Some of you remember this guy. This moment.
It was June 1989. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had been in power for forty years, following decades of civil war against the Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was declared in 1949 with Mao Zedong as its unquestioned first-among-equals; he ran the nation in ways both brutal and strange.
The KMT, led by Mao’s nemesis Chiang Kai-Shek, retreated to Taiwan, where they established Alt-China, or China Classic, and remained (in the eyes of the west) the officially recognized government until 1971. Despite being virulently anti-Communist, the KMT weren’t exactly “good guys” in this tale. Taiwan was under martial law for nearly forty years, led by a government in perpetual paranoia over potential spies or Commie sympathizers. In 1971, the United Nations finally said “screw it” and gave their seat to the PRC.
Within a few short years, China Major – the big, red part we all know and love today – went from a “Cultural Revolution” in which anyone insufficiently excited about Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book” was assaulted, humiliated, or simply made to vanish, to welcoming President Nixon and celebrating the “thawing” of relations with the west. For the next few decades the U.S. and China took turns pretending to care about basic human rights, while China purchased a bunch of America’s debt – eventually rendering the whole “shared values” thing moot because neither could afford for the other to fall no matter what else they did.
China craved economic growth and global legitimacy, seeking the ideal mix of market forces and “Chinese Socialism.” They loosened their grip on the little people, hoping they’d behave on their own if they knew what was good for them. China even wrote itself a new constitution, adopted in 1982. It’s super-socialist, to be sure, but also rather ambitious in terms of protecting personal liberties.
In 1989 a popular politician by the name of Hu Yaobang died (he was 73 and had a heart attack – nothing nefarious). Hu was rebellious and relatively progressive, popular with idealists and college students – the Bernie Sanders of his day. Students and others took to the streets to mourn his passing and to speak out against those still alive and in power – and then against corruption, and against the party’s mistreatment of Hu while he was alive, and whatever else came to mind along the way.
That was late April.
The protests ebbed and flowed, and government response was inconsistent. Sometimes they cracked down and other times seemed open to discussions. Protestors were unpredictable as well. It’s complicated enough to be clear what you’re against; far trickier to consistently project what you’re for. There were hunger strikes, rallies, some violence, and lots of yelling.
Always with the yelling, those protestors.
By June 4th, the government had had enough. After several strong editorials warning the masses to wrap it up and get on with their carefully managed lives, troops were sent in to disperse the crowds. They rounded up some, but other times simply fired into the crowds. This wasn’t a situation where tensions built and someone’s moment of panic sparked a massacre; this was methodical military action carried out according to the wishes of their superiors.
Tanks then rolled into Tiananmen Square. Protestors who refused to move or who simply couldn’t get out of the way were rolled over – several reports say multiple times, so their remains could be literally hosed into the sewers rather than taken away and buried. Clearly China was sending a message about just how seriously all of this new “freedom” was to be taken – and they were willing to sacrifice their own citizens and a certain amount of reputation in the eyes of the world in order to do it.
The official death toll was 200 – 300. The Red Cross estimated 2,700. Recent memos between British and U.S. officials suggest an alarmingly specific 10,454 – dead at the hands of their own government.
China did its best to implement damage control with the international press. Reporters tell stories of their equipment being seized, their hotel rooms trashed, and their well-being threatened over the words and images they were determined to send back to their respective outlets. But It turns out that pesky liberal media can be quite heroic sometimes, no matter what flavor of corrupt, arrogant power is trying to shut them down this time.
That is why – against all odds – we have this footage from June 5th:
Who is he?
We don’t really know, although there are theories and conflicting reports. He may have been a 19-year old student named Wang Weilin, or he may not have been. He was definitely pulled away – but were they government agents, or sympathetic protestors trying to protect him? He may have been imprisoned, tortured, or killed, or he may have simply faded into obscurity and gone on with his life. We’ll probably never know.
Here’s what we do know. He had absolutely no reason to think those tanks were going to stop.
They hadn’t, the day before. As he stood there defiantly he could hear the gunshots and screams of other protestors paying for their defiance. It’s not clear where he came from or how he ended up alone in Tiananmen Square, facing off with destruction, but 20 years after “Tank Man” became an international symbol of… something, this photograph, taken from a different location several minutes before its more famous counterpart, was unearthed:
He’d seen them coming, and he’d decided.
It looks like he was on his way back from the grocery store or something, doesn’t it? One of the 20th century’s most iconic rebels seems to be wielding… fresh citrus and minty dental floss!
I’m particularly impressed that he had the gumption to climb up on the tank and – it seems – yell down to the men inside it.
I’m probably projecting a bit – idealizing the event – but the more I watch it, the more convinced I am that he was refusing to limit the interaction to human vs. machine. I think he’s up there insisting that inside the machine are other men. Other Chinese. Other citizens. Other humans. I think he’s demanding they own up to their role, that they confront him, or answer to him, on behalf of the people.
Like I said, projecting.
He didn’t stop the tanks. We can’t reasonably connect his actions to the saving of any lives. At best, he slowed down one segment of a long, complex series of horrors for about five minutes.
Nothing changed in China’s policies, tactics, or narrative. The Tiananmen Square Massacre is scrubbed from all internet searches and prohibited in all texts. If “Tank Man” lived past his asymmetrical showdown, it’s supremely unlikely he had any idea that his actions had been viewed or discussed by anyone not there that day. Even if he’s alive and well today somewhere in China, odds are he has no idea that he’s an iconic photograph or world history talking point.
Whatever his fate, he leaves us with a rather disquieting question…
Did it matter?
Did his efforts accomplish anything? Was his defiance worth the risk? Did he have the slightest impact, that day or the years to come? Did he alter or improve his society, his government, or his world?
Sure, he’s in the history books, but so is Chester Arthur (in the appendix, at least). So are entire paragraphs explaining the distinctions between feudalism and manorialism. So are Anastasia’s sisters. I love history, but I doubt my world changed one way or the other because Olga Romanova showed up for picture day.
So… did “Tank Man” matter?
I’ve never stood in front of a tank, or willingly put myself in any danger more substantial than voicing my opinion of an outfit my wife was trying on. I’d never be “Tank Man.” Simply put, I lack the courage.
He makes my challenges seem so silly and small. He makes my struggles seem so… safe.
We teach. We listen. We blog. We share. We love and we sacrifice, we rework and retry. We stand here with our little bags and our inflated gumption and we demand that the bad things stop. We insist that humanity come out, own up, and take over, knowing that it usually doesn’t. We often lose. We often fail. And when we do stumble into a win, there’s no one snapping contraband photos.
Like “Tank Man,” I’m not sure we’re changing anything. It’s very unlikely anyone’s even watching – or that if they are, that they understand what we’re trying to do, or why it matters.
Unlike “Tank Man,” the odds that I’ll be crushed by a military vehicle for my efforts are very, very slim. I may wonder if my state retirement is being properly invested, but while Indiana doesn’t love public education any more than Oklahoma does, they’re not out to end my life and torture my family to drive the point home.
So that’s a plus.
Still, I keep wondering – the soldiers in those tanks, the politicians making those decisions, the protestors lingering near the square, or the millions who’ve stared at that picture since… were they in some way changed by his wild, desperate efforts? Is there any way he could have imagined, or that any of us can know, whether any of what we’re doing so much as nudges the world in the direction we so desperately need it to go?
The whole thought process can be rather crippling.
And yet, it seems I'm still talking about “Tank Man” thirty years later. He makes me want to risk more and care harder.
So... I suppose I have my answer.
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