Chinese tourists on the democratic island of Taiwan on Tuesday appeared baffled by a huge, inflatable installation of a People’s Liberation Army tank being faced down by an inflatable Tank Man.
Photos of the installation outside iconic Taiwan monuments including the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall have been making the rounds on social media.
And while some Chinese tourists in the island’s capital, Taipei, snapped photos of the art work ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, those who spoke to RFA were quick to dismiss any political implications.
“I don’t know,” answered one tourist outside the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall on Tuesday, who said he was from China.
Asked if he knew about June 4, 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) cleared Beijing after weeks of student-led protests, deploying tanks and machine guns against unarmed civilians, the tourist said: “I don’t know.”
A second tourist said he believed that Tank Man, who was snatched away by men in uniform after stopping and facing down a column of tanks on Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue on June 5, 1989, was former Chinese president Jiang Zemin.
“So who is it then?” the tourist asked.
A third tourist said he had seen footage of the scene, when a slender young man in a white shirt and trousers and carrying a plastic bag, moved to obstruct the tanks several times, eventually climbing up to talk to the driver.
“I’ve seen that video,” the third tourist said.
“It was a case of a small minority of people, incited by overseas reactionary forces, who destroyed public order, so those were the measures taken by the Chinese army and Chinese society,” the tourist said, repeating the exact words used by the Chinese leadership to describe the events of early summer 1989.
“You have your opinions, we have ours,” he added.
The tank man exhibit is part of the 2019 June 4 International Symposium in Taiwan, which will include a number of commemorative activities from May 18 to June 4 to mark three decades since the student-led movement erupted onto Beijing’s streets.
Crushing power of the state
Former 1989 student leader Wang Dan called on the people of Taiwan to remain vigilant, and not to underestimate the Chinese threat to their freedom and democracy.
“If a free Taiwan really is annexed by the Chinese Communist Party, then it’ll be real tanks we will see at the next [student] movement, not plastic ones,” Wang said.
“I really hope the people of Taiwan don’t forget that,” he added.
Veteran 1989 democracy activist Fang Zheng was an eyewitness to the Tank Man’s heroic encounter with the PLA that was beamed onto TV broadcasts and emblazoned on newspaper front pages around the world.
Fang, who lost both legs after being crushed by a tank during the crackdown, is currently in Taipei to attend the Symposium.
He said the fact that the inflatable Tank Man exhibit exists 30 years later is a testament to the iconic nature of the lone man’s struggle against the crushing power of Chinese state, an image that became an emblem of the 1989 protest movement and the massacre that ended it.
But Fang said he has far more disturbing memories of that time.
“I hope that everyone will remember that the Chinese government — the PLA tanks — pursued and shot us in the back along the Liubukou section of West Chang’an Avenue,” Fang said.
“Many lost their lives, and many others were injured and disabled like me,” he said. “So today I am a witness to the June 4 massacre, a survivor who made it out from under a tank. I hope everyone will also remember the poor souls who lost their lives.”
Wu Renhua, who was a lecturer at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing at the time of the crackdown, has compiled a detailed historical account of the massacre at Liubukou, where many of the victims were students who were peacefully leaving Tiananmen Square by prior agreement with the incoming troops.
Most of the deaths occurred at around 6 a.m. on the morning of June 4, 1989, at the intersection between Chang’an Avenue and Xinhua Beijie, leaving pools and smears of blood all over the tarmac on Chang’an Avenue, he said.
Wu told RFA that Fang’s injuries were sustained as he tried to save two classmates.
“Fang Zheng lost his legs when the tanks crushed the students at Liubukou, which was a horrific and cruel incident,” he said.
A bloody chapter in history
Fellow 1989 veteran activist Zhou Fengsuo, who heads the rights group Humanitarian China, said the Tiananmen massacre is a bloody chapter in Chinese history, and showed the heroism of ordinary Beijing residents like Fang, who resisted the military onslaught with courage.
“We are here today to bear witness, and to work hard to fight against tyranny,” Zhou told RFA. “One day, we definitely want to be able to set up a permanent memorial at Liubukou, where the people were crushed by the tanks.”
The death toll from the night of June 3-4, 1989, when PLA tanks and troops entered Beijing, opening fire on unarmed civilians, remains unknown to this day. Contemporary accounts written by foreign diplomats said they were ordered to leave no one alive.
While the Chinese government once put the death toll at “nearly 300,” it has never issued an official toll or list of names, and public memorials marking the massacre are banned.
A 2009 map published by the Tiananmen Mothers listed more than 250 names garnered from confirmed eyewitness accounts and hospital records of those known to have died in the days after June 3, but it is unlikely to be an exhaustive account of casualties.
(Reported by Hwang Chun-mei for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Chung Kuang-cheng for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.)
(A boy looks at the Tank Man installation outside the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan, May 21, 2019. Photo: RFA)
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