Remembering June 4th

Today the Shanghai Stock Exchange fell 64.89 points. This may not seem like dramatic news to most people, but for anybody who remembers June 4, 1989 (6489), this brings chills.

June 4th is the day the Tiananmen Square Massacre took place 23 years ago in Beijing, China; when the Chinese government ordered the People’s Liberation Army to fire upon thousands of unarmed civilians who were peacefully demonstrating during the Democracy Movement.

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, ChinaPhoto of Tiananmen Square crackdown, Beijing, China 1989

The Chinese Communist Party has never released a death toll from the crackdown, but estimates range from several hundred to several thousand by witnesses and human rights groups.

June 4th is an extremely sensitive topic in China, and is also one of the most censored. You won’t find mention of it anywhere in Chinese history books. In fact, most people born after 1989 don’t even know it happened.

You can imagine the nervousness of the Communist Party today when the stock exchange closed 64.89 points lower, reminding everyone once again of a date it has been trying to erase from history for the past 23 years. Even more spooky is that the Shanghai Composite Index opened at 2,346.98—as in “Let’s not forget 23 years ago, on 4 June,’89 (only the year’s digits are switched).

It made the Politiburo so paranoid, in fact, that it blocked microbloggers on China’s most popular version of Twitter, censoring anything related to June 4th. Messages containing words like stock exchange, 23, 6/4, remember, tanks, and never forget were blocked.

The Chinese have always been superstitious about numbers. Just flash back to the Beijing Olympics, held on 8/8/08 starting at 8:08 because the number 8 is considered lucky. Some say today’s symbolic ticker numbers were brought on by the Karmic gods. Others speculate the stock exchange was hacked by clever activists. Whatever the case, clearly it was meant for all the world to remember what happened in Tiananmen Square twenty-three years ago and to honor the innocent victims.

As you may remember, my husband, Jeffrey Aaronson, was in the middle of the Democracy Movement when it unfolded in Tiananmen Square. If you missed my post about it and are interested in reading it, you can click on the link below:

My Crash Course in Living Through the Lens

In honor or remembering Tiananmen, I’m also posting a small excerpt from my book in progress, The Art of an Improbable Life: My Twenty Years with an International Photojournalist.

Chapter Ten

Tiananmen’s Shadow
Beijing, China


As Zhang Xianling cradles her son’s motorcycle helmet, remembering the last time she saw him alive, tears begin to pool in the corner of her eyes, betraying the iron fortitude she normally wears.

“The bullet entered Wang Nan’s head above his left eye,” Zhang begins as she looks up at Jeffrey, “and exited behind his ear, penetrating the motorcycle helmet he was wearing.”

Jeffrey winces, then feels his stomach tighten as if he’s just been kicked in the gut. Though he’s witnessed much agony in the world as a photojournalist, he’s never hardened to it.

“Nan was a junior in high school,” Zhang continues. “He had gone out to take pictures the night of June 3rd. He was passionate about photography and wanted to capture history.”

Then she stops and closes her eyes. After inhaling a sonorous breath of calm and courage, she continues, “The instant his flash went off, a soldier aimed his gun and shot him through the head.”

The sorrow draped across Zhang Xianling’s face reinforces why Jeffrey has risked so much to be here: This mother’s story deserves to be told. And so do all the others.

Eleven years earlier Jeffrey had been in Tiananmen Square photographing China’s Democracy Movement, capturing the exuberance of students and workers peacefully demonstrating, hoping to bring change to their country. He documented a million people marching with banners and flags, protesters carrying anti-corruption placards and hunger strikers facing off with a government they believed was no longer listening to their demands for a more open society.

Jeffrey had spent an entire month in Beijing that hot spring of 1989, but it wasn’t until now that he was finally able to reveal what had happened on the night of June 3rd, and into the pre-dawn hours of June 4th, when the Chinese government ordered the People’s Liberation Army to quash the Democracy Movement with resounding force. Hundreds, if not thousands, of unarmed Chinese civilians were killed by the PLA as soldiers randomly shot into the crowd fleeing Tiananmen Square and the surrounding areas.

This act, which quickly became known as the June 4th Massacre, or the Tiananmen Massacre, is something the Chinese government has tried to cover up ever since, and something the victim’s families have struggled with as they seek justice and accountability.

Jeffrey hopes his photo project will bring the June 4th Massacre to light again, to show the world what really happened. His story won’t involve graphic images of bodies mowed down by the PLA, but instead, iconic portraits of family members of the victims, and those casualties of the movement who survived, but whose lives have been shattered. Their testimony about the massacre will also accompany the photographs he is creating . . .


Here’s to remembering June 4th and never forgetting those who have been silenced.

16 thoughts on “Remembering June 4th

  1. I get busy with my “easy-in-comparison” life–and forget, temporarily, about all the sacrifices and senseless deaths due to differences in opinion, selfish power, the almighty dollar, and pure cruelty and disregard for human life.

    It saddens me to think of all the massaged history-it is indecent not to honor those who stood up for their beliefs and tried to make a difference; those whose families will mourn them for eternity.

    The fact that this was a peaceful demonstration makes it even more painful…as there was nothing to retaliate against except differences, which seem to be cause for humans to act in unthinkable ways.

