Tank Man, Tiananmen Square, 1989
Photo: Jeff Widener
A painting by Sheng Qi, recalling the protest at Tiananmen Square
Looking for democracy in China? You can find it by millions voting on their cell
phones in a Chinese version of "American Idol," choosing to ignore the paradox that
the citizens of the world's most populous nation are free to vote for a singer … but
not for their own leaders.
How distant from 20 years ago when students took over the heart of their nation's capital, Tiananmen Square, demanding reforms of all kinds, under the gaze of a statue they called the Goddess of Democracy.
Attracting support from millions in all walks of life gave students the bravery to go face-to-face with their leaders, thinking their cause could bring change.
It's a page of history written largely by coincidence: The world press was actually in Beijing to cover a summit between the Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev and China's Deng Xiao Ping.
And yet there we were - reporting on a nation unraveling.
China's leaders soon realized that not only were they losing face … they were losing
control of the streets.
Twenty years later, it now seems clear that what brought these people to the square was less about democracy as we know it - free speech or elections - and about more fundamental demands.
In 1989, the Chinese Communist Party was so domineering it controlled virtually every aspect of day-to-day life.
Princeton professor emeritus Perry Link, who's spent his career studying modern
China, said, "You have to get permission of your work leader to move, to have
children, to get married. All these personal freedoms were constricted.
"And there was a sense that this party system that's been with us for three or four decades now, is holding us back. That was what really fueled the movement."
To Western onlookers, it seemed as if a new China was taking-shape in the square. But behind closed doors, party leaders felt their political survival was in grave danger.
And so in the early hours of June 4, China's hardliners ended the two-month old movement by killing their young.
Even today, no one knows how many died as a result of the crackdown.
Jeff Widener, then working for the Associated Press, took pictures through the night and came back the next day to snap one more image from a balcony.
"This is a nice compressed shot of tanks coming," he recalled, "and this guy walks out." Widener thought, "'This guy is going to screw up my picture.'"
The result: An image now known simply as the Tank Man.
"Why do you think that image resonated around the world?" Petersen asked.
"Well, it's David and Goliath," Widener said.
Artist Sheng Qi said of the Tank Man, "Compared to 4 tanks, the
man is tiny, but he is powerful."
Sheng is called the "Four Finger Artist" - after the Tiananmen massacre, he cut off a finger as a kind of protest, then fled to London, where he first saw the Tank Man picture.
Now back in China, his artwork mocking state power might have gotten him arrested in 1989. But China has changed just enough that, today, the authorities don't bother him. Still …
"I can tell you're nervous about talking to us about this," Petersen said. "Yeah, but I still talk," he laughed.
"Why do you still talk, then? You have courage?"
Indeed, the Tank Man image and others from Tiananmen Square remain censored in China - as are Internet sites about the events.
The result: Most people here have never seen this iconic picture.
What they have seen is increasing prosperity across their country.
That may explain why few people expect any new uprising here on Tiananmen Square.
The party eased its control over people's daily lives, as the protestors wanted, and in exchange for keeping its power … it let the country get rich.
The deal worked. In a generation, says the World Bank, China lifted 500 million out of poverty.
"If you're repressed for a long time and then suddenly it's said, 'Okay, on this side you can go whole hog but not this,' well, of course you go where you can go," said Perry.
"The hallmark of the new generation that's been educated since the '90s is to shut up about ideals and pursue your own self interest."
And self interest means letting the Communist Party rule ... and letting go of the dreams that 20 years ago - if only for a brief time - so many believed could come true.