An Inconvenient Spotlight: Tiananmen 1989 —by Jinny Batterson
A somewhat blurry video of an unarmed Chinese civilian approaching a line of military tanks near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989 has become iconic for Western China-watchers. The man wore a white shirt and dark trousers. He carried a small sack in either hand, as if in the midst of a shopping trip. He emerged from a large crowd and at first stood before the lead tank, then maneuvered to stay in front of it as it swung right or left. Finally, the tank stopped. The civilian climbed up onto the tank and tapped on its turret. For a minute or two, he then conversed with its driver, presumably asking him to alter course and turn back. After that, “tank man” climbed back down and disappeared into the crowd. Before long, the tanks began rolling again. Few are sure what happened to tank man after that.
Parts of what many Westerners know about events at Tiananmen in spring, 1989, exist because the photojournalists who shot the tank man video footage were in Beijing to cover a historic diplomatic event—a meeting between the heads of state of China and the then-U.S.S.R. These journalists also shone a spotlight on the other events that transpired that tumultuous spring. Events from central Beijing in May and June of 1989 have been in an inconvenient spotlight in the West ever since. Whenever I’ve traveled to China post-1989, I’ve been cautioned to avoid mentioning Tiananmen 1989. I comply. I’ve heard that security at Tiananmen Square is especially tight around the anniversary of the military crackdown there.
The one at-length Tiananmen discussion I’ve had with someone from China occurred around our American kitchen table one night in autumn, 1994. Then, our house’s bedrooms were filled with my husband and me, our high school aged son, plus a high school exchange student from France and an international exchange teacher from southern China. I’ll call him Mr. Huang. During the period from 1984 to early 1989, we’d had nearly a dozen short and long-term visitors from China, but Huang was our first Chinese long-term visitor since.
The evening’s exchange of views was probably prompted by a televised American news clip about the debate over annual renewal of the U.S.’s “most favored nation” trading status with China. U.S. media coverage nearly always included archived footage of June, 1989 events in Beijing. Huang paid careful attention to the footage and the TV commentary. So did the rest of our temporary international family.
Once the news clip ended, our French visitor commented, “It’s a shame that so many of the surviving protesters had to flee to Hong Kong or overseas. They could have helped a lot with economic development if they’d been allowed to stay and contribute without being threatened or jailed.”
Huang at first said nothing.
“From what we saw on television, there must have been a lot of casualties,” our high school aged son chimed in.
“What did you hear about the protests, Huang?” I wondered, hoping to tamp down the teenagers’ rhetoric a notch.
“Not many people died,” Huang informed us. “Most of the ones who were killed were soldiers trying to put down a counterrevolutionary mob.”
“But most of the demonstrators were students or ordinary citizens,” our son retorted. “And we saw people who weren’t soldiers lying bleeding on the streets. We saw ambulances and stretchers. We heard gunfire.”
“How can you tell what happened?” demanded Huang. “You were thousands of miles away. I was at home in China. What I read in the newspapers confirmed that the soldiers were the brave ones. They were the main casualties. I’m glad not more of them were killed.”
“Your newspapers tell you only what they want you to hear,” responded the young Frenchman. “We saw the tanks and tracer bullets on television in France. We heard the explosions. How can we doubt what we saw and heard with our own eyes and ears? Were you in Beijing?”
“I’ve never been in Beijing,” Huang admitted, “but my father served in the People’s Liberation Army (China’s military) during the 1950’s. He was a brave soldier. He fought hard for our country. Our military would never harm another Chinese unless they were trying to destroy the revolution. Our military serves the people—in Beijing in 1989 they were only doing their duty to restrain counterrevolutionaries who wanted to bring down the government.”
After a few more exchanges, we realized that we would never convince each other. The media reports of the protests and any subsequent crackdowns by our respective communications outlets were selective and diametrically opposed. So were our respective backgrounds. By the end of the evening, all we could agree on was one underlying theme: good governance requires considerable self-restraint on the part of both governments and their citizens.
As media in both the U.S. and China become more omnipresent and more invasive, I wonder where the next inconvenient spotlight will shine. Periodic violence continues to erupt in both the U.S. and in China. Both our cultures continue to search for better ways to defuse violent potentials and to resolve differences. Tiananmen happened. It had and has consequences. It haunts those of us who were alive and paying attention when it occurred. However, the incidents leading up to tank man in 1989 are no more all of China than footage of gun murders or police riots in U.S. cities are all of the U.S. May all of us find ways to forgive each other and to forgive ourselves.