Story: In China, the Tienanmen Square protests of 1989 are known simply as June 4th, or 6-4, in much the way that 9-11 is more than enough information to evoke plenty of reaction in Americans. They actually extended quite a bit earlier than that, the demonstrations began as early as April 15th, and began as mourning for Hu Yaobang, an upper party member who pushed for reform, and was humiliated, to some extent scapegoated, and forced to resign earlier that year. This mourning party gradually turned more radical, testing the bounds of what the government would allow. Much is still not known about the protests today, and there has been plenty of suppression of information about them by the Chinese state. But it looks as if the protests had no real leadership, or indeed unified agenda. To some it was about freedom of speech or press, to some it was about democracy, to some it was opposing nepotism, to some it was dissatisfaction with Deng Xiaoping as the head of the central committee. It began with students and intellectuals, and indeed there were general strikes at the universities on April 21-23rd, but it spread to many kinds of urban workers. By late April there were similar protests in cities all throughout China, and in Taiwan and the US. By May 13th there were hunger strikes, and Mikhail Gorbachev was scheduled to visit. The protests were pretty much well ordered, huge, and allowed to continue in hopes they’d burn out. There were 100,000 people in the square protesting peacefully pretty much every day for a month and a half. On May 19th, the Premier Li Peng, and General Secretary Zhao Ziyang spoke to the crowd, pleading with the students to end their hunger strike, famously saying “we are already old, it doesn’t matter to us anymore” in contrast the students were young, and he urged them not to sacrifice themselves so easily. They applauded but they did not disperse. The next day, martial law was declared, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang was stripped of all his positions and placed under house arrest. He was not seen publicly again for the rest of his life and died in 2005. But the military, claimed it was unable to get to Tienanmen square being blocked by throngs of protesters and still unwilling to fire first, and they gave up attempting to occupy the square on May 24th. Understand that at first, there was a lot of reporting of the event within China, and many sympathy protests, and indeed, many people traveled to the capitol to take part in the continuous protests. On May 27th, for example, Hong Kong had a huge gala concert “Democratic Songs Dedicated for China” in which many pop stars sang a free concert expressing sympathy with the protesters in Beijing, at the end of which was a huge parade attended by 1.5 million! people, one fourth of the population of Hong Kong walking peacefully through the streets chanting against the government. On May 30, the protesters erected a statue of “the Goddess of Democracy” carved specially for this purpose.
Eventually Li Peng, who had always favored military intervention, and was now no longer blocked by Zhao Ziyang, was able to bring in the 27th and 38th armies from the provinces to attempt to occupy the city, apparently believing that the local army unit was too sympathetic to the protesters and unwilling to fire on their friends and relatives. Then June 1st it turned ugly. The Beijingers flooded into the streets to block the army, as they had on May 20-24. They set up barricades, and blocked off streets with vehicles. The army came from all 4 directions, systematically taking control and establishing checkpoints of their own. The protesters threw rocks and Molotov cocktails. Vehicles burned across the city, often with occupants in them. There are reports of soldiers and police being beaten to death, and burned to death. There was a lot of live media coverage that this point, and it shows soldiers firing into crowds with live ammo. It also shows tank commanders being pulled out of tanks and beaten to death by protesters. By all accounts the army systematically took the city block by block. By 1 AM June 5th the army had reached Tienanmen Square, and gave one last plea for amnesty, saying they had orders to secure the square by 6AM by whatever means necessary, and would rather let the students flee than kill them. At 4AM the student leader took a final vote. By 5:40AM June 5th the square was cleared of protesters for the first time in 50 days. You still hear conflicting accounts of exactly what happened that morning.
The story of tank man takes place that morning, the 5th of June. Many protesters had attempted to return to Tienanmen Square and were shot on the morning of June the 5th. But in the “tank man” incident takes place a little off of Tienanmen square and no bodies are visible. You’ve all seen the picture, maybe even several versions of it. A lone young man dress nice stands in front of a column of 4 Chinese tanks. He just stands there preventing them from going to Tienanmen Square. They try to go around him, and he moves to the side so they can’t. He holds a shopping bag in each had, and they are full of groceries. We do not know his name or fate. There are many conflicting stories even now. He was Wang Weilin, no he wasn’t. He was imprisoned for a time and then released, he was killed by firing squad, he was never caught.
The incident itself was seen by many and caught on camera by several. He stood there blocking the tanks, with his groceries in his hands. Unlike the last two times this had happened in the last two weeks, there were no throngs of people beside him blocking tanks. The battle was already lost that morning, he had to know that. There are many conflicting estimates on death counts, but clearly there were plenty and they had already happened and the army held the square. Preventing these tanks from reaching the nearby, already militarily occupied square accomplished nothing. Yet there he stood alone. Neither he nor the tank commander said anything to each other. The tank stops and shuts its engines. He climbs onto the tank and speaks into its ports. He has a short conversation with the gunner. He jumps off the tank. The hatch opens and the tank commander says something. The tanks engines restart, and the lone man hustles back in front of the tank. The stand-off continues. Eventually two pedestrians in blue come up and snatch him away. Secret police? Friends? Concerned citizens?
Four western reporters got versions of the incident in film, and successfully smuggled them out of China, in various ways. Several other versions were confiscated. Many of the photos have won awards. One of the iconic photos in in Life’s 2003 collection of 100 photos that changed the world. In the Western media he is usually called “tank man,” but as “unknown rebel” he made it only Time’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. In 2009 a new photo of him was discovered, taken from ground level it focus on two Chinese men running away terrified. But if you look carefully in the background you see a lone man in the middle of the road holding two shopping bags standing still, while a column of tanks are a hundred yards off approaching …
Tienanmen in 1989 is a complex story, with many angles, and spun as thoroughly in the West as it was spun by the Chinese. Once I thought “Tank Man” was a symbol of non-violent resistance of Tienanmen. He’s not, that happened earlier, for weeks, in crowds of hundreds of thousands, even millions. “Tank Man” is a late hit, after one story is over as the next story is beginning. He is the story of the day after non-violent resistance, when the battle is already lost. And he does it again. He serves as a symbol that not everything was lost. That even if the students flee the tanks in the depths of the night, the next morning in broad daylight the game of tank vs. civilian can go on again with the cameras watching. He reminds us that when great events are over, there is still spin, and the civilians can play the game of spin too.
I am grateful that there are still victories to be had after a sound defeat.
I am grateful that tank commanders often refuse to run over civilians.
I am grateful that civilians sometimes stand up to tank commanders.
I am grateful that someone unknown can capture the world’s imagination and hold it for years.
I am grateful that shopping bags can be weapons of pacifism.
I am grateful that 6-4-1989 cannot be forgotten in China no matter how much it’s memory is repressed.
Other Notables for me for today
Gen. Marshall calls for the Marshall Plan, whereby the victors of WWII will bankroll economically re-constructing Europe in an attempt to prevent another World War in a generation, 1947. Bose-Einstein condensate first created in a lab, 1995, Birth of Adam Smith (economist), Federico Garcia Lorca (poet). Bill Moyers (journalist), Laurie Anderson (performance artist), death of Dee Dee Ramone (musician)