China’s most recent foreign war to date was fought against a surprising enemy. Late in 1978, the communist government of Vietnam invaded the bordering nation of Cambodia, then under the control of Mao Zedong’s former protégé Pol Pot, in order to put a stop to the bloody genocide he was carrying out there. China responded to Pol Pot’s pleas for help by attacking Vietnam the following February.

The attack did not go especially well; suddenly it was China’s turn to play the role of the unimaginative conventional power struggling to cope with guerilla-style ambushes of the sort that Mao had once used so effectively against Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese. Battered and bewildered, China summarily declared that it had taught Vietnam a sufficient lesson and withdrew its troops after just a few weeks, even as Pol Pot fled into the jungle to escape a reckoning for his crimes. After decades of being used mostly as a tool for internal repression, the People’s Liberation Army clearly wasn’t what it once had been. One Chinese general later described the whole operation as a “shambles.”

The brief, abortive war was little noticed beyond East Asia, but was in its way a watershed moment in the modern history of China, in that it marked the last gasp of Chairman Mao’s old vision of the country as a proud pariah, an instigator and protector of radical and violent insurgencies like that of Pol Pot. For even as the war was taking place, China under Deng Xiaoping was in many other contexts rejoining the international political and economic order.

It was left to the administration of President Jimmy Carter to complete the legitimization of Communist China that Richard Nixon had begun. On January 1, 1979, Carter’s State Department extended full diplomatic recognition to the mainland government, a step that had been long delayed by the intractable issue of Taiwan. The tortured agreement that finally emerged from the negotiations between Washington and Beijing could only have come from a flock of hardened diplomats. The United States affirmed that Taiwan was a part of China rather than a sovereign nation unto itself, much less the home of the exiled government of all of China. Yet it also pledged — albeit quietly, not through any mechanism as blunt as a formal treaty — to protect the island if China should attempt to invade it and displace the extant government there, which everyone fully expected to continue to behave like that of an independent nation. This made no sense on the face of it; if Taiwan was a part of China, then surely China had the right to do with it what it would. For many Chinese, it smacked uncomfortably of the humiliations of the late imperial era, when China’s authority over its own territory and people had existed only at the sufferance of the Western powers. But Deng Xiaoping was willing to accept the borderline nonsensical if not insulting compromise, for the time being at any rate, in order for Communist China to take the last step toward becoming a full-fledged member of the community of nations, with all the benefits accrued thereby.

To celebrate the occasion, Deng belatedly reciprocated Richard Nixon’s bold visit to China by coming to the United States personally. After being received at the White House with all the ceremony due to the visiting head of state of a major nation, he embarked on the most high-profile tour of the United States writ large by a representative of China since Soong Mei-ling had been feted by all the stars of the Hollywood firmament back in 1943. The short, slightly rotund 74-year-old proved unexpectedly charming, with a big smile and warm words for just about everyone he met. The highlight of the trip was a rodeo he attended in Texas, where he donned a cowboy hat and circled the arena in the shotgun seat of a stagecoach. The new conventional wisdom in the United States held that, as Deng carried out economic reform in China to make more space for private initiative, as its economy grew more integrated with the rest of the world, and as its standard of living rose as a result, authoritarianism would slowly but inexorably give way to democracy. Deng was smart enough to tell the Americans exactly what they wanted to hear in this respect. He said that he was a big fan of democracy — “without reservations.” It would just take some time yet to bring it about in a country as vast and still-underdeveloped as China.

Deng Xiaoping is given an honorary cowboy hat in Texas. (manhhai)

Whatever his private opinions on the subject of political democracy, Deng Xiaoping’s program of economic liberalization was very, very real. He started with agriculture, the bedrock upon which everything else in the economy must be built. He rolled out a “Household Responsibility System” in the countryside, in which state-owned farm plots were devolved back to individual families, who were left free to work their land as they felt best. To encourage their efforts, the state offered them generous premiums for exceeding their minimum quotas. Between 1978 and 1984, China’s agricultural output increased at an average annual rate of 8.8 percent.

