Jiang Zemin (1926 – 2022)

Jiang Zemin, a president and a meme, died this week, aged 96.


On “60 Minutes” in 2000, he was asked whether he was running China as a ‘developmental dictatorship’. Jiang Zemin was defiant. “Of course not,” he answered, capping an interview where he quoted from the Gettysburg address.

He was colorful, even eccentric, compared to grey apparatchiks who made up the Chinese Communist Party. A showman (playing public games of ping pong, showing off his Hawaiian guitar skills, crooning the Chinese community of L.A. with a selection from “Beijing Opera”), a boor (combing his hair in front of the Spanish king [above], publicly berating Hong Kong journalists with his thickly-accented English, applauding enthusiastically at his own portrait during a Communist Party parade), a charmer. He gave bear hug to a stunned President Yeltsin at a press conference in Beijing as their countries settled their border issues. He sang a karaoke version of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” at the Asia-Pacific summit in 1996 with Fidel Ramos of the Philippines [below], and often broke out into “O Sole Mio” at banquets (once with Pavarotti). He asked Condoleezza Rice to dance with him, and at another press conference, this time with Bill Clinton, there was much debate and light-hearted banter – a turn of events which would be quite unimaginable nowadays.


He had to be a charmer, as he travelled far and wide to build support for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. That same visit to America had included a stop at Harvard where he joked that even at his age (71), his hearing is still sharp enough to hear the demonstrators outside, and that he would simply have to speak louder. He also appeared to have admitted a certain responsibility for the Tiananmen massacre:  “It goes without saying that, naturally, we may have shortcomings and even make some mistakes in our work.”

Those were the days. No Chinese leader before or since had been or would ever be that candid, that ingratiating again. But Jiang had made a career out of being agreeable: first as one of the “flower-vases” – a term for low-level technocrats who were all decoration, no action; then as an unassuming and peripheral Politburo member; and finally as a compromise candidate between the warring hardliners and reformists in the wake of Tiananmen, and an agreeable front man for the grey eminence of Deng Xiaoping. 

His rule domestically was a time of quiescence bliss – but not for the Tibetans or Falun Gong supporters that he persecuted, nor for state-owned employees who lost their jobs as China privatized – but Jiang encapsulated China’s peaceful rise in many ways. He stood for a time where it seemed possible that China could still be a normal pluralistic society. His 1997 Politburo standing committee was the first time in Chinese history that the state had not had a soldier at the core of its power (perhaps first time since the days of Dowager Empress Cixi) and his retirement, albeit protracted, was the only time in the Chinese Communist Party’s history that a peaceful handover of power took place.

After his retirement, Jiang’s images have become gifs and emojis on Chinese social media. It was with a mixture of affection and hilarity that he was often portrayed him as a toad, alluding to his wide mouth, portly physique, square spectacles, and often high-waisted trousers. The unlikely new fans who came of age and prosperity during Jiang’s presidency called themselves “toad-worshippers”.


Most memorable images of Jiang were of his public swims: at Waikiki Beach in Hawaii with black googles and a pinkish-purple swimhat, and floating languidly on the Dead Sea during a state visit to Israel – first by a Chinese president.  Rumors about his health had persisted throughout his presidency – at Hong Kong handover in 1997, Jiang looked unhealthy leading to rumors that he had suffered a heart attack. These swims were his attempts to prove otherwise, but they were unfavourably compared with Mao’s Great Swim across the Yangzi. No Chinese leader since had conducted such performative acts of athleticism, even though the elite still trundle down annually for a leadership conference at Beidaihe, a beach resort on the Bohai Sea where Mao loved to swim. (Despite Chairman Xi’s assertion to the Washington Post that, “I like sports, and swimming is my favorite,” there’s no photo of his swimming).  


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24 Years After 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.

Charlie Cole on Tiananmen

Exclusive: Iconic Photos corresponds with Mr. Charlie Cole, the award-winning photographer of the Tiananmen Square photos. 

If you had been a longtime follower of this blog, you would know that Iconic Photos had repeatedly featured Tiananmen Square massacres. One photographer of that fateful event featured in IP previously was Mr. Charlie Cole, then working for Newsweek. He had first contacted me to correct something I wrote (those things have been happening alarmingly of late), and I sent him back an email with my questions and curiosities. Here are his responses.

