June 04, 2005

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Tiananmen Square - June 4th, 1989


(Click for larger image)

Please read below the fold for more about the photo, the man in the photo, my thoughts and more about the events of June 4th, 1989.

Other reading

* Time Magazine's salute to the unknown rebel as part of its 100 most important people of the century.
* The BBC in 1998 reported "tank man" was not arrested and is still at large. Wikipedia has an entry on tank man:

Almost nothing is known of the man's identity. Shortly after the incident, British tabloid the Sunday Express named him as Wang Weilin, a 19-year-old student; however, the veracity of this claim is dubious. What has happened to Wang following the demonstration is equally obscure. In a speech to the President's Club in 1999, Bruce Herschensohn — former deputy special assistant to President of the United States Richard Nixon and a member of the President Ronald Reagan transition team — reported that he was executed 14 days later; other sources say he was killed by firing squad a few months after the Tiananmen Square protests. In Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, Jan Wong writes that the man is still in hiding in mainland China.

The People's Republic of China government, if it knows, isn't saying much. In a 1992 interview with Barbara Walters, then-Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin was asked what became of the man. Jiang replied "I think never killed [sic]."

It should be noted the CCP have never admitted to anyone being killed during these events.
* How Stuart Franklin took the photograph:
When the Chinese Army began their bloody crackdown on Beijing student democracy demonstrations in June 1989, Stuart Franklin was sent by Magnum photographic agency to cover it. “I was in a hotel on the corner of Tiananmen Square. Those tanks were shooting up at us because all the foreign journalists were there. I was crouching down on the balcony, with my lens stuck through the gap between the metalwork and the concrete floor. It was impossible to leave because the hotel was surrounded by security. People were confiscating film. They were searching every room, but for some reason they didn’t come into mine. I hid my films in a box of China teas and a kind French journalist carried it to the Magnum Paris office for me”.

Initially a line of students blocked the path of the tanks and only when they started shooting did the students move. Then a young man defied the first tank and climbed on to it until his friends carried him away. “After that he disappeared”, says Franklin. “No one knows what happened to him” At the time I was more interested in what had happened the night before. It turned out a lot of students had been killed and they’d shoved the injured into children’s hospitals so the press wouldn’t see them. I was thinking, ‘why am I standing here? That guy just looks like a matchstick’. I left soon after, but that picture was published very widely”.

* The story of Jeff Widener's similar photograph plus more from the paper where he now works.
* The declassified history of Tiananmen Square has a full background plus reports on what happened from various US diplomatic and intelligence agencies.
* Some say what happened at Tiananmen Square is not as clear cut as is often made out.
* The documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace is a good resource covering the event and reactions.
* Jonathan Spence discusses the history of the Tiananmen Square itself.

Often we cling to this event as a sign of hope. A hope that democracy and freedom will one day prevail over the Communist party. The reality is while many of us like to think of June 4th as a turning point, the past 16 years have proved us wrong. The Communists have turned themselves into a party of nationalists who have created a new social contract with the Chinese people - economic prosperity and rising living standards in return for continued unquestioned rule by the CCP. And while it is difficult to be certain it seems the large part of China's population is (for now) happy with the deal.

There's plenty that could change. The CCP plays a delicate balancing game between socio-economic tensions and its grip on power. What's worse is it is good at it. But without the effective feedback mechanisms that democracy provides the powers-that-be need to hope they remain good at the game. It will only take one slip for the edifice to come crashing down. Which is why in situations like June 4th, 1989, the CCP is likely to err on the side of crackdown and confrontation. There's no upside in compromise and they hold the guns.

That's the problem. Firstly it seems almost inconcievable for another 1989 protest to happen as things stand. Secondly if it should happen the question to ask is how would the CCP leadership respond today? The answer is clear - in the same way. The CCP are good at learning the lessons of history.

The CCP has a clear desire to remain in power at all costs. Democracy and freedom is not an inevitability for China. That's the legacy of Tiananmen Square.

posted by Simon on 06.04.05 at 11:59 PM in the


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June 4

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I have a poster of that photo on the wall of my office. It was part of a large format promotional piece from a stock photography company.

I remember watching this happen on the news - though I don't recall if I saw it live or on tape.

It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen and it still moves me today.

I had a slight problem with the stock agency though over their choice of captions for the image. They wrote "Beijing citizen pausing in front of tanks." I cannot imagine a more inadequate and inept description.

posted by: Stephen Macklin on 06.04.05 at 05:20 AM [permalink]

Over the years, a lot of people have said a lot of things that (correctly, to some extent) move the 1989 protestors from their gleaming pedestal of moral superiority, and even I too don't really think some of them were all that noble or bright. But at the end of it all, there was one side that decided to embrace indiscriminate deadly violence, and that was the state that was supposed to protect the people from harm, and for that the CCPers that orchestrated 6/4 can never be forgiven.

posted by: Kelvin on 06.05.05 at 10:52 AM [permalink]

This is one of the best blogs I have ever seen

posted by: Stefania on 06.05.05 at 11:14 PM [permalink]

Not that I'm biased or anything Stefania, but I agree.

posted by: Simon on 06.06.05 at 10:34 AM [permalink]

Hi there mate,
I've linked this post to my blog entry, and your blog to mine.

Good stuff you've got here, Simon.

posted by: Rick on 06.07.05 at 12:47 PM [permalink]

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