June 4, 2019, marks the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Former Associated Press (AP) journalist Jeff Widener, who was present at the scene to cover the story, recollects his experience of the events unfolding in front of his eyes.
Thirty years have passed since the Chinese Communist regime crushed a student-led demonstration calling for democratic reform and against government corruption.
The legacy of the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square lingers in Hong Kong. But in mainland China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has virtually erased all public mention of it.
Widener said China needs to move forward and “come clean on what happened.” Widener who was a former AP photographer and photo editor recalled how he was assigned to cover the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests.
“In 1989, I was the Southeast Asia picture editor for The Associated Press, so my job is to cover most of the southern Asian countries. But this was such a big story that the AP headquarters decided to pull me in to help on the story,” said Widener.
Widener said he took photographs of civilians with rocks standing on a Chinese regime armored vehicle.
Then he saw soldiers advancing toward Tiananmen Square and people running away. “At the time it was incredible because you have thousands and thousands of people wanting democracy in a communist country—one of the biggest, the biggest communist country in the world,” said Widener. “I knew that that combination could be a powder keg,” added Widener.
He recalled his early morning routine, describing the scene. “I would pedal a bicycle to the Tiananmen Square. … It was quite amazing because the sun was rising by the time I got there,” said Widener.
“And there was the goddess of democracy, which is a replica of the Statue of Liberty and [it] is facing directly across the street of the Forbidden City where the large Mao portrait, Chairman Mao portrait is,” said Widener.
“So you had this democracy facing off with communism that was quite striking,” declared Widener.
Widener then talked about the story behind the famous photo he took—that of the picture of the man standing in front of an approaching tank.
“I started to take a photograph, and a guy walks out with shopping bags and I’m thinking to myself, … this guy’s going to mess up my photograph, stated Widener.
“So, I just watched him and waited. But they didn’t shoot him. So I thought you know I need a closer shot. I went to the back and grabbed another lens, which doubled the focal length to an 800-millimeter, said Widener.
“I took three pictures until I noticed that the shutter was at 30th of a second, which was a disaster. And by the time I figured out what happened, the man was swept away and I just really thought I lost the photo,” said Widener regretfully.
Thirty years have passed. Widener cannot understand why the CCP still refuses to admit what had happened. “I think it’s time for China to move forward and just come clean on what happened,” said Widener.
“Report to the family members what happened to their loved ones so that they can put this to rest. And I think that’s the right decent thing to do,” he added.
“The United States and other European countries have made mistakes throughout history and they’ve reconciled those problems,” Widener concluded.
Includes reporting from The Associated Press