The Unknown Rebel

Posted: April 15, 2009 in General
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With a single act of defiance, a lone Chinese hero revived the world’s image of courage

Almost nobody knew his name. Nobody outside his immediate neighborhood had read his words or heard him speak. Nobody knows what happened to him even one hour after his moment in the world’s living rooms. But the man who stood before a column of tanks near Tiananmen Square — June 5, 1989 — may have impressed his image on the global memory more vividly, more intimately than even Sun Yat-sen did. Almost certainly he was seen in his moment of self-transcendence by more people than ever laid eyes on Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and James Joyce combined.

The meaning of his moment — it was no more than that — was instantly decipherable in any tongue, to any age: even the billions who cannot read and those who have never heard of Mao Zedong could follow what the “tank man” did. A small, unexceptional figure in slacks and white shirt, carrying what looks to be his shopping, posts himself before an approaching tank, with a line of 17 more tanks behind it. The tank swerves right; he, to block it, moves left. The tank swerves left; he moves right. Then this anonymous bystander clambers up onto the vehicle of war and says something to its driver, which comes down to us as: “Why are you here? My city is in chaos because of you.” One lone Everyman standing up to machinery, to force, to all the massed weight of the People’s Republic — the largest nation in the world, comprising more than 1 billion people — while its all powerful leaders remain, as ever, in hiding somewhere within the bowels of the Great Hall of the People.

Occasionally, unexpectedly, history consents to disguise itself as allegory, and China, which traffics in grand impersonals, has often led the world in mass-producing symbols in block capitals. The man who defied the tank was standing, as it happens, on the Avenue of Eternal Peace, just a minute away from the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which leads into the Forbidden City. Nearby Tiananmen Square — the very heart of the Middle Kingdom, where students had demonstrated in 1919; where Mao had proclaimed a “People’s Republic” in 1949 on behalf of the Chinese people who had “stood up”; and where leaders customarily inspect their People’s Liberation Army troops — is a virtual monument to People Power in the abstract. Its western edge is taken up by the Great Hall of the People. Its eastern side is dominated by the Museum of Chinese Revolution. The Mao Zedong mausoleum swallows up its southern face.

For seven weeks, though, in the late spring of 1989 — the modern year of revolutions — the Chinese people took back the square, first a few workers and students and teachers and soldiers, then more and more, until more than 1 million had assembled there. They set up, in the heart of the ancient nation, their own world within the world, complete with a daily newspaper, a broadcasting tent, even a 30-ft. plaster-covered statue they called the “Goddess of Democracy.” Their “conference hall” was a Kentucky Fried Chicken parlor on the southwest corner of the square, and their spokesmen were 3,000 hunger strikers who spilled all over the central Monument to the People’s Heroes. The unofficials even took over, and reversed, the formal symbolism of the government’s ritual pageantry: when Mikhail Gorbachev came to the Great Hall of the People for a grand state banquet during the demonstrations–the first visit by a Soviet leader in 30 years — he had to steal in by the back door.

Then, in the dark early hours of June 4, the government struck back, sending tanks from all directions toward Tiananmen Square and killing hundreds of workers and students and doctors and children, many later found shot in the back. In the unnatural quiet after the massacre, with the six-lane streets eerily empty and a burned-out bus along the road, it fell to the tank man to serve as the last great defender of the peace, an Unknown Soldier in the struggle for human rights.

As soon as the man had descended from the tank, anxious onlookers pulled him to safety, and the waters of anonymity closed around him once more. Some people said he was called Wang Weilin, was 19 years old and a student; others said not even that much could be confirmed. Some said he was a factory worker’s son, others that he looked like a provincial just arrived in the capital by train. When American newsmen asked Chinese leader Jiang Zemin a year later what had happened to the symbol of Chinese freedom — caught by foreign cameramen and broadcast around the world — he replied, not very ringingly, “I think never killed.”

In fact, the image of the man before the tank simplified — even distorted — as many complex truths as any image does. The students leading the demonstrations were not always peace loving and notoriously bickered among themselves; many were moved by needs less lofty than pure freedom. At least seven retired generals had written to the People’s Daily opposing the imposition of martial law, and many of the soldiers sent to put down the demonstrators were surely as young, as confused and as uncommitted to aggression as many of the students were. As one of the pro-democracy movement’s leaders said, the heroes of the tank picture are two: the unknown figure who risked his life by standing in front of the juggernaut and the driver who rose to the moral challenge by refusing to mow down his compatriot.

