Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Tank Man

Last night, we watched The Tank Man. I had never seen it and recently found it was on Netflix so I ordered it. While several years old, I still found it to be very enlightening in some regards and it certainly was news to my better half (who lived in China at the time and was completely unaware of many of the things that were shown in the documentary) as well as Mini-Me (who was exposed to something that he ordinarily would not have seen).

The events of the spring of 1989 in China, as I have pointed out in this blog previously regarding the similarly egregious Cultural Revolution, remain unexamined in China as a result of explicit refusal by the government to permit it. This inability to examine the events of that time have allowed for only the perspective of Westerners who were able to both videotape and write about their experiences and it certainly colored an entire generation both in and outside of China. In China, that generation remains unable to articulate their experiences unless they leave (with no intention of returning). In the West, that generation views China today through a lens that is still colored by the actions of a tyrannical government that willingly sacrificed its legitimacy (and I use that term loosely) through the use of battlefield weapons against its own people in order to preserve its rule.

The actions of a single man, defying the might of the state, is a defining image and has imbued many who have seen it with a strong sense of purpose and strength in terms of the relationship with the state. His willful defiance stands in contrast to the weakness of those few in power in China who chose to brutally murder their citizens instead of working to create a better society for everyone. Their fear of their own people is what precipitated the tragic events that June 3 night and, while the actions of a single man (who remains unidentified to this day) have helped to restore some pride to China, that fear continues to haunt the nation. A fear of looking in the mirror and seeing the ugliness and finding a way to address it so that the future can be made to look prettier. The reality is that China can fix the bullet holes in the buildings, repair the tire tracks from the tanks on Changan Avenue and show the world a wonderful Olympics a mere 19 years later but all of that will be a mere facade built upon a fragile framework that will threaten to collapse until it is reviewed and truly repaired. Hopefully, all Chinese will one day be able to learn the entire story of that spring as well as the truth behind the Tank Man.


  1. If you liked "The Tank Man" you would enjoy the longer PBS documentary "Tian An Men - The Gate of Heavenly Peace" even more. Link:

    This one contains a lot of clips and interviews from the time and from more recent years with student leaders, etc.

    One thought, though:
    While the Tank Man and Tian An Men are continuously brought up as example of Chinese oppression, ask yourself these questions:
    Why did the Tank Man survive? Why did the tanks (that according to Urban Legend had just driven over hundreds of students) not just simply roll over this one guy?

    Why did the Chinese government troops and police on their way into Beijing allow so many people to abuse them verbally and physically (just watch the videos) without fighting back - despite the fact that quite a few SOLDIERS were hospitalized?

    What would have happened in similar situations in the democratic and free West (remember Seattle and other G8 / G20 protests)?

    I am a German, married to a Chinese wife with by now 13+ years in China. I am working and publishing as an academic on Chinese politics, culture, international relations, etc.

  2. David, thanks for your response. I'll try to address your questions as best I can (and they actually make me wonder if I should do so in another post but I'll try here first).

    First, I will look into the documentary you recommended. Thanks for the tip.

    Your implication is that the Tank Man survived that day. Unfortunately, there is no evidence one way or the other in that regard. The people who hustled him away could have been good samaritans or members of the PSB, no one knows. The fact that he has never come out or been identified since then could mean he was executed that day in secret or that he still hides in fear of being arrested or worse - he is still a powerful symbol in the West, even if few in China are familiar with his act that day. And yes, the tanks did not roll over the students in the square (though they had no problem with doing so to the citizens who tried to block their way to the square) so why they hesitated doing so to the Tank Man is a good question (and one that the government would happily show as an example of their magnanimity on that day). Perhaps it was easier to roll over people in the dark and chaos that was the night of June 3 and they could not do so to a single, non-violent man in the middle of the day? Perhaps they were not drugged so as to lower their inhibitions (as has been rumored they were on the night of June 3 so as to brutally repress those they were charged to protect)? Unless and until the government permits open and free investigations into that time, we will never know (which was my underlying point).

    Your argument that the troops and police were verbally and physically abused on their way into Beijing needs clarification. Are you talking prior to June 3, when they were stopped by citizens who tried to reason with them and plead with them not to harm the students and to join with the people? Or the night of June 3 when the troops ran roughshod over the makeshift barriers that the people put into place in a vain attempt to prevent the crackdown? It is worth pointing out that the troops used live ammunition that night against a citizenry whose only weapons were their bodies and the rocks they could throw at the troops. Not exactly what an impartial observer would consider a "fair" fight. And the government line on that event has been that the citizens attacked the troops first despite mountains of evidence (available in the West) to the contrary. In the weeks and months after that time, the country was subjected to the government line of the few troops who were hurt and completely ignoring the innocent civilians who were shot in their homes or in the back when running away from the troops.

    Finally, your question should be what "DID" happen in the West during several of the G8 and G20 summits? And the answer is that the demonstrations (which were not peaceful) were controlled for the most part and those who were violent were arrested - not killed with live ammunition nor were innocent bystanders shot "by mistake". Sure, democratic nations in the West are not always polite or cordial but people have the right to express their opinions without being attacked by the government.

    These are just my thoughts but I would enjoy discussing the topic more if you're so inclined.

  3. I would prefer to continue this discussion via email. If you click on my name, I have now enabled the profile page and posted a link to my work email address... (will delete it again after I hear from you).