When China Was on the Brink

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When China Was on the Brink

James Carman

The story behind our Autumn cover image.

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2m 41sec


Robert Croma, who took the photograph that appears on the cover of our Autumn 2010 issue, came to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in late May 1989 drawn, like many other photojournalists and members of the international media, by a growing sense that something historic was underway. What had started the previous month as a memorial gathering for Hu Yaobang, a leader of a Chinese reform movement during the 1970s, had become the most significant political protest in communist China’s history, with more than a million demonstrators crowding the square, many of them students unhappy about the slow pace of political and social reform. Their number included such leading dissidents as Liu Xiaobo, the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

When Croma arrived, no one knew that the event would soon end in tragedy but it was clear that the government—led by the reform-minded communist party general secretary Zhao Ziyang but including such hard-liners as Premier Li Peng—was under intense pressure to end the demonstration. After several failed attempts by Zhao to persuade the demonstrators to disperse peacefully, the hard-liners prevailed, and on June 2 the order went out to the military to end the “counter-revolutionary riot.”
Croma was on the scene on the night of June 3, when the People’s Liberation Army moved in, launching a chaotic night marked by confusion and gunfire. During the night, Croma told me in an email, he “lost a number of exposed rolls of film after I was attacked in the lobby of a building. In a momentary lapse of judgment, I had just photographed several severely injured—probably dead—soldiers laid out on the lobby floor. A number of screaming and highly emotional plainclothes men (I presumed connected with the military/security services) grabbed me violently, hitting me in the process and demanding all my film from both my pockets and cameras. I quickly complied with their commands as I realized the volatility of the situation had suddenly become immediately dangerous to myself. I’d already seen several people killed by that stage.”
But the next morning, Croma was back on the street after a sleepless night, documenting what he could of the remnants of the previous night’s fighting. He came upon a large group of young Chinese people, yelling and screaming. The young man in the cover photograph—whose identity Croma doesn’t know—was part of that group. As the photographer approached, he turned in anguish to point at the burning wreckage behind him, and that’s when Croma snapped the picture. Later that night, Croma left for London, and his photograph appeared in several prominent publications, including Time magazine.
There is no official tally of how many demonstrators or troops lost their lives on June 3 and 4. Estimates range from a few hundred to thousands. The day after Croma left Beijing, the most iconic image of the event emerged, when a man—to this day, no one knows who he was or what became of him—stepped in front of advancing tanks, a solitary act of defiance that the world will long remember.