Not wanting these gains to be literally eaten up by a population that was now passing the daunting threshold of 1 billion, Deng put into effect a “One Child” policy which permitted each married couple to have exactly that, with limited exceptions. (“The first child has a hereditary disease”; “Marriage between an only son and an only daughter”; “the husband or wife is the only son or daughter for two generations”; etc.) Those who ignored the rules were subject to stiff fines and in some cases forced abortions, followed by sterilization. China’s population would continue to increase for many years to come despite the One Child policy, but that would largely be down to improvements in healthcare that allowed people to live ever longer.

With the farms humming along and the population boom constrained, Deng turned to the less perishable sectors of the economy. Thanks to a huge labor force that was willing to work for a pittance by Western standards, he believed that China was well-positioned to become the world’s factory in a dawning new age of global supply chains. To help it do so, Deng introduced “Township and Village Enterprises” — corporations by another name, which were empowered to seek investors inside and outside of China and to make international business deals. First they would supply the rich world with the many lifestyle products to which it had become addicted; in time, they would also feed a demand for consumer goods inside China itself, as the money they brought in filtered through the economy to wind up in the pockets of a rising middle class. By the mid-1980s, Western economists were already expressing wonder at the “miracle” taking place in China; the country’s gross domestic product was flirting each and every year with double-digit growth in percentage terms, putting the developed world to shame. Meanwhile the same Party organs that had harped endlessly on about the evils of capitalism ten years earlier had now adopted a new slogan: “To Get Rich Is Glorious!”

In doing so, they inadvertently paraphrased “Greed Is Good,” the phrase du jour of the go-go 1980s in North America, where the hippie generation was moving into corporate boardrooms as unbothered by the cognitive dissonance involved in that transition as allegedly Communist China was by its own about-face a decade after Mao Zedong’s death. Bob Stein and Jan Wong, the two Western Maoists we met earlier, both joined the rest of their generation in casting their lots with the establishment: Stein set up a company to sell movies on videotapes and laserdiscs and computer software on floppy disks and CD-ROMs, while Wong became a business reporter. In 1988, Wong returned to China after eight years away to head up the Toronto Globe and Mail‘s new Beijing bureau. The city that welcomed her back seemed at first blush to have more in common with her newspaper’s home city than it did with the Beijing she remembered from the 1970s.

Beijing had changed dramatically. Its population had jumped 50 percent to 11 million. The smelly horse carts hauling sloshing tanks of human excrement had disappeared. A new six-lane highway ringed the capital. Bikes still clogged the roads, but now some had speeds and gears and came in reds, purples, blues, and yellows. I bought a green Flying Pigeon, which was stolen within a week. This wasn’t the China I remembered.

The Great Wall Sheraton was Beijing’s newest luxury hotel. My cramped single cost $140 a night, up from the $2 a night the Overseas Chinese Hotel had charged me sixteen years earlier for my windowless cell. The Sheraton had high-speed elevators, liveried doormen, and gift shops that didn’t sell Mao’s Little Red Book. At breakfast, I had orange juice, croissants with Australian butter and Swiss jam, bacon with scrambled eggs, and real coffee.

Having once sweated to grow eggplants and peanuts, I was happy to see that food was plentiful. Besides an abundance of watermelons, once so scarce you required a doctor’s note to buy one, street stalls sold strawberries, pineapples, sweet melons, cherries, purple grapes, peaches, plums, apricots, tangerines, broccoli, oyster mushrooms, golden-thread mushrooms, white-button mushrooms, fresh shiitake mushrooms, bitter melon gourds, green onions, carrots, yams, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuces, peppers, beans, snow peas, celery, and slender green asparagus. There were crabs, shrimp, carp, eels, chickens, ducks, pheasants, geese, partridges, eggs, bean curd, and all kinds of pork, lamb, and beef for sale. The only thing that had disappeared were the lineups.

The government had bulldozed entire neighborhoods of picturesque courtyard homes to build hundreds of featureless eighteen-story apartment buildings in hospital green, dead tan, or gray. Some foreigners thought that was cultural genocide, but many Beijingers preferred the highrises, which had central heating, plumbing, and piped-in cooking gas, amenities lacking in traditional homes.

The number of cars was growing so fast that most drivers were rank beginners. Imagine having to live and work and go for a relaxing Sunday outing in one gigantic, never-ending Chinese driving school. Drivers used their horns, not their brakes. And it seemed that no one had told them it wasn’t safe to change four lanes at a time.

