Claudia Rosett: Journalist Who Once Was WSJ Moscow Bureau Chief

From a Washington Post obit by Harrison Smith headlined “Claudia Rosett, who reported from Tiananmen Square, dies at 67”:

Claudia Rosett, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editorial board member who chronicled Russia’s first brutal war against the Chechens, exposed corruption within the U.N. oil-for-food program in Iraq and dodged tanks and gunfire while covering the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, died at her home in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

Across a four-decade career in journalism, Ms. Rosett reported on foreign affairs and human rights issues, wrote guest essays for publications including the New York Times, Forbes and the New York Sun, and was a frequent guest on radio and television networks such as Fox News, where she accused the Biden administration last month of failing to offer an adequate response to the Russia-China partnership and recent clashes in Sudan.

She appeared to toggle seamlessly between journalism’s news and opinion sides, writing editorials in between stints as a reporter. After joining the Journal in 1984 as a book reviews editor, she moved to Hong Kong in 1986 to become editorial page editor of the paper’s Asia edition, then went to Moscow in 1993 to work as a reporter and eventually a bureau chief. She was a member of the Journal’s editorial board for five years before leaving in 2002 to work as a freelance writer.

“She possessed the essential qualities of the best journalists: enormous curiosity, strong listening skills, and a nose for a good story,” Jack David and Melanie Kirkpatrick, a former editorial board colleague at the Journal, said in a tribute for the Hudson Institute think tank, where Ms. Rosett was an adjunct fellow.

During her years in Russia, Ms. Rosett traveled to Grozny, the Chechen capital, to report on the Kalashnikov-wielding rebels fighting for independence from Moscow. She also took a clandestine tour of a remote labor camp that was part of what she described as “one of the most sordid, and profitable, joint ventures in Russia today: a state-to-state deal between Moscow and Pyongyang under which some 15,000 North Koreans, tended by North Korean guards, log the vast birch and pine forests of southeastern Siberia.”

“It is practically slave labor,” a security officer told her.

As a freelance reporter in the early 2000s, Ms. Rosett spent years investigating the oil-for-food program, a multibillion-dollar U.N. initiative that allowed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to sell oil on the world market — where it otherwise faced economic sanctions — so long as the proceeds were used for humanitarian staples.

The program “evolved into a bonanza of jobs and commercial clout,” she wrote in a 2003 essay for the Times, lamenting that the secrecy surrounding its transactions served as “an invitation to kickbacks, political back-scratching and smuggling.”

Ms. Rosett reported on alleged payoffs and conflicts of interest and chronicled the investigation into U.N. officials such as Benon V. Sevan, the program’s former executive director, who was indicted by a U.S. federal prosecutor in 2007 for taking about $160,000 in bribes. (By then, Sevan was in his native Cyprus, outside the reach of prosecutors who sought his extradition. His lawyer called the charges “baseless.”)

Her reporting gained national attention, with Times columnist William Safire likening her investigation to Inspector Javert’s tireless pursuit of Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables.”

Yet Ms. Rosett remained perhaps best known for her coverage of Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, when she traveled from Hong Kong to Beijing to interview student protesters about their campaign for democracy and economic reform. Ms. Rosett, who was working for the Journal’s editorial pages, remained at the scene as the government cracked down on journalists and declared martial law.

On the morning of June 4, troops backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled through Tiananmen Square, killing and arresting activists while violently suppressing the protests. Estimates of the death toll range from several hundred to several thousand.

Ms. Rosett was among the last journalists to leave the square, according to John Pomfret, who covered the protests for the Associated Press and became a China bureau chief for The Washington Post. She returned to her hotel room to file a 2,500-word dispatch about the confrontation, beginning with a vivid account of a clash between soldiers and demonstrators at “a burning bus barricade,” where demonstrators wielded “bricks and bottles, their only weapons against the guns of their country’s own army.”

“With this slaughter,” she wrote, “China’s communist government has uncloaked itself before the world.”

Ms. Rosett went on to detail the determination of the student leaders who refused to leave the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a towering monolith at the center of the square, despite being surrounded on three sides by thousands of armed troops. She also took note of a soldier’s corpse, a brutal symbol of a people’s fury, that had been stripped and spat on by civilians.

“No doubt when the Chinese government has finished dealing with its people, the tidy square will be presented again as a suitable site for tourists, visiting dignitaries and the Chinese public to come honor the heroes of China’s glorious revolution,” she concluded. “It will be important then to remember the heroes of 1989, the people who cried out so many times these past six weeks, ‘Tell the world what we want. Tell the truth about China.’ ”

Ms. Rosett received an Overseas Press Club citation for excellence for her coverage of the massacre. She continued to write about the confrontation on anniversaries of June 4, calling on the Chinese government to recognize and honor the demonstration, which remains one of the country’s most censored and polarizing topics.

“During Tiananmen, she was absolutely fearless,” Pomfret said in an email. “And, when the rest of the world sought to forget, she reminded us about it because it was — and remains — a key turning point in China’s recent history.”

Claudia Anne Rosett spent her early years in New Haven, Conn., where her father was studying for a doctorate in economics at Yale University. His teaching and administrative work took the family overseas to Taiwan and the Netherlands — “When you are eight years old and in a Dutch school, you learn Dutch very quickly,” Ms. Rosett recalled — and also to Rochester, N.Y., where she graduated from high school.

Ms. Rosett inherited a love of poetry from her mother, a homemaker, and went on to study English literature in college and graduate school. She received a bachelor’s degree from Yale in 1976, a master’s from Columbia University in 1979 and an MBA from the University of Chicago in 1981.

For a time, she freelanced in Chile, reporting on the Augusto Pinochet regime’s experiment with free-market economics. She also contributed to the Journal, landing a full-time job at the newspaper after she reviewed “The Butter Battle Book,” Dr. Seuss’s 1984 picture book about the follies of nuclear war and mutually assured destruction.

Like the book itself, her review was written in rhyme: “The fable is cute, but it wears a bit thin / For those coming over the wall in Berlin.”

Ms. Rosett left the Journal around the same time as her mentor, Robert L. Bartley, the Pulitzer-winning editor of the newspaper’s editorial page. She later became a journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a foreign policy fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative think tank.

Ms. Rosett was a cultural omnivore, reciting John Keats verses in between discussions of the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” or Chicago-school economics. Interviewed by the Collegian, the student newspaper of Hillsdale College, she advised students to “read the eclectic, crazy stuff,” including mysteries, thrillers and especially “poetry, whether you like it or not.”

“Keep your powder dry,” she added, offering one more lesson from a life spent chasing stories. “And don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions.”

Harrison Smith is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. Since joining the obituaries section in 2015, he has profiled big-game hunters, fallen dictators and Olympic champions. He sometimes covers the living as well, and previously co-founded the South Side Weekly, a community newspaper in Chicago.


  1. Paula Thompson says

    Rest in the peace for which you so fiercely fought.

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