The man in front of the tank: How journalists smuggled out the iconic Tiananmen Square photo | CNN (2024)

Editor’s Note: Mike Chinoy is a non-resident senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute, and a former Beijing bureau chief and senior Asia correspondent for CNN. He recently published “Assignment China: An Oral History of American Journalists in the People’s Republic.” The interviews in this piece are excerpted from the book.


The shot is iconic: an unidentified man in a white shirt, hands full of bags, facing off against a column of tanks on Beijing’s Avenue of Eternal Peace, after the Chinese Communist Party ordered a bloody military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

The photo and footage of the so-called “tank man” became the defining image of the Tiananmen Square crackdown whose 35th anniversary passed on Tuesday.

On the night of June 3, 1989, after nearly two months of demonstrations by students and workers demanding faster political reform and an end to corruption, convoys of armed troops entered central Beijing to clear the square. It was a bloodbath; witnesses described tanks driving over unarmed protesters, and soldiers firing indiscriminately into the crowd.

To this day the massacre remains one of the most sensitive political taboos in mainland China, with all mention of it strictly censored. Commemoration can lead to imprisonment. Chinese authorities have not released an official death toll, but estimates range from several hundred to thousands.

The man in front of the tank: How journalists smuggled out the iconic Tiananmen Square photo | CNN (1)

People hold candles at a vigil in Hong Kong to mark the Tiananmen Square anniversary on June 4, 2017. Hong Kong, a former British colony, was the only place on Chinese soil where such vigils were allowed — until Beijing's recent crackdown on the city ended the decades-long tradition.

Still, each June 4 since, diaspora communities and surviving protesters in exile around the world have commemorated the event– often resharing the historic photo by Jeff Widener, then a photographer for the Associated Press (AP), as well as footage shot by CNN’s crews.

The journey of the photograph, too, captured the tension and fear of the time – involving smuggling equipment and film past authorities and across borders. By that point, the Chinese government was trying desperately to control the message going out to the world – and was trying to stop all American news outlets, including CNN, from broadcasting live from Beijing.

These interviews, excerpted from “Assignment China: An Oral History of American Journalists in the People’s Republic” by Mike Chinoy, CNN’s Beijing bureau chief during the crackdown, offer the behind-the-scenes story of perhaps the most famous moment in the crisis. Chinoy was there, broadcasting live from a balcony overlooking the scene, and spoke to witnesses during and after the historic event.

Sneaking in and smuggling equipment

It was Monday, June 5, 1989, and Beijing was reeling from the crackdown the day before. Liu Heung-shing, the photo editor for the AP in Beijing, asked Widener to help get photos of Chinese troops from the Beijing Hotel – which had the best vantage point of the square, now under military control.

Widener had flown in from the news agency’s Bangkok office a week before to help with coverage, and was hurt when the crackdown began, he told CNN previously – after having been hit in the head by a rock, and laid low with the flu.

He set off, with his camera equipment hidden in his jacket – a long 400-millimeter lens in one pocket, a doubler in another, film in his underwear and the camera body in his back pocket.

The man in front of the tank: How journalists smuggled out the iconic Tiananmen Square photo | CNN (2)

A young woman is caught between civilians and Chinese soldiers near the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, June 3, 1989.

“I’m biking towards the Beijing Hotel and there’s just debris and charred buses on the ground,” he said. “All of a sudden, there’s four tanks coming, manned by soldiers with heavy machine guns. I’m on my bicycle thinking I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

“I hear rumors that other journalists had had their film and cameras confiscated. I had to figure out a way to get into the hotel,” he added. “I look inside the darkened lobby, and there’s this Western college kid. I walked up to him and whispered, ‘I’m from Associated Press, can you let me up to your room?’ He picked up on it right away and said, ‘Sure.’”

That young man was Kirk Martsen – an American exchange student who snuck Widener into his sixth-floor hotel room.

From there, Widener began photographing the tanks rolling by on the roads below – sometimes hearing the ring of a bell that signified a cart passing by with a body, or an injured person being taken to the hospital, he said.

