Early June marks the anniversary of the brutal suppression by the Chinese Communist Party of the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing. The pro-democracy, anti-corruption protests started in the spring of 1989. At first, the Chinese authorities oscillated between conciliation and crackdown. But on June 4, the hard-liners, led by Premier Li Peng, prevailed. As the protests continued and became more virulent, the military was summoned. Estimates of Chinese citizens murdered range from many hundreds to many thousands. Thousands more were injured.
On June 5, 32 years ago as I write, a lone man in a white shirt stepped in front of a column of tanks, temporarily halting its progress. The lead tank turned to go around him. He gingerly stepped in front of it again. And again. At one point, he clambered onto the tank to talk briefly to a crew member at the gunner’s hatch. Back on the ground, he continued to offer himself as a human obstacle. Eventually, some people in the crowd pulled him aside and the tanks proceeded.
No one knows the name or the fate of that brave man. But photos and a fuzzy video of the event surfaced and etched the episode into the world’s conscience, catapulting the man to anonymous fame. Just utter the phrase “Tank Man.” Every adult, even those educated at the best schools, will instantly know whom you mean.
Every adult in the West, that is. In China, the situation is different. There, the totalitarian’s most faithful handmaid, historical amnesia, has been the order of the day. (Though not yet in Hong Kong, as Claudia Rosett vividly reminds us.)
I was alerted to the extent and seamlessness of that deliberately cultivated amnesia several years ago. Our son, then a freshman in high school, had befriended a young Chinese student in his class. One day, he brought his friend home for dinner, the first of several such gatherings. His English was still a little rough—it improved rapidly—but he was clearly very intelligent. He was also, we discovered over the next four years, socially accomplished and vibrating with energy.
During one visit, the subject of the Tiananmen Square protests came up. He had heard something about them here but discounted utterly what he heard. He was fastidiously polite, but it was clear that he regarded the entire episode as a Western fabrication. I didn’t linger on the subject, but I did retrieve some pictures and online descriptions of the incident, including pictures and descriptions of the Tank Man. Nothing. We were met by a friendly countenance but unbending disbelief.
It is important to understand that this fellow was not a Communist ideologue. His parents were successful professionals. Doubtless, his father was a member of the Party. Economic success in contemporary China is mostly reserved for regime loyalists. We never met his father, for he never visited the States. But his mother visited on several occasions and we had her to dinner a few times with her son. It was mostly smiles and that somewhat strained, second-hand conversation that communication through the intermediary of an interpreter begets. But she was charming and clearly proud of her increasingly accomplished child.
We haven’t seen that young man for a few years now but I think of him whenever the subject of Tiananmen Square comes up. How, I wonder, could someone so intelligent and generally well-informed look at such vivid empirical evidence and see (or claim to see) nothing?
I do not have the answer to that question. Perhaps it is a matter for the psychologists. Memory, after all, is very much a respecter of amour propre. To a larger extent that is perhaps generally recognized, we remember what we prefer to remember rather than what actually happened.
What impresses me most about it is the fragility of what seems most unavoidable: factual truth.
A fact: isn’t that something so obvious, so unavoidable, that it cannot really be denied? Something that, once seen, cannot be unseen?
On the contrary. As George Orwell showed in Nineteen Eighty-Four, empirical, even logical facts subsist at the mercy of ideological imperatives. Without the oxygen of acknowledgment, they wither and lose their purchase. Early in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the protagonist Winston Smith writes that “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four. If that is granted, all else follows.”
Yes, but the Party wants to co-opt even the potency of logical entailment, not for any particular purpose, it is worth pointing out, but simply as a demonstration of its control of the human spirit. Towards the end of the book, you may recall, we find poor Winston scribbling down some random thoughts, including “two plus two makes five.” Did he believe it? Yes, in a sense akin to what Tertullian meant when he said “Credo quia absurdum”: “I believe because it is unfitting absurd.”
The fragility of facts, of empirical or historical reality, is a large topic. Orwell and others show what a potent weapon in the armory of totalitarianism it can be. I’ll end by mentioning a prophylactic, courtesy of Dr. Johnson.
Boswell recounts Johnson admonishing an interlocutor thus:
Accustom your children constantly to this; if a thing happened at one window, and they, when relating it, say that it happened at another, do not let it pass, but instantly check them; you do not know where deviation from truth will end.
The Chinese are very keen to brush the historical reality of what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989 under the rug, into the oubliette. In the first place, it doesn’t fit the narrative of Chinese inevitability. Radical dissent coexists uneasily with fantasies of ineluctable success.
Second, the facts of Tiananmen underscore not just the brutality of the Chinese but the surprising potency of individual action. You cannot find many discussions of those haunting images of the Tank Man without encountering the word “iconic.” A solitary man versus a column of tanks. Who won that exchange?
No doubt Stalin thought he was being cynically clever when he asked “How many divisions has the Pope?” The answer, of course, was “zero” and the implication was that the pontiff, a solitary man, would be no match for Stalin with his millions of troops.
It did not turn out that way, however. On this unhappy anniversary of Tiananmen Square, as the Chinese grind the denizens of Hong Kong under the thumb of their vast surveillance apparatus and the world wakes up to the true origin of COVID-19 in a Chinese bioweapons laboratory, the fate of Stalin’s sarcastic question should give us both pause and resolution.