This iconic photograph was taken 22 years ago. While nobody knows the fate of the gentleman who dared to challenge a row of tanks, it's safe to say that he is probably not walking around today. Jeff Widener became a well-known man in the west for snapping an image that spoke for the people of China. Even though the protest was 100,000 strong, it really was one man against a giant.
CNN and AP were on the scenes, an a grade 10 version of me watched as people bravely tried to take their nation back from an authoritarian regime. According to the Chinese government, hundreds perished; according to Soviet Russia, thousands. Nobody will truly know the number of families who lost loved ones because the Chinese government has taken great care to erase history. Even Google censors discussion of the Tiananmen Square massacres to this day on behalf of a government that has burned books and cassettes detailing what exactly went on. While we in the free world are acutely aware that the Chinese government used force against its own people, the Chinese people know nothing by design.
A couple of years ago, PBS interviewed Chinese university students. They showed these bright scholars the photograph seen here and they had no idea who Tank Man was. They thought it was an art piece, a staged piece as part of a military parade. These were intelligent youths who grew up in a nation so restrictive that an event so powerful to us failed to register even though it took place in the land they call home.
Even today, the people of China have no freedom. The government used the Tiananmen Square protests as an excuse to further restrict the access of otherwise brilliant individuals to the outside world. Today, when the topic comes up, the protests are no longer students demanding a brighter future for China. The official version of the Tiananmen Square massacre is that protesters were armed militants and that the army was justified in taking them down. And so ingrained is this tale that young journalists frequently use the event as a reason to preach in op-eds against questioning the regime. Chinese news media are forbidden from reporting anything about the protests other than the official version that the crowd was small and that they were terrorists. Even tweeting anything that questions the official version can result in a person being taken from their home in the dead of night. In China, Tank Man never existed.
China is a populous industrial nation, and a look around the average home yields dozens of goods produced there. We love China and its hard-working folks, it's food, it's history, its culture. We know more about China than the people who reside there petrified that they'll step out of line and be incarcerated for long years. And we like their lack of democracy so long as it suits us. For an uprising in this nation would yield death camps and horrendous pollution just as it did in Romania after Ceausescu met his end, riddled with bullets. China's regime would not go so quietly; it would take tens of millions to connect and overthrow the autocracy to which most aspire. The re-writing of history would be different from most; in this instance it would be turning fiction into fact. But it can happen.
With the rise in technology, the impossible could become a reality. There is enough know-how in China to make democracy occur if the people want it. Forget the West and her desire for cheaply-made shoes and cameras. The West would be forced to wise up to the fact that we have enabled atrocity after atrocity in the name of commerce; we have expected over a billion souls to live under conditions that we wouldn't wish on criminals because of greed. We would have to get used to the idea of getting by on less for one fifth of the World's population to become emancipated from lifelong autocratic enslavement.
Shoes can be had for $5. Televisions are had more cheaply now than in the 1950's. There are reasons for these facts and as much as we complain about outsourcing, ask yourself if you are willing to do more with less, because that's what real lasting change will take. The Chinese people are among those who are 21st-century slaves to the West, and if we truly wish freedom for all of the globe's incredible voices we will have to demand that our governments stop palling around with dictators. We must exhibit true empathy instead of offering tokens to the executed dissidents; we must be willing to stop viewing our concerns as the only ones that are valuable. By living locally, we are thinking globally; for if despots conclude that they will no longer be able to do business the way that they have been doing it they will be forced to change the way they do business.
Liberty is an incredible thing, and a reality for us. By consuming less and speaking more, by truly loving our neighbours, we give them the courage to dream.