

Below is a clip from the PBS Frontline documentary ‘The Tank Man’. Students from the prestigious University of Beijing (北京大学) are shown the famous Tank Man photo and asked what it means to them. Beijing Daxue students were among the main participants in the 1989 demonstrations.