From hope to horror in Tiananmen Square
On Changan Avenue, a solitary man faces the forces of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Tiananmen Square after the army stormed the square and the surrounding area the night before. This is near the location a day later where “Tank Man” confronted and momentarily halted a column of the army’s tanks leaving the square. (Alan Chin)
June 4, 1989.
In Chinese the reference is usually made with just the numbers “Six Four,” like in English, “9/11.” As the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre approaches, I remember, again, that I had been there so long ago as a young man. I was not yet a photographer or a journalist, just an American-born Chinese kid visiting the ancestral homeland for the first time.
China in the spring of 1989 felt like a different planet: On the train crossing the border from Hong Kong to what was still called “Mainland China,” there was sharp razor wire and a faded sign overgrown with weeds that proclaimed in both Chinese and English, “Workers Of All Countries Unite” over a socialist realist painting depicting smiling proletarians of different races.
Everybody rode bicycles. Everybody wore the same clothes: Not Mao suits, but white polyester button-down dress shirts. And everybody could tell, instantly, that I wasn’t from there. I had to carry four different currencies in my pocket: Renminbi (RMB) that I bought on the black market for half the bank rate, Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) that were supposed to be the same value as RMB but were only available officially and thus actually worth twice as much, Hong Kong dollars, and U.S. dollars. Depending on what I was trying to buy, I would have to use different money.
For a curious 18-year-old, this was heady stuff. My parents took me to the Cantonese village where they had lived before emigrating to the United States 40 years before. It was, as it turned out, their first and only trip back. And everyone we met said they were so much happier under Deng Xiaoping, the great reformer, than they had been under Mao’s murderous excesses, but also that they were sick and tired of bureaucracy and corruption, both petty and grand.
The news coming from Beijing, as I remember it, was dramatic but not particularly worrying, at least as seen from faraway Guangdong Province in the south where we were, near Hong Kong. State run media (the only media in China, then) was reporting freely and sympathetically. Ordinary peasants, even a policeman that I spoke to, supported the students protesting for greater openness and accountability.
What everyone was seeing was hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of Beijing in an unprecedented outpouring of public dissent and agitation. The ostensible – and sincere – initial reason was to mourn the reformist General Secretary of the Communist Party Hu Yaobang, who had died on April 15th. But the demonstrations quickly grew and encompassed a broad cross-section of Beijingers, including lower-level Party members and government workers.
None of this seemed to cause much concern among my parents and their friends and family, even as I listened to the BBC and the Hong Kong radio reporting ominous stories of a behind-the-scenes crisis. There was a mood of magical thinking in the air, which seemed to suggest that, of course, the Communist Party is good, and good things can only get better. That a little polite nudging might be answered with more sensible and moderate reforms. Clean up corruption. Increase opportunity. Who could argue against that?
Back in Hong Kong on May 24th, I saw a million people, or at least one-sixth of the population, march in solidarity. They both reaffirmed the remarkably civil and orderly character of the British colony’s bourgeois virtues, and put to rest the old canard that Hong Kong cared only for money above principle. Hong Kongers were acutely aware that they would reunify with China in 1997, and very nervous about what would happen to their rights and liberties.
Yet we flew up to Beijing without any trepidation. After many weeks, the student encampment in the heart of Tiananmen Square was looking bedraggled, with protesters sleeping in dusty tents and volunteer crews struggling to keep up with garbage. If anything, it seemed as if the lack of response from the government would atrophy the movement. The activists had, on one hand, succeeded in focusing the eyes of China and the world on the pent-up hunger for more democracy, more reform, more money. But as is often the case with protest, they had little idea how any of that might come about, except through thus-far unforthcoming benign directives from above.
Trying to reinvigorate morale, art students unveiled a statue of the Goddess of Democracy, directly facing the portrait of Mao above the Tiananmen Gate, and I photographed it. But as I struggle to clearly recall those late May and early June days from what feels like another life, I am struck that we did not take the entire situation more seriously. Daily life went on in the city. Army soldiers dawdled from their parked trucks lined up on the boulevards, chatting with passersby and eating popsicles. We visited the Ming Tombs, and dined on Peking duck. The Forbidden City was closed, but the Temple of Heaven was open.
I wandered through the Square a few times. I took pictures, though not very many. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” alternated with the “Internationale” over the student loudspeakers. I did not talk to many people, not only because of my poor Mandarin, but also because I was content to merely observe. I wasn’t sure what I was really doing there, and I didn’t think through what might happen next and why it might be important. All of China was new and interesting to me; a massive political upheaval seemed just par for the course.
Our hotel was in a normally bustling hutong neighborhood inside the Second Ring Road four miles northeast of Tiananmen Square. So I knew immediately that something was wrong when I woke up on the morning of June 4th: There was not a sound to be heard from the street: no car horns, no trucks, nothing. I went downstairs and stunned people told me the news, “…the army took the square last night.” I asked if anyone had been hurt. “Hundreds, maybe thousands dead.” A Singaporean businessman told me he had been in a side street off of the square where the army had machine-gunned the crowd.
