Twenty-five years ago today, tanks of the People’s Army rolled into Tiananmen Square, crushing a popular protest for liberty and killing hundreds, if not thousands, of unarmed civilians gathered there. The replica of the Statue of Liberty, which served as a symbol of Chinese citizens’ cry for freedom, was toppled. People’s Army troops fired into crowds, beat protesters and ran over civilians with their tanks.
The Tiananmen Square massacre provoked strong protests by Western nations then. But as time passed, the incident became a distant memory for the West. Most Americans likely will not recognize this anniversary. Certainly, few Chinese will. There will be no government recognition of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China today. Nor will any unofficial attempts to remember be tolerated by the regime. Indeed, the Chinese government has effectively kept a generation of its young people ignorant about the incident. Most Chinese youth know little or nothing about what happened in their country 25 years ago.
Clearly, the Chinese are economically better off than they were 25 years ago. The average household income today is more than 10 times what it was in 1990. Indeed, that fact is asserted as an outgrowth of the crackdown in Tiananmen and, therefore, a justification for the regime’s actions. Even some in the West accept the Chinese authorities’ claim that the stability they created through force (and continue to enforce in the same way) is preferable to a less orderly Chinese democratic system the Tiananmen protesters sought.
However, it should not be forgotten that the Chinese still live in an authoritarian state that denies individual freedoms. For example, in the central coastal city of Wenzhou, the regime ordered the demolition of a Christian church that initially was approved by authorities but had become an unwelcome symbol of religious worship for an atheistic government. The Chinese government still occupies Tibet, in the face of Tibetan opposition and protests from around the world. Authorities jail dissidents, suppress the news media and attempt to block Internet access to negative news about the regime.
The most iconic image from the June 5, 1989, incident is the one of the young man standing in front of the line of tanks as they made their way through Beijing. As the tanks moved down the street, this anonymous man holding a shopping bag stepped out into the street and singlehandedly defied the military. When the tanks stopped, he even climbed up on a tank turret and talked to the tank commander. He was eventually led away by two men, who may have been plainclothes police or just concerned civilians.
Now known as the tank man, he has disappeared into history. Some people claim he was found and executed by the Chinese authorities, but others believe he melted back into anonymity. If he is still alive, he must be severely disappointed that even most of his own fellow citizens have little knowledge of him.
I show the photograph of that event to my American government classes as a reminder of the courage of a single person, as well as of the tragedy of that massacre at the hands of the Chinese government. It is likely the Chinese students in my classroom are seeing the tank man for the first time. A survey of Chinese university students in Beijing found that only 15 percent recognized the image when shown the photograph of the tank man.
Chinese who wish to remember the Tiananmen massacre cannot do so publicly. That is why Americans must. We must remind ourselves of the freedoms we so often take for granted. Such memories should help us recognize that freedom of speech, the press, assembly and religion should always be cherished.
But we also should remember for the sake of the Chinese. That includes the Chinese protesters who gave their lives on that square for a free country for themselves and their children. It also includes the young people of China who deserve to know what their nation did on that day. And we should remember for the sake of the tank man, wherever he is, to prove that his act of courage will not be forgotten.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.