HONG KONG—One evening 30 years ago, Wu Xiangdong took his girlfriend home and then, defying orders that had gone out over state media, went to Tiananmen Square, his camera in tow.
For the past six weeks, the square—which lies at the heart of Beijing—had been the epicenter of student protests that eventually swelled into a movement of more than a million Chinese calling for democratic reform, an end to government corruption, and a better-functioning economy. Wu wanted those things, too. But he was also an amateur photographer, and what place was more important than Tiananmen Square?
The next day—June 4, 1989—the Chinese People’s Liberation Army moved in with tanks and machine guns to clear the area. A bullet from one of those machine guns struck Wu in the neck, killing him. He was just 21. When his family retrieved his body from the hospital, they found a roll of undeveloped film in his camera.
Photos from Wu’s final roll are some of the first objects you see upon entering the June 4 Museum here in Hong Kong. A few of Wu’s other possessions sit in a case alongside artifacts left behind by other Tiananmen Square victims: a bullet pulled from a leg, a pair of glasses missing the left frame. Nearby, an exhibit displays watches and silver ballpoint pens the army gave to soldiers as thanks for carrying out the shootings.
These items are more than just symbols of one of the most turbulent periods in China’s recent history—they are evidence that something Beijing says didn’t happen did, in fact, occur. China censors all mentions of the Tiananmen Square protests, and subsequent crackdown, domestically. The iconic photo of the anonymous “tank man” staring down a line of armored vehicles as they left the square the following day is impossible to find, and even veiled references to the massacre, such as the term May 35, are omitted from the press, public discourse, and online communication. Parents who lost their sons and daughters in 1989 can expect to be jailed for bringing it up.