Thinking back now, I do not remember how my parents reacted when I said that I would go check things out. They were already trying to figure out how to leave Beijing, and perhaps I was a headstrong-enough young man that they did not think it fruitful to argue. So I started walking towards the square. I saw groups of people at corners and intersections, speaking in hushed tones with worried and anxious faces. A few years ago I tried to retrace the route I walked that morning, without much luck, because Beijing has changed so much.
On a corner of Changan Avenue, Beijing’s main east-west axis, stood a dozen burnt out city buses, the remnants of a makeshift barricade destroyed when the army’s armored vehicles had barreled through. Each intersection closer to the square was the same. I joined a crowd of people, mostly young men in their ubiquitous white shirts, walking toward the square. They were angry and outraged, shouting, “The people’s army should not shoot the people!”
We were stopped where an ambulance had crashed onto a traffic control platform in the middle of the avenue. Beyond that was an empty zone about two-blocks long, littered with rocks and spent cartridge cases and marked by tank treads. Then there were two lines of soldiers and behind them a line of tanks. I could see the distinctive streetlamps and the Great Hall of the People in the middle distance. What had been the symbolic and literal center of the nation and the people’s movement, temporary home to thousands of students and sympathizers in the sit-in; all was absolutely off-limits, unreachable.
I was looking west with the Beijingers confronting the army that had taken Tiananmen Square with so much bloodshed hours before. One young man sat in the middle of Changan Avenue facing them. Was he the Tank Man? Almost certainly not, but he was brave. Minutes after, I heard live gunfire for the first time in my life, and I ran with the crowd back onto side streets.
There was panic, and then there was silence. Then the angry shouts and taunts against the army would start again. The tanks had crushed many bicycles and others were simply strewn about. Eventually, I found one that could be ridden and started making my way back to the hotel.
Like thousands of other tourists, we went to the airport the next morning, and scrambled on board a flight to Hong Kong. Reuters developed my film and bought a few photos for the wire that I saw in some of the next day’s papers, the first time I was ever published.
The experience changed my life, because I realized that the mere act of witness and then the recording of that through a lens has a certain power and meaning, not only to myself, but also to anybody that might see the resulting images. So I became a documentary photographer and have never done anything else.
But really, all Tiananmen stories from that day are anti-climactic. None of the necessary reckoning has yet happened.
* * *
The statue of the Goddess of Democracy was shattered by army tanks. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people had died. Many were shot down in cold blood. Some died in desperate and unequal battles wielding stones and Molotov cocktails against automatic weapons. Some were uninvolved onlookers on balconies and sidewalks killed by the army’s fusillades. Some were executed in shadowy fashion afterwards. A few were soldiers.
And then the collateral damage: the thousands arrested, some to spend many years in jail. The exiled. And most chillingly, hundreds of millions of people in China who now have little knowledge or idea of what happened because the story and the history have been utterly forbidden and erased.
For years, like everybody else, I’ve waited for something to change in the big picture with regards to Tiananmen. A few months afterward, the Berlin Wall came down and from there a direct arc flows through Sarajevo and Grozny to Crimea and eastern Ukraine. But not through Beijing again…
Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers marched in commemoration of the eighth anniversary of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. These demonstrators are carrying a banner depicting the “Goddess of Democracy” statue that was destroyed by the Chinese army during it’s suppression of the student movement. At that time, and to the present, Tiananmen remains a taboo subject in China, heavily censored. (Alan Chin)
I didn’t go back to China until 1997, for the Hong Kong handover. At the last day of races at the famous Happy Valley track, I bet the horses numbered “six” and “four” and it was the winning ticket. On that June 4, as on every anniversary in Hong Kong, a crowd of at least 100,000 gathered in Victoria Park for a candlelit vigil. But from the other side of the border, no longer adorned with any Marxist signposts, not a word.
In recent years, I have spent more time in China. I covered the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 and the outbreak of deadly ethnic violence in Xinjiang in 2009. I found myself in Beijing on the 20th anniversary of June 4, 2009.
Tragedy had devolved to farce: It was emblematic of the new China that they didn’t fill the square with soldiers but with plainclothesmen.
Some of them were quite obvious, guys with short haircuts and badges. I suspect that half the people I photographed were undercover agents. Some looked like migrant workers, except walkie-talkies stuck out of their pockets. It was an overt-covert police presence.
They blocked news cameras using umbrellas. Some observers called the tactic comical. But though comedy may be preferable to deadly force, obstructing democracy with an umbrella rather than a machine-gun is still authoritarian. The police state may appear softer on the edges now, while remaining ruthless and brutal within.
Each year, China resembles the United States and other developed nations more and more – superficially – as a middle class grows, as it leaps into the first rank of technology and infrastructure with high-speed internet and higher-speed trains. That feeling of difference is long gone.
But with another round of prophylactic arrests and continuing censorship, the shroud around June 4 in Tiananmen Square remains. Who the Tank Man really was is still a mystery. The leadership that ordered the army to storm the city with live ammunition is long dead. Their successors, however, continue to enforce silence, amid whispers.