In my previous posts, I have wrongly noted that Stuart Franklin left out of consideration for awards because he was working independently for Magnum. Mr. Cole corrects me:

Your comment that Stuart was left out of the World Press awards doesn’t really hold water since he was working for Time Magazine at the time of the photo, and one of Time’s great contributors was Howard Chapnick, owner of Black Star Photo Agency, who happened to be chairing the World Press Jury that year. In general the World Press staff and juries have always held Magnum in the highest regard. 

A third photographer, Jeff Widener of AP won the Pulitzer for the Tiananmen Photos. Neither Mr. Cole nor Mr. Franklin were eligible. He remembers:

The Pulitzer Prize is like the American World Series, it’s a bit of a misnomer, since the only ones who can apply are those working for an American newspaper or wire service, not exactly a world wide photojournalism competition, not to say they don’t produce some great winners that would’ve done well or won in a true world event. American magazines are not allowed to enter the Pulitzer competition although there was a time when they were back in the 60-70’s. 

He remembers working with Mr. Franklin:

Although our magazines were competitors, Stuart and I were far more concerned with watching each other’s backs than anything else. We also shot our tank photos shoulder to shoulder, and used various focal lengths at different moments. I think it is pretty safe to say that we both have fairly identical photos of the scene. He has them tighter than the one shot Magnum released and I have them more loose, and closer to his version, than what Newsweek and World Press released [1].

He also gives behind-the-scenes look at winning the World Press Award:

Upon being notified of the World Press Award, I requested that they make us co-winners, since we had the same frames just different cropping. They refused and said they liked the tighter crop. I’ve always said about photo contests that with one set of judges you get one set of winners, given a different set of judges they most likely would’ve selected his version, I still think they should’ve given it to both of us, and always will.

And I asked him about the cameras, and whether there were a lot of people looking out from the balconies:

My shots were made with 2 Nikon FM2, a Nikkor 300mm f/4 ED, and 180mm f/2.8 on Kodak 400 ASA color negative film. The story behind the film is an interesting one. Usually I shot Kodachrome and Fujichrome throughout the month that I was there, however, since we were on deadline and the only place to process the film without detection was the AP’s office, using C-41, I had decided to go with the color negative that day. Stuart’s film is Fujichrome I believe. 

I believe we were on the 6th floor balcony, you might want to check that with Stuart [2]. There were a number of people watching from various balconies, a lot of undercover police on rooftops and balconies, but I didn’t see that much press. For an understanding of what the actual scene looked like refer to the attached photos. What most people don’t realize is how much firepower was actually at the scene and had been going since the night of June 3.

As for what happened afterwards, he gave a detailed story to BBC in 2004:

Later, Stuart left to go to Beijing University and I stayed behind to see what else might happen. Shortly after he left, PSB agents crashed through our hotel room door. Four agents swept in and assaulted me while a few others grabbed my cameras. 

They ripped the film from my cameras and confiscated my passport. They then forced me to write a statement that I was photographing during martial law, which unbeknown to me carried a hefty prison sentence. They then put a guard at the door.

I had hidden the roll with the tank pictures in its plastic film can in the holding tank of the toilet [3]. When they left, I retrieved it and later made my way to AP to develop and transmit it to Newsweek in New York.

I have requested his contact sheets, but Mr. Cole currently doesn’t have ready access to them. He sent me these photos (which are in sequence) instead. You can click to enlarge — and pay particular attention to the third one, which is the original of the above photo (180 mm shot):

Also, if you want to correspond with me (even if you are not an award-winning photographer), my email is here. Preferably for hollers, use my twitter @aalholmes instead. 


[1] I don’t know why Newsweek and World Press put out a terrible quality, grainy picture of the Tank Man Moment (see here on my old post). This 300-mm shot definitely was not representative of the actual scene nor of Mr. Cole’s compositions seen in other frames.

[2] On a previous BBC interview, Mr. Cole mentioned that Stuart Franklin had an eighth-floor room with balcony.

[3] Mr. Franklin had his film smuggled out in a packet of tea by a French student who later delivered it to Franklin’s Parisian office. Mr. Widener gave his film to a college student in shorts and T-shirt, who would not arouse suspicions, and who took them to AP Office in his underwear.

Tiananmen Square — 22 years on

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.

Ai Weiwei

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).

The Other 1989

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.



The Other Tiananmen


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.

Zhao Ziyang in Tiananmen


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.