All of the Mao portraits were gone, except for the giant one in Tienanmen Square; virtually all had been replaced with neon signs advertising French cognac and Japanese televisions. The first real bars had opened. Stores sold Chinese-made tampons and decent toilet paper. There were even padded bras [and] false eyelashes.

The standard of living may have risen dramatically, but not everything was an improvement. The brilliant blue skies I so loved had disappeared in a yellow smog, the result of an unbridled industrial revolution and no unleaded gasoline. Once, I had been able to see as far as the Fragrant Hills, twenty miles [32 kilometers] away. Now I couldn’t see clearly beyond the next block. Even on days when I stayed indoors, my nostrils were black with grime. Plastic bags used to be so scarce they cost half a day’s pay. Now one way to measure the ferocity of a winter dust storm was to count the number of dirty bags stuck in the tree branches.

A lot more people smoked, including many young women. By the late 1980s, China had become the biggest consumer of cigarettes in the world, averaging 75 packs a year for every man, woman, and child. That added up to 1.7 trillion cigarettes annually, or more than Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, Latin America, and North America combined. Nobody seemed to be aware of the dangers of lung cancer. The government certainly wasn’t saying. Its tobacco monopoly, after all, produced more than one-quarter of all taxes and state profits.

The relaxed atmosphere, however, delighted me. Compared to the old Maoist days, when people were afraid of their own shadows, China now seemed free and open. Instead of bumper-harvest reports, newspapers printed frank stories about rude salesclerks, spoiled children, and the rising crime rate. Ordinary citizens seemed remarkably blasé about being interviewed. They rarely requested a pseudonym and didn’t mind having their picture taken.

People laughed when I told them I had been a worker-peasant-soldier foreign student back in the 1970s. They laughed harder when I said I had worked on a farm. Even my language was archaic. No one called anyone “comrade” anymore. I found it so hard to say “Miss,” “Mrs.,” and “Mr.,” in Chinese, titles that were once unspeakably bourgeois. When I referred to [my husband] Norman as my “ai ren,” the Maoist word for spouse, people tittered because it literally meant “lover.” I had to learn a whole new vocabulary: “generation gap,” “inflation,” “human rights,” and “Sprite.”

Sex was no longer a taboo topic. I attended the first nude art show in the history of the People’s Republic of China. And one of my first interviews was with a Chinese Ann Landers, who breezily dispensed advice on unrequited love, frigidity, and extramarital sex.

But I knew things had really changed when I got my first obscene phone call, in English. After all, in the old days people didn’t even have phones.

“Do you want sex intercourse?” a young male voice said. He clearly knew he was dialing a phone number belonging to a foreigner; we were restricted to a special exchange.

“Hello? Hello? What do you want?” I said. “Sorry? What do you mean?”

There was a long pause. “Do you want sex intercourse?” he repeated, this time more uncertainly.

“I’m so sorry, but I don’t understand,” I said.

After a few more tries, he gave up. An hour later, the phone rang again. He obviously had been consulting a dictionary. “I mean I love you,” he said.

“Thank you very much,” I said politely, before hanging up.

China even got its first bona-fide rock star, a twenty-something troubadour named Cui Jian, who had left his gig playing trumpet for the Beijing Symphony Orchestra to pick up an electric guitar and play songs cast in the mold of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Talking Heads, to cite the artist’s own list of musical heroes. “Chinese history and Chinese culture are very long and very rich,” he said. “But right now our culture is like a river without a way to the ocean. We want to find a way to release this river, to let it flow into the ocean and join with the world outside of China. We want to create a new culture — a culture that isn’t parochial and closed in on itself.”

Cui Jian was actually parroting a metaphor that was everywhere in China at the time. In June of 1988 — well before he gave that interview — a bold and remarkable series of programs was aired on Chinese television. River Elegy was a six-part documentary that appeared innocuous at first glance, being a broad history of China, the sort of fare that audiences had seen plenty of already in the brief period of time since televisions had become relatively commonplace. But its head writer Su Xiaokang discarded the cloak of grandeur, destiny, and exceptionalism under which imperial China and its icons — not least among them the Great Wall — were customarily draped in such programs. The river of the name was the lugubrious, sediment-laden, occasionally deadly Yellow River. The weight of China’s lengthy past was similarly stultifying, Su more than implied. The only way forward was to leave behind muddy provincialism and strike out into the purer, cleaner waters of the international ocean — to open the gates of the Great Wall and bid the world without a joyous welcome.

