The man in the photograph was alone, standing in front of a line of tanks. He was wearing a white shirt and black trousers. He was carrying a shopping bag. It was the morning of June 5, 1989, the day after Chinese troops massacred thousands of pro-democracy protesters in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
The image has come to serve as a kind of symbolic, final act of defiance, the last tragic gesture in a non-violent uprising that lasted nearly two months and brought millions of people into the streets of more than 300 Chinese cities before it was brutally crushed in a mayhem of state-organized mass murder.
In the days leading up to the June 4 atrocities, as many as one million people were gathering every day in Tiananmen Square. It is not known how many people were eventually slaughtered. Over the years, leaked documentary evidence has pushed the death toll upwards from a Chinese Red Cross report that put the tally at 2,700 civilians, to a secret British diplomatic cable uncovered two years ago that puts the death toll in excess of 10,000.
In the days leading up to the June 4 atrocities, as many as one million people were gathering every day in Tiananmen Square. It is not known how many people were eventually slaughtered.
Written by British ambassador Sir Alan Donald, and informed by confidential data provided by a senior Chinese government source, the diplomatic cable’s account makes for grim reading. It speaks of children being bayoneted to death, armoured personnel carriers running over masses of civilians and hundreds of students at a time cornered and mowed down by machine gun fire, their corpses incinerated and the resulting mush hosed down into Beijing’s drains.
Outside China, the photograph of the man standing in front of the tanks is one of the most familiar images from the 20th century, but nobody knows who the man was or what happened to him. Time magazine named him one of the last century’s 100 most important figures, but if the man is still alive he may not even know he’s famous. In China, the surveillance state’s vast censorship apparatus has ensured that most people have never seen the photograph.
Few Chinese are even aware that there was an uprising in 1989. It was a peaceful mass mobilization. It came to be called the 89 Democracy Movement, but it arose from impromptu public gatherings to mourn the April 15 death of Hu Yaobang, the Communist Party general secretary who had fallen afoul of party commissars for “bourgeois liberalism.” Two years earlier, Hu was ousted from the party because of his efforts to steer China away from doctrinaire communism and towards policies conducive to pluralism and democratization.
According to Rowena Xiaoking He, a researcher with Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Chinese society is possessed of a fearful, taboo-shrouded misapprehension that something bad happened in 1989, some kind of western plot to disrupt Chinese society, and the correct patriotic standpoint is that it needed to be put down.
Beijing’s thought-control administration employs tens of thousands of censors aided by crude algorithms devoted to blotting out any possible discussion of what happened back then. It is practically impossible to even mention the date of June 4, 1989 on popular social media platforms like Sina Weibo and Baidu. Anything that might remotely draw attention to the massacre, or give the appearance of a commemoration, is instantly deleted.
In a project run by the University of Hong Kong’s Weiboscope center and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, analysts have amassed a compendium of Chinese social media content that has been censored this year due to its association with unauthorized memories of the 89 Democracy Movement. So far, the project has identified 3,237 keywords that provoke deletion. During the first four months of this year, the project identified more than 700,000 posts the censors have deleted from Weibo.
Every year around the anniversary, police round up 1980s-era activists and ship them out of Beijing for a few days. It’s a yearly “stability maintenance” operation that targets government critics and suspected dissidents to be picked up for interrogation sessions or placed under house arrest. With the 30 th anniversary fast approaching, Beijing’s censorship regime has been working overtime.
In recent weeks, dozens of Marxist students in Beijing have been abducted from university campuses and “disappeared” by the ministry of state security. Last month, the Leica Camera company released a video advertisement that briefly depicts a news photographer at a Beijing hotel window with the image of the man standing in front of the tanks in 1989 reflected in a camera lens. Despite Leica’s grovelling attempts to distant itself from the advertisement, the Leica brand was banned from Sina Weibo.
Hundreds of foreign news websites are blocked in China, and it is becoming nearly impossible for most Chinese to access virtual private networks to work around China’s great firewall. This week, the Wikimedia Foundation announced that the Wikipedia reference site is now blocked in China across all languages.
Since assuming the Chinese presidency in 2013, Chinese Communist Party boss Xi Jinping has amassed more power to himself than any supremo since the days of Mao Zedong. He has overseen the rapid entrenchment of a vicious surveillance state that suppresses dissent more ruthlessly than at any time since 1989. His rule has been marked by a dangerously belligerent foreign-policy adventurism, not least the annexation of the South China Sea and the establishment of a menacing international Belt-and-Road alliance of torture states.
Xi has burned churches, bulldozed ancient mosques, locked up human rights lawyers and incarcerated more than one million Muslims in concentration camps in Xinjiang.
Xi’s spiteful and menacing disruption of Canadian canola and pork exports to China, and his kidnapping and arbitrary imprisonment of diplomat-on-leave Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor, is of a piece with his determination to force the intrusion of the shadowy telecommunications behemoth Huawei into Canada’s fifth-generation internet connectivity rollout.
Xi’s meddling in Canada’s domestic affairs is increasingly reliant upon the overseas strong-arming and political influence-peddling operations of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, with its astroturf “friendship societies,” its serial acquisitions of Chinese-language media organizations, its deployment of public-relations agencies and its manipulation, harassment and intimidation of Chinese-Canadians, Tibetans, dual-citizen Hong Kongers and student-visa holders.
This brings us to another anniversary that explains how it came to pass that Canada became uniquely vulnerable among the G7 countries to Beijing’s blackmail and uniquely useful to Beijing’s global mercantilist ambitions. It’s the looming 25 th anniversary of the moment the Beijing regime was fully welcomed back into the palace of global capitalism following its five-year quarantine arising from the Tiananmen massacre. Canada served as Beijing’s willing bellman, concierge and scullery maid.
In November, 1994, then-prime minister Jean Chrétien led the largest foreign trade mission to China since Tiananmen. That first “Team Canada” mission consisted of nearly 400 business executives, two cabinets ministers, two territorial leaders and every premier except Quebec’s Jacques Parizeau. That event laid the groundwork for the most calamitous foreign policy in Canadian history. Ottawa served as Beijing’s primary western comprador, collaborator, enabler and apologist.
Nobody in the Communist Party princeling caste has ever been held accountable for the atrocities of 1989, and nobody in Canada’s political caste has been held accountable for dragging this country into the Chinese predicament we must somehow endure until such time as we can somehow extricate ourselves from it.
And you can line up the lot of them. You can put all the revolving-door mandarins, the tenured advisers and corporate palm-greasers together, and you will not find a fraction of the bravery, the honour and the dignity of that one man, wearing a white shirt and black trousers, who stood alone in front of a line of tanks in Beijing, on the morning of June 5, 1989.
Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019