Tiananmen, Dark Matter and the Mystery of the Tank Man

No one yet knows for sure who the Tank Man was, or what happened to him after he stood in front of a line of tanks at Tiananmen the morning of June 4th, 23 years ago, after the military arrived to force out the students and workers who had occupied the...

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Jun 4 2012, 2:00pm

No one yet knows for sure who the Tank Man was, or what happened to him after he stood in front of a line of tanks at Tiananmen the morning of June 4th, 23 years ago, after the military arrived to force out the students and workers who had occupied the square for seven weeks. Did the men who whisked him out of the path of the tanks rescue him or deliver him to stern justice? What’s happened to China since then looks clearer, but not much. There hasn’t yet been an official acknowledgement from Beijing of what happened that day.

But dissidents have been put under house arrest, as they are every June. Since Sunday night, searching for simple terms like 6, 4, 89, and today apparently results in blank pages or limited results on Chinese social-networking sites. Emoticons of candles have been prohibited on microblogs, and when the benchmark Shanghai Composite Index saw losses this morning, coincidentally falling precisely 64.89 in trading, mention of that was also briefly banned.

Excerpt of The Tank Man, by PBS's Frontline

One ending that is clear is that of Fang Lizhi, the Chinese astrophysicist who helped inspire the thousands of students at the heart of 1989’s pro-democracy movement, and who died recently in Arizona. Fang had lost favor in the Communist Party after he began delivering speeches not just on quantum cosmology but on democracy and human rights. In 1987, when the government of Deng Xiaoping began using the slogan “modernization with Chinese characteristics” (that is, without devolving any power of the one-party state), Fang responded with satire: he asked his students if they believed in physics with Chinese characteristics.

He was kicked out of his job and stripped of his Party membership. The government soon spread his writings across Chinese campuses as an example of “bourgeois liberalism” that students should avoid. The government’s effort backfired, and his papers, along with an open letter he wrote urging Deng to release political prisoners, turned Fang into an icon of dissent.

Fang Lizhi speaking to students, May 1989.

The disjuncture of science and ideology had already been made clear to Fang in 1972, when a paper of his, “A solution of the cosmological equations in scalar-tensor theory, with mass and blackbody radiation," was condemned as “capitalist metaphysics”: theories of a finite universe were not accepted under communist thought, as Engels had declared that the universe had always existed, and was infinite in space and time. Fang’s reply: “not necessarily.”

Meanwhile some reports later by Western journalists said the Tank Man’s name was Wang Weilin, and that he had been executed by the government. But like astrophysics, without any confirmation, there is no way of knowing for sure. And just like all that dark matter that shrouds the universe, the mystery of that man only makes his image of defiance so much more beguiling and powerful and hard to forget.

That power is precisely why today many of the students at Beijing University – the bedrock of the Tiananmen demonstration 23 years ago – and around China (including at the university where I taught in Beijing) have never seen the image of the Tank Man.

China’s evolution has taken many positive turns since that day, but constant concerns about stability make information a force for the government to reckon with. And officials are turning the Internet into an information battleground. Search the web for “Tiananmen” on the U.S. version of Google and you get these photos; search in China and you get these. The mystery of the Tank Man is overshadowed only by the statistics. The “official” tally is 241 dead, including soldiers, and 7,000 wounded; other estimates vary up to over 2,000 deaths.

The day after. Photo via @zuola.

Shortly after the massacre at the square, Fang and his family escaped military reprisals by taking refuge at the U.S. embassy in Beijing. That launched a year-long diplomatic tension between China and the government of George Bush, a tension that ended after secret negotiations, which sent Fang and family to the U.S., ostensibly for medical treatment.

In April, he died at the age of 76 from natural causes in Arizona, where he had been a professor of astrophysics, studying dark matter and cosmic baryon fluid, and still talking about the importance of making stronger human rights in his home country a reality and not just a hypothesis.

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