Twenty-five years have passed since a lone man stood in front of Chinese tanks and dared to defy Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. His bold challenge to the Chinese Communist Party was one of history’s most profound reminders of the insatiable human desire to live free even in the face of terrifying state power.
Yet to this day, the exact identity of “Tank Man” remains a mystery. After more than a year of investigating the massacre, veteran British journalist Antony Thomas reported: "The honest answer, as far as the Tank Man is concerned, is that we don't really know who he was and what he was. And I think, because of China, we'll probably never know." History has forgotten him, and the very real danger is that history will soon also forget the events that summoned such remarkable courage.
It is scandalous that most Chinese still do not know the full story of the massacre and are not allowed to discuss its implications. Mention of the riots and ensuing massacres are absent from government-approved textbooks. State-controlled media are silent; awkward telecasts each June 4 read the day’s headlines without a mention of the anniversary. Those who raise the specter of Tiananmen are harassed and jailed. On the mainland, you don’t speak openly about what transpired in 1989.
Take for example, “The Mothers of Tiananmen,” a group of family members of victims of the 1989 crackdown. Their leader, Ms. Ding Zilin, hasn’t been heard from in over two months. She is believed to be held under house arrest and subject to close surveillance by the police. Dozens of other prominent human rights lawyers and activists have disappeared, suspected to be under interrogation and in jail. Police have bolstered security at Tiananmen Square itself. They have erected new, sturdier barriers around the square in anticipation of a potential new round of protests and unrest. All year round, every year China’s cyber patrols police the Internet tracking down and deleting any reference to the 1989 massacres. In China today the truth is illegal.
As a result, many Chinese remain in the dark about why it happened, who was killed, and what happened to their families. The West has done little to fill in the blanks. Beijing’s notorious crackdown is rarely discussed within diplomatic circles lest it rankle Sino-American relations or the quest for investment in the populous nation. For years in fact the West has overlooked or sidestepped China’s capacity for violent repression in favor of dovish overtures. Such a strategy has proven dangerously naïve when employed against Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and utterly feckless against the stony-faced bureaucrats in the Chinese Communist Party.
On the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen, those of us in the West who benefit from freedom of speech have a responsibility to defend a truthful memory against those who would make us forget. Revealing that truth means coming to terms with how millions of Chinese citizens felt about their government — in addition to Beijing’s murderous response on the order of Deng Xiaoping, the Communist Party leader known in the West for his liberalization of the Chinese economy. It also requires confronting our own leaders’ lack of moral courage.
This week some Western media outlets will offer the obligatory stories and news segments on the anniversary. Yet little effort is made to understand the episode within the broader story of Chinese communism.
What happened over two months in the spring of 1989 was far bloodier than any image or news reports that made their way to the West. The Communist Party viewed the Tiananmen protests, one of many across the country that spring of 1989, as an existential threat. They feared the pro-American students who erected a statue, the Goddess of Democracy, patterned after the Statue of Liberty. Chinese hardliners feared a potential government coup, and as a result won the upper hand in intraparty debates that followed. From then began a reign of repression of dissenters and wholesale manipulation of the Chinese people through ultranationalism and propaganda—a reign that has not ended.
One of the principal ways in which unjust regimes govern without the consent of their people is by distorting history and hiding truth. To be sure, the China of 2014 is not the China of Mao Tse-tung. The Chinese Communist Party since the 1990s has incorporated limited market-based reforms. But China remains a one party system that stifles free speech and dissent. It still stubbornly refuses to come to terms with the victims it has sent to labor camps, imprisoned, and killed – a number in the tens of millions, far eclipsing the murderous Nazi and Soviet regimes. Human rights activists and dissidents like Chen Guangcheng are harassed, persecuted, and forced to flee the country. Rarely are the words “China” and “Communist” even used in the same sentence, even though Beijing remains firmly committed to that discredited system.
As Czech novelist Milan Kundera noted, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” That struggle requires that we advocate for human rights, even when inconvenient. This is the still unlearned lesson that we must ponder on this 25th anniversary of a deadly massacre about which we still know very little, except that a Communist government killed its people and that the guilty Party still governs. Tank Man remains an indelible image of the formidable power of the state arrayed against the individual. But that image is only powerful if there are others who honor it.
Marion Smith is executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.