Pacific Tides
My name is Thomas Sturm and I'm a programmer, photographer and writer.

Now go outside and look at the sky.

The Tragedy of Innocence

June 4th 2019 is the 30th anniversary of the end of the student uprising in China, the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing and mass-imprisonment and executions of student leaders all across the country.

Much has been written over the years about the student-led uprising which had the support of wide swaths of the population and I am not enough of a scholar of Chinese history to add anything substantial to the record.

But history has a tendency to distort, as the fog of time is shaping a picture of the past that is often inaccurate and always incomplete. In the case of Tiananmen, the Chinese government has undertaken an almost unprecedented operation to remove all traces of the Tiananmen massacre from its history. And internationally, 1989 was a year of massive political change that has overshadowed what had happened in China.

But I was there.

That gives me a perspective only shared by a few thousand foreigners who were in China in the spring of 1989. As I traveled the country in April, May and June of 1989, I was a wide-eyed, naive observer with almost no background knowledge and no Chinese language skills. But instead of limiting my exposure to these events, it actually made the memories of what happened more intense.

I've written before about what it felt like to get caught in these demonstrations - untold masses of people, probably in the hundreds of thousands, were marching through Shanghai when I was there as martial law was declared in Beijing.

And it was not just me that was innocent and clueless. Many times, while caught in a maelstrom of humanity in the streets of Shanghai, I was approached by young Chinese people with questions that I was not prepared to answer: "What is Democracy?" "What is freedom?"

What struck me while talking to these students - most of them, like me, in their early 20s - was their complete innocence. Nobody had planned any of this. Nobody had any idea what to do next and nobody knew what the ultimate goal of these protests should be. There were calls for Democracy, but none of these people had ever experienced a democratic system or had even a vague idea of how to implement something like that in the China of 1989.

For one brief moment their shackles had been removed and these students - kids, really - received a taste of what freedom could be like. After living their lives in a very restrictive system, here they were, carrying a hastily made simile of the Statue of Liberty through the streets of Shanghai.

For a few days - just a single heartbeat in the long history of China - the innocence of these young women and men had won. It would take all the might and the violence of a corrupt regime to suppress them. Old men holding on to meaningless power for way too long, committing murder on the youth of their own country, their death a tragedy of innocence.

I was there.

Standing among those students in their moment of innocent celebration will forever be one of the most beautiful moments of my life.

© 1998 - 2024 Thomas Sturm