On this date, June 5th, 1989.
Approximately a decade following the Tiananmen Square massacre I had the pleasure of being invited to dinner by a gentleman who claimed to know a great Chinese restaurant. Over appetizers he popped the question of what it would take for me to accept China. My academic advisor at that time had cautioned me about talking in restaurants and, as a result, I could not help wondering where the wire was planted and, comically, thinking what monetary figure they were expecting to hear. They must have been deeply disappointed by the response.
For tens of millions of people around the world, events of Tiananmen Square are one of the first things that come to mind when the People’s Republic of China is discussed. As a result, I could not help but state that he was sadly mistaken to believe there was any issue with China. To the contrary, I explained, I loved China, its people, culture, long history and, besides, the egg rolls we were consuming tasted delicious. (He did not see the humor.) The contributions made to the world, going back to the earliest of dynasties, are well-documented. Sun Tzu Wu, for example, is regarded by many as possibly the greatest strategic thinker of all time, and he continues to be studied with great care. His work, which is generally determined to originate from around 500 BC, remains top-shelf reading for governments around the world. No, I informed this individual, he was sadly mistaken; I “accept” China, but I refuse to recognize the communist dictatorship in power. There is a difference.
What had culminated in a massive pro-democracy movement by average citizens, spanning hundreds of cities throughout the People’s Republic of China, was brought to a head in violent fashion by orders passed down by the Communist Party Politburo on June 4th, 1989. In keeping with the highest tradition of despots seeking to suppress the toiling masses, while maintaining their hold on power, the “people’s commissars” approved the storming of Tiananmen Square by the so-called “People’s Liberation Army” on June 3rd. Modern photo-journalistic technology enabled the following day’s violent carnage by drug-induced troops to be caught on camera, providing the world a ringside seat, showing the iron fist of tyranny in all its grand splendor. Of no less significance and, many would argue, greater implication, was the act by one man the following day which, ironically, took place on a street named the Avenue of Eternal Peace.
The Tiananmen bloodbath followed several months of pro-democracy seeds being planted, nurtured, and eventually sprouting at universities and worksites across the People’s Republic of China. The most significant hub of this activity occurred at schools located throughout the Beijing metropolitan region, where highly educated political leaders rose up from nowhere to take charge of a quickly building movement. Some of these individuals returned to the PRC from universities in America, where they were inoculated with the ideals of individual liberty and free market economics. After seeing events unfold on the other side of the Asian continent, in Soviet Bloc countries, and hearing of the enormous freedoms bestowed upon the American people, millions of Chinese citizens wondered that if a similar movement could happen behind the Iron Curtain in Europe, then why not here?
The sudden death, that year, by heart attack of Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, who was purged for advocating leniency and political reform, happened on April 15. Hu, whose death was surrounded by questions and rumors of high stakes intrigue, quickly became a martyr for the large, growing number of supporters backing a pro-democracy movement. Posters and makeshift statues honoring Hu became popular throughout the country. The movement’s energy was quickly surpassing in magnitude many similar causes taking place in the European theater of the Soviet Bloc. The Politburo and cadre of senior PLA officers were getting nervous.
Politics is often times stranger than fiction and nowhere is it more apparent than in socialist dictatorships dominated by one-party rule. For a decade the West was given heavy doses of political resistance in viewing anti-communist uprisings that began as peaceful labor protests in a Gdansk shipyard, but later ended in a bloody heap on the streets of Beijing. It should not, in fact, be lost on anyone the unusual coincidence that orders to squash the Tiananmen resistance came the same day as the first free parliamentary elections in Poland since installation of the Soviet puppet regime at the end of WWII. A message was clearly being sent and the Chinese people better comply.
The following day, on June 5th, sanitation operations commenced and, to the fullest extent possible, evidence was hid at the scene of the crime. In a final act of defiance, one man, carrying nothing but a shopping bag in each hand, stood in from of PLA tanks patrolling nearby streets, challenging them to run him over in the same manner as that carried out against his fellow citizens. To this day, the photographs and film footage serves as a reminder to people everywhere that one individual, with courage and determination, can make a difference in the face of evil.
While 1983 will someday be remembered as the year the communist bloc carried out unprecedented acts of violence against the West, 1989 will be remembered as the year the West witnessed the rise of the common man behind the Iron Curtain, whether in Poland, Hungary, or at the Berlin Wall. Nowhere, however, was that phenomenal year more symbolic than the scene showing a lone Chinese man staring down the tanks of tyrants. Though the entire incident lasted but a few minutes Tank Man’s actions are fixated in the minds of millions who long for the day when they too can be free.
Tank Man’s identity, like the collapse of the Communist Bloc, remains a mystery. Even Jiang Zemin, former Chinese leader, could not, or would not, state what happened to the individual, or even acknowledge his identity when asked. This leaves those of us in the West questioning what happened on the streets of not just Communist China, but the entire communist bloc of nations during the 1980s. Those now living in free countries owe the 200 million people who lost their lives to communism in the 20th Century the continuation of Tank Man’s memorial act. Students today, few of which were even alive in 1989, must be taught his courageous act. We owe him and all the rest at least that much.