Take a look at this photo. What is happening? Now, take a closer look at the man in the background, the small figure just to the left of the tree. Recognise him? No? Here’s a hint. He is captured here just moments before he is about to commit an act of such unfeasible courage, that it will lead to his being named one the 100 most influential people of the twentieth century by Time magazine.
Here's a little more help. Turn your attention to what is rolling down the road, just a few hundred metres away from the man. Perhaps now you’ve got it. This fascinating image was taken just moments before the man confronted the advancing tanks, shopping bags and all. This video will help jog your memory.
Today marks the 21st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing (I particularly enjoy calling it a “massacre”, as the politically correct term in Hong Kong has become “incident”. An incident is when your grandmother slips in the shower, not when people get murdered in their hundreds or thousands). Despite the passing 0f the years, the relevance of this event is becoming ever greater in modern China. Before I say why I feel that to be the case, let me qualify something.
The current government of China is not an all-evil, dehumanising entity, as some people outside of China seem to believe. One cannot equate the current Beijing administration with the totalitarian despotism of the Mao era, or even the era of his more liberal successor, Deng Xiao Ping (who probably ordered the army to open fire on the protestors in 1989). There has been a massive amount of progress in China since Tiananmen. Change is so fast that I can barely recognise Beijing whenever I return there. The physical metamorphosis since 1992, when I first went there, is huge. I met my wife, Ren Yong Ping, in a bar in the San Li Tun south street March of that year. That night spot, indeed that street, do not even exist anymore. Where unremarkable little bars and take-always once humbly stood, there are now huge high-rises, modern shopping malls, and water-fountains. Not far away, there is even a large English-language bookshop/cafe called The Bookworm. If you go there, you can find new copies of texts such as Jung Chan’s Mao: The Untold Story (which depicts Mao as a psychopathic monster), and Hungry Ghosts (which describes The Great Leap Forward, the Party’s disastrous social movement which resulted in China’s economic collapse and the deaths of tens of millions of people).
All across China you can witness grand progress, especially in terms of infrastructure and the establishment of cityscapes. The skylines of many cities are simply very impressive.
The Bund, Shanghai
But a glittering skyline doth not the human soul maketh. In the words of Australian band Midnight Oil in the song Concrete.:
We can see the bright lights, but we can’t reach it…
Concrete you don’t free my soul.
Considering the emergence of China from the disastrous and oppressive Mao years, it is not too surprising that many Chinese people have tolerated, if not enthusiastically supported, the Communist Party; even after the horrors of Tiananmen. The Chinese are very nationalistic. Many will angrily oppose any criticism of its government, if they feel the critique is an attack on their country - and some are unable or unwilling to tell the difference. With the human rights issue, a long-time favourite finger-pointing opportunity for western governments before the world economic crisis, for example, many Chinese people have believed the accusation to be merely a political agenda by western governments to discredit or “contain” China.
The Beijing government has long insisted that human rights must take a backseat to social and political stability, because China is in a very delicate phase of development. The term “scientific development” has become a Beijing catchphrase, and in practice this means that economic development must continue at full pace (at least 8% growth per annum), and the political monoploly of the Communist Party cannot be challenged. The Tiananmen crackdown is typically justified in similar terms.
Those who openly challenge the government on issues of human rights are routinely jailed, and even tortured, as has been claimed by lawyer Gao Zhisheng.
More than a year ago, Gao, who dared to represent environmental activists, Christians and Falun Gong members, was arrested without charge or conviction, nor even an explanation. His wife and children made a dramatic escape from China, surviving a harrowing overland exit via the mountainous Yunnan region. They travelled at secretly at night, and were taken across the border by people traffickers. They now live in the USA.
Such stories are forbidden to be covered by local media, and the vast majority of Chinese people have been happy to turn a blind eye to such injustices, and get on with the businesses of making money. The result is that China has become a capitalist country, but without democracy, and with limited free speech and human rights.
Yet China has now reached a critical point in its development. Very recent events have indicated that the imbalance between the political and fiscal economies has reached a critical juncture, and tensions are beginning to reach breaking point. First, there were the spate of knife attacks across the country on school students. These were perpetrated by socially disaffected young men, and have led to the deaths of dozens of innocent children.
Now, in just the past few weeks, the plight of workers has surfaced at a level never before witnessed. About a dozen workers at the Foxconn company (who help construct iPhone’s for Apple) in southern China, have committed suicide in the past year, and incredibly, the company has been forced to install nets under the factory buildings to stop workers jumping off. Workers complain that they have to work “like robots”, enduring long hours of repetitive assembly-line work, with few breaks. Little communication is possible with other workers. One worker commented that he is tempted to drop something on the floor, just so he would be able to bend down and pick it up; such is the sheer boredom of repetition involved in his job. Further, the pay is unfeasibly poor, as low as about US$120 a month. The phones they are constructing would thus take them almost a year to save up for, if they banked half of their pay after tax. Shenzhen (bordering Hong Kong), where Foxconn operates, has the highest cost of living in China, and also the greatest rich/poor divide.
Foxconn headquarters in Tucheng, Taiwan
In just the last few days, mass strikes have taken place at Honda component factories. Almost 2000 workers across four of Honda’s mainland China factories have stopped working. The strikes mark a great shift. Previously workers only protested when their legal rights were violated. Now working conditions, including pay, are being disputed.
And herein likes the twist. The Chinese government’s verdict on the Tiananmen Massacre is correct in a sense. China has flourished economically because the students of Tiananmen were eliminated. Free to build a nation where human rights have been swept away like the blood from the Square, the exploitation of the masses could continue unabated. Chinese and foreign corporations have since enjoyed a veritable smorgasbord of endless and cheap labour, a never-ending supply of cowered workers, too scared to challenge the abuses they experience. After all, a bowl of rice and shared dorm with other migrant workers is better than a famine and the bloody mess of revolutions.
It is the migrant workers who are exploding - or imploding - in the current economic circumstances. Some 200 million in number, they travel from the villages and towns to the big cities to find work to feed their families. The United Nations describes these labourers as an effective slave class, often having no life or medical insurance, no right to medical treatment, no retirement funds, and their children few rights to education. Chances are your home is filled with goods made from their calloused hands, their sweat, and sometimes their very blood.
The legacy of Tiananmen is a contradiction. China has prospered, but it is the middle class and the Communist Party which have prospered vastly more than the economic underclasses. Such a situation has created a huge social imbalance which threatens to derail the nation in its quest for a better future; and to return China to the “glory” which so many Chinese people feel is their nation’s birthright.
The courage of the Tank Man is not forgotten today, at least not by this writer. If recent events are an indication, his spirit is rising again. Let’s spend a moment today to remember him, and for his kindred souls who struggle to live and prosper in the world’s next superpower.