Posts Tagged ‘Tiananmen’
Iconic Photos’ annual look-back at a nasty and brutish affair.
June 5th is upon us again. In 1989, the Communist government in Beijing marred the date with a brutal and bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters gathered on Tiananmen Square.
Last year, I marked the occasion by an interview with Charlie Cole, the photographer who took one of the iconic Tank Man photos. The year before, I remarked upon the Zeligian appearance of a former Chinese prime minister in one of the photos taken on the square. In 2009, I covered various versions of the Tank Man photos. In between, we saw the defacing of the Mao portrait during the protests and a defiant Ai Wei Wei. A profound irony is they cannot access WordPress from China, so I remain, as always, preaching to the choir.
Above is the contact sheet from Stuart Franklin’s version of the Tank Man photos. His photos nearly risked confiscation by the Chinese police, but Franklin had left moments earlier to cover events at the Beijing University before the police came knocking on the journalists’ hotel. Afterwards his negatives were smuggled out in a packet of tea by a French student who later delivered it to Franklin’s Parisian office. Franklin, working then for Time, won the World Press Photo Award for his coverage.
I have seen the above photo a thousand times, but had never realized that the dazed-looking aide behind Zhao Ziyang is Wen Jiabao, now China’s prime minister.
To recap, the photo was taken after midnight on May 19, 1989 when then Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang visited the students on hunger strike on Tiananmen Square. With tears in his eyes, Zhao told them, “I came too late,” in a touching moment that was filmed and aired on Chinese television. Caught amidst this chain of events was Zhao’s young aide, Wen Jiabao, then director of the Central Committee General Office. As he was responsible for Zhao’s transportation to the square, Wen went alongside. Although it was unclear where his sympathies lay, it is a miracle that Wen’s career survived Tiananmen and close association with Zhao.
It is now clear that Zhao made this nocturnal visit after the Chinese Politburo had decided to declare martial law and send in the tanks against Zhao’s wishes. Although Zhao would not be removed from his position until the next month, he would be marginalized from the party’s decision-making process after that night. In his memoirs, he wrote, he “talked to Wen Jiabao to suggest a Politburo meeting” in late May of 1989. “Wen Jiabao replied that, in fact, the Central Committee General Office had been brushed aside as well. He said that if I really wanted to call a meeting, the General Office would send out the notice, but he believed that the consequences would not be good and hoped I would carefully reconsider.” It was an advice very well in-tune with Wen’s lifetime of caution and discretion.
The Tiananmen Visit would be Zhao Ziyang’s last public appearance. The next month, he would be purged from the party days later for “grave insubordination” and lived under house arrest in Beijing until his death in January 2005. It is unclear what Zhao thought of his aide, who would subsequently make a meteoric rise to the top-echelons of the Chinese leadership, but Wen’s mere seven-line cameo in Zhao’s memoirs suggests that the late leader didn’t care much about his aide back in 1989.
What better symbol of the Chinese Colossus’ feet of clay than the baseless accusations against a lone artist, except possibly the inconvenient fact that the arrested artist was a co-designer of the Bird Nest Stadium, the centerpiece of the Beijing Olympics?
On 4th April, the artist Ai Weiwei was arrested by the Chinese government as he tried to board a plane out of Beijing. The arrest was unfortunate, but not altogether shocking. He may be the country’s most famous living artist, but Ai Weiwei had been the proverbial thorn in the Chinese government’s side for more than two decades.
He went on a hunger strike after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown; when he returned home from exile in New York, where he studied painting and photography, one of his first acts was to take a photo of his wife lifting her skirt and exposing her underwear on the Tiananmen Square. The bloodied square is a regular, conscientious feature in his work. When he took pictures of his hand, with middle finger extended, in front of famous national icons — from the White House to the Eiffel Tower — a middle digit was firmly raised to Mao’s portrait on the Tiananmen Gate . In case the symbolism was unclear, he stood in front of the Forbidden City, his shirt open, the word “Fuck” on his chest. He also named his Shanghai studio — which was forcibly demolished by the government earlier this year — “Fake”; it was less of a commentary on the modern art world than a Chinese homophonic take on “fuck”.
Yet these antics belied his strong political convictions; his twitter feed, while sometimes playful, focused on disappearances and detentions of dissidents. Equally inconvenient to the Chinese government were the questions on accountability he raised in the aftermath of the Sichan earthquake. Eventually, like Solzhenitsyn or Havel before him, Ai was arrested not just for his work, but also for what he came to represent: the conscience of a voiceless generation alienated by their own government.
Neither the Beijing Olympics nor the Shanghai World Expo — both considered China’s coming-of-age parties — could mask the truth that behind a faux-veneer of prosperity and development, China in 2011 was ideologically and politically no different from China in 1989 or Soviet Union before 1989 or Nazi Germany during the 1930s. Market economies, olympics and expos were introduced, with ample wishful thinking that they would alleviate some political, ethnic and religious marginalization, but the most important things last twenty years provided to the Chinese government may be tools to monitor and marginalize their population better, cheaper, and from a further, safer distance.
(Click here to sign a petition to free Ai Weiwei, which has attracted over 90,000 signatures. It would have attracted more signees if not for a hacking attack from China).
As Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times, there is something very tragic about Bahrain, the next stop on the Arab World’s 1989 train. That it is one of the most democratic countries in the Arab World may say more about its neighbors than Bahrain itself, but the country indeed made some crucial strides towards democracy in the last decade. In addition to a F1 racetrack, an international banking centre and a US naval base, Bahrain also has a well-educated political classes, constitutional monarchy and representative (if powerless) parliament. Yet, in the last two days, by violently attacking its own citizens, Bahraini government had negated all these steps towards democracy. Even if Bahrain’s Sunni rulers survive in its predominantly Shi’ite state, they will never recover from the bloodshed of yesterday — a poignant reminder of the Other 1989.
The Other 1989. The one in which the Chinese government brutally decimated its own citizens on the Tienanmen Square. Today, we don’t talk much about it for various reasons. Firstly, time had, sadly, clouded our memories. Secondly, positive-thinking forces us to focus more on (and draw parallels only with) on the Cold War that was won in 1989, not on its inconvenient Chinese chapter. Thirdly, we have cravenly abandoned our democratic and humanitarian principles to nurture our (undeniably important) relationship with China. Lastly, within China itself, Tienanmen Massacre was carefully purged out of history and out of collective memory itself.
On another front, the Bahraini protests provide a rare glimpse into how photoagencies and newspapers work alongside one another to cover breaking news from far away lands. Currently, the same photo from Getty Images taken by John Moore near the Pearl Square graces the homepages of major English-speaking news outlets: the New York Times (Global)/IHT; the Telegraph; the Times of London, the BBC; and Time magazine. Le Nouvel Observateur has a smaller version on its homepage and El Pais has another John Moore/Getty Image which is part of the same series. These days, seeing an identical image on such varied assortment of papers is extremely rare, and almost an unique occasion. (In other major papers, Le Monde has an AFP photo and Der Spiegel has a Reuters photo on their homepages).
This is a clear illustration of advantages photographers working for huge photoagencies have over other freelancers or even those who work for individual papers/magazines. This is also another reason that individual papers and magazines do not hire photographers exclusively anymore. For instance, no less than four photographers covered the famous Tank Man moment, but Jeff Widener was able to rely on a network (AP) and managed to distribute it faster than others working independently. It was Widener’s photo that was widely reproduced the next day. Likewise, Charlie Cole, with distribution and publicity power of a weekly (Newsweek) behind him, won a World Press Award for his version, although it can be said that of Stuart Franklin (Magnum, independent) was more aesthetic.
For everyone, the image of the lone citizen standing in front of the tank defines the word ‘Tiananmen’ so much so that it was one of the words heavily censored through Google China. The diminutive Unknown Rebel dominates the news cycle every Tiananmen massacre anniversary. With his single act of defiance, he not only showed his courage but came to represent the courage of all Chinese protestors; in short, he replaced the protest’s earlier symbol, the Goddess of Democracy herself.
Above picture was taken by Japanese photojournalist Imaeda Koichi, who reported that he saw no direct killing in the Tiananmen Square. He insisted–and other photojournalists concurred–that by the time the tank arrived and fired upon the tent side, there were only handful of students in the tent. His above picture clearly show the barren abandoned campsite. At daybreak around 5:00 am, the tanks drove towards the place the Goddess of Democracy once stood (it had disappeared by then), crushing everything in its path–tents, railing, boxes of provisions, bicycles.
Nearly all the published photos are of Beijing, despite the fact that large protests took place across China. The paucity of photos was partly be due to restrictions on the movement of foreign journalists at the time in China, and partly due to the lack of camera ownership at the time.
See other photos of the Tiananmen Affair, courtesy of Magnum/Slate here.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the bloody suppression of the protesters in the Tiananmen Square. The march for democracy was met with a stony opposition from the elders of the Chinese communist party but its general secretary Zhao Ziyang was not among this group of ultra-hardliners.
Urging dialogue with the students, he futilely argued against martial law in the country home of Chairman Deng Xiaoping. So, at near midnight on May 19th, as hard-liners were finalizing their plans to crush the protests — which had swelled to include more than a million demonstrators in the preceding 48 hours, Zhao and his hardliner rival Li Peng walked out of Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. The hardliners had won, but the students thought the otherwise when Zhao appeared in front of them. They thought the government had backed down and that they had won. But Zhao had a different message. Stooping with fatigue, and with tears in his eyes, he walked into the throngs of students and spoke to student leaders through a bullhorn.”We have come too late,” he said, urging students to leave the square, to “treasure their lives”, to end their hunger strike, to help calm things down. Few heeded his words. Few hours later, the martial law was declared and troops all over the country were summoned to Peking. However, it was not until early June that the tanks and troops were sent in too crush the Tiananmen protests.
When tanks rolled by, Zhao was already under house arrest. The impromptu midnight foray was Zhao’s last public appearance. Subsequent snapshots that were leaked out over the years showed the gradual aging of the moderate man whose economic policies helped create the modern China; yet, he remained under house arrest until his death in 2005, silenced but never forgotten. As the Gorberchev China never had, Zhao almost had the last laugh–not only does the modern China operate as he envisioned in the 80s, but he also managed to keep a secret memoirs which vindicated his memory during his house-arrest. This memoirs (see TIME for how exactly he kept them) were released last week under the title, “Prisoner of the State: the Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang“. For China’s leaders, Zhao has proved to be as dangerous in death as he was in life.