As It Happens

Journalist Arthur Kent releases remastered footage from Tiananmen Square massacre

Thirty years after the deadly crackdown, Arthur Kent has restored his footage and released a short film, Black Night In June.

Canadian reporter identified a pair of student activists from the 30-year-old video of the deadly crackdown

This screenshot from Canadian journalist Arthur Kent's film Black Night In June shows a young couple at the Tienanmen Square massacre. They have since been identified as former student activists Kenneth Lam, a Hong Kong lawyer, and Cheng Zhen, who fled China to the U.S. (Arthur Kent/Black Night In June)

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Arthur Kent was covering peaceful student protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square 30 years ago when gunfire erupted and a sea of armed soldiers swarmed the streets. 

The Canadian reporter took out his camera and filmed the Chinese government's now infamous bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in June 1989 — a massacre that is believed to have killed thousands of people.

Three decades later, Kent has restored his footage and released a short film called Black Night In June on his website

He's also been able to identify a pair of young student activists captured in the film as Kenneth Lam, now a human rights lawyer, and Cheng Zhen, who has since fled China to the U.S. 

Kent, who has previously worked for CBC, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about what he saw back then, and what he's learned since. Here is part of their conversation.

That night — the night of the massacre — [at] what point did you realize that something terrible was happening?

We heard gunshots in the distance on Chang'an street, on the Avenue of Eternal Peace, and searchlights, spotlights shining down towards the crowd of protesters.

I saw that these were army helmets, like a black wave washing down the avenue towards us. And then live fire, the sound of live fire assault rifles ... and they were firing directly into the crowd of demonstrators.

It was then, when I was running along with the demonstrators, retreating back to the east towards Tiananmen Square, that it sank in. This was an armed assault.

  • Warning: The following video contains graphic imagery 

How did the students respond when they started to realize what was surrounding them?

That was the extraordinary and riveting thing about it. They were defiant. They charged. In fact, you'll see a scene in my film where where they're yelling, "Forward!" and actually going to a barricade and advancing against the oncoming waves of PLO soldiers.

You started to film scenes of the students taking their friends out, trying to get them medical treatment, trying to get them away from the square. ... Just describe some of the things that have really haunted you about this footage that you took.

At the time, there was almost a feeling of exhilaration to be there and witnessing this extraordinary cohesion and this communal feeling among the protesters. 

And then arriving in the square, there were medical students among the protesters and medics from area hospitals. They had a MASH [mobile army surgical hospital] unit set up in the centre of Tiananmen Square.

It is terrifically difficult to remember at a distance. At the time, however, I was blessed at having to be able to make a camera function. And doing that enabled me to do what the medics were doing, which was, even though the gunfire was approaching, they administered CPR, they gave mouth to mouth, they tried to save lives — and did so under the most extraordinary circumstances.

So to me, at the time, I just wanted to make sure that I didn't screw up, that I got something on tape, that I made a record and got it out of there.

In this screenshot from footage of the Tiananmen Square massacre by Calgary journalist Arthur Kent, medical personnel tend to injured pro-democracy protesters in the street. (Arthur Kent/Black Night In June)

Do you sense when you look at that footage that you're looking at the faces of young people who we don't know what happened to them afterwards?

Ever since I recorded them, yes, and have looked at them in my mind over the years. And, of course, the Tiananmen mothers, more than 120 mothers of the dead and missing, are still demanding in China, in Beijing and elsewhere in China, that the government, the Communist leadership, come clean.

But you did find out what happened to at least one young man who's with a young woman. They could be the poster children for Tiananmen Square. And what have you learned recently about [them]?

The Hong Kong Free Press ran a story about my film and a journalist in Hong Kong contacted the news organization and myself and said, look, that young man is Kenneth Lam, who's now a solicitor, a human rights lawyer in Hong Kong.

And a day later ... I was exchanging emails with Kenneth Lam. For the first time, I know his name, and that Cheng Zhen, the girl that I filmed at his side ... she and he made it out on the 5th of June.

She now resides in the United States. She was resettled as part of Operation Yellow Bird, which evacuated a number of the senior student leaders of the pro-democracy movement.

To learn Kenneth and Cheng Zhen's names and to know that they got out of there alive is just an enormous relief, and again, demonstrates 30 years on that the historical record has great value and utility in reminding everybody what really happened.

Arthur, I know you have covered conflicts and wars around the world. You have seen a lot of horrible things. But talking to you, you became very emotional talking about what you saw in Tiananmen Square. Why did it affect you so much?

I was looking at these people — many of them in their early 20s, some still in their teens — and there I was filming them. I was with them as their futures seemed to be crushed in front of them in the cruellest way. And why? Because they simply asked for the democratic freedoms that I enjoy.

It, since then, has been a difficult thing to carry. To think, particularly as China is celebrated as an economic success story ... to understand that that has happened in an atmosphere, a reality, of political repression such as we were warned by [author] George Orwell would be our curse, if we ever allowed a nation to kill its own children in the street.

And that's what they did. And that's what they still defend.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Allie Jaynes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


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