June 9, 2014 | National Post
Twenty-five years later, our democratic reveries about Tiananmen Square seem ridiculous
Here in the West, everyone knows Tank Man — the brave Chinese protestor (pictured above) who stood alone in front of a column of tanks on Changan Avenue in Beijing, just outside Tiananmen Square, 25 years ago today. The anonymous man symbolized everything we hoped would emerge from the protests of 1989: the steel-armoured Chinese police state paralyzed by raw people power.
And so readers might find it surprising to know that in China itself, Tank Man is almost completely unknown.
A few days ago, National Public Radio journalists took a copy of the iconic Tank Man photo around the campuses of four Beijing-area universities. “Only 15 out of 100 students … identified the Tank Man picture as being taken in their capital in 1989,” NPR’s Louisa Lim reports. “Nineteen students incorrectly guessed it was a military parade, a higher number than those who recognized it.” Many students just stared at the photo blankly. One asked, feebly, “Is it from South Korea?” Another asked, “Is it Kosovo?”
It’s telling that the few students who could recognize Tank Man instantly became anxious about their encounter with these Western journalists. It seems that one of the only things that Chinese students know about the Tiananmen Square protests is theFight Club mantra that you do not talk about the Tiananmen Square protests.
Indeed, China’s suppression of any discussion of June 4, 1989 in the country’s newspapers, broadcast media and internet forums represents one of the most sophisticated and successful censorship campaigns in modern history: Not only can you not mention June 4, 1989 online without getting instantly flagged and deleted, you also can’t say “May 35” — or even display a photo of playing cards fanned out in the order 8, 9, 6 and 4.
In fact, Beijing’s quarter-century-long effort to rub Tank Man out of history tells us a lot more about what China has become than Tank Man himself: a centralized, autocratic one-party state that nonetheless has attained a level of wealth and technological sophistication on par with Western democracies.
The whole generation of students born after 1989, including those who went scurrying away from Ms. Lim and her photo in Beijing, are far more obsessed with getting good jobs than drafting political manifestos
Twenty-five years ago, amid the Tiananmen protests, it was common to imagine that political liberalism and capitalist economic progress were inextricably linked. No one believes that anymore, because China (and, on a smaller scale, Singapore) have shown us that the latter is possible without the former.
Nor is there any sort of mass movement for Western-style democracy in China: The whole generation of students born after 1989, including those who went scurrying away from Ms. Lim and her photo in Beijing, are far more obsessed with getting good jobs than drafting political manifestos demanding Western-style political rights.
Indeed, the dominant attitude toward the West among the broad Chinese public is nationalist suspicion. China’s leaders and masses alike dream of the day when the Chinese military replaces the United States as the dominant power in the east Pacific.
Twenty-five years later, Tank Man is no less a hero than he was in 1989. But his Western admirers now are more realistic about the country’s political course. Centuries of deadly rebellions and chaotic civil wars have made China leery of any mass movement, even one with democratic overtones. And it seems likely that China will remain a one-party state for many years to come.
Jonathan Kay is Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, and a Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.