A massacre, erased
China tried to repress the memory of the brutal crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Thirty years later, Beijing is still terrified of its legacy.
China sought to bury news of the protests. Jeff Widener’s images conveyed the bloody reality.
In the spring of 1989, Chinese pro-democracy activists filled Beijing's Tiananmen Square. For weeks, the protesters, led by students, stood in unprecedented defiance of the Communist regime. They called for respect for human rights and greater political participation amid the ambitious economic reforms spearhead by then-leader Deng Xiaoping. The protests eventually spread to 400 cities across China. Communist Party leaders, however, saw the protests as a threat to their hold on power and the political system. On the morning of June 4, the government sent armed troops to dissolve the demonstration in Tiananmen Square, killing and arresting activists. Though there is no official death toll, estimates range from several hundred to more than 10,000. The day is thought to be one of the bloodiest political crackdowns in modern history.
As China sought to bury news about the protests, Jeff Widener’s images, including ‘Tank Man,’ conveyed the bloody reality.
It has been nearly 30 years since I witnessed the horrific events of June 4, 1989, when Chinese soldiers fired upon pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square. Though many memories of the protests stir in my brain, it is the laughter that haunts me to this day.
On the evening of June 3, 1989, I stood with two other Associated Press photographers, Mark Avery and Liu Heung Shing, in a small dark office cluttered with humming picture transmitters and strewn camera gear. Low on staff, we had to draw straws to decide who would work the first night shift. I was the lucky victim.
The plan was to monitor the ongoing protests at Tiananmen Square in case anything unusual happened. Soon after, AP reporter Dan Biers and I pedaled our bicycles onto Chang’an Avenue. Though things were initially tranquil on the streets of Beijing, the stillness was short-lived. Small groups of men and women moved silently in the night, carrying large sections of steel road dividers to block the advance of any military threat.
I was traveling light, with my camera gear concealed in my clothing to avoid raising suspicion. From the shadows near the Great Hall of the People emerged an elderly Chinese man with a long white beard and an enthusiastic grin that flaunted two remaining front teeth. He proudly opened his heavy, dark coat and showcased a large silver hatchet that glimmered under the street lamps. Streams of blood trickled down the blade, forming droplets on the ground. In shock, I forced a fake smile and quickly moved on.
Just after midnight, an armored personnel carrier with a frontal machine gun cornered the avenue so fast that yellow sparks flew off the tread. As we ran for cover, I lost a camera lens.
Low on battery power, I was able to take only one flash picture every minute. This was a cruel joke for a photojournalist, and I was contemplating whether to return to the office and resupply when, in the distance, another personnel carrier lurched down the road completely engulfed in flames. Demonstrators were in hot pursuit of the vehicle, shoving large pipes into the treads. I had a single wide angle lens, which meant I had to risk getting dangerously close to the action and a possible exploding vehicle if I wanted to capture the images.
An angry protester stood over a dead soldier while holding a weapon in his hand. Then I spotted another man rolling around on the ground in flames. As a bystander tried to help the victim, all I could do was stare down at the small orange light on the flash that was attached to my camera, waiting for the signal that it was ready.
After what seemed to be an eternity, I finally lifted the viewfinder to my eye. Then, a terrific blow snapped my neck back. Laughter eerily rang out from the opposite side of the street as I struggled to stay conscious. I looked down in a daze at my shattered camera, which was covered in blood. The flash, lens and top plate had been ripped clean off by a piece of cement that was thrown at me.
Dazed and without a working camera, I grabbed a random bicycle from the ground and started heading back to the office.
The scene was chaotic. Buses were burning, and people were screaming while large-caliber machine gun tracers arched over the square. When I finally reached the office, Avery told me not to return to the streets because Chinese soldiers were “killing people.” In the darkroom, Mark salvaged the images I took by extracting the film from the smashed camera with a pair of pliers. Miraculously, the film chamber had remained light-tight.
In the days that followed, my pictures were transmitted around the world, appearing in Newsweek magazine and on the front pages of many other publications. As China sought to bury news about the protests and their violent end, my images conveyed to a global audience the bloody reality. And though my camera was destroyed, its reinforced titanium had absorbed the blow, sparing my life.
