Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Lest we forget

I was awoken this morning by the wail of a police siren, far off to the south..... and, just for a moment, I wondered if something was kicking off down on the Square again.

I often have these fleeting moments of anguished speculation, poised somewhere between hope and panic. Quite often in these past few years, I've been woken in the middle of the night by the drone of massive engines and the alarming clank-and-rattle of metal caterpillar tracks grating on asphalt - but it's always just some massive digger or crane or bulldozer lumbering to the next building site; it's not the return of the tanks.

The "Tank Guy" here is one of the most iconic images of the later 20th Century - yet little recognised among the Chinese students I've taught, and hard even to retrieve from the Internet here (searches on anything related to Tiananmen tend to be very heavily filtered). The name 'Wang Weilin' is often attributed to him, but it's not clear what the origin of that identification is, and most people seem to treat it as no more than an obfuscatory rumour. Is he still alive today, still at liberty? He was whisked away into the crowd by concerned bystanders just moments after this famous picture was taken, and effectively "disappeared". It's not thought that he was arrested at the scene, but it's uncertain whether he may have been identified and tracked down subsequently. You can be pretty sure that the authorities at the time wanted to find him and punish him. The only news that's ever been heard of him since was the chilling comment a few years later from then Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji -
"As far as I know, never killed." It's always seemed to me that Zhu might just have been trying to shield himself with a veil of deniability (Never show me a list of the executed!). It's certainly a pointed reminder that many were killed after the clearing of Tiananmen Square and the approaches to it on the evening of June 3rd and in the early hours of June 4th. The violence wasn't restricted to that one night; there was a massive crackdown across the country in the days that followed, with many thousands arrested, and 10s, perhaps 100s hastily executed (many hundreds more were smuggled out of the country, and live in exile to this day; at least a dozen of the supposed 'leaders' of the pro-democracy movement are still in jail today, and many of the others, though long since released, are still subject to close supervision and harassment by the police).

'Wang Weilin', or whoever he was, does not seem to have been one of the leaders of the movement, was perhaps not even one of the protesters at all. He was just an ordinary Joe who, on the spur of the moment, did something quite extraordinary. This rarely seen long shot of the incident shows just how many tanks he was holding back. I find this image can give me hope even when the crassness of the world seems at its most overwhelming.

In this article in today's Sydney Morning Herald by one of my journo friends out here, Ding Zilin, one of the 'Tiananmen Mothers' movement, points out that the recent period of national mourning for the Sichuan earthquake victims was the first time in the People's Republic of China that flags have been flown at half-mast for ordinary people rather than deceased political leaders. How long, she asks, before the government here will be brave enough to pay the same honour to the victims of 1989? It will, I fear, be a very long time indeed.


The British Cowboy said...

I cannot believe it was 1989. There are people going to college who weren't born when it happened. Damn I feel old.

It was such a defining moment for som many of us, and much of the response seems to demonstrate a helthy dose of cultural racism.

Froog said...

Or 'racist culturalism'?? What exactly did you mean by that, Cowboy? Do you mean people in the States view it as an example of "unspeakable Oriental cruelty", pigeonholing it with the Nanjing Massacre and the Burma Railway and so on; or that they say things like "only the dastardly Chinese would be capable of such an outrage"? Hmmm - it's not like it's unheard of for troops to fire on civilians in America, or for the British police to mount cavalry charges against striking miners. The 1989 crackdown here was on a whole different scale; but I tend to think it's a characteristic of totalitarian governments to be willing and capable of executing such ruthless acts of repression. I fear there may also be a vein of unfeelingness, a withering of human compassion, a ruthless pragmatism in Chinese culture that makes this kind of thing more readily thinkable than in some other countries - but that's a very big and difficult question.

Stories are legion over here of young EFL teachers, particularly from America (and some of whom ought to be just about old enough to remember), apparently never having heard of the incident.

I may post some more about memories and perceptions of the event here in China. Outside of Hong Kong (where there is an annual vigil), I fear it is largely forgotten. The memory persists more strongly here in Beijing, because there are so many people who actually witnessed the events firsthand. But, of course, many of them are now dead or getting rather elderly. And the 1980s population has been swamped by the influx of newcomers since, a minority now in their own city.

I wrote this on Wednesday morning, but hesitated to put it up at first. Partly because I'd got rather too teared up in writing it; and partly because I didn't want to get the blog blocked again. It seems that guarantees of pre-Olympic "media openness" really do count for something, after all. But by the end of this year, it will be a very different story.

Froog said...

I also now recall that when I was running the Amnesty International group in my first teaching job (we had a long of Hong Kong Chinese kids in the school, so it had touched us especially closely), we wrote a letter of support for a Chinese guy - I can't now remember his name, I'm afraid (I wonder if I can access the Amnesty site to check on the status of past cases) - who'd been arrested the following year. He was a civil servant in a provincial city somewhere who had lowered the flag on his local government office building on the 1st Anniversary. I wonder if Ding Zilin and the other bereaved parents here in Beijing ever heard about that.

The British Cowboy said...

By "racist culturalism" I mean if a Eruopean country had behaved in said fashion (which they all have in the past) they would not have been hosting the Olympics. The most brutal type of racism in some ways is lowered expectations.

What happened was intolerable. The saddest thing is for multiple reasons, it has been tolerated, and forgotten.

And now I am sat here watching "Oh What A Lovely War" which I always do when I feel the slightest bit jingoistic. It's a great fucking cure.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that post, and for including the second picture, which is definitely worth a thousand words, probably more. Well done.

Anonymous said...

I have seen the top picture many times and maybe a version that is slightly further panned out but never the second one you found. Of course one needs to see the close up one to understand the pictures power but that line of tanks is quite breath taking.

A sad day indeed and for a proud country not one which will be easily acknowledged.

Well written.

Froog said...

Apparently, some people attribute the callously dismissive "Never killed" quote to Jiang Zemin.

I wonder if the source I saw crediting it to Zhu was mistaken, or whether they both said something like this. It wouldn't surprise me if this were a standard line trotted out by several of the leaders when quizzed by the media about the incident.

I've also subsequently heard stories that the bystanders who were thought by some to have been helping the Tank Man to get away were in fact plain-clothes policemen (i.e., he was arrested immediately at the scene, and may have been executed within a few days).

I hope that isn't true. It seems a little unlikely to me. I don't remember that being mentioned in any contemporary news reports, and it seems impossible it would not have been if that were the case. Also, my recollection is that there was quite a substantial crowd nearby (just off to the bottom left of the frame, I think), and that would surely have made it very difficult for an arrest to be made.