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June 4, 2009

Our Man In Tiananmen: Then and Now (Or: It’s A Hell Of A Lot Better Using An Umbrella Than A Machine Gun)


Some comments from contributer Alan Chin, who made these photographs in and around Tiananmen Square yesterday:

It was very weird for me to be back, exactly twenty years later. Most of these people here today were children or weren’t even born yet when the masscre happened.

I tried to remember the approximate spot on which the statue of democracy had stood. I remembered the student loudspeakers playing Beethoven’s Ode To Joy and the stench of garbage after many weeks of the sit-in. I had seen the wreckage of makeshift barricades and heard automatic weapons firing for the first time in my life when I went down to Changan Boulevard. I wasn’t really a photographer yet, or anything else, of course.

It’s a cliché, but a bargain was made back then between the government and the people: leave the politics to us and you can make money. That was the deal, and its basically worked. People were protesting for economic rights as well as political rights. For hundred of millions of people, those economic opportunities have come true. One cannot deny that.

It’s emblematic that they didn’t fill the Square with soldiers today, but instead filled it with plainclothesman.


Some of them were quite overt, guys with short haircuts and badges. I think half the people I photographed were undercover agents. That includes those two guys in white t-shirts, though I can’t confirm it. Some looked like migrant workers, except you would see the walkie-talkies sticking out of their pockets. It was an overt-covert thing. There were three tiers, those in uniform, those dressed like civilians wearing a pin, and those with no pin — but all with short hair.

They were blocking the CNN cameras using umbrellas. The NYT called it comical. But, I was thinking they were thinking it’s a lot better to be comical then deadly. If you’re gonna block democracy with an umbrella, it’s a hell of a lot better than blocking it with a machine gun. Of course, you’re still blocking it. I had a lot of the same feelings when I was here last year during the earthquake. All these children died needlessly. There was scandal, then coverup. But their disaster response was much better, arguably, then ours during Katrina.

Overall though, who would have thought I would be here this moment, let alone, staying in a nice apartment in this modern city, talking back to the States on Skype.

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For historical context, I took this photo of the student protesters in Tiananmen Square on June 2, 1989. The square and the surrounding area were stormed by the army with great loss of life on the the next night, June 3-4.

Note: PDN has CNN and BBC footage of the networks trying, with difficulty, to film in Tiananmen Square yesterday.

(images: Alan Chin/BAGnewsNotes.com. Beijing, China. June 4, 2009)

About the Photographer

Alan Chin

Alan Chin was born and raised in New York City’s Chinatown. Alan Chin was born and raised in New York City’s Chinatown. Since 1996, he has worked in China, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. In the US, Alan has explored the South, following the historic trail of the civil rights movement and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, covered multiple presidential campaigns, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. He is a contributing photographer to Newsweek/Daily Beast and The New York Times, a member of Facing Change: Documenting America (FCDA), and an editor at Newsmotion.org. You can see all Alan's posts for BagNews here.

  • caraf

    Wonderful photos, Alan! And thanks for your reflections, too. So interesting to hear from folks there then and now.

  • http://twitter.com/carmensuen carmen suen

    Great post! Enjoyed the photos & the first-person perspective.

  • yg

    it was wonderful to see more than a hundred thousand people in hong kong protest and hold a vigil to commemorate tiananmen square.
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8075884.stm

  • http://www.gongshangfa.com Rhodo Zeb

    Thanks for the pics and thoughts. The perspective is very good.
    Its getting better. *Lives* are getting better, I want to say. A whole generation.
    But there are critical issues still to be faced. The next decade will not be easy.
    I expelled my thoughts on living within this in Shanghai:
    http://www.gongshangfa.com/2009/06/09/wrapping-up-a-moment-in-time-for-now/
    And may the Plum Rains cleanse us all…

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