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Capturing Tiananmen Square


A young couple waits beneath Jianguomenwai Bridge on the fringe of Beijing’s diplomatic area on 5th June 1989, as army tanks roll above them

Photographing Tiananmen Square in 1989 was supposed to provide Liu Heung Shing with some much-needed peace and quiet. Having spent the 1980s covering the Sri Lankan civil war, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and an uprising in South Korea, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer had had enough of conflict zones. “South Korea was really volatile at the time I was there,” he remembers. “The students were pushing for a revolution and the police used so much tear gas to suppress them that I had to have prescription glass mounted on my gas mask so that I could focus my camera while I was working.”

So when the chance came to leave Korea and document a seemingly peaceful student protest in Beijing, Liu thought it would be an opportunity to put his gas mask away for a while. “At the beginning the Tiananmen Square protests were like a Chinese Woodstock,” he says. “People reciting poetry, singing and dancing. When I photographed a Taiwanese singer entertaining the students [see page 96] in the square it felt like a celebration.” The protests had begun in April 1989, and by late May many news photographers were leaving, believing there wasn’t a story to cover. Liu, who was born in Hong Kong and spent his early childhood in mainland China, remained. “By that time I had the feeling that things would not end well,” he says. “On 30th May the students erected a Styrofoam Goddess of Democracy statue facing the official large portrait of Mao in the Forbidden City. She was kind of staring him down. The authorities would never allow that to last for very long. Shortly after that all hell broke loose.”

A young man enjoys a Coke outside the Forbidden City, Beijing, 1981

Plastic surgeon Dr Fu Nongyu with one of his patients, Beijing, 1980

Liu says that to understand the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the country China has become since, you need to look back to what Chinese people call the ‘Second Enlightenment’, the years immediately after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. This period saw China begin to relax its strict Maoist principles and introduce free enterprise, which would ultimately lead to the economic boom and the country’s ascent to superpower status. Having left China as a child and studied photography in New York as a young adult, Liu returned to his home country in 1978 to document its coming of age. “I knew that China was going to be the biggest story of the era,” he says.

What Liu found was a country beginning to transform beyond all recognition from the strict Maoist state he had known. “The speed at which China changed shook the world,” he says. “Who would imagine China would embrace capitalism completely? In that period after Mao’s death there was the first advertising billboard in the streets of Shanghai – before that advertising was considered bourgeois capitalism.” Liu believes that China’s rapid change was brought about by the suffering under Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a decade-long purge of traditional Chinese and capitalist values which had left up to two million people dead by 1976. “People were ready for change,” he says.

Over the following decade Liu tried to document the transformation, photographing the resumption of Coca-Cola’s production in China, students roller-skating past icons of Communism and the work of one of China’s few plastic surgeons, who spent most of his time performing ‘eye jobs’ to give Chinese women what were seen as Western-style “double eyelids”. “He would operate on one eye at a time, so his patients could cycle home afterwards,” remembers Liu.

The change was not only economic – China also briefly became more politically open. In 1978, China’s de facto leader Deng Xiaoping encouraged the existence of what became known as the Democracy Wall, a place for people mistreated during the Cultural Revolution to post messages airing their grievances. Located in a bus depot near Tiananmen Square, for the brief span of its existence the Democracy Wall was home to messages from hundreds of thousands of Chinese people.

“Looking back now, it was the freest period since 1949,” says Liu. But soon the criticisms pinned to the Democracy Wall began to be directed towards the current leadership rather than mistreatment under Mao. Petitioners congregated at the base of the Martyrs Monument in Tiananmen Square demanding that China embrace not only the modernisation of industry and the state, but political democracy too. The Democracy Wall came to an abrupt end and was demolished, but Tiananmen Square remained the first port of call for those wishing to protest the direction in which China was heading.

Students read books under the bright street lights of Tiananmen Square. Beijing, 1981.

A student at the Dalian Institute of Technology skates past a statue of Chairman Mao, Liaoning province, 1981

Students from different parts of the country gathered in Tiananmen to join the protest

The 1989 protests started out as a wake. People gathered at the Martyrs Monument to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, the reformist former general secretary who had been ousted by conservative elements of the Communist party, but the tribute turned into a wider protest about corruption and political freedom. At one point it was estimated that one million people – one in ten people in Beijing at the time – were gathered in Tiananmen Square. To add to the pressure on the authorities, the protests coincided with a state visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for the first Sino-Soviet summit in 30 years and caused the cancellation of a planned reception in the square. By early 1989 cracks were appearing in the Soviet Union, and Liu believes that this must have influenced how China’s Communist party responded to dissent. “China was a much poorer country than the Soviet Union. They had oil, petroleum, gold, uranium – and yet the Soviet Union still seemed to be failing.”