Though I still reflect on the protests, and particularly the day I photographed the iconic “Tank Man” image, it is the laughter right after the blow that I recall most.
Jeff Widener is a photojournalist, best known for his image of “Tank Man.”
Uighur activist Wu’er Kaixi fled China after leading the Tiananmen protests. He thought China would continue opening up — but it didn’t.
In 1989, Joe Cool ruled American football, and New Kids on the Block was tearing up the charts. In China, we were having a party, too. Led by young students — myself included — the pro-democracy movement packed Tiananmen Square with hopes and dreams of a freer, fairer nation.
At the time, I was a young Uighur man and proud citizen of China. Standing up to oppression came all too naturally for me. The Uighur people have long endured the Communist Party’s often brutal efforts to assimilate us into the Chinese mainstream. But 30 years ago, we defied the dictatorship to demand basic rights for all of China, including its diverse ethnic groups.
On June 4, the regime responded to our call with bullets and tanks.
After the crackdown, some of us escaped to freedom overseas, convinced at the time that the massacre was a tragic but temporary setback on the road to realizing Deng Xiaoping’s slogan: reform and opening up.
We were wrong. China freed up its economy but hardened politically.
Even back then, Uighurs had no illusions about the government. But the latest wave of oppression has shocked even us. Today the Muslim peoples of Xinjiang — Uighurs, Kazakhs and others — are suffering on a massive scale, detained without trial and subjected to daily brainwashing sessions to stamp out their cultural and religious identity.
“I have buried my parents in my heart,” a Uighur friend told me recently through tears. “It’s the only way to make the hardship a little easier to bear.” He hasn’t heard from them — it’s likely they’ve disappeared into one of the internment camps where Chinese authorities are holding and abusing more than 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang. This is among the most heartbreaking statements I’ve heard from a fellow exile — and one I understand all too well.
Like many of my fellow protesters, I fled China after Tiananmen because of my role as a student leader in the pro-democracy movement. I have been prevented from seeing my parents ever since: Beijing won’t allow me to return and refuses to grant them passports. I now must consider the likely possibility that I will never see them again.
We Uighurs are descendants of conquerors and merchants along the Silk Road. We have a rich culture and history, recognized as a world cultural heritage. Our music gets under your skin; our food is the tastiest on the planet. Uighurs are known for their wit and humor — and we can really throw a party.
In my long years of exile, meeting with the Uighur diaspora has always been a joy that eases my homesickness. But these days, when two Uighurs meet, any joy will soon be replaced by long sighs of sorrow; when five or more of us meet, we end up weeping.
Meanwhile, China’s ethnic Han majority remains either ignorant of this suffering because of media censorship, or because it has been taught by years of state-sponsored prejudice to consider the camps fair punishment for the country’s minorities.
How did we end up here? Does the world care that China is perfecting the police state? Three decades ago, we enjoyed support from around the globe, and we expected such support to last, particularly from democratic countries.
Instead, Western democracies adopted a China policy that has led to the current catastrophic situation. They called the policy “engagement.” I call it “appeasement.”
In the United States, President Trump’s obsession with a trade deal has muted Washington’s criticism in the face of one of the world’s most appalling human rights abuses. While the U.S. government acknowledges these abuses, it has chosen not to punish Beijing with sanctions or other appropriate actions. Other countries seem to have followed its lead.
When it comes to the Uighurs, the world has turned a blind eye to one of the worst human rights abuses since the Holocaust. Where is the outrage from the Western democracies? Where is the outrage from our Muslim brothers and sisters?
There might be a trade war unfolding — but Beijing’s real war is against the people of Xinjiang and others who demand basic civil and political freedoms. It considers us an existential threat, just as it did the students of Tiananmen Square.
But our message still resonates: China’s people, young and old, from every ethnic group, deserve to enjoy basic civil and political freedoms. The United States should lead the way in keeping alive the hopes and dreams of 1989. A tougher response to the repression in Xinjiang is the right place to start.
Wu’er Kaixi, a political commentator and activist, was a leader of the Tiananmen student movement. He lives in exile in Taiwan.
Yaqiu Wang was a year old when the Tiananmen crackdown happened. She didn’t learn about it until high school — yet she still has hope for change.
