I have to wonder, over in the People’s Republic of China, as the first week of June unfolds, if the men and women of my generation – graying, potbellied, an eye cast slightly back, contemplating events from our youth – talk about that final week in the square.
Do they talk about the fledgling movement, led by students hungry for a free and democratic China? How thousands of students and young progressives sensed a shift in China, one that would be more open, free, in step with the western world. Do they talk about the protests spreading to 400 cities and how, for a moment, citizens felt like they might have a voice in the China of tomorrow.
Do they talk about how the Chinese government, weary of the massive demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, sent nearly 300,000 troops and heavy weaponry, including tanks, to crush the demonstrations?
Do they whisper? Or have the events of that spring been lost to time?
Hundreds of students were slaughtered. Bystanders too. The world saw China smash its own citizenry, casting aside silly notions like freedom, an open society, democratic reforms. It stood on the world stage that June in 1989, and in a pin-on-the-timeline moment, chose death, chose power, chose the state over the citizen.
Do they remember the man, also lost to time, who, for a few moments stood in front of a column of tanks? Did they see him shift position, gently holding a plastic bag of goods by his side, blocking and blocking the physical manifestation of the Chinese government in the form of tanks?
Plenty of western media was there to see it. Jeff Widener and a few other photographers saw the events unfold.
A wider shot from the same basic location was taken by Stuart Franklin showing the wide, vastness of the scene and the actual scope of the tank column.
Being 1989, prior to digital cameras, it’s a miracle the photos were taken and seen. Widener was out of film and a friend had to bum a roll off a backpacker in the same hotel just so Jeff could shoot. Another photographer named Charlie Cole, working for Newsweek, hid a an exposed roll of film in a toilet and gave authorities a few other rolls to placate them as they trashed his hotel room.
Film had to be smuggled and tremendous risks taken for the world to see the man stand in front of the tanks.
And for us, we neatly wrap the photo up in a bow and think ahh what a great movement for Chinese democracy, and I don’t mean that trainwreck of an album.
Sadly, what happened subsequent to the protests, and tank man, was a total communist crackdown. China retreated within itself, scores were imprisoned, executed, disappeared, and the nation exerted severe control over media, the press, and its citizens. There would not be another tank man.
In some ways, since that spring, China has evolved. It has become an economic monster. Go find a random object in your house and see where it was made. And the press, on some level, has flourished.
But make no mistake, mother China still controls the citizenry.
Which is why they probably don’t talk about tank man. Truth is, this small blog will be more press than anyone in China will see. As for tank man, he’s only a memory. A few snaps is all we, in the west anyway, have, to know he even existed, and for a second, stopped tanks in their tracks.