Who can forget the sight of a lone man standing in front of a column of tanks near Tiananmen Square on the morning of 04 June 1989. The tanks – hundreds of them along with hundreds of armoured personnel carriers (A.P.C.’s)and thousands of troops – were in the late stages of shutting down a massive demonstration that had lasted for weeks in central Beijing. On the night of 03-04 June 1989 the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army was given orders to clear the square by force and impose martial law. Hundreds were known to have died (3,000 is the most widely accepted death toll)and thousands were being made to go missing by the Chinese Government, furious that its ruthless brutality had been caught on video and cassette by media around the world.
Fast forward 30 years since “tank man” bravely stood before those tanks and the Chinese Government is still determined to shut down any and all efforts to commemorate the massacre, and remember those that died in an attempt to gain democracy. To the Chinese Government any mention of Tiananmen Square is taboo – they would much rather the world forgot about it.
But we cannot. And nor should we. There was nothing wrong with what those many brave people were trying to do. They were standing up for their human rights, standing up for their rights to freedom of assembly, of speech, of peaceful protest. To ignore this would be to acknowledge totalitarianism as an acceptable state of governance. When a Government is so scared of the people it is meant to be governing that it has to deploy the military with orders to use live ammunition, there is something fundamentally wrong with that Government.
But it was not just the massacre that made the world recoil in disgust. In the coming weeks thousands – some estimates are as high as 30,000 – of Chinese who were thought to be undesirable or suspected of being complicit in the organization of the protests were made to disappear by their Government. Whilst many were eventually released, some have never been heard from again.
Over the years China has fought to rid itself of the stain of Tiananmen Square. It promised in return for the 2008 Beijing Olympics that it would significantly improve its human rights record which has also included mobile execution squads. Currently a large (on going)crackdown against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province; re-education camps, harassment of human rights activists including indefinite detention and surveillance and a massive dystopian profiling project are in progress.
Many politicians around the world want to promote economic trade with China, but are loathe to acknowledge the cost to human rights, communities and the environment that goes with it. To them the spectre of Tiananmen Square and the ongoing assault on human rights is a nuisance that they try to distance themselves from. Whilst not getting involved militarily China has spent billions of dollars arming regimes in countries with large mineral resources, especially valuable commodities such as oil, gold and rare earth minerals to make electronics with. In return China gets easy access to those resources.
Tank man and the many other brave people who made a statement on that horrible night or in the days before might be people Chinese Government officials desperately want us to forget about and move on from. But we will not. They did not do this for the laughs. They did this for China. For freedom. For humanity. We should remember that.