The world was watching, but now 20 years later to the day, even Chinese youth barely know the significance of the student protests — or what has become known as The Tiananmen Square Massacre (or in China, The June Fourth Incident). Even as a 10-year-old there was power in those images. Captivating, historical. There was no way to understand its significance. But the image was all that matter. A lone student in a white shirt standing up to a tank. The courage of a lion.
James Fallow, writing in The Atlantic, “I have spent a lot of time over the past three years with Chinese university students. They know a lot about the world, and about American history, and about certain periods in their own country’s past. Virtually everyone can recite chapter and verse of the Japanese cruelties in China from the 1930s onward, or the 100 Years of Humiliation, or the long background of Chinese engagement with Tibet. Through their own family’s experiences, many have heard of the trauma of the Cultural Revolution years and the starvation and hardship of the Great Leap Forward. But you can’t assume they will ever have heard of what happened in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago. For a minority of people in China, the upcoming date of June 4 has tremendous significance. For most young people, it’s just another day.”
As the tanks neared the Beijing Hotel, the lone young man walked toward the middle of the avenue waving his jacket and shopping bag to stop the tanks. I kept shooting in anticipation of what I felt was his certain doom. But to my amazement, the lead tank stopped, then tried to move around him. But the young man cut it off again. Finally, the PSB (Public Security Bureau) grabbed him and ran away with him. Stuart and I looked at each other somewhat in disbelief at what we had just seen and photographed.
I think his action captured peoples’ hearts everywhere, and when the moment came, his character defined the moment, rather than the moment defining him. He made the image. I was just one of the photographers. And I felt honored to be there.
There are plenty of great stories and essays about today and I’d encourage anyone to just dive and read.
Update: The New York Times has an audio-slideshow from Nicholas D. Kristof, an Op-Ed columnist who happened to be Beijing bureau chief for The Times in 1989. He recalls the city’s mood during the student protests leading up to June 4, 1989 and gives a pretty solid history lesson of the events surrounding the Tiananmen Square Massacre.