Not since the Hundred Flowers era of the 1950s had so skeptical and challenging a work been permitted to exist above-ground. But, while the missives of writers like Wang Meng had been confined to what was then a tiny educated elite, River Elegy was a piece of mass media in the modern sense. The documentary became a hit, a touchstone for an entire generation of Chinese youth. It was watched by more than 100 million people over the course of its multiple television broadcasts, even as versions on videotape flew off store shelves and a glossy tie-in book sold more than 1 million copies on its own. Many of the arguments deployed by the documentary, about the need for China to cast off the past, were ironically of a piece with those of the Cultural Revolution. Now, though, they served a call for liberalization rather than collectivization. Veteran China watchers could only shake their heads in disbelief. It really did appear that the country was on the verge of a political transformation even more extraordinary than its economic one.

But the mainland wasn’t the only Chinese land undergoing a metamorphosis: Taiwan’s standard of living and cultural values had changed even more by this point, defying the seemingly devastating blows that had been the loss of the island’s seat in the United Nations and the withdrawal of American diplomatic recognition.

The hidden architect of the modern Taiwanese economy is Morris Chang, who was born near Shanghai but fled China at the age of eighteen in 1949 to escape the Communist takeover. He wound up in the United States, where he studied electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then took a job at Texas Instruments, the inventor of the integrated circuit — i.e., the ubiquitous digital “chips” that make the modern world go. His area of expertise there was fabrication, meaning the processes and factories involved in turning chips out in quantity for the cheapest possible price. A hard driver who was constantly on the lookout for an edge on the competition, Chang became one of the first in his industry to spot the potential in off-shoring chip production to places where employees could be hired for much less than the typical American factory worker. He examined various countries around the world, but kept coming back to Taiwan, with its stable — albeit authoritarian — government that was eager to forge as many links with the West as possible as a counterbalance to the hostile behemoth that loomed just 100 miles (160 kilometers) to its west. Chang opened a Texas Instruments factory in Taiwan in April of 1969. Eleven years later, it shipped its billionth chip.

The importance of Chang’s pioneering factory to the economic life of Taiwan and, indeed, all of East Asia can hardly be overstated. As the world’s appetite for chips and other types of electrical components continued to increase, more companies built factories in Taiwan, as well as in Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea, all of which offered a similar set of advantages. By the late 1970s, economists were calling this group the four “Asian tigers,” what with their torrid pace of economic growth. At about this same time, the first personal computers were appearing on American and European desktops and the first videogame arcades were opening, the heralds of a 1980s during which the world’s hunger for chips would grow more insatiable than ever. Morris Chang remained at the forefront of all of these developments; he was a living bridge between West and East in the mold of Charlie Soong and his children, being equally fluent in English and Chinese, as comfortable tucking into a rib-eye on Texas’s Silicon Prairie as he was threading his way through the etiquette minefield of a formal Chinese business lunch. In 1985, he quit Texas Instruments to go work for Taiwan’s government. Two years later, he shepherded into existence the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), today the world’s largest single maker of chips, with the most advanced foundries in the world.

As mainland China and Taiwan both experienced their own economic miracles, an oddly symbiotic relationship arose between the two. Even as each of their governments continued to insist that the other literally had no right to exist, their businessmen learned the value of cooperation. Despite all the changes taking place on the mainland, many Westerners still felt more at ease dealing with Taiwan, which came without the baggage of communism. But as Taiwan’s gross national product soared, the old economic adage that a rising tide lifts all boats began to seem like a threat rather than a promise. A phenomenon that economists call the “middle-income trap” threatened to assert itself, as prices and wages on Taiwan increased as well, until the island risked pricing itself out of the very advantages that had made it successful. At this point, clever Taiwanese businessmen began looking to the mainland, whose per-capita income still lagged almost exponentially far behind their island’s own. Taiwan became a sort of middleman between the Western world and the mainland, signing manufacturing contracts with the former and then opening factories to do the actual production on the latter. The most spectacularly successful of these ventures was (and is) a Taiwanese company known as Foxconn, which opened its first mainland factory in 1988 to assemble electronic gadgets of all descriptions for the benefit of Western consumers. Today, Foxconn alone manufactures an astonishing 40 percent of all the world’s electronic devices.