Nine years after the June 4 incident, moreover, it’s unclear how much the agitators for democracy actually achieved. Li Peng, who oversaw the crackdown on them, is still near the top of China’s hierarchy. Jiang, who proved his colors by coming down hard on demonstrators in Shanghai, is now the country’s President. And on a bright winter morning, Tiananmen Square is still filled, as it was then, with bird-faced kites and peasants from the countryside lining up to have their photos taken amid the monuments to Mao.

Yet for all the qualifications, the man who stood before the tanks reminded us that the conviction of the young can generate a courage that their elders sometimes lack. And, like student rebels everywhere, he stood up against the very Great Man of History theory. In China in particular, a Celestial Empire that has often seemed to be ruled by committee, a “mandate of Heaven” consecrated to the might of the collective, the individual has sometimes been seen as hardly more than a work unit in some impersonal equation. A “small number” were killed, Mao once said of the death of 70,000, and in his Great Leap Forward, at least 20 million more were sacrificed to a leader’s theories. In that context, the man before the tank seems almost a counter-Mao, daring to act as the common-man hero tirelessly promoted by propaganda and serving as a rebuke — or asterisk, at least — to the leaders and revolutionaries who share these pages.

More than a third of a century ago, before anyone had ever heard of videotapes or the World Wide Web or 24-hour TV news stations, Daniel Boorstin, in his uncannily prescient book The Image, described how, as we move deeper into what he called the Graphic Revolution, technology would threaten to diminish us. Ideas, even ideals, would be reduced to the level of images, he argued, and faith itself might be simplified into credulity. “Two centuries ago, when a great man appeared,” the historian wrote, “people looked for God’s purpose in him; today we look for his press agent.”

The hero — so ran Boorstin’s prophecy — was being replaced by the celebrity, and where once our leaders seemed grander versions of ourselves, now they just looked like us on a giant screen. Nowadays, as we read about the purported telephone messages of a sitting President and listen to the future King of England whisper to his mistress, the power of technology not just to dehumanize but to demystify seems 30 times stronger than even Boorstin predicted.

But the man with the tank showed us another face, so to speak, of the camera and gave us an instance in which the image did not cut humanity down to size but elevated and affirmed it, serving as an instrument for democracy and justice. Instead of making the lofty trivial, as it so often seems to do, the image made the passing eternal and assisted in the resistance of an airbrushed history written by the winners. Technology, which can so often implement violence or oppression, can also give a nobody a voice and play havoc with power’s vertical divisions by making a gesture speak a thousand words. The entire Tiananmen uprising, in fact, was a subversion underwritten by machines, which obey no government and observe no borders: the protesters got around official restrictions by communicating with friends abroad via fax; they followed their own progress — unrecorded on Chinese TV — by watching themselves on foreigners’ satellite sets in the Beijing Hotel; and in subsequent years they have used the Internet — and their Western training — to claim and disseminate an economic freedom they could not get politically.

The second half of the century now ending has been shadowed by one overwhelming, ungovernable thought: that the moods, even the whims, of a single individual, post-Oppenheimer, could destroy much of the globe in a moment. Yet the image of the man before the tank stands for the other side of that dark truth: that in a world ever more connected, the actions of a regular individual can light up the whole globe in an instant. And for centuries the walls of the grand palaces and castles of the Old World have been filled with ceremonial and often highly flattering pictures of noblemen and bewigged women looking out toward the posterity they hope to shape.

But nowadays, in the video archives of the memory, playing in eternal rerun, are many new faces, unknown, that remind us how much history is made at the service entrance by people lopped out of the official photographs or working in obscurity to fashion our latest instruments and cures. In a century in which so many tried to impress their monogram on history, often in blood red, the man with the tank — Wang Weilin, or whoever — stands for the forces of the unnamed: the Unknown Soldier of a new Republic of the Image.

Pico Iyer is an essayist and novelist, author most recently of Tropical Classical

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