The 23-year-old photograph is a stunning record of Chinese courage past and an insight into China's present political turmoil. Unless China's government chooses liberty and just law over tyranny and crony corruption, the picture prefigures a bloody future history.
I am referring to one of 1989's most famous photos: the lone Chinese protestor in Beijing's Tiananmen Square who stands in front of a People's Liberation Army (PLA) main battle tank. The dramatic confrontation occurred June 5, 1989, the day after PLA gunfire, at the order of Communist leader Deng Xiaoping, killed some 2,000 demonstrators in the square. Everyone in China understood Deng's message. Economic modernization? Yes, China's Communists had learned they and their country (in that order) needed money and new technology in order to survive. Demands for political freedom, however, would attract bullets.
Tiananmen Square's Tank Man was eventually dragged into the surrounding crowd and ... he disappeared. The Chinese government claims it has never found the man and doesn't know his name. Cynics suggest Beijing inspect one of its secret jails or an unmarked grave.
Other famous photos from 1989 also furrow the brows of China's current leaders: those midnight Nov. 9 pix of East and West Berliners partying on and around the suddenly cracked Berlin Wall. The elated crowd of Ossis and Wessis knows the terror is over. Russia and East Germany changed, not the U.S. and West Germany. European Communists were no longer shooting their own people.
The photos of Tank Man halting a tank platoon in column and of scruffy Berlin teens mocking what hours before was the concrete evil sealing an international prison capture moments of elemental truth amid complex circumstances. Tank Man's pic says confronting tyranny takes courage, and a man holding two shopping bags suddenly displays that courage. The Berlin montage confirms liberty takes courage to defend -- and it's worth it. Liberty is more productive, and more fun, than tyranny.
China's angry people understand. Protests broke out last year in the village of Wukan (Guangdong province) when corrupt Communist officials stole community land and sold it. The anti-corruption protests have not (yet) led to a second Tiananmen massacre. That's good. The village, however, was besieged by security forces after a villager died in police custody and angry villagers clashed with police.
Beijing responded to Wukan's mini-rebellion by allowing free local elections, which the old Commies lost. Wukan is arguably a model for peaceful liberalization in China. But skeptical Chinese (as well as Syrians and Egyptians) argue that in the age of the Internet and cellphone videos, smart oppressors merely appear to respond to local grievances, in order to minimize negative political repercussions. But fundamental change? Forget it.
Last month, one of Wukan's new leaders complained that the corrupt officials had received light punishments. Land grabs by corrupt officials continue unabated.
Which brings us to last week's sad incident when Chinese dissident Chen Guancheng escaped from house arrest and sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Chen requested asylum. The Obama administration, those detached academic toffs who tried to ignore Iran's Green Revolution lest talks with Tehran's ayatollahs fizzle, denied Chen's request. Oh, some sort of deal has been slapped together. An embarrassed Beijing says Chen may study in the U.S. We'll see.
Regardless, the affable Chen is a Tank Man everyone knows by name. He dreads torture but just keeps talking. Beijing worried that the Arab Spring would embolden China's people. Chen indicates that Chinese dissidents no longer fear direct confrontation with the regime.
The dissidents have exposed cracks in the Communist Party's Great Wall of corrupt monied despotism and state repression. China Communists don't want a Berlin Wall ending; Deng's economic modernization was designed to maintain Communist Party control. Another Tiananmen, however, might incite dozens of local rebellions and produce a Chinese Syria.
This fall, China faces a change in senior leadership. Pray the new leaders opt for a Berlin transition, not Tiananmen destruction.