A veteran China cameraman reflects

John Liu opened the CBS Beijing bureau in 1981

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NEW YORK -- John Liu was the first Western network cameraman to live and work in Beijing after the end of the decade-long Cultural Revolution ended in 1976.

"China was a fearful place and the people were afraid to speak with me," said Liu, who arrived in China in 1979 and established the CBS bureau in Beijing in 1981.

"American networks weren't that interested in in-depth reporting. We were shooting 'The wacky world of Communism' -- lines of people waiting to buy beer because demand was too great in the hot summer months."

Liu recalls that he one day managed to capture what he thought was important footage of thousands of peasant petitioners camped in hovels on the capital's outskirts, hoping to address their grievances with the central government. The next day, they were gone.

"I felt terrible about it. I can't know that I caused it, but my presence there can't have helped," Liu said.

Liu, who these days makes documentaries about China's environment from Beijing, notes that unlike their fearful forebears of the early 1980s, Chinese now are "proud and dynamic," noting that many of the benefits of development he has observed over nearly three decades in China have come because of increased information.

"There are some people in the leadership who are aware of that," Liu says. "But every once in a while a group of people who wish to exercise greater control are in ascendance. But this doesn't turn out very well and doesn't last very long."