I was a year old when the Tiananmen Square massacre happened. I didn't know about the event that changed the course of my country's history until after I graduated from high school and learned what took place by chance on what was then a less-censored Internet. It took me several more years to understand the context and significance of the Tiananmen movement and the government's response.
As I began to learn more about what happened, I became fascinated with photos of the student protests before the crackdown. In one picture, two students camping on the square pass the time dancing. Another photo shows a young man, fist raised, with an English phrase scrawled on his T-shirt: “My life is yours, my love is yours.” Then there is the photo of Liu Xiaobo, the future Nobel laureate who died in 2017, holding a megaphone as he gives an impassioned speech to the demonstrators.
The images of young men and women with unjaded, determined faces captured the aspirations of people across China and their belief in the possibility of transformative change — hopes that would no doubt resonate today.
But thanks to unrelenting censorship, most Chinese of my generation have not seen these images. In 2014, journalist Louisa Lim found that only 15 out of 100 students at four of China’s top universities were able to identify the iconic Tank Man photo. “Is it Kosovo?” one student asked. Among those who have heard about it, few know the scale of the protests and the magnitude of the ensuing brutality.
Today, the values the protesters aspired to then seem to be further away than ever. The Chinese government’s assault on human rights is at its worst since Tiananmen. In recent years, the Communist Party has stepped up arbitrarily detaining activists, lawyers and writers; assiduously deleting social media accounts and posts, and forcing people to memorize banal slogans professing their love for President Xi Jinping. In Xinjiang, the authorities are holding an estimated 1 million Muslims in political education camps to compel them to stop speaking their mother tongue, celebrating their holidays and practicing their religion. The state’s high-tech tools for mass surveillance now include facial recognition software that can even monitor people’s emotions — there can be a price to pay just for looking unhappy.
My generation has grown up in the shadow of these abuses. Some observers have confused our lack of Tiananmen-style demonstrations or other forms of activism with apathy or unilateral support for the government. But just because people aren’t speaking out publicly doesn’t mean they don’t have dissenting views.
Several years ago, when censorship was not as tight as it is now, millions of people — many my age — used social media every day to discuss political and social issues and to pressure local officials to right wrongs, prompting the widely known slogan, “changing China through collective spectating.” Even today, many young people are taking great risks to spread ideas and criticize and mock our leaders online.
Though censorship has left many Chinese of my generation in the dark about Tiananmen Square and other political issues, rapid economic growth has at the same time brought previously unimaginable opportunities — many of us have grown up in material comfort and have traveled and studied abroad. Through education, the Internet and our engagement with the outside world, we know that we are entitled to certain rights and freedoms.
This has also given rise to a new generation of human rights activists who are tech-savvy and connected to the international human rights movement. Even under tight government control, the new generation of women’s rights activists was able to set in motion the #MeToo movement in China, and young student and labor activists have brought factory workers’ suffering to the world’s attention. Many others are working under the radar, trying to build tolerance in society by advocating for the rights of children with disabilities and by spreading awareness of LGBTQ issues.
History shows that it is very hard to kill people’s spirit. The Tiananmen Square protests were one of the many efforts by people over more than a century to bring democracy and respect for rights to China. The current wave of repression is just one cycle in this long and continuing historical struggle.
Though we are living in a grim period for Chinese human rights, there is reason to hope. If more people of my generation and future generations have the opportunity to see the Tiananmen photos, they, too, will be inspired.
The Tiananmen Square protests were the embodiment of activists’ enduring love for the country — and the risks they are willing to take to see it change.
Yaqiu Wang is a China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Beijing shapes global memories of its past — and Tiananmen is one of the clearest examples, journalist Louisa Lim writes.
Can accounts of events that happened 30 years ago be so threatening to a state that they trigger the harassment of journalists, detention of interviewees and numerous official complaints about coverage? In China, the answer appears to be a resounding yes.
In fact, these are regular occurrences when journalists try to cover the anniversary of June 4, 1989. Along with a massive domestic censorship effort to erase the collective memory of the violence, the Chinese Communist Party has also mounted a far less well-known campaign of interference: influencing how the anniversary is portrayed in media overseas.
