Sunday, June 7, 2009

What I learned from the Tank Man

Note: this not a diary about the history of the Tiananmen Square Protests or the situation there now. For the history, check out the Wiki page. For a first hand account of yesterday's "ceremony," I suggest this LA Times story. This diary is the impressions of a teenager watching the world both evolve and devolve 20 years ago.

I have a poster of this picture -- it is also stamped with the date of June 5, 1989 -- hanging in my room:

tank man Pictures, Images and Photos

I picked it up just after I started back to college to study politics after a somewhat unfulfilling career in journalism.

Twenty years ago, give or take a few hours, a 14-year-old Chris was watching television, and it was not Alf. It was the summer of an amazing year that had already seen the triumph of Solidarity in Poland and the election of a democratic government in Hungary. The "Evil Empire" was unwilling and/or unable to suppress the wave of freedom.

For the previous 14 years, I had lived with the nagging fear that someone in Moscow would push THE button that would kill most of the people in the First World and reduce the survivors so something lower than cockroaches. Or maybe a hoard of Russians, Cubans, Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, and North Koreans would land in California and push east to Denver and Chicago while Bonn, London, and Paris would fall in advance of Communist attacks on New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. A stead diet of movies like The Day After and Red Dawn and Reagan's proto neo-con posturing didn't help much, either.

Even a 14 year old kid could see that Reagan and Bush Sr. were playing a dangerous game. Gorbachev seemed like a pretty reasonable guy, but if this perestroika and glasnost thing didn't work out, we were probably fucked. Even worse, if the United States failed, our allies in Western Europe were in serious trouble, too.

As 1989 dawned and the United States inaugurated a new president, the world was changing for the better. Poland and Hungary may have called themselves "people's republics," but there were always two inherent lies in those names. The "republic" consisted of the Communist Party and the "People" were "free" to go to work and support the state. That was all changing and it just seemed like a matter of time before the rest of Eastern Europe broke the shackles of dictatorship that stretched back to Moscow.

The story in Asia was different. As protesters (mostly students not much older than me at that time) started to gather in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on April 14, 1989 to morn the death of Hu Yaobang, it seemed like Red China was about to be the next dictatorship to fall. The circumstances were more prophetic than the West would have imagined. Much like Gorbachev, Mr. Hu was a political leader who championed market and political liberalization and cleaning up official corruption. People from all over the country gathered in the heart of the capital to mourn the passing of their leader and to call for the government and the party to continue Mr. Hu's reforms.

In the ensuing eight weeks, many Westerners including a young CW, naively thought that we were seeing an Oriental Woodstock. It was about to turn into Altamont. On June 4, the People's Liberation Army (another name with two inherent lies) cleared out the democracy lovers with shocking violence. The army felt the need to use tanks and automatic weapons to chase off and kill unarmed civilians.

The next day, the tanks remained. The protesters who had not managed to escape the senseless violence were dead or being held as political prisoners. Democracy and freedom were were dead (or at least arrested) in China.

Then a Western journalist in a nearby hotel room caught an amazing sight.

Some dude, armed only with his shopping bags, decided to stare down a column of farking tanks! Not only that, he went out of his way to stand in front of the lead vehicle and made gestures like "GTFO, jackass." Then he climbed on top of the thing before he was finally arrested. Witness:

This man, who remains unnamed in the West, has not been heard from since. Personally, I suspect that he is already dead. If he is alive, I doubt we will ever hear from him. This is tragic because we may never know his true motivations. Was he really the last defiant hero for freedom and democracy in China or was he batshit crazy? I, and most other freedom lovers, like to think the former.

As I watched the footage of the tank man, I knew that I could never be the bravest person ever. This guy had all of us beat. Here was a guy who believed in freedom and democracy so much that he was willing to risk a course of action in which getting plowed over by a tank ranked among the best possible outcomes.

After Tiananmen, democratic reform was pretty much a dead issue in China. To this day, one could not even Twitter on June 4 or access Google's Blogger service (shameless plug for my own site) at any time. Young CW started to lose hope. It seemed like this potentially historic year was going to be an epic failure. In some ways, it was since much of East Asia missed out on the great promise of freedom and democracy. For all of its faults, democracy is still the sole political system that inherently protects basic human rights.

In the wake of Tiananmen, we had a long, hot summer before we finally saw images like this in November:

berlin wall Pictures, Images and Photos

The physical wall that symbolized the dividing line between freedom and repression and the wall that literally tore families apart came down. Der Stasi, who almost made the SS look like a reasonable police force in comparison, were impotent to stop it. The freedom march was alive and well -- at least in Europe.

My final impressions came one cold Christmas morning. After all of the gifts were opened, I was allowed to try out my new Atari 2600 games (we were a little behind the times). When I turned on the television, the news was on. I learned that another country had freed itself after about two weeks of violence. Romania had ousted the Communist government and executed Nicolae and Elana Ceau┼čescu (live on Romanian television as it turned out). I gave up the video games to bask in yet another victory for freedom. However, the brutality of summary execution has always bothered me. In my later studies, I learned that there was a brief trial (a mere formality and a closed affair) Christmas Eve and the couple were shot the next day. It turns out that Ceau┼čescu thought the Soviets were not repressive enough. To me, that still does not justify state-sanctioned murder.

As I and my generation were dragged into the decadence and idealism that was the 1990s, I resolved to be someone who stands up against repression, human rights abuses, torture (as I am sure the tank man endured), and state-sponsored murder and someone who stands up for democracy, the rule of law, freedom, human rights, family, and basic human dignity. That's what got me into Progressive politics. Thank you, Tank Man -- where ever you are.

It's never easy. Sometimes life takes a shit on you personally. Sometimes our great nation sees fit to elect a clown like George W. Bush. When I am faced with adversity -- personal, political, profession/academic, or social -- I look at my poster and think, "have I really stared down a column of tanks today?"


Crossposted at Daily Kos, where it was my third rescued diary of the week. The other two dealt with the Uniting American Families Act hearing announcement and follow up.


American Girl said...

Well, why would an American stand up like that? You'd risk a lot. There'd be the initial time in police custody, the bail, the engaging of legal representation, the depositions, the pre-trial hearings and the trial which could result in a fine and/or jail time. It's a lot of time and money that you wouldn't get back. Maybe instead you would choose to voice your opinions and make your arguments by exercising your First Amendment Rights.

However, if you don't have any means of petitioning your government and n right to a fair trial, you might just decide to stand in front of the tanks.

Kris Kristofferson wrote "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose..." and after reading your post about Tank Man, I finally get it.

Chuck Salsman said...

Only commies would smacktalk Alf