In my home office, there is a poster of the man standing before the four tanks in Tiananmen Square. A Chinese student asked me who the hero was in the picture.
"The guy standing in front of the tanks?" I guessed.
"Nope," he replied. "It’s the tank commander. He stopped his tanks."
This was a different viewpoint of Tiananmen. As an American who had seen the news footage of troops moving into the Square in 1989, I held the idea that it was a black and white case of suppression of a democracy movement. That was to change.
In 1991, my university library received the Minidragons series and I could hardly wait to show it to my Chinese students. Right in the middle of one segment was film footage that we had never seen before. International film crews had captured the first troop carriers approaching the Square. Molotov cocktails were thrown. Unarmed soldiers fleeing the burning vehicles were clubbed by the demonstrators. My students and I were speechless. Molotov cocktails take preparation. This was not a gentle Gandhi-like sit-in. The video series is in both the University of Kansas and Emporia State libraries. You can view this for yourself.
Then, in 2001, an amazing translation of “The Tiananmen Papers” was published. It is a collection of the inside Party documents and communications among China’s leaders during the lead up to Tiananmen Square. The thoughts, the arguments, the confusion of Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng, and military leader Yang Shangkun are all laid public. Was this student movement an attempt to revive the disastrous Red Guard of the Cultural Revolution days?
China has been tolerant of student protests. But labor unions and other non-students were joining in. And this public challenge to the government sent the message that the government was no longer in control. Crime was rising in Xi’an and other major cities. A train in Shanghai was burned...with great loss of life. No diplomat could sleep at night with a China in anarchy.
China’s leaders convinced many of the Beijing university students to return to campus.
But new students flowed in on trains from the rural areas. From the Tiananmen papers, it is obvious that it was a no-win situation for the leadership. And from the newly published book of writings by the deposed prime minister Zhao Ziyang, we will have even more details on the this tragedy.
Today’s college students were mostly born after this incident. There is an orderly succession of younger leaders in national government. Democracy is working at the village level. The press is ever more intrusive. To not acknowledge this progress is unfair and counterproductive.
Ten years ago, on the 10th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, the 1989 student leader Li Lu said that “10 years ago anyone not demonstrating did not have a conscience, but that today anyone still demonstrating has not grown up.”
Remember. To many, the real hero in the tank picture...is the tank commander who stopped his tanks.