June 4, 2009

The Massacre that Didn't Happen

20 years ago today the Chinese government authorized the use of tanks and armed guards to clear Beijing's Tiananmen Square of pro-democracy demonstrators that had been gathering for several weeks. Hundreds of people, mostly university students, were killed. Others were most certainly abducted and executed, while some fled to live in exile.

I was just about to enter my first year at university, so I felt a strong affinity with these brave and passionate students, who were taking a stand against an oppressive regime.

In mainland China this date is referred to as "The June 4 Movement", and the Chinese government maintains that no one was killed in the Square. Eyewitness and photo evidence smuggled out of China shows otherwise, and the world media refers to this day as "The Tiananmen Square Massacre". 

The accompanying photo of the so-called "Tank Man" standing in front of a convoy of tanks is one of the late 20th-century's most iconic images, as compelling as John Filo's image of the Kent State shootings in May 1970.  The fate of this young man is not clear. Many believe he was taken into custody and executed. 

I stood on the same spot a few years ago on a trip to Beijing, taking photographs and knowing well that I was being watched by the plainclothed state police. In my small way I was marking a tragic piece of history, giving "Tank Man" my respect and thinking about what I take for granted and what, still, must be fought for in so many countries.  

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