Thursday, June 3, 2004

The mood in Tiananmen Square was tense on June 3, 1989, when Jeff Widener took this photo. At night the killing started.

Lecture focuses lens
on Tiananmen

By all appearances, the economic juggernaut that is China is growing strong. To Western eyes, glittering new condominiums and shopping malls in Shanghai are indicative of success and progress since June 3, 1989, when government tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square to crush a student rebellion.

15 Years after Tiananmen Square

Place: Honolulu Academy of Arts Doris Duke Theatre

When: 7 p.m. tomorrow

Admission: Free

But on the 15th anniversary of the tragedy, Daniel Kwok, professor emeritus of history at the University of Hawaii, says the people of China are still waiting for an apology from their government. Until that happens, the current truce is just an illusion.

Kwok will speak at the Honolulu Academy of Arts Doris Duke Theatre at 7 p.m. tomorrow, along with Honolulu Advertiser photographer Jeff Widener, who will show his photos from the historic event.

Widener, who was the Southeast Asia picture editor for AP Bangkok at the time, will speak about the events that led up to his Pulitzer Prize-nominated photograph of a young man standing up to a line of tanks. Kwok will offer background to the events leading up to the Tiananmen tragedy.

While the West tends to look at China's economic success with optimism, Kwok believes the country's hope for a new political system that would allow more personal freedom died at Tiananmen Square.

"Basically, the Western view is that political change comes out of economic change, but in China, there's been no political reforms at all," he said. "It's unfortunate, because earlier that year, China was kind of an example to Eastern Europe.

"The demonstrators in Tiananmen Square really lit up the hopes of people for change everywhere. They were encouraged by it. That's when the Berlin Wall came down.

"I'll be speaking about the hopefulness of the spring of 1989, part of the long year of acceleration of human beings trying to liberate themselves."

Jeff Widener's photo of a young man standing up to tanks on June 5, 1989, appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

THE DEMONSTRATIONS started innocently enough, as students gathered to memorialize former Communist Party secretary Hu Yaobang, who died of a heart attack on April 15, 1989, two years after being dismissed from his post because, according to Kwok, Deng Xiaoping believed Hu had been too successful in rehabilitating people persecuted during the Cultural Revolution.

Students mourned at Beijing University, but the government, fearing trouble during Hu's funeral on April 22, announced that Tiananmen Square -- the "Heavenly Gate" at the entrance to the Forbidden City, where people gathered to celebrate holidays -- would be off limits.

More than 100,000 students entered Tiananmen the night before the funeral, and police could not stop the throngs that kept coming.

In Bangkok, Widener learned what was happening, and headed to China after sidestepping visa and passport roadblocks. He was able to get into China with a tourist visa and was lucky to get all his equipment in while security guards were distracted by an old woman with a chicken.

Bicycling around Tiananmen, he said the scene was cordial. "Soldiers and students were sharing cigarettes and candy," he said.

"The students were well-organized. They had their own levels of security and handmade printing presses where they turned out leaflets and flyers."

Students wanted an end to corruption, respect for personal freedom and better treatment of intellectuals, but the huge mob scared officials.

On June 3, students were getting pushed around, and Widener said he had a bad feeling. At night, he headed back to Tiananmen, when an armored personnel carrier tore past him.

"People started chasing it and I followed the crowd," he said. "They were jumping on top of it and waving flags."

Rocks were flying, he heard gunfire and explosions and he saw a man on fire. As he was about to snap a photo, he said, "Something hit me with a terrific blow. The top viewfinder was ripped off the camera. I was so out of it that I started asking people around me if they had a flash when I had no camera."

He had suffered a concussion, but kept going. He saw a crowd circling a soldier and the fear in his face. "This guy was going to die and there was nothing I could do," he said.

The next day, AP requested a photo inside the square, so Widener headed to the overlooking Beijing Hotel. The hotel was heavily guarded but he waved to a hotel guest, feigning friendship with a stranger named Kurt. Guards assumed he was a tourist and let him through, clearing the way for his renowned photo.

"I still think about the pictures I missed," he said. "I've never forgotten the soldier, or an old guy, about 80 or 90, with two teeth, who opened his jacket to show a hatchet covered with blood. You can't experience that without it affecting your life."

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