In the square the atmosphere remained jubilant even after martial law was imposed on 20th May. “The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were sent into the city but were blocked by workers and students telling them to turn around and leave,” says Liu. “The shot of the worker flashing the victory sign [above] captured the atmosphere. Many of the protesters were talking to the soldiers, it was still friendly.”

Protesters ask soldiers to leave the city

Students unveil their ‘Goddess of Democracy’

On 2nd June, after weeks of inaction, the Communist Party elite gave the go-ahead to put down the protests by force. As troops entered Beijing and moved towards the square they were once again blocked by protesters. This time there would be no turning back.

More troops arrived in the city in the early hours of 4th June with a deadline to clear the square by 6am. They were ordered not to open fire, although Liu awoke early that day to the sound of gunshots. Troops had started shooting at protesters who were trying to prevent them from entering the square. “They were terrible hours,” remembers Liu. He jumped on his bicycle, taking photographs as he went. “People were urging rickshaw drivers to go and fetch the wounded,” he says. “As they headed to the hospital, I followed them, one hand steering the bike, shooting the scene with the other.”

On 5th June Liu was shooting from the rooftop of a building on the square. “There was a couple on the bicycle under a bridge, so I shot a few frames,” he says [see page 89]. “It captures everything. The young lovers, the bike. The two soldiers standing on top of the tanks. It has so much meaning that I rushed right back and I put the pictures on the wire.”

Back then photographers were shooting on film. Rolls would be couriered across the city and developed before the images were scanned and transmitted across a phone line to the Associated Press bureau in Tokyo. “I told everybody to never hang up the phone,” says Liu, who was editing all AP’s photos from Beijing as well as shooting his own. “I was afraid that if we lost the connection we wouldn’t be able to get it back. The long distance phone bill was enormous, but that’s the price we paid to make sure we were connected with the world. For 48 hours we kept sending images.”

One such image would encapsulate the defiance of the protesters – Jeff Widener’s iconic shot of one man, holding two shopping bags, standing in front of a convoy of tanks. It was an image Liu played a part in creating. “After the PLA stormed Tiananmen Square, my bosses in New York asked me for pictures of what the square looked like at daybreak [on 5th June]. I knew the only place these pictures could be taken was from the balcony of the Beijing Hotel. So I set Jeff up there. A couple of hours later I got a phone call from him saying, ‘I have pictures of a man in front of some tanks.’ I told him to separate the film from the camera, leave everything in the room, and then come down to the lobby of the Beijing Hotel, where foreign students would hang out. I told him to find a student and let him be his messenger to bring me the film, since they had less chance than him of being stopped. Another 45 minutes passed. Eventually a blond American student with a ponytail and a backpack showed up at the AP bureau. We processed the film, and we saw the ‘Tank Man’ frame that you all know now.”

On 4th June 1989 injured students are rushed from Tiananmen Square to the Peking Medical College Hospital in nearby Wangfujing on the back of flat-bed carts

PLA soldiers amid the wreckage

No one knows for certain how many died in Tiananmen Square. The Chinese Red Cross initially reported 2,600 casualties, but this figure was retracted under pressure from the government. A secret diplomatic cable from then British ambassador to China, Sir Alan Donald – released in 2017 – said that 10,000 had died across the city. The official figure is 241 dead, including soldiers, and 7,000 wounded. People reacted with shock and anger, but there were no further large-scale protests.

Liu believes that the authorities were able to restore order because the economic growth kicked off by the Second Enlightenment continued with the support of the US. “Immediately after Tiananmen, George Bush Sr sent his national security advisor Brent Scowcroft to Beijing to see Deng Xiaoping and encourage him to carry on his economic reform,” says Liu. “Without that we might not have seen these years of dramatic reform that have turned China’s economy around. ”

“I’ll remember what I saw in 1989 forever,” says Liu. “But I’ve witnessed a lot more Chinese history than just those terrible days. China has changed beyond recognition. Over 500 million people have been lifted out of poverty, and it’s a very good thing for mankind.”

The 30-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising coincided with a new wave of protests against Chinese rule in Hong Kong, where Liu lives. He is reluctant to draw parallels between the motivations of the two groups of protesters, but with the world once again watching how China deals with dissent, this is a moment to gauge how much it has changed since 1989. “So many things have changed, but yet in many ways we haven’t changed fast enough,” says Liu. “The expectation is always that politics would change when the economy got better, that more liberal reform would happen. But for those of us who have watched China, the idea of two steps forward, one step backward is nothing new”.

Musicians entertaining protesters in Tiananmen Square before the troops moved in

Businesswomen Sara Si and Jennifer Cao drive through the Pudong district, an area designated as China’s Wall Street. Shanghai, 2010

Further reading

Life in a Sea of Red, Liu Heung Shing’s new book of photographs taken during the pivotal years of communism in China and Russia, is available now for £85, published by Steidl Books

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