Profile in Courage

Fifteen years later, a photograph of an anonymous protester facing down a row of tanks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square still inspires astonishment

The photograph may not be beautiful or artistic, but it is nothing short of heart-stopping. There he is, a thin young man dressed in a white shirt and dark pants squaring off against a line of tanks, a lone human figure daring a great nation's military to mow him down in plain sight. The setting, of course, is Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the world's largest public plaza, now well remembered as the site of the climactic showdown between student protesters and China's socialist government 15 years ago this June. The incident continues to shape perceptions of that nation, and the photograph continues to inspire—an instant profile in courage captured by an American Associated Press photographer reeling from a concussion and using borrowed film he would give to another young American to stash in his underwear and spirit away from the violent scene.

The protesters, hundreds of thousands strong, had gathered to oppose government corruption, restrictions on free speech and joblessness. The demonstrations had begun two months earlier, following an outlandish claim in the Communist Party's official newspaper, the People's Daily, that a student group was plotting a coup d'état. Students from more than three dozen universities marched on the square and staged hunger strikes and sit-ins. Many camped out in makeshift shelters. The government declared martial law, and by June 3, tens of thousands of troops from the People's Liberation Army, under orders to remove the protesters, rumbled to the square in armored personnel carriers. Students threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, and the soldiers opened fire, killing several hundred protesters and wounding perhaps thousands. In one incident, a tank reportedly crushed 11 civilians.

Jeff Widener, then a 33-year-old AP picture editor based in Bangkok, was photographing the melee about 1 a.m. on June 4 when a brick, thrown by a protester, hit him in the face. The blow was softened by the titanium camera he happened to be looking through. With a bloody nose and a concussion, he bicycled the two miles to the AP's Beijing office and then to his hotel. Still woozy the next day, he headed back to the square, crossing streets littered with burnt buses and smashed bicycles. He'd heard that soldiers were using electric cattle prods to force photojournalists to surrender their equipment, so when Widener stumbled upon a visiting American, a student he knew only as Kurt, he asked to take pictures from the young man's room on the sixth floor of the Beijing Hotel, not far from Tiananmen Square.

Out of film, he hastily borrowed a roll from Kurt, loaded it into a camera and went out to the room's balcony. Using a device that doubled the power of his 400-millimeter telephoto lens, Widener watched the crucial event unfold about half a mile away on a street leading to the square. "The protester walks out and I'm thinking, 'This guy is going to screw up my [photograph],'" he recalls. "That's how messed up I was. I knew they were going to shoot him, so I got focused and waited for them to shoot him. Then he started to walk up to the tank." Only after Widener had squeezed the shutter a few times did he realize his f-stop setting was wrong for the borrowed film. Too late: several students grabbed the protester and pulled him out of the tanks' path.

Widener gave the film to Kurt, who stuffed the roll into his underwear and bicycled past soldiers to the AP office. After being developed, the grainy photograph was transmitted on the AP news wire within hours. Widener was not the only one to capture the protester's defiant stance (other photographs and memorable video footage exist), but his photograph was the first to be widely disseminated, appearing in newspapers and magazines worldwide.

In China, authorities under Deng Xiaoping swiftly purged the government of officials perceived as sympathetic to the protesters and placed many under house arrest; some are reportedly still detained today. The Chinese government has yet to make public the number of people killed or injured in the protest, and more than 80 protesters remain in Chinese jails, according to Amnesty International. In the United States, President George H. W. Bush gave a measured response, saying the nation "could not condone the violent attacks" but also had to remain engaged with China and work toward human rights. While the State Department briefly fretted about the possibility of a Chinese civil war, the United States applied limited economic sanctions to China, including the suspension of government to government sales. Some sanctions were soon lifted; others are still in place.

But a decade and a half later, Widener's photograph retains all of its potency. "It's an urgently important message about what you can do if you have the guts to do it," says Mickey Spiegel, a China specialist at Human Rights Watch in New York City, who has hung the photograph in every office she has occupied since 1989. Richard Baum, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, says there's "an emotional legacy to that shot. I think that has cost China more in public image than any other single image in modern times."

Despite news reports saying his name is Wang Weilin, the gutsy protester's identity and his whereabouts remain a mystery, says human rights advocate Spiegel. (Chinese authorities dispute the Wang reports, and no such individual has surfaced.) Regardless, Time magazine in 1998 named the anonymous protester to a list of the top 20 leaders and revolutionaries of the 20th century.

Widener, now 47 and a staff photographer for the Honolulu Advertiser in Hawaii, has considered going to China to revisit the story. "The picture's part of my life now," says the photographer, who says the protester's act was timeless. "His message was, 'Enough's enough. There's been enough killing. It's got to stop.'"

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