Tiananmen Square crackdown

The other photographers who snapped Tiananmen’s Tank Man, and their memories of June 4, 1989 in Beijing

AP’s photo is most famous, but other photographers shot scene that became a defining symbol of the 1989 crackdown on protesters in Beijing. We talk to two, Reuters’ Arthur Tsang, from Hong Kong, and Magnum’s Stuart Franklin

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 May, 2017, 6:48am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 June, 2017, 5:29pm

A photo of Chinese man in a white shirt and black trousers holding shopping bags in each hand, standing defiantly in front of a column of tanks, became a defining image of the Tiananmen Square crackdown of June 4, 1989.

Watch: How a Hong Kong photographer took the iconic Tiananmen Tankman photo 

It remains a symbol of resistance, taken in Beijing after a student-led protest against corruption grew into calls for accountability, democracy and freedom of speech.

The most famous photograph of the anonymous figure, known simply as Tank Man, was taken by Jeff Widener for Associated Press. There were others who also captured the dramatic scene, however, including a photographer from Hong Kong.

Looking back, Arthur Tsang Hin-wah, 65, remembers the stand-off clearly. He had arrived in the Chinese capital on May 24, 1989, to cover the protests for the Reuters news agency.

The photojournalist was based in Bangkok at the time, but had been glued to the TV watching events unfold in Beijing.

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“Reuters needed a lot of staff to cover the story. Since I’m Chinese, and can speak Cantonese and Putonghua, I volunteered to do the job,” he recalls. “It was a serious event and it was building up every day. I was very concerned about it.”

When Tsang arrived in Beijing the scene was already chaotic, and a number of students were already 11 days into a hunger strike. The movement seemed loosely organised, with many people hanging around Tiananmen Square.

“As a Chinese, in my heart I was supportive of them. They looked pathetic and miserable. It wasn’t just the students who were part of this campaign, but also many ordinary people, old and young.”

On June 3, the eve of the crackdown, Tsang was near Tiananmen Square taking photos as Beijingers tried to stop People’s Liberation Army soldiers from entering.

“When my reporter and I walked behind the Great Hall of the People, we saw some students and other people stop an armoured vehicle. They wanted to destroy it with bricks. When I got closer to take photos, they noticed me.

“Since I wasn’t a foreigner, they felt scared, because they didn’t know who I was and they started beating me up. Some used bricks to hit me, others their fists, and some kicked me.”

A Western colleague managed to pull him away by explaining that he was a journalist.

Tsang and the reporter then went to Chang’an Avenue, which intersects Tiananmen Square and Tiananmen Gate – the entrance to the Forbidden City, where emperors once lived. There, they saw more military vehicles and heard gunshots. The anger was tangible as people tried to stop and torch the vehicles.

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“I wondered if I should go back to the square, but the reporter said, ‘I’m not going to die for your country’, and pulled me into the nearby Beijing Hotel, to room 1111, where many of my peers at TVB were working.”

At the hotel, which overlooks Chang’an Avenue, Tsang had his head cleaned and bandaged, and that evening he heard the PLA had already entered the square.

“I wanted to enter Tiananmen Square, but public security officers stopped us from leaving the hotel, so we went back to our room. From my balcony I could only see the soldiers entering the square, but not how they cleared the site. We later saw a lot of bodies on Chang’an Avenue.”

Early on the morning of June 5, Tsang heard a loud rumbling noise and went to the balcony of his hotel room. On the wide thoroughfare below, he saw a line of 10 or more tanks rolling down the venue, and started taking photos. That’s when Tank Man wandered into the road.

“One of our reporters said, ‘This guy is crazy’.” Tsang turned and saw a lone man standing in front of the tanks, waving and motioning at them to leave.

“He then climbed up onto the first tank, pulled open the cover and talked to the soldier in it. Then the man was pulled away,” recalls Tsang, who captured the entire sequence.

Shooting Tank Man

After the now famous episode, he took the film to the Reuters Beijing office to be developed and transmitted.

He didn’t know that four other photographers were holed up in the hotel recording the event, or how significant the Tank Man photo would become.

Another photographer staying at the Beijing Hotel was Magnum Photos’ Stuart Franklin, who later interviewed other journalists present for his book The Documentary Impulse.

Franklin had been with fellow photographer Charlie Cole in the hotel when the tanks rolled down Chang’an Avenue, but they were on the fourth floor, which wasn’t a good vantage point. They headed up to the sixth floor, where some French journalists were staying, and took photos from their balcony.

After the Tank Man standoff, getting the images out of Beijing was challenging because “when martial law was declared on May 20, no one could transmit video from Tiananmen Square – it had to be shipped to the media centre in Hong Kong”, he says.

A French student who was flying back to Paris the next day took Franklin’s film back with her.

Jonathan Schaer of CNN also captured footage of Tank Man, Franklin says. When he got his video to Beijing airport to be delivered to Hong Kong it was already the afternoon of June 5 and was not broadcast until the following morning. “Everyone was borrowing the stills from his footage because he was the only one with clear shots.”

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Editors initially had no interested in photos of Tank Man, however, Franklin says. It was only when US president George Bush Snr saw the picture and commented that photo editors began scrambling for images of the mystery man who was seemingly just an ordinary Beijinger on his way home from a morning shopping trip.

“Suddenly the picture came alive,” Franklin says. “At the time I thought it was a non-picture; you couldn’t see his face, there was no expression, he was far away,” recalls Franklin, adding that at the time the scene was unfolding, about 20 bodies were taken away from the avenue.

In the end, it was Widener’s image that was most widely used – and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Cole’s version won the 1989 World Press Photo Award. In the case of Tsang, Reuters released a version with the man after he’d climbed onto the tank.

From a photographic standpoint, Franklin says, he took many other pictures that were more interesting than his Tank Man photo – of crushed bicycles, the injured lying in hospital hallways hooked up to drips, reading news updates plastered on lamp posts, and the hunger strikers in the square.

“What’s left is this rather anodyne moment which reporters on the ground didn’t even see fit to report at the time,” he says. “It became useful for both the Americans and the Chinese [politically]. It was a picture of restraint: there was a picture not of death, but someone who was alive and was dealt with reasonably by the army. That enabled Bush to send a secret trade mission to China two weeks later to the anger of Congress when they found out.”

Franklin finds it ironic that four versions of the Tank Man picture are each called “iconic”, and he will be forever associated with one of them.

“There’s a lot of people who would love to shoot something as a marker of history. But I’d rather it was another picture.”

The historic event is still fresh in the minds of Hongkongers who commemorate the tragedy of June 4, 1989 annually at a vigil in Victoria Park – the only remembrance ceremony held on Chinese soil. Photos of Tank Man can often be seen hanging up in the park on the occasion.

Tsang says that after the June 4 crackdown, outsiders were evacuated from Beijing and he took a flight back to Hong Kong. “When I arrived, I saw many shops had closed in protest. There were also students boycotting classes. Black flags were posted everywhere, so I could feel Hongkongers were very concerned about the incident.”

As for Tank Man, his identity and fate remain a mystery to this day. “I did think about him afterwards and wanted to know what happened to him,” Tsang says. “I would check the news to see if there was anything on him, but I don’t think anyone knows. No one has come out to say he was Tank Man.”