Killing the Chickens, 1989

The title for the Independent Magazine’s 2 June 1990 story on the aftermath of Tiananmen Square protests comes from a Chinese proverb: “Killing the chickens to scare the monkeys”. It referred to making an example of some protestors to quell further dissidents. According to Amnesty International, hundreds of “chickens” (Chinese dissident sources put the number much higher) were killed in show trials and summary justice executions across China following the crackdown at Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989.

The Independent magazine received the photos via Agence VU and published them on the condition that neither the execution site nor the photographer would be identified. Christian Caujolle, the founder of Agence VU, remembered working with the photographer now credited as “Pascal G.”:

I had been working with this Chinese photographer whose name I won’t reveal for a year.

At the time, rolls of film were secretly smuggled to us, via Roissy, when planes arrived from Beijing. He worked in a large provincial town, and as is often the case, he had good relations with the authorities who commissioned him for certain events.

At the time of the major student demonstrations in June 1989, the army called on him to take photos. He went there with two devices. In his photos we see that they are demonstrators thanks to the inscriptions on the signs they wear around their necks. They were arrested, tried, then executed in front of him.

Some of these images were then displayed in front of the court, the party headquarters, as propaganda tools. The photographer had found a way to send us prints, to which he had attached a note: He explicitly asked us that they be published in the press as quickly as possible. I refused, considering it dangerous for him, and put them in the agency’s safe. Six months later, we managed to get him out of the country, without his daughter and wife remaining there. When he arrived in France, he kept saying that he wasn’t happy, that I didn’t know anything about China, that his photos were taken in the provinces and that he was in no danger.

They were published for the first anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in The Independent in England, then in France, Germany and around the world.

What I feared happened: a week later, his wife and daughter were arrested by the police. I then activated all the diplomatic networks, from the deputies to the Quai d’Orsay. They were great: we managed to get his family out of China. Today, his photos are one of the rare accounts of the executions of the Beijing Spring protesters.

The photos were now thought to be taken after the “Little Tiananmen” incident in Chengdu. On the day after June 4th, citizens of Chengdu, Sichuan took to the streets, carrying banners denouncing the “June 4th massacre.” On June 10, the city government issued a notice requiring “criminals who participated in “beating, smashing, looting, and burning” to “surrender” at the local police station and would be “leniently treated.”

The older man in the pictures, Zhou Xiangcheng, was a small trader who worked in the city’s street markets and lived in the suburbs. The younger man was Wang Guiyuan, an unemployed farm labourer. Wang surrendered after the city government’s notice, but it was not clear whether Zhou turned himself in or was arrested. They were quickly tried and executed on July 8, 1989.

Police asked photographers and TV crews to witness the public execution and the news were printed in Sichuan Provincial Party Newspaper “Sichuan Daily” and Xinhua News Agency Telegraph to forewarn the others.

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