Before discovering the rewards of capitalism, becoming what Christian Science Monitor Editor John Yemma in 2011 described as the “wonder of the age,” communist China was ruled by its leaders with an iron fist.
Today, aside from recent trade departments with the United
States, China has changed dramatically, operating under a long-evolving economic system that promotes free trade but at the same time retains total control over all political power.
Thirty years ago, while this transformation from a system which forbids private ownership to one that encourages individual profit-making was in its nascent stages, poverty and political oppression in China remained pervasive.
Chinese students and citizens, many of whom had tasted some freedom and only wanted more, found themselves targets of ruthless government forces that cracked down hard on their demonstrations for democracy in Tiananmen Square on June 3 and 4, 1989.
On assignment for Sipa Press, a New York City-based photo agency, I arrived in Tiananmen Square less than an hour before soldiers started retaliating against peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators who defied their orders to disband and disperse.
As the deadly drama unfolded, I photographed some of the brutal results of the bloody collision between the forces of freedom and oppression, one of four Western photojournalists documenting the event, according to American Photographer magazine.
For many Americans, the indelible image of the lone protester holding up a flower and stopping a tank in its tracks is the only thing they really know about this massacre. But, as I saw with my own eyes, armed soldiers were an even greater threat to people scrambling to find a safe place to wait out the government’s assault on democracy.
As I recall of those events, literal herds of people at a time would move from one corner of the square to the other as tensions mounted and a voice amplified by a megaphone warned that soldiers had been ordered to shoot to kill.
The students stood firm, however, remaining where they were and determined to bring democratic rule to their country. They showed courage and pride, even after being shot, with many dying from their wounds. Even as some were dying, they motioned for me to keep shooting what was happening to them and others all around us.
“For the free world,” many would say to me in hopes that people in other countries would see what was happening and support them. I remained in the square photographing until bullets started ricocheting off the cement under my feet. The images were later distributed throughout the United States by Sipa Press.
In the end, it was difficult to determine exactly how many people had been killed. Estimates vary from several hundreds to up to 2,600, with additional thousands of people wounded.
The anguished faces and terror-filled eyes of the young students who were prepared to die for their political beliefs haunt me to this day. To speak out on their behalf, I feel, is not only an honor but a duty to ensure that people never forget what happened on those two days in Tiananmen Square.