Saturday, June 3, 1989, 12:04 pm. Me and my younger siblings were at 616, watching cartoons on ABC. It was a run of old Looney Tunes cartoons, which had Maurice, Yiscoc, Sarai and especially Eri cracking up. It was a great morning, with my mother taking her Saturday classes at Westchester Business Institute, my idiot stepfather out carousing, and my older brother Darren roaming the streets like the goofball he could be. Then the late Peter Jennings broke into our local New York area broadcast to let us know that Chinese tanks were rolling into Tiananman Square in Beijing, breaking through seven weeks worth of protests over the government’s continuing limits on the civil and political rights of its citizens.
It was after midnight in Beijing, already June 4. For the next forty or forty-five minutes, images kept coming on to our TV from Tiananmen Square as the Chinese military and their tanks toppled barricades, ran over cars and literally chased thousands of protesters out of the square. When I saw the first images of a blood-splattered protester and then of another one crying, I started to cry myself. My siblings looked at me like I was crazy. Then, no more images. Jennings reported that the Chinese government had forced ABC to shut down their satellite communications from within China. My guess was that they did it at gun point.
By the time I switched to another station for my siblings to watch, I found myself wondering why I hadn’t followed the story more closely. I mean, I was actually following it. But I guess I assumed that, like the glasnost and perestroika that had been pushed by Gorbachev since ’86, that the protests would be allowed to continue in Beijing. And like many other naive Americans, we were wrong about that. We hardly knew enough about four millennia of Chinese political history to understand how important an unopposed central authority has been to this culture. If I had applied anything I learned from a semester of East Asian History at all, I wouldn’t have been surprised at all.
With me crying — albeit not audibly — my youngest brother Eri asked me what was wrong and what was going on. I explained to them as best I could that this was a government crackdown on dissidents, that the Chinese government engaged in human rights abuses all the time, and that this crackdown meant many people were dying and going to die. Those few minutes were the most in which Eri and my other siblings had shown any interest in the world outside of Mount Vernon and New York City in all of times I spent with them growing up.
In the days that followed, the occasional picture or piece of film made it out of China to Hong Kong (still a British territory in ’89) or Japan or South Korea showing images like the man standing in front of a column of tanks, ready to die in the crackdown on him and other protesters. I must admit, it moved me. It was obvious that people would go to jail, likely face torture, that many would die and many more would lick their wounds as the Chinese government would blackout all but the official state news about what really was going on.
Larry Glasco, one of my Pitt history professors, was there for a visit when the crackdown began. He said he saw dead men hanging from lamp posts, bodies of dead and injured in spots, and faced his own crisis in dealing with the military. They confiscated his camera and threatened to hold him in jail in order to make sure he didn’t take his pictures back to the US. From what I remember, he did managed to smuggle some film — not much — out after the crackdown had ended. His wasn’t the only story I would hear during the second half of ’89 about what people witnessed as tourists and researchers in looking at the Tiananmen Square protests. It was the first time I had the chance to see up close what a tyrannical government really looks like when acting to protect itself.
It’s different than police brutality or even a racist mob. For better or worse, we’ve never seen this level of government or military intervention in this country over protesters that those everyday folks in China faced down twenty years ago. Even if we count what Native Americans faced in the late-nineteenth century or the Bonus Army crackdown by General Douglas MacArthur in 1932, that would only get us to a limited sense of what the Tiananmen Square dissidents faced. It made me think about how wrong one of my Humanities classmates was when he argued about the long-term viability of communism because it would reduce economic inequality and give people a greater degree of freedom.
But we were both incorrect. Any economic or political system in which citizens and others must show deference or actually walk in fear of isn’t one that any should follow. I don’t care if the system is communist, capitalist, or socialist, or if the government is a monarchy, a constitutional monarchy, or a representative democracy. If folks living in these systems and under these governments can’t speak their minds or publish their ideas, especially if they contradict whatever the government or system says, the government isn’t a just one. Although governments and systems should fit the cultural and historical context of a given population, it also should remain flexible enough to adjust to the changing needs of a people. That’s what the regime in China failed to understand in ’89 and for years afterward.
I’m hardly advocating the overthrowing of governments or even the imposition of American democracy. If anyone’s bothered to notice, we haven’t exactly been living up to many of our ideals overseas and at home over the last six decades. I’m merely attempting to remember the events of early June ’89 that touched me emotionally, that enabled me to understand that beyond the political and economic theories there’s the reality of the human condition, the need to keep humans who have authority in check. I learned this all too well growing up at 616 and attending Mount Vernon’s public schools. Without those checks and balances, the rights and lives of others face tanks lined up in formation, ready to run them over.