It was disarmingly easy for an outsider to look upon the hustle and bustle of either Taiwan or the mainland — not to mention media productions like River Elegy, which proved as popular among the youth of Taiwan as those of the mainland — and conclude that the society in question was marching happily down the path toward Western-style democracy. And in the case of Taiwan, this sanguine belief was to a large extent correct. When Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988, he did not leave a full-fledged democracy behind, but he did leave a government that allowed journalists to write freely for the most part and had implemented a relatively fair and impartial rule of law. Since 1986, he had even tolerated an opposition party to his own Kuomintang, known as the Democratic Progressive Party. The goal, the second Chiang had repeatedly stated, was to slowly bring democracy to Taiwan, so as not to introduce too much economic or social instability alongside it. While many could and did complain about the glacial pace of that undertaking under Chiang Ching-kuo and then his successor Lee Teng-hui, both leaders could point to a record of concrete — albeit baby — steps in the direction of liberalization. This was more than Chiang Kai-shek had ever been able to do.

Alas, the progress of freedom on the mainland proved not to be so steady or linear. The government there often seemed uncertain at first where to draw the lines, yet all too assertive once it finally made a decision. To wit: after tolerating the existence of River Elegy for several months, it suddenly banned the program outright in October of 1988. China’s 80-year-old Vice President Wang Zhen penned an editorial to justify the action, which the Party demanded that every newspaper in the country print on its front page. In it, he pulled out the old rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution, as the post-Mao Communist Party has always tended to do when it feels itself on the verge of losing its grip on the populace. Su Xiaokang was a “counter-revolutionary”; “Intellectuals are dangerous,” Wang raged. China was not and never would be like the West, had no interest in importing the Western decadence which Su praised at the expense of his own, infinitely richer cultural heritage.

Of course, anyone observing the advertising billboards, shopping centers, traffic snarls, and copious smog of Beijing, Shanghai, or any of China’s other big cities might have begged to differ. Still, it paid to be attuned to some of the seemingly trivial differences, for they had much to say about the older values that still lay beneath the new mania for branding and conspicuous consumption. For example, every elevator in Beijing was manned by an operator; the people apparently couldn’t be trusted to push the buttons for themselves. Jan Wong calls this “a metaphor for modernization, Chinese-style. You could have technology, but forget about freedom.” This was a lesson that was all too easy even for the citizens of China itself to forget when surrounded by so many shiny new things.

As it happened, freedom was on much of the world’s mind as the 1980s drew toward a close, and with them the 40-year-old Cold War. In perhaps the most blessed anticlimax in the history of the world, the doddering old men who led the governments of the Soviet Union and its satellites, worn out by the sheer amount of effort ongoing repression demanded of them, simply gave up one by one and let their restless people have it their way. Many a naïve Western observer, unfamiliar with or dismissive of the historical and doctrinal differences between the Soviet communist sphere and the Chinese one, assumed that China too was well along on the march toward what some excited academics were calling “the end of history,” when liberal democracy would become the overwhelmingly dominant political ideology all over the world, thanks to its self-evident superiority over all of the others.

So, when Chinese university students began the largest protest ever seen against the Communist Party on Beijing’s Tienanmen Square in April of 1989, it seemed little different from what was going on in Berlin, Budapest, and Bucharest. Their demands for basic rights like freedom of the press were very much in tune with what was coming out of the mouths of other protesters elsewhere in the world, even if they did express themselves in a somewhat stilted and long-winded way.

It is not hard for all to comprehend that press reform is the most appropriate breakthrough point for political reform. Public opinion functions as both a constructive and a supervisory force. It is not for no reason that Western nations call the public press the “fourth estate.” Allowing people to speak the truth is the most fundamental feature of political reform. In the truth spoken by the people, we will be able to find an inexhaustible source of prosperity for our motherland and for the revitalization of our nation. Let us unceasingly continue to struggle for this objective until the people can truly speak frankly and without restraint!