    • It’s easy to forget or ignore madness like this when our lives are full, and events are taking place a world away. This project made it so personal, though,I will never be able to forget these people and what happened to them. I’m glad I could share a small piece of it with you.

  2. The excerpt from you work-in-progress is a reminder of how often a single story, or a single image, becomes a poignant, powerful representation of a collective disaster. (The book I recommended to you, with its fictional rendering of the Rwandan genocide, had the same impact on me.) Looking forward to hearing more about the new book as it evolves. And please let me know if I should continue waiting to buy the existing book for my iPad, or get the Kindle edition. Not that I’m impatient. ;-)

    • Deborah, there are so many stories from Tiananmen…the young couple returning home from a date, hiding in the bushes when they heard gunfire, and then being hit by stray bullets…the painter who was finishing painting a restaurant near Tiananmen, hit in the legs when trying to run away from the chaos…the husband who went for a stroll after his bath–still wearing his slippers, never to be seen again…the young son who went out to buy a bus pass and was mowed down by bullets. And then all those who could only claim their loved ones bodies if they agreed to sign a paper saying they were rioting. Heartbreaking stuff.

      On a happier note, to answer your other question, Steve & i is officially available for the iPad TODAY!! It only took Apple 65 days to review it and get it into the iTunes store! :-) I’ll be making an announcement soon. In the meantime, here’s the link:

  3. Brian sent this comment via email:

    We in America talk so much about human rights, freedom, yet in our own history books there is no mention of the workers movement of the early twentieth century, the Wobblies. Joe Hill, “The Man Who Never Died”, the story of how wicked things were for working people gets right in there along side of China for the deception that the governments can undertake when it looks to be for their benefit or strike from the records when we look bad.

    • Brian, your comment is well taken. I appreciate you taking the time to share your two cents. You are right, it’s easy to condemn other countries for human rights violations and ignore our own record. We still have work to do ourselves. This may sound naive, but for me the difference is that we have the luxury of voting for who we want in office and we have the luxury of speaking freely when we are unhappy or want change. We will not be imprisoned or tortured for holding up a sign that says, “Throw the bums out.”

  4. Hi Becky, I just read your post and must admit that although I remember Tiananmen Square in the news (has it been 23 years?) I have not paid much attention to that part of the world. As you know, every chance I get I’m in Africa.
    So, thanks to posts like this, I can catch up on and be reminded that there are other places in the world besides Africa.:) What a life you and Jeffrey have.
    Amazing. I am so happy you are pursuing your book about it. Thanks, Lori

    • Thanks, Lori. So nice of you to swing by and leave a comment. There is so much going on in the world ALL THE TIME, it’s impossible to keep up with it all. That’s why we all have to follow our hearts to where they lead us. What you are doing in Africa is wonderful. In fact I talk about your bag project all the time, telling people that one person can make a difference.

  5. What a great post, Becky, thank you for sharing it. And congratulations on having ANOTHER book-in-progress! I so enjoyed your other one, and can’t wait to read this one. What a team you and Jeffrey are — really holding true to this statement in your blog, “This mother’s story deserves to be told. And so do all the others.” So true.

    • Thanks, Melissa. This book has been in the works for quite some time now. I’m hoping to finish it soon. Might have to stop blogging for a while to do it. :-)

      And your post today was so powerful! Kapow! I’m thinking extra good thoughts for you and your family. Stay strong.

  6. Thank you for your post Becky. Jeffrey has done so much important work; none, I think, more poignant than his return journey to China to speak with some of the many victim’s families. The world is indeed a heartbreaking place at times. This is one of the many historic moments that we all need to be reminded of.

    • Chris, of all the projects Jeffrey has done, I think Tiananmen’s Shadow is one of the most important (in addition to the one he’s currently working on–which is still under wraps). You remember all too well the agony of the victims and their families, and the heart racing insanity Jeffrey went through to get their stories out. Most people don’t know that many of the families are STILL being harassed and censored by the police 23 years later.

      Remember Fang Zhang, the former champion sprinter who lost both legs after being run over by a tank? I just found out that he now lives in California. Apparently the Chinese government gave him a passport and “encouraged” him to leave the country during the Olympics because he wouldn’t agree to keep silent about how he lost his legs. Now he has high-tech prosthetic legs and has even been able to dance with his wife (shown on YouTube). He wants to send a powerful message to the people still struggling in China that they will not be forgotten.

  7. Such an important post, Becky. I can’t believe it’s been 23 years. So much has changed in China since then, and yet still so much is the same–especially the continued denial of human rights and basic freedoms for so many people. It’s so important to keep talking about it. Thank you!

    • Yes, much has changed in China, and at warp speed, no less, but unfortunately, human rights is not something that has evolved like the economy. It’s hard to be optimistic when the government is still censoring Tiananmen 23 years later, but let’s hope the leaders come to realize that it’s unnecessary to censor and hide things when people have freedom.

  8. “…never forgetting those who have been silenced.” Amen.

    Beautiful post, beautiful writing, Becky. Thank you for reminding us of that day. I can’t believe it has been 23 years. I remember watching the events unfold on TV and hoping for a better outcome. People like your husband and you, who document these times, will help ensure that we never forget those who were silenced.

    • Thanks, Tina. It is hard to believe that it was 23 years ago. Life marches on…that’s why it’s important not to forget those left behind. Thankfully journalists all around the world help give voice to those who still cannot speak freely.

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