Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Today and tomorrow mark the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising, or massacre, or whatever you would like to call it.

There are New York Times op-eds and interesting interviews with today's students, to whom the date means little -- at least when they are talking to a reporter. NPR has a great piece on three student leaders who were deeply involved in the protests and how they've continued the long trek toward their goal of bringing lasting change to China.

Last night BBC World News had a riveting interview with Jeff Widener, who took an iconic photograph of a single protester blocking a line of tanks (you can see it in this slide show, at about 2:37). I was due to leave the house to meet a friend, and had considered leaving early to drop by the library on my way, but once I started watching I knew I had to stay for the whole piece, even if it meant I would be late.

They ran footage of the man waving his plastic shopping bags furiously at the tank in the front of the line, the tank advancing, stopping, advancing, stopping. I tried, and failed, to imagine the thought process of the driver, who must have known that his fellow soldiers had slaughtered hundreds of their own countrymen the night before. It's easier to imagine the thoughts of the man standing in front of the machines: I don't care if you kill me.

The photographer related how he'd gone into the Beijing Hotel, found a Western student, and whispered to him that he was an AP photographer to gain access to his room and balcony. He took a handful of frames, then realized a setting was wrong and worried he'd missed the shot. Undaunted, he moved to the next step: getting the film safely past the soldiers, who were by this time very good at identifying journalists.

The hotel guest put it in his underwear, got on a bicycle, and delivered it to the AP office.

Just over a year later, a few months after I finished college, I spent two weeks in Nanjing with my older brother, who had just completed a year of study there. We also spent a week in Beijing, riding bicycles where the tanks had been past places where people had died, eating boiled peanuts and sampling the local rotgut. It was sobering, weird, and moving, and the vast majority of the people were lovely.

Nanjing, Summer 1990


  1. Do you remember that thing we went to at St. John the Divine in NY, the December after Tiananmen? There was a speaker who spoke entirely in Chinese but I'll never forget his voice.

  2. I do remember going to that event, but sadly I've forgotten that speaker's voice.


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