Wednesday, June 4, 2014

June 4, 1989

The Tank Man, June 5, 1989
The world is closing in
Did you ever think
That we could be so close
Like brothers.

Scorpions - Wind of Change

It's a quiet day in Beijing, China. The air is impregnated with disillusion,
hopelessness, and the numbing smell
of death. The people's composure as they run their errands is the one that characterizes the vanquished after a lost battle.
A file of tanks suddenly appears cranking down Chang'an Avenue in a parading order, directed towards the north section of Tiananmen Square. The tanks are zigzagging victoriously along the avenue in the ultimate act of mockery towards the civilians in the streets of Beijing and of every revolting city in The People's Republic of China, just like Achilles tying Hector's heels to a chariot and dragging his dead body in the dust.
Until something happens, unexpected: one man alone, with two shopping bags as his only weapons, stands in the street forcing the proud march of the tanks to an inglorious and embarrassing halt.
As the tanks try to move on around the man, he moves too and keeps standing in their way, forcing the whole column of tanks to shut off their engines and wait, powerless.
This happened on June 5, 1989, one day after the Chinese government's violent act of repression against thousands of protesters in Tiananmen Square, a repression that, only apparently, had forced the People of the Republic of China on their knees. If some had surrendered to the government's will, not everyone resigned to a fate of open derision.

The day before, on June 4, 1989, Deng Xiaopeng, after declaring Martial Law on May 20, ordered the troops to clear Tiananmen Square: by dawn there should be no more students occupying the square. The space became a battlefield where only one side was armed and attacking, while the other ran defenseless in all directions for their lives. Students and workers, women and men who were pacifically trying to block the army from entering Tiananmen Square, where about a million were protesting against the government's corruption and for more freedom of speech and thought, were shot and wounded. Some journalists who were reporting the facts for the rest of the world also barely made it alive. Several civilians were killed. Corpses, blood stains, and cars on fire made a new scenario that night.
At about 2am on June 4, all the lights in Tiananmen Square were turned off by military order. Shots echoed in the dark mixed with screaming and sounds of human pain. When the light came on again, it was a bloodshed.
The People of China had been ruthlessly defeated. 

Today is June 4, 2014. We remember the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the brave act of millions of students who protested and marched pacifically for two months.

We remember the brave act of a single man who stood against the "iron feet of oppression", and blocked them, and mocked them in front of the entire world.
No one knows what happened to that man, but history logic tells us that he was probably never identified, never found, never caught, never killed.

Whether it is so or not, this is the ending we all would like to imagine.



  1. It was a profoundly courageous act, Jay, but here, I confess, I'm in two minds as to the arguments for and against the government repression. Bear in mind I'm a historian and tend to focus on choices and consequences. The whole history of China as been one of stability followed by rapid disintegration, and this would have been very much in the government's mind - and perhaps the majority of Chinese. I don't know that. ie the choice between stability and freedom with a history like China's. When you see the consequences of the various 'Springs' from the Middle East to the Ukraine you can see the Chinese point of view. It's probably why most Russians support Putin. After the humiliations and chaos years of Yeltsin Putin may be delivering what Russians want. Not what we want.

  2. Mike,
    I think we are referring to two different things here: you are referring to the stability of a country, I am referring to the stability of a party. Analyzing history, it is pretty clear that the stability of the Communist Party and of their personal advantage had always been Mao's and Deng Xiaopeng's priorities. Mao deformed Marx's theories of a revolutionary society convincing the People of China (and not only the People of China) that a revolution of the people could only be guided by a revolutionary party, i.e. Mao's Communist Party; in this way, he put his interests, his leadership, and his party in a safe haven: you can't lead a revolution against the leaders of a revolution. Deng Xiaopeng was moved by similar ideals, but the situation fell out of his hands: when the students and, after a while, millions of people in over 400 cities across China (we're not just talking Beijing here) brought forth Marx's ideals of revolution pacifically asking for the rights of speech and thought, calling for the official rehabilitation of Hu Yaobang's reputation and marching against the party's corruption, Deng Xiaopeng feared for his own position: he was 86 years old and if he went down right then, he wouldn't have had another chance; martial law and a violent repression were the only possible solutions against a new movement led by educated people who possessed the intellectual strength to defeat his arguments. He knew that if he had sat at a table and discussed, he would have lost.
    When it comes to what is in the minds of the majority of Chinese, you are not considering that the majority of Chinese cannot access enough information to have a clear mind about what stability means. Mike, we have very little knowledge of what the Chinese or the Russians want when people like Deng Xiaopeng, Mao Zedong, or Vladimir Putin are on power.
    The Chinese government has done an awfully good job burying the memory of what happened in 1989 and, nowadays, in China there is very little knowledge of what "Tiananmen Massacre" refers to. Go check what happens if you type "1989" into Baidu Baike, the Chinese version of Wikipedia; this is what you get:
    "1989是1988与1990之间的自然数": "1989 is the number between 1988 and 1990".

    So, although I won't buy it, I can see Deng Xiaopeng's point, and even Mao's.
    But, with all due respect, I can't see yours.

  3. I think the core of the issue is here, Jay, where you write: "martial law and a violent repression were the only possible solutions against a new movement led by educated people who possessed the intellectual strength to defeat his arguments. He knew that if he had sat at a table and discussed, he would have lost." My point is that the intellectual strength in terms of debating points is immaterial if it opens Pandora's box and every kind of chaos. I have no illusions in Mao or Deng, and accept your analysis of them, but equally so every successful Chinese government from the Manchu to the C21st has been based on the self interest of a small elite. This, of course is true of American and the UK, though we dress it up with pageantry and Game Show elections where decreasing amounts of people vote for Rich Punch or Rich Judy. We bear it for as long as prosperity and stability lasts. When it doesn't the velvet gloves will be removed.

    Tiananmen Square is not uniquely Chinese.