Dissident artist Ai Weiwei and iconic photojournalist Jeff Widener make us remember the atrocities of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, twenty-five years on.

Dissident artist Ai Weiwei and iconic photojournalist Jeff Widener make us remember the atrocities of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, twenty-five years on.

In a recent Time magazine interview with Jeff Widener the seasoned photojournalist – who worked as a picture editor for the Associated Press in Southeast Asia during the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre – eloquently articulated the power behind his most iconic photograph, ‘Tank Man’.

“Here’s this guy who is obviously just out shopping, and finally he’s just had enough ” says Widener in Time. “I assume he thinks he’s going to die. But he doesn’t care because for whatever reason — either he’s lost a loved one or he’s just had it with the government, or whatever it is — his statement is more important than his own life.”

The image, a hugely moving portrayal of individual resistance to a tyrannical oppressive regime, has become a symbol for freedom fighters everywhere and, as the world acknowledges the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, its power is more poignant than ever. The image, in a characteristic act of censorship and rewriting of history, is still banned by the government in China.

In Huck 28 John Sunyer, now Commissioning Editor at the Financial Times Weekend, interviewed Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei exclusively for the magazine after his controversial detention in Beijing. He wrote this about the 2011 government crackdown on artists.

“Dozens of artists and writers that support Weiwei’s call for freedom of speech have been abducted, tortured and imprisoned in the last five months. Given the authorities’ bullyboy tactics and the constant threat of prison, many have been forced to choose between the insidious force of self-censorship and exile: stay silent, or leave.

‘It’s well-known that torture in custody is rampant in China,’ says Phelim Kine, a senior Asia researcher with the New York-based Human Rights Watch. ‘The Chinese regime uses criminal and thuggish methods to silence dissent. […] It’s becoming distressingly routine for the authorities to pay absolutely no attention to the law. Since mid February, they’ve thrown the rulebook out the window.’

For Chinese writer Ma Jian, the situation feels all too familiar. ‘It reminds me of the repressive period that followed the Tiananmen massacre of 1989,’ says Ma, who wrote an explosive fictional account of this period in Beijing Coma, which tackled the horrors of how Chinese security forces killed up to seven thousand students and supporters who had been demonstrating for democratic reform for over six weeks.

According to Ma, there is a new sense of ‘dread and trepidation’ whenever he speaks to his Chinese friends on the phone. ‘Their voices sound knotted and strained. They’re terrified of being overheard saying something they shouldn’t,’ he says. ‘But I won’t let any of this alter the way I think and write.'”

Despite the relentless struggle by activists and human rights organisations, China continues to silence any resistance to its oppressive rule.

Writing for Bloomberg News just yesterday, Weiwei revealed that his work was removed from two recent exhibitions in Shanghai and Beijing in a bid to keep him out of the public eye in the run up to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

According to Weiwei:

“Modern China’s forgetfulness did not start or end with Tiananmen. Even before the summer of 1989, dozens of darker, crueler incidents lay hidden in Chinese history. Today’s leaders cannot acknowledge their stated ideology before 1949, the principles that helped the Communists gain power over the Nationalist government: establishing a democratic and law-abiding society, ending the one-party system and having an independent judiciary. In 1989, the students in Tiananmen Square asked for those same things. Since then, they’ve become unmentionable.

[…] China has chosen to forget, or to allow forgetting – an attitude the West will find hard to understand. This provides China a way to liberate itself from heavy self-criticism, as well as a heavier moral burden. More important, it frees Chinese from responsibility for their actions and acquiescence.

If China has pulled off an economic miracle since 1989, this self-imposed amnesia is also a sort of Chinese miracle. The mindset will not change until Chinese themselves understand that the lack of accurate information about their own past injures their well-being just as much as the polluted air or corruption.

How long can China continue on this forgetful path? With the internet and globalization exposing citizens to truths that are self-evident elsewhere in the world, the country is facing an internal crisis of credibility. The loss of trust and moral common ground between individuals and the state is the most dangerous issue facing the regime today. China cannot move forward unless it first confronts this problem – rather than suppressing it like so much else in our history.”

The situation is bleak but it’s thanks to the work of free minds like Weiwei and Widener that things can begin to change. Despite facing arrests and government brutality an organisation like New Citizen’s Movement could show a new future for a more democratic China.

You can read the Huck Ai Weiwei story in full here. And read more about the situation in China on Human Rights Watch.