Those of us who lived through the summer of 1989 can never forget the historic Tiananmen Square protests in China. Student led protests created a massive movement for a more open and democratic government that reached a crescendo in early June. Then the Chinese government decided to stop the Beijing protests with force. No one knows how many people actually died in Beijing as martial law was enforced and soldiers marched on the city to clear the streets. Tanks rolled and people died. Official statements say that a little over 200 people died. The more likely guess is that the number approached 3,000. People were shot in their own homes by bullets that soldiers sprayed randomly into crowds and homes. The pictures that we saw in the west were astounding. Most of us watched with amazement. The end result was that the student protest was put down and the people were again forced to submit to a repressive government.
Filmmaker Antony Thomas went to China a few years ago to find one of the most iconic people of the era. The man was never identified, though a western story has given him a name and says the government executed him. His only name, used all across the world, is “The Tank Man.” If you have seen the photos (both still photos and movie footage) you still recall the tanks rolling down the empty streets while a young man, holding two plastic grocery bags, walks in front of a tank and, in effect, says: “Leave my city. Stop!” The rolling tanks stop and the man succeeds for maybe a minute or so. The pictures, taken by an American photojournalist from his hotel balcony, spread around the world. The man’s courage was widely celebrated. Thomas went to see if he could find out what really happened and if "The Tank Man" was alive. The result of his visit is the sterling Frontline (PBS) piece called “The Tank Man.” (You can find the video at PBS or rent it from Netflix as I did.)
Thomas examines how the student uprisings benefited the urban elite and middle class tremendously but did little or nothing for the throngs of Chinese people who live in the rural inland parts of the country. In effect the government allowed western style economic principles to come into China but kept out democratic movements, thus the spirit that drives our economic ideology. One wonders how long this can last but for now it seems to work, bettering the lives of more Chinese people every day. What is particularly shocking in Thomas’ presentation is how complicit the major Internet and software companies in the west have been in allowing the government to use their services to harass and persecute Chinese citizens. My blood boiled at the footage of the congressional hearings related to the deliberate compromise of democratic principles by Yahoo, Google, Sun Systems, etc. Money really does outflank democracy for such American business people.
Will China ever escape the repression of a fiercely undemocratic government? One would think that in the long run it is bound to happen. For the sake of the church we ought to pray that it does happen yet the church can operate very effectively in non-democratic contexts too. (We shall look at this very point in another blog on China that I have written for October 20.) If American money were not poured into China without conscience reform might happen even sooner. The Tank Man represents real courage under fire. We do not know who this man actually was, or even what happened to him, but his story simply sets before us a picture that is worth more than a thousand words. My view of this moment will never be the same after seeing Frontline’s special “The Tank Man." Check it out.