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Society & Culture

Leica’s Tiananmen Ad Is So Bad It Hurts

Apr 24 , 2019

“Leica” is at risk of becoming a taboo word in China, and not just for the over-sensitive censors but for ordinary netizens as well. The brand name has not been entirely blocked yet, and links to its discredited “Tiananmen” video still show up on Baidu search, at least at the time of writing, but authorities and anti-authoritarians alike seem to agree that it touches on a sensitive topic in an insensitive way.

A number of journalists, photographers and eyewitnesses to the Tiananmen uprising of ’89 have joined the chorus, echoing Beijing in its displeasure, though for starkly different reasons. As someone who bore witness to the joyous demonstrations and terrifying crackdown that followed, I count myself among those troubled by the Leica ad.

The problem is not that the Tiananmen protest being invoked; far from it, most veterans of the peaceful uprising applaud efforts to keep the memory alive and look forward to the day when crowds can gather in peaceful commemoration at Tiananmen Square.

Rather it is the commercialization of the tragedy of June 4, 1989 - using it to sell a product-- that leaves a bad after-taste. Leica’s treatment of this definitive event in modern Chinese history is tone-deaf and exploitative; it’s like using the Kennedy assassination to sell Coke, or perhaps closer to the point, the collapse of the Twin Towers to sell cameras. Even in countries where censorship is minimal and advertising reigns supreme, it is callous to re-enact tragedy to boost business.

Leica’s ad agency is unapologetic. It certainly enjoys the right to make edgy adverts and tacky promos, and, in the same spirit of freedom, people have the right to boycott Leica products if they don’t like what they see.

Leica’s PR department, sensing trouble, quickly soft-pedaled involvement in the promo, saying it was not “official,” but why did they sponsor it, then? What were they thinking?

It looks like Leica wanted to have their cake and eat it, too. On the one hand, the lens-maker has an exclusive and lucrative deal with Huawei, China’s flagship phone manufacturer, to integrate its camera technology into their popular product, and indeed the Leica brand appears on the back of Huawei phones. On the other hand, Leica would appear to be distancing itself from both embattled Huawei and China, both increasingly subject to US circumscription, by producing a subliminally racist piece of corporate propaganda that is guaranteed to rile.

Suffering apparent flashbacks to a brutal confrontation in Africa, Leica’s fictional photographer treats the most distressing moment in modern Chinese history like a wild safari; what counts are the heroics of getting the “kill” shot.

Although Tiananmen Square had its share of gonzo journalists parachuted in, most of the working press tried not to make themselves part of the story. The Leica angle perversely suggests that heroics of snapping a photo is the story. It focuses on the journalist’s cultural ignorance and elevates it to a point of pride:

“I don’t understand what you are saying,” says the American cameraman. “I don’t speak Chinese.”

Certainly that was true for most journalists in Beijing at the time, but it was no badge of honor not to know the language, not then, not now.

How much power would the words, “I don’t speak English” (voiced gruffly in a foreign language) carry if a foreign visitor with a camera got in a confrontation with a US policeman or military personnel?

Worse yet is the promo’s closing line. When the “hero” zeroes in for the kill shot of the man in front of the tank the narrator says:

“We smile to ourselves and proudly whisper, I am a hunter.”

Cringe.

This not only incenses the censors of Beijing but hurts the pride of news collectors who were actually there in Beijing in 1989 and saw things quite differently. It wasn’t a hunt, it was a heartbreaking story. Though one could detect a world-weary hint of pride in the professional cameramen, and they were all men, what with their war stories and scars they bore from covering violent conflicts around the globe, I was touched by their cool under fire and the compassion they brought to the indifferent gaze of the camera.

Those of us who stood witness to the rise and fall of people power were humbled by it, there was nothing dashing or heroic about seeing a city besieged by its own troops. And the essence of the story wasn’t about a man dawdling in front of a line of retreating tanks. The June 5 photo remains visually intriguing, but it was after the fact, a mere coda to a vanquished rebellion.


Online critics took issue not just with the “hunter” narrative, but the casting of a white American male in that role. In 1989, the “elite” Western press corps was indeed mostly white and male. There were frontline exceptions to this; Melinda Liu of Newsweek and Kate Adie of BBC both did exemplary reporting, and many Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese and journalists from Hong Kong who did vital work behind the scenes, or behind the veil of non-English language media.

As gunfire emptied the streets, journalists sought shelter in the Beijing Hotel. Like the character in the Leica ad, a Hong Kong reporter who had been confronted by Chinese police, came running to my room where the BBC crew and a Chinese student activist were already holed up. Some details of the re-enactment ring true; we dimmed the lights and pulled the curtains in the room to avoid being targeted, and we hid video tapes in the bathroom air vent. During the all-night vigil I shared with John Simpson and the cameramen, we watched from the balcony facing the square until the room next door was hit by gunfire.

The Leica promo is exploitative and the gist of it is wrong. The hotel doesn’t look right, the sole Chinese character, a villainous guard, doesn’t talk right, and the star cameraman looks like a wannbe action hero, but perhaps the most telling slip of all is the camera. It was not a Leica but a Nikon that produced the iconic photograph of the man standing in front of the tank.

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