Capturing the shot

Other journalists were at the hotel, too – including Jonathan Schaer, CNN’s US-based cameraman who flew into Beijing to support his exhausted colleagues. He’d set up a camera on the balcony of CNN’s room at the hotel, where the network had been broadcasting live reports of the crackdown throughout the weekend.

“Another cameraman said, ‘Hey, look at the guy in front of the tanks!’ I just zoomed in and started videotaping,” Schaer recalled.

“When the column stopped and the man blocked the tanks, they were trying to scare him off by shooting over his head. Well, shooting over his head was basically where our position was. The bullets were so close you could hear them whizzing by.”

Back in Martsen’s room, Widener was at the window, preparing to photograph the column of tanks coming down the road, when “this guy with shopping bags walks out in front and starts waving the bags,” he said. “I’m just waiting for him to get shot, holding the focus on him, waiting and waiting.”

The man in front of the tank: How journalists smuggled out the iconic Tiananmen Square photo | CNN (3)

Jeff Widener's iconic "Tank Man" photo on June 5, 1989, showing an unidentified man standing in front of a column of tanks after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing, China.

The tank stopped and tried to go around the man. The man moved with the tank, blocking its path once again. At one point during the standoff, the man climbed aboard the lead tank and appeared to speak to whoever was inside.

But Widener had a problem – the scene was too far away for his 400-mm lens. His doubler, which would allow him to zoom in twice as much, lay on the bed, leaving him a choice: Should he go grab the doubler, and risk losing the shot in those precious seconds?

He took the chance, got the doubler on the camera, took “one, two, three shots. Then it was over,” he said. “Some people came, grabbed this guy, and ran off. I remember sitting down on this little sofa next to the window and the student (Martsen) said, ‘Did you get it? Did you get it?’ Something in the back of my mind said maybe I got it, but I’m not sure.”

Liu remembers getting the call from Widener, and immediately firing off instructions: roll up the film, go down to the lobby, and ask one of the many foreign students there to bring it to the AP office.

The pictures were soon transmitted over telephone lines to the rest of the world.

Widener did, sending the student bicycling away with the film hidden in his underwear. Forty-five minutes later, “an American guy with a ponytail and a backpack showed up with an AP envelope,” said Liu. They quickly developed the film, “and I looked at that frame – and that’s the frame. It went out.”

The man in front of the tank: How journalists smuggled out the iconic Tiananmen Square photo | CNN (4)

A student protester before a burning armored personnel carrier that rammed through student lines, injuring many during an attack on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on June 4, 1989.

Schaer, the CNN photojournalist, didn’t initially realize what they had captured on tape. This was in the early days of email, which didn’t yet handle large video – so CNN was using a “gizmo that could send video … a prototype that Sony had given us to try out,” which took an hour to scan one frame of video and send it over a phone line, he said.

So they sent five frames, made copies of the tape and sent it to the airport in Beijing – where they enlisted a tourist to take the tape to Hong Kong, which at the time was still a British colony and not subject to Chinese rule.

Several media outlets took a photo of “Tank Man,” but Widener’s shot was the most used. It appeared on the front pages of newspapers all around the world, and it was nominated that year for a Pulitzer Prize.

Widener said he didn’t know the image had made such an impact until the next morning, when he arrived at the AP office to find messages from viewers and journalists all over the world.

To this day, we don’t know who the man is and what happened to him. But he remains a powerful symbol of the individual standing up to the power of the state.

“I suppose for a lot of people it’s something personal, because this guy represents everything in our lives that we’re battling, because we’re all battling something,” Widener said. “He’s really become a symbol for a lot of people.”

Excerpted from Assignment China: An Oral History of American Journalists in the People’s Republic by MikeChinoy. Copyright (c) 2023 MichaelChinoy. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

The man in front of the tank: How journalists smuggled out the iconic Tiananmen Square photo | CNN (2024)
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