25 years ago on June 4, 1989, the unthinkable happened in China. Tired of weeks of (peaceful) protests, the Chinese government sent in troops on the unarmed protesters at Tiananmen Square – most of whom were students – resulting in the deaths of hundreds of educated Chinese people in one fell swoop. It’s one of the saddest moments in time which I will never forget in my life and the one most memorable image that is forever eked in the attic of my mind is the iconic one of the “tank man” above.
On June 5 the next day, after majority of the protesters have been wiped out, the Chinese military continued to flaunt their might in the capital city. As a long column of tanks strolled in, a single man – dressed simply in a white shirt, black pants and carrying what appeared to be either his shopping or marketing in a white bag – suddenly walked right up to the first tank, and defiantly stopped them from moving on. Long before the days of phone videos and what have you, the world was able to see this shot thanks to at least four photographers* the likes of Jeff Widener (above) and Stuart Franklin**, from Associated Press and Magnum Photos respectively who managed to capture the defining moment of the Tiananmen Massacre by being in the right place at the right time (albeit different spots) and then getting people flying out of China to smuggle out the film out to major photo and news agencies as the authorities moved to crack down on foreign journalists.
Till this day, the identity and fate of this man has not been disclosed or found out. Word has it he was taken away immediately right after by the military, but was he executed, thrown in jail, no one is the wiser. All we know is – he’s one bloody brave man who was willing to stand up for what’s right. For the longest time I have always asked myself if I will be brave enough to do what he did if the need or similar situation – God forbid – were to arise around me. Till now, I don’t know if I can. But he did. And for that, he has my eternal respect. And I don’t even know his name…
Days after, there would be another incident that this dreadful period brings to mind. I was then into my 5th year in television as a production assistant at Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (now known as MediaCorp) and my current affairs colleagues and I were lamenting in the film crew van about the loss of an entire generation of learned young Chinese people when one of the older cameramen loudly hushed us, vehemently declaring, “They deserved to die! They have no right to question the authorities!” We 20-somethings then were stunned to silence. It still astonished us till this day just how loyal some of the older Chinese Singaporeans still are to “motherland” China… I’m a 3rd generation Singaporean Chinese and ever since then I have prayed to God that whatever happens, may such a scenario never ever happen in Singapore…
I feel the need to blog this as it seems the current young generation of Mainland Chinese nationals have no idea of knowing of this tragic incident in their country’s history as all news, photos, reports and TV footages are understandably banned in China.
Such horror incidents need to be recorded in history. It shouldn’t have happened and definitely should never ever again – whether in China, Timbuktu or anywhere else in this world…
*Behind the Scenes: Tank Man of Tiananmen
**Stuart Franklin: How I photographed Tiananmen Square and ‘Tank Man’