I experienced this campaign firsthand. When I was writing my book on the legacy of Tiananmen while working as a foreign correspondent in Beijing, I had to participate in an unavoidable journalistic shell game, writing stories to give me cover to interview sources who were under surveillance. I took elaborate precautions to protect the project. I avoided talking about my book at home or in the office for fear that the rooms had been bugged. I wrote it on an offline computer that I kept locked in a safe in my bedroom.
But it never occurred to me to include these details in my book. From the distance of half a decade, I realize the measures I had to take to sidestep a repressive state had become so normal to me that I simply didn’t think them worth mentioning.
My experience is far from unusual. For my latest research, I surveyed 60 current and former China-based foreign correspondents to discover how the state tries to influence their anniversary coverage. I found the methods used range from the high-tech — such as blanketing Tiananmen Square with security cameras — to the stubbornly low-tech — including dispatching plainclothes officials with umbrellas to block the cameras of Western television crews.
Three-quarters of China-based journalists said they were subject to interference while reporting the anniversary. More than 60 percent of them reported being blocked from entering Tiananmen Square while doing anniversary reporting, while more than half said their access to sources was restricted. More than one-fifth of respondents said their sources were harassed or detained, and the same percentage received official threats or complaints about their work. More than 1 in 10 had seen their local staff harassed or detained, and 5 percent had their material confiscated or deleted.
This suggests a sustained, concerted campaign by different arms of China’s state — including the police, internal security, the foreign ministry and embassies overseas — to influence foreign reporting of the anniversary.
Unfortunately, this repression has worked. Foreign news outlets ran fewer stories as editors were deterred by the lack of news or interviewees. One-third of reporters admitted they did not report interference or under-reported it.
The impact of that long-term exposure to repression is even more interesting: My survey showed that journalists who believed their anniversary coverage had zero impact had been in China the longest — 13.3 years on average. Not only had they become cynical, but also they seemed to doubt their very mission.
As a result, the stories ultimately told in foreign media are often entirely shaped by the limitations. The Communist Party has blocked all alternative narratives and channeled journalists toward a single story line. The collective memory of the Tiananmen movement has become one of bloodshed and violence in Beijing, summed up by the indelible image of “Tank Man,” the thin young man, white plastic shopping bag in each hand, standing in front of the line of tanks rolling down Chang’an Avenue.
That repressive trope, a byproduct of the modern-day controls on journalists, reverberates year after year, filling up ever more column inches over time. The other narratives — that of the seven-week movement that preceded the suppression, of popular mobilization, of a nationwide movement and of deaths outside Beijing — are slowly being written out of the collective memory as authorities deny access to memory carriers who can describe those moments.
Journalists might write the first draft of history, but in this instance a repressive state is slowly, patiently and retroactively editing that draft to redact the sections it does not want remembered. The message that political mobilization or even discussion of it will be suppressed at all costs comes at a time when Beijing is expanding its state media outlets overseas and using its financial leverage to buy space in Western outlets, while Western tech companies have shown a willingness to serve as handmaidens to censorship, even censoring news about Tiananmen posted by Western users outside China.
The information landscape of the future is being redrawn as Beijing shapes global memories of its past — and Tiananmen is one of the clearest examples.
Louisa Lim is author of “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited” and a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne.
John Pomfret learned important lessons covering the protests as a reporter. So did China.
For the sin of reporting on the Tiananmen Square protests for the Associated Press, I was accused by the Chinese government of stealing state secrets and violating martial law provisions and formally expelled. I was allowed to return in 1998 to serve as the Beijing bureau chief of The Post and then again in recent years to conduct research for a book. But getting a visa has always been a nerve-racking affair. My last two applications have been rejected with no reason given other than a quip from one visa officer: "Haven't you learned your lesson?"
In the three decades since Tiananmen, I’ve learned a few lessons about the world and China’s place in it.
China’s Communist Party and the security services also learned lessons from the Tiananmen Square protests — the greatest threat they have ever faced — that not only have allowed them to remain in power but also have been instrumental in tightening their grip on Chinese society.