This earnest young protester has literally draped himself in demands for freedom of speech and freedom of the press. (蔡淑芳@sfchoi8964)

It was a rather motley, disorganized group of activists who gathered that spring, mixing idealism and opportunism in equal measure. For all that the political philosophy most of them expressed was the polar opposite of that preached by the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution, this was for them as well a precious once-in-a-lifetime chance to rebel against adult authority and get away with it. Some gave lengthy speeches about social justice and went on hunger strikes; others guzzled beer and snuggled with the opposite sex inside their makeshift tents. Yet when Beijing received a visit from the Soviet Union’s last leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose determination to liberalize would soon lead to that entity’s demise, all hailed him as a hero. “The Soviet Union has Gorbachev,” read one sign. “Whom does China have?”

“Tienanmen Square was transformed into an urban Woodstock,” writes Jan Wong, “without the mud and psychedelic drugs.” Cui Jian performed for the crowd, thrashing away at his guitar while he belted out his signature hit “Nothing to My Name,” whose lyrics had been artfully constructed so that one could imagine them being directed at either a snooty rich romantic interest or the Communist Party. There was no doubt which way the crowd was reading them now.

I’ve asked tirelessly, when will you go with me?
But you just always laugh at my having nothing.
I’ve given you my dreams, given you my freedom,
But you just always laugh at my having nothing.

Su Xiaokang too came out to inspire the crowd with a vision of the better future that awaited China if it could dig its way through the sediment of its long past.

With the capital paralyzed by the protests, the Communist Party dithered, just as it had during the initial excitement over River Elegy. Everyone knew what Mao Zedong would have done had his rule been challenged in this way. But this was a different era, when China’s economy was increasingly interconnected with and dependent on the rest of the world. Beijing was teeming with hundreds of Western journalists sending back reports and images of what was transpiring on Tienanmen Square. A crackdown before the eyes of the world would do incalculable damage to China’s growing reputation as an ethically defensible, reliable partner in business, the key to its explosive economic growth. The protestors were as aware of this as anyone, which explained why they felt little sense of personal danger in the midst of their bald-faced defiance of an authoritarian government. The hardliners inside the Party pointed out to Deng Xiaoping that they had warned him about all this long ago, that this chaos had always been the inevitable endpoint of his liberalizing programs. But be that as it may, no one seemed to know what to do next. April stretched into May into June, with the number of protestors on the square only growing. Far from thanking the Party for having let them have their say and going home, as they were being asked to do, they became ever more strident in their demands — demands that Deng step down, that the Party as a whole step down, that a new constitution be written, that China be given a whole new form of government right here and now.

Their brash confidence and commitment were backing the Party into a corner — which was not a wise idea because, unlike their counterparts in Eastern Europe, these old men were not yet willing to shuffle off quietly into the dustbin of history. Their China was a rising power, not a stagnant or declining one like the Soviet Union. They believed, not without some justification, that the many positive changes in the lives of the Chinese people since the Second World War were down to them, and saw no reason why they shouldn’t continue to lead the country into its even more prosperous future. They decided that, while China’s international standing could be expected to recover in time from an “incident” of some sort on Tienanmen Square, their domestic authority could not survive the ongoing presence of such lawlessness at the heart of the capital. On the afternoon of June 3, 1989, Deng Xiaoping gave the order to send the army in that night, thereby to demonstrate to China and the world that he did have some reservations about democracy after all. The next violent inhalation in the life of China was about to begin, with tragic consequences for those who believed that the last 20 years of slow exhalation were destined to continue in perpetuity.

There remain countless gaps in our knowledge of what went on that night and the following morning, thanks to the Communist Party’s determination to suppress the details. It does appear, however, that the protestors couldn’t bring themselves to believe at first that their countrymen in uniform would actually fire upon them. They laughed and chanted and shoved bouquets of flowers down tanks’ gun barrels — until the first shots rang out, and Beijing became the site of a pitched battle in which only one side had weapons. The foreign journalists ensconced in the swank new high-rise hotels like the Great Wall Sheraton looked down on the scene in horror from their balconies. Jan Wong found herself noticing incongruous details, like the way the traffic lights below her perch kept blinking from green to yellow to red as the intersection they were meant to control clogged up with bodies instead of vehicles. Loudspeakers boomed a single Orwellian message, over and over and over: “The People’s Liberation Army has a duty to protect the great socialist motherland and the safety of the capital.”

A credible estimate of the total death count is around 3500 people — not an especially high number in comparison with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, to say nothing of earlier atrocities in Chinese history, but a clear enough message that Communist China was still a strong authoritarian state that did not intend to go the way of the Soviet Union. For every person who died in Beijing that fateful night, 100,000 youthful dreams of freedom and democracy were crushed — which was the real goal all along.

