While all kinds of pieces about the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising and its aftermath have been written over the years (including interviews with privileged Chinese dissidents lucky enough to make it out of China alive and into teaching posts at prestigious American universities) little – if any – follow-up has ever been done on the two most important figures in that famous image of a man facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square. That dissident was staring down another human being at the controls of that tank: the tank had no ‘free will’; it did not make the decision to stop instead of crushing the man with the satchel; a person inside the tank said, ‘No,’ and that should not be forgotten, because it was as heroic a decision on his/her part as the decision made by the dissident.
So who are these Little Big People? We don’t know who the tank driver was. But, at the time of the massacre, media were naming the dissident as Wang Weilin. As I wrote in a piece at the time, ‘Our China Syndrome,’ no one knows what became of this iconic hero, with his suitcase full of – what? Hope? Sadly, he’s gone while the symbolism remains, as if the Moment were textual, academic, a mere sub-dialogue in the master/slave dialectic. We do know that Wang Weilin never made it to the West, and we know that none of those shiny happy intellectuals who escaped was the Tank Man.
As I’ve suggested in the past, you don’t need cynicism to understand that there is a very good chance that the dissident and the tank driver ended up in the same prison factory together, one passing on piece work to the other in quiet solidarity. Tiananmen was never so much a ‘pro-democracy’ struggle, as it was an anti-casino capitalism plea. Everyone knows now that democracy without a Bill of Rights and the Rule of Law is a vacuous, empty soup can; a colourful vessel without substance or sustenance.
What happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989 can be linked back to the collapse of the Berlin Wall earlier that same year. For 25 years, the wall had been a symbol of the face-off between capitalist-driven democracy and socialist-driven totalitarianism, and its demise signaled the end of the Cold War. It ushered in a European rejuvenation that saw free spirits come out of hibernation – and, in Vaclav Havel’s case, out of jail – to challenge the world to take the next step forward toward a ‘global civilisation’ of tolerant co-existence.
But in America, though there was some sense of relief, the public response to the wall’s fall was rather restrained. I was living in Boston at the time and can remember most vividly that, within two weeks, the upscale Filene’s department store was selling chunks of the wall as key chains, in a kind of predator’s victory lap. Coming out of an era of industrial mergers, union-bashing, high unemployment and recession, most Americans did not see the relevance of the wall’s fall to their own lives.
Thus, in 1991, when Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the former US ambassador to the UN, opened a speech on the Cold War’s demise with, ‘We won!’, Americans accepted her words at face value, but there were no parades down Main Street, USA. For most, capitalism during the Cold War era, had not made America ‘a kinder, gentler’ place. They did not hear her simple exclamation for what it was – the starting pistol at a gold rush for industrialists, who saw the wall’s fall as a symbol of capitalism’s moral rectitude and a mandate for gleeful expansion. Fast forward, and in just a few short years, Havel’s ‘global civilisation’ has been foreshortened for commercial purposes to ‘globalisation’.
So the events in China have to be seen in the light of the global changes taking place at the time, and which continue to hurtle toward an unknown but clearly catastrophic future. Looking back on the events in Tiananmen and thereafter, escaped Chinese dissident Rowena He recently wrote in the Guardian,
China lost a golden opportunity for the Communist party to reform itself and start looking to Taiwan’s example: Let people have free speech and press and release political prisoners and in this way civil society will be able to develop.
Yes, but last I heard, the US, the world’s most exceptional democracy, refuses to even diplomatically recognise Taiwan or promote its virtues, fearing a face-off with mainland China – although American corporations sure do make a nice buck there, while the US government sees Taiwan as a key strategic military asset in ‘the Asian pivot’ underway. No doubt, the US will not stop until the Great Wall has become keychained.
The capitalist ‘reforms’ to a communism with deep ties to Confucianism was bound to lead to chaos and confusion on policy levels, with age-old traditions facing with contemporary relativism and nihilism. As He points out,
Over the years the policy has led to higher average living standards, a booming economy, and a more predominant place for China in the world – but has also engendered enormous inequality, massive corruption, growing environmental problems and profound popular cynicism, massive expenditure on stability maintenance and now a sense of belligerence on the international stage.
But this is not just a China problem anymore. It’s the new global standard among an ever-growing proportion of the global population.
In the end, whatever adrenalin rush was meant to pump up shoppers globally after the fall of the wall has long ago reached its peak and we are on the stimulus-exhaustion side of the Skinner track now. What fellow former dissident Wang Chaohua says is likely to China soon will probably be a mirror of what will happen to the world. She writes:
China will have some really crushing moment in the next five or 10 years. I don’t think the party can reform itself. It has become such an entangled web of interests; you can’t get it working no matter how great a leader is parachuted in at the top. So it would be more likely that a sudden incident or economic crisis would cause a catastrophic moment. The outcome of that is very difficult to predict. [my emphasis]
So true. But while we wait for some comet-ary to write the end to human history the way it was done for dinosaurs, allow me to raise a glass of tears to Wang Weilin and the courageous tank driver, who together demonstrated that humanity is more than the trumped up fanfare of images and symbols and that history comes down to one human just not wanting to hurt another human when given the choice.
Drink up. Last call. The lights are growing dim.
NOTE: This piece was first published in Overland on June 6, 2014.