Five days after the crackdown on June 4, 1989, Deng Xiaoping emerged to congratulate the officers from the People’s Liberation Army. He declared that the “biggest mistake” the Communist Party had made was “primarily in ideological and political education — not just of students but of the people in general.” What resulted was the Patriotic Education Campaign, a program designed to shield Chinese citizens from pro-Western viewpoints — such as openness to democracy — and redirect them toward the resentful nationalism that holds sway today.
In 1991, the party issued revised history textbooks. To ensure that millions of Chinese teenagers would memorize the campaign’s central messages — that Western nations had been bullying China for 150 years and that the United States sought to contain China’s rise — contemporary history became a topic on nationwide college entrance tests, which millions take every year. Among the changes, U.S. support for China during World War II vanished from teaching materials. It was as if China had fought the war against Japan alone.
The Ministry of Education today bans textbooks that portray freedom of the press and freedom of speech in a positive light. Students are encouraged to rat out teachers for wayward, pro-Western leanings. A party paper, known as Document No. 9, issued in 2013 soon after Xi Jinping became party chief, warned that unless the party eradicates seven subversive currents — such as support for Western constitutional democracy, universal values of human rights and criticism of the party’s bloody past — the party could lose its grip on power.
China has also improved its ability to monitor its citizens. During the Tiananmen crackdown, the security services did try to eavesdrop, photograph and tape demonstrators. But since the crackdown the capabilities of the Communist Party’s security apparatus have continued to improve.
The greatest strides came after 1999, following a huge demonstration on April 25 of more than 10,000 adherents of the Falun Gong religious sect, who surrounded the Chinese Communist Party headquarters in the heart of Beijing. Soon after, the party banned Falun Gong and conducted a withering campaign against it. The movement’s adherents, many of them based in the United States and Canada, fought back, using encrypted email and other high-tech devices, such as hijacking satellite transmissions, to get their message into China. Over time the Chinese security services learned how to cope with these challenges and became masters at monitoring email, installing malware and tapping cellphones. No wonder Zeng Qinghong, then the chief of the party’s personnel office, observed that the campaign against Falun Gong was practice for more serious challenges.
Since then, China’s security apparatus has gotten even more sophisticated. It now combines cutting-edge communications hardware and software, such as facial recognition technology, artificial intelligence and video cameras, with flood-the-zone police presence in places such as Xinjiang and Tibet to stamp out any possibility of ethnic unrest. In the rest of China, the government and private Chinese technology companies are setting up the architecture of a “social credit system” designed to mold the behavior of citizens, with rewards for the right political positions and paying debts on time.
The Chinese Communist Party has also grown stronger than it was in the 1980s when there was a push to empower the government. Now, thanks to the current leader, Xi Jinping, the party has spread its tentacles into all walks of life, including private companies and joint ventures.
My years as a correspondent have also helped me put the Tiananmen crackdown into context. Four years in Bosnia during the mid-1990s, along with stints in Afghanistan and Congo, have given me an appreciation of the Chinese fear of “chaos.” The quest for stability has always been cited by China’s friends as the reason that Deng made the fateful decision to order the People’s Liberation Army to attack thousands of unarmed protesters.
But flash forward to 2018. In ramming through a constitutional amendment doing away with term limits, Xi singlehandedly dismantled the architecture of political succession that Deng established in an effort to ward off internal party squabbles, which in communist China have always caused unrest in the streets. That and Xi’s unwillingness to groom a successor all but guarantee another political crisis and the very “chaos” that the Chinese Communist Party so deeply fears.
John Pomfret, a former Post bureau chief in Beijing, is author of “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present.”
Editing by Elias E. Lopez, Mili Mitra and Kate Woodsome. Videos by Joy Sharon Yi and Joshua Carroll. Video graphics by Danielle Kunitz. Photo editing by Robert Miller. Copy editing by Lydia Rebac. Design and development by Chris Rukan.
Footage by ABC News, Al Jazeera, AP, BBC, CCTV, CNN, INA TV, ITN, Muriel Southerland, NBC News, TTV News, TVAN, TVE
Photos by AP, Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images, Getty Images, Jeff Widener, John Pomfret, Kim Nygaard, Manuel Ceneta/AFP/Getty Images, Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket via Getty Images, Reuters, The Washington Post