(Fair Use)

The most famous image to come out of the Tienanmen Square massacre dates from June 5, by which time the army was engaged only in mopping up the last feeble remnants of the protests. Taken by Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener, it shows a lone willowy figure standing in front of a column of tanks. Jan Wong was there.

“Oh, no!” I cried. I held my breath. I was convinced he was going to die. My eyes filled with tears. Standing underneath [the tank’s] giant muzzle, the young man looked like a kitten under a car fender. Annoyed at myself for crying so easily, I brushed away my tears so I could see clearly.

The tank twisted left, then right. Each time, the man stepped lightly in front. After a few feints, the tank switched off its engine. The whole street fell silent. The young man seemed to know his way around a tank. He scrambled onto its caterpillar treads and up its sloping sides. A shot cracked. He didn’t flinch. He clambered onto the gun turret. Was he trying to reason with them? Another heart-stopping moment later, he climbed back down. “Now run!” I urged silently. But he didn’t. The tank cranked up its motor and edged forward. Again, the man stepped in front and blocked it. By then a few people on the sidelines had regained their wits, and they hustled him to safety. The convoy continued rumbling down the Avenue of Eternal Peace.

The photograph that resulted from this dramatic showdown demonstrates how symbolism is always in the eye of the beholder. Believers in democracy see in it the peaceful courage of one person’s convictions shaming the violent tools of an oppressive state into momentary stupefaction. The Chinese Communist Party, on the other hand, has come to use the photograph as “proof” of its official narrative of the events of June 1989: that the disorderly and disruptive protests were ended with as little violence as possible by the nation’s forbearing soldiers.

It appears likely that “Tank Man” was never even identified by the authorities, much less punished for his stand. I like to imagine that he recovered from his outbreak of idealistic vainglory and carved out a reasonable life for himself under the conditions that were in China rather than the ones he might have wished for. Certainly this was the fate of most of the others who survived the massacre on Tienanmen Square, and who likewise slipped back into the anonymous mainstream, shedding their activist past as fecklessly as did the Woodstock generation in the West. Before we rush to criticize a generation of Chinese for this pragmatic bargain with reality, we should remember that martyring oneself for a cause — no matter how noble a cause — is easier said than done. Most people, wherever in the world they live, just look for a way for themselves and their families to get along as painlessly as possible. This is not shameful; it is only natural. But, as we will see, the Chinese Communist Party has grasped this fact, and made it the key to its longevity.

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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

6 Comments for "Chapter 26: Two Miracles and a Massacre"

  • Andrew McCarthy

    I find it a bit odd that this article virtually ignores the human consequences of such a starkly authoritarian mandate as the “one-child policy”. Alongside the horrors of forced abortions and sterilization that are mentioned in a single sentence almost in passing, there were also other problems that arose from putting such a draconian restriction on human nature. For instance, as I understand it, quite a few Chinese parents, still imbued with a latent sexism surviving from earlier eras, chose to kill any female newborns until they had a male child. The result was a marked gender imbalance among the younger cohort of the Chinese population, which I believe is one of the reasons the “one-child policy” has been relaxed in recent years.

    I might be exposing my own Western-centric prejudices by saying this, but I’ll be glad when this series about China’s political history is done. The earlier sections about pre-modern China were interesting, but when the narrative reaches the 20th century it becomes profoundly dreary. Personally, I find that reading about decades upon decades of unbroken authoritarian rule is stultifyingly boring.

  • Fredrik Arnerup

    For my part, I find the history of China in twentieth century fascinating and very relevant to understanding current events. It is certainly tragic, but hardly boring. The recent history of china has always been murky to me and this series has been very enlightening. Job well done!

    • Peter Olausson

      Agree. I know a fraction of what’s written about; not only do I get the many gaps filled in, but also context and how one thing led to another. Exemplary to the point of being addictive – I will miss it when it ends (and get new kicks from whatever wonder we’ll see next).

      • Paul

        Wholeheartedly agree! I am very happy this series does so much more than “merely” explore the history of the Great Wall itself.

  • Doug Orleans

    “the Community Party dithered” – I assume that should be “the Communist Party”.

    • Jimmy Maher



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