His ghostly image.
In May of 1989, a 3 story-high statue created out of foam and papier-mache was erected on Tianemen Square by thousands of student protesters from all over China. Its creators issued a statement that said
“Today, here in the People’s Square, the people’s Goddess stands tall and announces to the whole world: A consciousness of democracy has awakened among the Chinese people! The new era has begun! ... Chinese people, arise! Erect the statue of the Goddess of Democracy in your millions of hearts! Long live the people! Long live freedom! Long live democracy!"
The statue was destroyed by the 300,000 troops that had been called into Bejiing to crush a movement that had erupted all over China, and that brought over a million people to the streets of the capital. Hundreds (perhaps thousands) of people were killed by China’s soldiers, and that was why the photo of a lone young man attempting to stand up to a column of tanks on the avenue in front of Tianemen Square—a day after the destruction of the “Goddess of Democracy”---riveted the world when it was released.
I have waited to write about that period on this blog until I was out of China’s airspace because it is still a forbidden topic in the nation. China’s censors (they compose an enormous arm of the government) have extraordinary abilities to monitor all internet communication, and I was warned by several Chinese that I should not broach the subject or include images of the ‘tank man’ or the “goddess of democracy” in anything I sent online. I have my doubts that the censors would take notice of this humble blog, and I suspect that the fear generated by the government successfully results in lots of self-censoring. But it rubbed off on me too, as I imaginatively considered a late-night knock on my hotel door, followed by interrogation at one of those police facilities with which I had become so familiar because of my passport snafu.
The ‘tank man’ was an inspiration for many people, including myself. There is no concrete evidence of his identity, or of what happened to him afterwards. He was arrested after successfully forcing the tanks to stop several times. There have been reports that he simply disappeared, or that he was executed (which the government denies). He symbolized a generation of Chinese who believed that the communist system had oppressed the spirit of the people, and as in the Soviet Union in that same year, the system should come tumbling down. For years the Chinese people had suffered materially and spiritually under its authoritarian leadership, and China seemed ready to ride the storm winds of democracy that were blowing away similar systems in Europe.
I tried to find the exact spot on the road where the tank man was photographed in front of the lead tank. Judging by a picture I had on my phone and a description of the spot by the journalist who took the photograph, I think I found it. There is of course no memorial or any indication of history that was made at that place. But as the honking traffic cruised by, I imagined his ghostly image standing there amidst all the cars, whose occupants were oblivious to his presence. I found it very moving.
I have read that the government suppression of that event—and the other events of that springtime of crushed democracy—has been so successful that young people in China today have never seen the photograph and have no idea what was behind the action it symbolizes. And in many ways that is not surprising.
As I prepare to leave China for neighboring Vietnam, I have to say that I am extremely impressed by what I saw of this nation. Granted, I have only seen three of its cities, and I was not able to visit the rural areas, or the places where the ‘old China’ still exists. What I did see was an incredibly advanced country. The results of China’s growing economic power are visible to any visitor like myself, and I now understand the prediction of analystswho claim that China will soon surpass the United States as a world superpower. The building that is going on in this country is astounding, and the infrastructure that supports it is mighty impressive. Their subways, airports, power grids, and public amenities far surpass most that I have seen in the US---and I assume because they have so many people on government payroll to maintain them, they are immaculate.
In my lengthy walks into every type of neighborhood, I took note of people’s clothing, cars, urban dwellings, and their technology, and it is clear that the lives of ordinary people are as comfortable as our own. That is an extraordinary accomplishment for a nation of 1.3 billion people that 30 years ago was very poor and facing a dismal future. Young people in particular seem to be extremely similar to the youth of the United States. They wear the same Nike shoes, shop at H&M, have the latest cell phones, eat at McDonald’s and KFC, and even embrace all things Disney. They are every bit the consumers that our own malls attract.
And perhaps that is why the ghost of the Tank Man is unnoticed amidst the traffic at Tianemen Square. The democracy movement was extinguished here in 1989, but in many ways people may no longer need aspire to its promise of freedom. When your everyday needs of comfort and entertainment are met by an elevated consumer culture, what need do you have of freedom of thought, speech, or religion?
I considered what it would be like for me to live in Bejing, or Shenzhen, or Guangzhou. Could I handle it for a year or more, like my friend who teaches in Shenzhen? It would be a fairly easy lifestyle, I think. But to be honest, I would not be comfortable with the underlying presence of a government that constrains my freedom. I think that after a few months living here as an ‘ex-pat’, the ever-present oppression would deeply burden my soul.
Finally, just as I find the consumer culture of our own country so troubling, it scares me to see how it is now literally everywhere. The mall-ification of China is surprising, and so pervasive it is impossible to ignore. Malls are everywhere, as they are in the United States. I have long believed that the consumer culture is fueled by a big lie: that we are no good, we will not be happy or attractive or successful unless we look like the models wearing these clothes or watches or shoes, or that we drive these slick-looking cars, or that we live in these beautiful houses or apartments, etc etc etc. Our consumer culture has convinced us that without stuff, we are unlovable. And yet we all know in our heart of hearts nothing we buy will ever really satisfy our deepest desire. It is a spiritual crisis that has infected us all to some degree, and in China as well in our own nation, we should fight against the economic forces that can make our lives empty and without real purpose.