Reacting to the Tank Man

Imagethief today links to a PBS documentary, “The Tank Man,” which makes for interesting watching. I’d like to respond, for those of you who might be reading.

The China that I see every day is worlds away from the China shown in the film. You could put this down to my living the sheltered life of a foreign student, but in my day-to-day experience, Beijingers are overwhelmingly positive about what is going on in the city and country as a whole. Naturally, the taxi drivers complain about the traffic, but I can only recall one driver who voiced full-on complaints about government priorities: in his view, the Olympics are a vast waste of money that would be better invested in the needs of the laobaixing, or common people. It is worth noting that he didn’t have a problem with the government itself, merely with some of its policies — when I do hear complaints, this is a common theme.

The documentary asserts that the general contentment I see is the result of a ‘deal with the devil’ made by the Chinese people, giving up their political voice in exchange for economic gains. My experience makes me think that the reality is, as in most circumstances, tinged with shades of grey. Certainly, to suggest that the Chinese people somehow ‘gave up’ their political rights in 1989 is simply laughable. I would be very interested to see proof that Chinese people between 1949 and 1989 somehow enjoyed more ‘freedom’ than Chinese people in 2006.

Internet censorship and lack of freedom of the Chinese press have made headlines in the Western mainstream media. These are problems, but the Chinese people have a proud history of finding their way around restrictions of all kinds. Banned books are openly for sale on the street in a way that Soviet samizdat could never have been. On the internet, authorities trying to clamp down have to deal with a language rich in puns and word associations. Yes, there are more than 30,000 ‘internet cops’ employed by the Chinese government and using the latest censorship technology. But there are also more than 110 million internet users in China, and that number is growing every day. I see no way that the government can prevent political discussion if people want it to happen.

And yes, I think that people will want this discussion to happen. As a society, the Chinese have a legendary passion for education. The documentary notes that most of China’s migrant workers choose to spend what little money they make on schooling for their children. As the developing economy gives people more money to invest in education, I think it is inevitable that debate will flourish. Economic development will lead to political involvement, not because people with their basic needs fulfilled will be able to participate, but because they, as educated citizens, will want to.

At the risk of being painted a Pinko Apologist — or worse, a Pinko Apologist with Chinese Characteristics — I will make two sweeping generalisations: Firstly, that since 1989, the Chinese government has done its people more good than harm; and secondly, that increasingly what is good for the Communist Party is good for the Chinese people.

As with any sweeping generalisation, these statements will not be true in every case. However, in defence of the first point, I stand by my assertion that Chinese people today have more freedom than they did before 1989. As for the second point, for many of China’s largest problems the goals of the Party and everyday people seem to be miraculously aligned (motivations are beside the point). A stable, prosperous, and clean countryside would be welcomed by Party and peasants alike. Wen Jiabao’s recent speech at the National People’s Congress suggests that for the time being, and 17 years after the Chinese ‘gave away their freedom’, the government is showing reluctant signs of listening to the voices of its people.

Update: The documentary claims that an internet user in China doing a Google image search for ‘Tiananmen Square’ will find no pictures of the Tank Man. This statement is misleading. If the search is done (in English) from the main page, many Tank Man pictures will turn up. It is only if the search is done on Google’s recently launched hosted-in-China service,, that these pictures are not returned in the results. What is included, however, is this sentence: “据当地法律法规和政策,部分搜索结果未予显示” — ‘In accordance with local laws regulations and policies, some search results are not shown’. Searching in Chinese for “天安门” (Tiananmen) on both and gives results equivalent to an English search, though with fewer Tank Man pictures. This is less a symptom of Chinese censorship than of the stronger association made outside of China between the words ‘Tiananmen Square’ and the 1989 massacre.

Update 2: It seems that I painted too rosy a picture of a image search for 天安门, since the results I got were apparently some kind of fluke. Several subsequent tests on several different computers have thrown up lots of image-not-found icons in place of Tank Man.