25 Years ago today (June 5th, 1989) we were delivered one of the more striking photos of civil resistance in the 20th century: the lone student standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square. The picture may have reinforced our suspicions that a post-Mao China was still brutally repressive and that, given the choice, the Chinese youth would probably want to turn towards western-style democracy.
When the events of late May and Early June of 1989 were taking place half way around the world, America would notice, but only briefly, and through the lens of a photo. Political party and cocktail party lines could range from “How tragic”, or “I never trusted the post-Mao reforms”, to perhaps “see, that kind of thing is inevitable in those places”. We “remember” because of the photo, but when it happened, we saw the pictures and moved on to (seemingly) more pressing issues.
That was June 5th 1989. The timing wasn’t probably ideal for the evolving (?) West to take notice of a tragedy in the devolving (?) East. This was a time of growing optimism with the Solidarity movement in Poland and news outlets a twitter over the first McDonald’s in Moscow (the lines were so long! They used forks on Big Macs, ha!).
At home, we were dealing with Noriega (a little closer to us, and he fit the mold of the Miami Vice style bad guy) and the "War on Drugs".
Without the numerous news outlets we have today, you could understand why we might have been more interested in the new Savings and Loan scandals that affected our economy. We saw both the Gameboy and Microsoft Office debut to massive success and news coverage. Rebecca Schaeffer of My Sister Sam was killed by an obsessed fan who happened to be carrying The Catcher in the Rye and U2’s Joshua Tree (keeping alive questions about the FCC, banned books, and obscenity rules).
It is not as if we don’t have the distractions today, but this was before the explosion of CNN and cable news (it was the Gulf War in 1991 that made CNN and helped the cable landscape develop with Turner’s other channels).
The late Baby Boomers and early Gen-Xers were growing up and didn’t want (or need) the raucous hell-raising of their seniors. Civil disobedience may have been devoured by the previous generation (the great treatise by Thoreau would be transmitted to that generation through Ghandi and Martin Luther King). The kids were more likely to be reading the modern equivalents of Thoreau’s generational juniors in Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale.
Without the news to prod them, and in the midst of the fatigue of a 40 year old conflict a picture saying a thousand words was enough. Despite the brutality, stories of courage (although not ideologically inline with most of Americans), and global significance for the end of the century and beyond we looked, feigned interest, and shrugged.
Throughout the Cold War, not to mention for most of America’s history, China has always been a bit of a mystery. In the 19th century America was involved, but quiet during the Opium wars. We liked the cheap labor the Chinese brough to the West Coast, but not the opium dens. When Nixon went there it helped his image more than any foreign policy, and “Ping Pong diplomacy” was more a poke in the eye to the Soviet’s than a historic international fete with China. For most Americans, China in the 1980’s gave us Panda Express and Pick Up Stix (I am not being facetious, large markets for new food products have hitorically carried a good deal of significance for one culture's perception of another). It may have once been “Red China” but our culture was becoming wary of the Cold War and it seemed that things were starting to slowly fall in our favor.
Ultimately, China wasn’t attempting a revolution akin to the American (or Polish, or even Yugoslavian), but was rather looking to reform its own brand of communism. A sound byte, and certainly that picture became culturally significant, but the larger picture was either not part of the favored storyline, or as interesting as a celebrity murder or the emerging fascination with the white collar criminal.
Ultimately, the picture of civil courage became an artifact, and by that Summer we had moved on. It is worth noting as a postscript that Gorbachev visited China during the revolt and the ties between the two countries were strained. Eventually the "China Card" that the Soviets had used was discarded and the Cold War would shockingly be over within the year.
The following are links you might peruse to get the fascinating story and event beyond the picture:
Brief (and online) story from the Office of the Historian:
Very detailed, with declassified primary sources: