Today is the Anniversary of Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen square what? How can a square have an anniversary? For at least another generation people can no longer think of the square anymore, but the massacre that put an abrupt end to two months of protests. It’s easy to forget about, but we shouldn’t – this is slightly more important than the new CrunchPad or Palm’s Pre – and there is a technology angle to the story, just bear with me…
Back in 1989 I knew relatively little of what was happening in the real world. It was the year when communism fell country by country in Eastern Europe including my native Hungary, but I barely noticed it, being buried at a day-and-night super-intensive SAP training in Vienna, in a country whose language I did not speak. I missed history happen.
Tiananmen’s first anniversary found me living in Singapore, and I remember how shocked I was to hear the country’s Father, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew blame television reporting and western media in general for the deaths near Tiananmen Square. I don’t have a quote from that speech, but here’s one from the Straits Times, Aug 17, 2004:
If I have to shoot 200,000 students to save China from another 100 years of disorder, so be it.
Hm… Originally I only saw still photos of the famous Tank Man. Thanks to Youtube, now I can see how this lonely man stood up against lethal force.
(Should the embedded player not work, here’s the link to the video.)
He was no doubt a hero. But did he plan to be a hero? He has what appears to be shopping bags in his hands. He may have been just a “regular guy” who couldn’t believe what was happening, and believed he could talk sense to the soldiers. In fact he probably succeeded. I’d love to know what went through the tank commander’s mind. He was, after all ordered to “restore order” and crush the “rebels” – crushing this lonely little man would have meant nothing compared to the acts he likely committed later on that very same day. Did he know he was being filmed? Or was he simply impressed by the heroism of the lonely man? This scene reminded me of another one, and thanks to Youtube it only took seconds to find this film shot 33 years before Tiananmen, in Budapest, Hungary:
(Again, should the embedded player not work, here’s the link to the video)
The 1956 Revolution was crushed by the Russian tanks – but before the Russians, there were Hungarian tanks that the communist government sent to “restore order”. They took up their positions, just like the Chinese, then people started to talk to them, just like Tank Man, and finally most of them joined the demonstrators. Unlike in China, the Communist Party’s stronghold on the people weakened by the day – until the Russian Army arrived with overwhelming force. Yet it took them 6 days to suppress the revolution.
For the next 33 years of communist rule these events were referred to as the “counter-revolution”, and officially ignored. People never accepted this term, so they referred to the “1956 events” or simply “1956”. Just like Tiananmen – a forbidden topic in China. In a twist of history, Hungary adopted October 23rd, the day the 1956 Revolution started a national holiday in 1989, the year of the Tiananmen crackdown. I can only hope the day comes when China openly celebrates Tiananmen as a National Holiday.
But what about that Twitter you may ask… I recently watched a documentary on the events of early 1989 that lead to the fall of Communism in Europe, detailing how the democratic but illegal (by the communist regime) opposition had to hide their copiers, paper and ink, how they produced pamphlets over long nights on typewriters, copying them in a few hundred copies at a time, distributing them in the days to come. Heroic efforts to relatively little effect. If only they could have just blogged their thoughts!
Tienanmen did not happen overnight – millions of people had been protesting on the streets in Beijing during the month of May, 1989. The communist leadership was divided and so was the Army and Police. For weeks the possibility of a crackdown was in the air, but the military did not intervene, despite orders from the Communist Party leadership. The actual assault begin after weeks of hesitation, on June 3rd. How different things would have turned out, if the demonstrators had the means to coordinate and alert each other about the military moves. Better yet, if the soldiers in those tanks could have followed the demonstrators on Twitter, they would have likely recognized them as fellow citizens, not enemy to be crushed.
Oppression thrives when the oppressed are uninformed. It’s no wonder several Web-sites were shut down and services like Twitter blocked by Chinese authorities this year, in anticipation of the Tiananmen anniversary. But all this new technology is becoming more and more part of the fabric of everyday life, and has proven useful when disaster strikes – just think of the crucial role Twitter played in the rescue work after last year’s earthquake in China. So no, the regime can not permanently shut down all the new pervasive communication channels. And information is a natural enemy of opression. Which is why I know that the day will come when China can openly celebrate Tiananmen as a National Holiday.
In the meantime, memento by the Angry Chinese Blogger (also blocked in China):
Update: Wow, little did I suspect when I wrote this post… just ten days later: Iranian Protests Become ‘Twitter Revolution’.
Imagine where China would be today if Tiananmen Square protesters had cell phone video and Twitter on their side…