As we observe the 30th anniversary of the massacre by the Chinese government of as many as 10,000 peaceful protestors in Tiananmen Square, the exact meaning of the event, which most Chinese residents know nothing about, remains unclear.
Thus it has always been. Writing for Reason in our 35th anniversary issue (December 2003), Charles Paul Freund observed that the iconic image of the still-unidentified "Tank Man" supported multiple interpretations:
One picture can tell many stories, and this one's told three so far: of defiance against the state, of "restraint" by the state, and of the state's vengeance. Perhaps it has one more meaning that will become clear in the course of the next 35 years: a foreshadowing of the end of another totalist state.
That same issue featured a list of "35 Heroes of Freedom," one of whom was Tank Man:
The Tiananmen Square martyr. By putting his life on the line in front of his government's tanks, he provided not only one of the most memorable images of the last 35 years but one of the most inspiring too. The free China of the future owes him a statue or two.
Suffice it to say that China is not only not free yet, but it's less free than it was just a decade ago. President Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2012, has eliminated term limits, strengthened the standing of the Communist Party, purged his enemies, thrown millions into prison camps, tightened state control of the economy, and increased surveillance of citizens through a controversial "social credit system" that, among other things, stopped people from buying airplane tickets almost 18 million times last year alone. Despite recent slowdowns in the rate of economic growth, Xi Jinping and his predecessors' authoritarian model of state capitalism has delivered an increasing standard of living for most Chinese, which doubtless helps the Communist Party maintain power. In the 21st century, China is not only increasingly "totalist," but it's the most-viable rival to Western-style, limited-government democracies that defend some version of "free minds and free markets."
The biggest impact of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests was in Europe. Footage of the crackdown was immediately banned in China but it was replayed endlessly in Western Europe and widely viewed in Eastern bloc nations. In May 1989, China's Deng Xiaoping welcomed the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for high-level discussions about quelling unrest in Communist countries, all of which were facing protest movements. Many in the press stayed around to cover the student protests and thus bore witness to the brutal repression that took place just four days after the Deng-Gorbachev summit, the first such meeting between top Chinese and Soviet leaders in 30 years. From a 2009 account in Foreign Policy:
On June 4, People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers fought their way into Tiananmen Square, leading to an unknown number of civilian deaths….
The effects of the Tiananmen tragedy ricocheted throughout the entire communist bloc, especially in the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc countries of Eastern Europe…. In almost every East European country, the pro-democracy movements grew rapidly in the following summer and fall of 1989. These opposition movements took the opportunity of international Communism's deepened legitimacy crisis to wage new offensives against the Communist authorities in their own countries. The Communist leaderships were all facing difficult dilemmas—they could neither afford to take a totally defensive attitude toward the pro-democracy movements nor dare resort to violent means.
During the following summer and fall, Eastern Europe experienced great unrest, eroding the political foundation and undermining legitimacy of every Communist regime there, culminating on Nov. 9 and 10, 1989. In Germany, the uprising masses brought down the Berlin Wall and with it the symbolic divide between the East and the West. By December—with the execution of Romania's Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu—the communist bloc in East Europe had virtually collapsed.
By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union itself had been swept into the dustbin of history.
Ironically, the Tiananmen Square protests, which were part of a country-wide wave of protests, were partly the result of Deng's economic and political liberalization. Indeed, the script playing out in China in the late-1980s seemed to have been written by libertarian economist Milton Friedman, who long argued that economic freedom typically precedes political freedom. In a quest to stave off unrest, authoritarians often liberalize the economy. Once people get even a little richer, Friedman theorized, they begin to push for political freedom. What good is money, after all, if you are brutally circumscribed in what you can buy, think, or dream about?
Contemporary China is a rebuke to any easy formulation of the relationship between economic and political freedom. Xi's authoritarian model—lauded at times by pundits such as The New York Times' Thomas Friedman, who praised China's "one-party autocracy" in 2009—has delivered increases in the standard of living for enough people while unapologetically repressing dissent of religious, ethnic, and political minorities. The government apologizes for nothing. A decade ago, for instance, it felt no compunction about jailing Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, whose calls for freedom of expression will be familiar and inspiring to anyone familiar with Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela:
I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentence me, are my enemies. While I'm unable to accept your surveillance, arrest, prosecution or sentencing, I respect your professions and personalities…..
I firmly believe that China's political progress will never stop, and I'm full of optimistic expectations of freedom coming to China in the future, because no force can block the human desire for freedom. China will eventually become a country of the rule of law in which human rights are supreme.
I hope to be the last victim of China's endless literary inquisition, and that after this no one else will ever be jailed for their speech.
Freedom of expression is the basis of human rights, the source of humanity and the mother of truth. To block freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, to strangle humanity and to suppress the truth.
Liu remained in prison from 2008 until 2017, when he was granted a medical parole upon a diagnosis of the liver cancer that killed him that year.
He was, of course, far from the last victim of China's state repression, which seemingly has no endpoint in sight. Yet his individual example, like that of the Tank Man, stands as a powerful, inspiring model of what individuals can do in the face of overwhelming force.
Both the identity and the exact fate of Tank Man are unknown and, despite his standing alone in front of armored vehicles, he embodied an entire movement's willingness to sacrifice life in pursuit of freedom. As many as 10,000 protesters were eventually executed by the Chinese government.
Without the Tank Man's bold, individualistic action in 1989, who knows what would have happened in Eastern Europe later that year? Soviet-style Communism was almost certain to collapse due to its inability to generate a decent standard of living and allow for human flourishing, but the timing of collapse matters tremendously, with sooner always being preferable to later. Had the Tank Man not emerged as an iconic rallying point, it might have been years rather than months before East Germans pulled down the Berlin Wall or Romanians strung up their dictator.
If the final meaning of the images surrounding his protest are unclear, the debt we owe him is not and is best repaid by always and everywhere pushing for maximum freedom of thought, conscience, expression, and action, both in China and where we live. History has no clear direction or endpoint other than the one we insist it have. In moments when our own country and society seems ready to backslide on commitments to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we can look to the Tank Man not only for inspiration but for a sense of responsibility to those who have sacrificed.