Monday, June 8, 2009

Frontline: “The Tank Man” (PBS, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I took a bus to the meeting of the San Diego Humanist Fellowship at the San Diego Public Library; they’d planned a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 4, 1989 (20 years and three days previously), and I thought it might be an interesting meeting to cover except they scheduled it to go on way too long: they planned to have a speaker, professor Jeff Zinnemann, and to show the 90-minute PBS documentary The Tank Man, aired on the PBS series Frontline on April 11, 2006 and scheduled for an encore presentation tomorrow (though not in San Diego, of course — KPBS is doing a pledge drive and showing old music specials instead).

The Tank Man was written, produced and directed by Antony Thomas and was centered around the spectacular image that was photographed and shown worldwide of the square on the morning of June 5, after the Chinese army had cleared it, in which a lone man, seen only from the back and apparently dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans, carrying a couple of shopping bags, had stood in front of one of the tanks and got it to stop. (Remembering the fate of Rachel Corrie, who was run over by a military bulldozer in occupied Palestine and killed while trying to use her body to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian family’s home, I thought immediately, “If this had been the Israeli army, they would have just run him over.”) The image of the “tank man” only gains power from the fact that (though one candidate was rather dubiously identified in print) we still don’t know who he was or what happened to him after his fabled act of defiance.

The famous photo was taken by Charles Cole, who was interviewed for the film and recalled, “During this time, I’m thinking, ‘This guy is going to be killed any moment now. And if he is, I just can’t miss this. This is something that he’s giving his life for. It’s my responsibility to record it as accurately as possible.’” Cole also recalled how the Chinese “Public Security Bureau” — the euphemism for their secret police — nearly got the photo away from him before it could even be developed: “I realized that the public security bureau had been watching us from the other rooftop by binoculars. So I went in and took the film out of the camera and reloaded it into the plastic film can, and went into the toilet, took off the top of the toilet and put it in the holding tank, put the toilet top back on. And shortly after that, probably 10, 15 minutes afterwards, the public security bureau broke through the door. They got one other roll of film from the shots that I’d taken from the night before, and they were pretty satisfied they’d cleaned up the situation.” According to professor Zinnemann, another picture of the event recently surfaced in the archives of the New York Times, though it didn’t tell us much more than Cole’s now-iconic photo did — the Tank Man is still only shown with his back to the camera.

Director Thomas uses the Tiananmen incident in general and the mysterious fate of the Tank Man in particular as a starting point to riff on the entire history of China over the last two decades, noting that Deng Xaioping (who as secretary of the Communist Party was the real ruler of China during this period, not whoever was the nominal president — at the height of the 1989 protests he replaced the conciliatory president with Zhang Zemin, who had previously put the hammer down on pro-democracy protests as governor of Shanghai) repressed the Tiananmen demonstrators largely to safeguard his market-based economic programs and he effectively offered the Chinese people — or at least the relatively affluent ones who could afford big-city college educations at all — a Faustian bargain: forgo any of those silly Western notions about democracy and a government ruling by consent of the governed, and in exchange he’d give them massive economic growth and opportunities to become rich.

The economic part of that program worked; China is today the world’s fastest growing economy — due largely, ironically enough given that it still has a nominally “Communist” government, to its willingness to reinvent itself as sweatshop to the world, attracting Western corporations to manufacture based on the ultra-low wages paid to its workers and the dictatorial political system that bars independent labor unions and crushes any attempt to organize them with the same ruthlessness (and without the Western media watching) that it crushed the Tiananmen protests — and it’s currently the United States’ principal banker, funding most of America’s growing and potentially crushing debt. Though the last part of the equation doesn’t really enter into Thomas’s program, it’s occurred to me often enough that the end game of the current U.S. economic crisis may come when China simply forecloses on the U.S. and imposes a structural adjustment program to ensure that this country can pay its debts to China.

The ironies continue with the fact that on one level the Chinese-mandated U.S. economic policy is likely to be a radical-Right member’s dream come true; like the current budget crunch in California, which is being “solved” by the evisceration of education, health and human services programs (there’s a fascinating article in today’s Los Angeles Times about how the state’s major public-employee unions are disappointed in the Democrats in the legislature for not pushing harder for more taxes — indicating once again how totally out of touch the idiots running these unions are with the political realities of California today; as I predicted, Governor Schwarzenegger and the legislative Republicans are interpreting the results of the May 19 special election as a voter mandate against any new taxes and a call for balancing the budget on whopping spending cuts alone, and for the unions to come out against the ballot measures was one of the most supremely stupid political moves of all time and will lead directly to thousands of their members losing their jobs — but then again, “stupid” and “labor leader” are practically synonymous in today’s America!), the Chinese version of a structural adjustment program is likely to involve whacking cuts in America’s health, education and human services network in order to ensure that the government runs budget surpluses that will be used to repay its foreign debts.

China is a lot better at doing empire than the U.S. — they’ve had a lot more experience at it (thousands of years’ worth), and if history is any guide the basis of the future Chinese empire that will replace the American one will be suzerainty and tribute: the Chinese will let us govern our country more or less as we want to, but we will have to acknowledge their superior authority (including aligning our foreign policy with theirs) and pay them money to be let alone. Thomas’s film is also quite good at showing how Deng’s economic “reforms” have changed China from one of the most economically egalitarian countries on earth to one of the most economically unequal countries on earth; for all the hype surrounding China’s affluent cities (including the hosting of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing — the film includes a shot of the “bird’s-nest” stadium under construction), over four-fifths of the Chinese population is still agricultural peasants, and they have been the hardest-hit sector by the “reforms.”

The abolition of free education and health care has basically meant that the peasants are locked out of any chance of advancement whatsoever; indeed, though they’re technically still in the same country, many of the factory workers being exploited for Western corporations in the sweatshop-like factories of the cities are working there in order to send remittances home to their families so their brothers and sisters can afford to pay the fees to go to school. (The relationship of the Chinese cities and countryside begins to look an awful lot like that between the U.S. and Mexico!)

Thomas’s editing is sometimes jarring — whenever he cuts to the Tank Man image after a discussion of some other part of his story, including the extent to which the Chinese have censored the Tank Man image and any mention of the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square from the version of the Internet available in China (indeed, for the 20th anniversary they turned off access to most of the West’s search engines altogether lest some mention of the event leak through their firewalls), and they had the full support of Yahoo!, Google, Cisco and Microsoft to help them do it (reminiscent of the way American companies continued to do business until Nazi Germany until December 1941), one wants to do an Anna Russell impression and go, “Remember the Tank Man?” — but for the most part the film is a fascinating documentary on the nation that is in all probability going to replace the United States as the world’s greatest power within two or three decades, and a chilling premonition of what they’re likely to do with that power once they have it.