Last Wednesday was the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when, in 1989, Chinese troops retook a square in Beijing where protesters had set up camp for a week. 'Retook' is a bit misleading, isn't it? It sounds like the reluctant handover of a stolen budgie, when the reality was blood on the tarmac and people mowed down like weeds, corpses of students lying where they fell, atop their bicycles, as soldiers fired indiscriminately into the crowd.
Some estimates put the deaths in the thousands, but one thing's for sure; the ultra-violence put out the lights of a burgeoning democratic movement. After a quarter-century – and a thorough attempt by the Chinese government to conceal the events that unfolded that June (happily, foiled by the Internet) – our collective memory is limited to the comparatively benign image of a man standing in front of a column of 17 T59 tanks. That CNN footage has become iconic, coming to represent the power of ordinary people against oppressive regimes, and ironic, given they generally don't have any.
The Tank Man was named as 19-year-old Wang Wei Lin, but there's no evidence this is his real name. “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,” wrote the essayist Pico Iyer. There are conflicting reports of his survival, imprisonment and death. Some believe Tank Man was hustled to safety by fellow protesters and lost in the crowd. Rumors of his identity and existence persist, and when Jiang Zermin, who would later become President of China, was grilled by Barbara Walters about whether he knew what had happened to the young man, he responded: “I think never killed.” However many claim Jiang, then general secretary of the communist party, gave a secret order for him to be tracked down and executed.
Tank Man was not one of the student leaders, he was no intellectual, nobody had ever heard of him. He was just a guy, coming back from buying groceries, who couldn't believe what a government was doing to its own people. Incredulity made him fearless. So it is sad that China, the world's oldest continuous civilisation, an Olympic host and a member of the UN Security Council, wants to expunge him and the events of that week from its history, instead of celebrating his heroism. But they're scared of the Dali Lama too, and he's just a little old man in an orange sheet. As unlikely as it is, I hope Tank Man lives still (in Hong Kong), a family man in his forties who sometimes remembers how crazy he was, thinking he could stop that steel tide with the power of his own personal outrage.
All anniversaries are cause for thought and 25 years on I wonder: Could I ever be that brave? Would I stand my ground, waving my shopping bags in defiance, or run away and hide? Yes, I've protested – taken back the night – but it was a rather wet effort, as I wasn't entirely convinced the night had ever been denied me. As a New Zealand woman, I've always had a voice. New Zealanders practically invented feminism, for cripes sake. My girlfriends and I are so used to freedom of speech, you'd need Mainfreight's daily allowance of masking tape to shut us up. I'm free. We're all free. That's why they call it a democracy.
This article would see me jailed in China. In Cambodia I'd be tortured just for being a journalist. In Nigeria, kidnapped and worse, for being an educated female. When protestors occupied the Octagon in 2011, the only beef most Dunedinites had was that they were vegetarians, and the only thing that got killed was the grass. Here, in our ignorant bliss, do we ever stop to think how fortunate we are, unquestioningly entitled to an opinion. “I disapprove of what you say, but I'd defend to the death your right to say it,” wrote Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her biography of Voltaire – and as I looked online at images of Tiananmen's pro-democracy protestors, just kids really, who died doing exactly that, I wept, and thanked my lucky stars I lived in a country where, if you don't like what the government's doing, it comes down to a tick, not a tank.