Tiananmen Square

The Tiananmen Square Protests Weren't What Everyone Thought They Were

On the 30th anniversary of Beijing's pro-democracy protests, Patrick Zachmann's photos capture what happened before the Tanks arrived.

by Patrick Zachmann; as told to Pierre Longeray
08 May 2019, 11:20am

A drama student performs her interpretation of "The pain of the Chinese people”. All photos: Patrick Zachmann/Magnum

This article originally appeared on VICE France

Almost 30 years ago, on the 5th of June, 1989, a man faced down a row of tanks on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. That iconic image – which was captured the day after troops had entered the square and shot at pro-democracy demonstrators – has come to represent the Chinese government's violent crackdown of that summer's student-led movement. But because of the confrontational nature of the image and what followed afterwards, people tend to forget that up until that point, the demonstrations were fairly peaceful.

Magnum photographer Patrick Zachmann was in Beijing in the weeks leadings up to the government's acts of repression. Through his words and photos, he recounts what he saw.

*

I arrived in Beijing on the 13th of May, 1989. Hu Yaobang, the former president of the Chinese Communist Party, had died a month earlier. Yaobang was highly regarded as an incorruptible reformer for a more open government. His death triggered a wave of pro-democracy protests – but by the time I arrived, the protests had started to die down.

I had come to China to shoot portraits of young people in Beijing. I hadn't planned to document the protests, really, but on my way from the airport to my hotel, which was right next to Tiananmen, I saw a small number of people gathering in the square. I walked to the square and realised that the students were on a hunger strike.

1552486515721-PAR361820
Tiananmen Square, May 1989.

I spent the next ten days in the square. When I think back on it, I was just lucky to be there at the right time – I had no idea the demonstrations would start up again. At first, I was one of the only western photographers there. But two days after my arrival, the atmosphere changed: Gorbachev arrived in Beijing for an official visit, bringing with him press from around the world.

I watched as journalists arrived on the square with their cameras, stepladders and walkie-talkies. Each photographer landed with their own army of reporters and fixers. I wasn't too happy with how some of these other journalists behaved. It was the great era of photojournalism, when reporters jumped on a plane as soon as a conflict broke out, passing from one to another, often without much understanding of what was actually going on.

As a result, some of them acted poorly, taking photos of the young people without actually speaking to them to get their opinions. Still, the students were incredibly welcoming – they saw the free press as heroes.

1552486453735-NN11461465
The second day of the hunger strikes. May, 1989.

The atmosphere on the square was an unusual mix of joy and tension, constantly flitting between the two. It was beautiful to see young people inventing new ways of resisting right before our eyes. Some people hosted small workshops at the corners of the square, while others started unions and made placards. The students quickly learned how to organise themselves – demonstrators who came to join the protests quickly found themselves in positions of authority, giving speeches to thousands of people.

With all this positive action going on, protesters were still in a constant state of worry. Rumours about tanks circling the city were always swirling around, especially at night. In the course of my ten days and nights on the square, this tension gradually ate away at the joy, eventually giving way to paranoia, which turned out to be justified in light of the terrible repression that followed.

1552482387051-PAR88842
A film crew captures the action on Tiananmen square. May, 1989.

I left the square on the 23rd of May, three days after martial law was declared, and ten days before the repression started. Showing these photos 30 years later is a reminder of the courage, heedlessness, mad hope and freedom that existed before repression.

Scroll down to see more photos from Patrick Zachamann.

1552482512561-PAR361808
Students spending a night on the square.
1557236080432-int
Wu’er Kaixi, leader of the Beijing Spring, gives an interview in a tent. Weakened by the hunger strike, he breathes with an oxygen mask.
1552482600434-PAR47485
A crowd protect the students by blocking the army and stopping them from reaching the square..
1552482622142-PAR366364

1552482662686-PAR362935
An early morning on Tiananmen Square.
1552482707619-PAR88892
A protester wrapped in a flag.
1552482744459-PAR363738

1552482931587-PAR361256
A press conference in front of the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution.
1552482771160-PAR88880
Soldiers join the student demonstrators heading towards Tiananmen Square to show their solidarity.
1552485373462-PAR88822