Saturday, April 23, 2011

T is for ... Tiananmen

T also stands for Tardiness, and Time Machine - eagle-eyed readers may detect the implementation of the latter in redress of the former here and in the next couple of blogs.

Tiananmen is the Chinese name, roughly translated as "Gate of Heavenly Peace," for a famous monument in the Chinese capital, Beijing.

Often considered the main entrance to the Forbidden City, the Tiananmen is in fact the southern entrance to the Imperial City, within which the Forbidden City is located. The entrance to the Forbidden City is in fact the Meridian Gate, which, like the Tiananmen, is not so much a gate as a fortress.

Although the name Tiananmen is well-known in the West, few here would associate it with the building depicted above. Chances are, when you read the word "Tiananmen" you remembered this image:

Ironically, this iconic still image, taken June 5, 1989, does not depict Tiananmen at all - the full image shows a line of tanks rolling down Changan Avenue in the direction of Tiananmen square, where they were expected to rendezvous with a large gathering of peaceful protestors. As you can see, in this picture they are being held up by a single Chinese citizen. It's not terribly clear, but he's holding two shopping bags. In the video that was taken contemporaneously, the lead tank can be seen attempting clumsily to maneuver round the man, who gesticulates at it with his weapons of mass commercialism and moves to stand in its way each time. There is a pause during which it becomes obvious that the tank commander will have to either kill this civilian or halt his advance.

And then the tank stops its engines, and the ones behind it follow suit. The might of the Chinese army is momentarily stilled by the courageous self-determination of a single individual. The video then shows the young man climb onto the lead tank, and appear to conduct a conversation with its occupants. As he climbs off, the tank attempts to start up again - and once more he resumes his post blocking its path.

If you do remember these events when they happened, you may be surprised to see that, at the end of the video clip above, the protestor is apparently carried off by a small group of fellow citizens - he is not killed, and apparently not arrested. The Chinese government officially claims not to know who he was, or what happened to him. The British Sunday Express identified him as Wang Weilin, but this has never been confirmed. He is commonly known as "Tank Man", or "The Unknown Rebel": Time listed him in 1998 among the 100 Most Important People of the Century, and his act of defiance was broadcast around the world. As I said, I believe he is probably the first thing you think of when you see the word "Tiananmen" - at least, he is unless you are somehow accessing this blog from China.

Within China, the protests of 1989 are veiled from the public by the state-controlled media. Even online reports of the events are kept behind the "Great Firewall of China." Modern Chinese citizens have no idea of the scale of the 1989 protests, their international reception, or even their true character, because the official Communist Party of China (CPC) line is all they've been told. According to this line, the CPC acted to quell a political disturbance in the interests of stabilizing the economy - and of course the Chinese economy has grown like gangbusters since 1989, so clearly whatever they did worked...

The history of the "June Fourth Incident," as it is somewhat euphemistically termed in China, is fascinating. Although this was the first time Western eyes got to witness a large-scale popular protest at Tiananmen Square - the world's media had been invited into Beijing to cover a Sino-Soviet summit meeting in May - it was not the first such protest. The triggering event for the "June Fourth Incident" was the death of former CPC Secretary-General Hu Yaobang, who had been forced to resign his post two years earlier after sympathizing with an earlier wave of protests. The unrest among China's intellectual classes developed from a failure of reform under Deng Xiaoping. Deng's position as Paramount Leader from 1978 to 1992 is interesting politically, since he wielded executive power without holding any of the three offices - President, Premier, Secretary-General - in which such power was theoretically vested. His tenure coincided with an uneasy transition to state capitalism, in a time period when Communism globally was under assault. Particularly towards the latter part of his administration, Deng had to contend with a succession of anti-Communist revolutions in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union under the weight of Mikael Gorbachev's Perestroika reforms.

Secretary-General Hu made a useful scapegoat for the failure of China's early economic reforms to provide opportunities for its burgeoning population of college-educated citizens. This failure actually resulted from the refusal of the CPC to embrace the political reforms upon which free markets thrive - decentralization, liberalization, freedoms of speech and association, and other quintessentially Western notions. Speaking after the "June Fourth Incident," Deng criticized protestors for their attempts to create a "Western-dependent bourgeois republic." This paranoid hostility towards free markets sat incongruously with chiangjuageguan, the policy of implementing market mechanisms for price-setting that Deng himself had championed, and that produced inflation nearing 20% by 1988 because the system was riddled with corruption, hamstrung by centralized government control, and directed by people who viewed market forces as supernatural and alien.

Hu's death of a heart attack on April 15, 1989, was the catalyst for widespread peaceful protests. The CPC's authoritarian response to these, symbolized eloquently by the mismatch between one man and a line of tanks, resulted in as many as 10,000 deaths, although estimates vary widely and, for example, the Tiananmen Mothers - an organization dedicated to promoting the reforms for which protestors died at Tiananmen - names "only" 186 citizens who were killed by their government for daring to suggest they had rights.

This was neither the first nor the last time Tiananmen would host a mismatched conflict between the Chinese government and its people. We'll get around to the others in due course.


Name: Luana Krause said...

Fascinating history...a hobby of mine. I used to write historical blurbs on various subjects when I was a copywriter. Nice to meet you on the blogging challenge.

Nicole said...

I knew nothing about Tiananmen but am glad to have learned something new today. The events that happened there are shocking. Thanks for the history lesson :)

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