The heroism of the still-unidentified
Tiananmen Square
Nick Gillespie|6.4.2019 3:10 PM
As we observe the 30th anniversary of the massacre by the Chinese government of as many as 10,000 peaceful protestors in Tiananmen Square, the exact meaning of the event, which most Chinese residents know nothing about, remains unclear.
Thus it has always been. Writing for Reason in our 35th anniversary issue (December 2003), Charles Paul Freund observed that the iconic image of the still-unidentified «Tank Man» supported multiple interpretations:
One picture can tell many stories, and this one’s told three so far: of defiance against the state, of «restraint» by the state, and of the state’s vengeance. Perhaps it has one more meaning that will become clear in the course of the next 35 years: a foreshadowing of the end of another totalist state.
That same issue featured a list of «35 Heroes of Freedom,» one of whom was Tank Man:
The Tiananmen Square martyr. By putting his life on the line in front of his government’s tanks, he provided not only one of the most memorable images of the last 35 years but one of the most inspiring too. The free China of the future owes him a statue or two.
Suffice it to say that China is not only not free yet, but it’s less free than it was just a decade ago. President Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2012, has eliminated term limits, strengthened the standing of the Communist Party, purged his enemies, thrown millions into prison camps, tightened state control of the economy, and increased surveillance of citizens through a controversial «social credit system» that, among other things, stopped people from buying airplane tickets almost 18 million times last year alone. Despite recent slowdowns in the rate of economic growth, Xi Jinping and his predecessors’ authoritarian model of state capitalism has delivered an increasing standard of living for most Chinese, which doubtless helps the Communist Party maintain power. In the 21st century, China is not only increasingly «totalist,» but it’s the most-viable rival to Western-style, limited-government democracies that defend some version of «free minds and free markets.»
The biggest impact of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests was in Europe. Footage of the crackdown was immediately banned in China but it was replayed endlessly in Western Europe and widely viewed in Eastern bloc nations. In May 1989, China’s Deng Xiaoping welcomed the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for high-level discussions about quelling unrest in Communist countries, all of which were facing protest movements. Many in the press stayed around to cover the student protests and thus bore witness to the brutal repression that took place just four days after the Deng-Gorbachev summit, the first such meeting between top Chinese and Soviet leaders in 30 years. From a 2009 account in Foreign Policy:
On June 4, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers fought their way into Tiananmen Square, leading to an unknown number of civilian deaths….
The effects of the Tiananmen tragedy ricocheted throughout the entire communist bloc, especially in the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc countries of Eastern Europe…. In almost every East European country, the pro-democracy movements grew rapidly in the following summer and fall of 1989. These opposition movements took the opportunity of international Communism’s deepened legitimacy crisis to wage new offensives against the Communist authorities in their own countries. The Communist leaderships were all facing difficult dilemmas—they could neither afford to take a totally defensive attitude toward the pro-democracy movements nor dare resort to violent means.
During the following summer and fall, Eastern Europe experienced great unrest, eroding the political foundation and undermining legitimacy of every Communist regime there, culminating on Nov.

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