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[Goddess of Democracy, Tiananmen Square, 1989] — Twenty-five years ago this week, university students in China captured the attention of the world. A tide of pro-democracy protests that had begun earlier in the year had swept into hundreds of cities across the country, and by June the original student organizers had been joined by farmers, truck drivers, office workers, school teachers, and citizens of every stripe, all calling for free speech, freedom of the press, and an end to official corruption.

I remember that week very well because it was my own last week as a Harvard University student, and along with many of my residential college friends I was getting ready for graduation. The festival rites of commencement were festive as always, but the real talk of Harvard Yard was Tiananmen Square, and on our academic robes many of us wore a strip of white cloth bearing the Chinese word ziyou, “freedom”:

But it was too soon. Like the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968, the Chinese democratic revolution of 1989 was crushed, and in the early morning hours of June 4th, 300,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army overwhelmed Beijing, sweeping through the Gate of Heavenly Peace and firing on thousands of unarmed civilians.

No one knows how many men, women, and children were killed in the streets around Tiananmen Square that week. An early estimate from the Red Cross was more than 2000—an estimate that was quickly suppressed by the Chinese government.

The most enduring symbol of those remarkable days has been the image of the Tank Man. To this day no one is sure of his name, or if he is now alive or dead. And that’s one of the reasons his image has become so powerful to people all around the world: like the Minuteman, he is Everyman, standing for freedom against the violence of the state.

[The Tank Man near Tiananmen Square, 5 June 1989; photo by Jeff Widener]

The unknown Tank Man bringing an entire armored column to a halt on Changan Avenue near Tiananmen Square, 5 June 1989. Photo by Jeff Widener.

The Chinese democracy protests of 1989 were born on the campuses of Beijing’s universities, and university students were the initial organizers. Some of those students, in exile, are leaders still today. Was the Tank Man a university student? We don’t know. But it was the protest movement that originated within the universities that made his act possible.

At their best, universities are nurseries of freedom. They take the beacon-moments of history and keep the memory of those moments alive, turning them outward to give courage to each successive generation.

In leafy Harvard Yard that week I thought of the great New England reformers who frequented those grounds in the nineteenth century—reformers who understood the long arc of the moral universe. They would have counseled the people of China not to despair.

Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,—
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.

They knew that truth crushed to earth can rise again; that the standard knocked from the hand of one generation can be picked up and flown by generations yet unborn.

“They have rights who dare maintain them.” “Nerve thy spirit to the proof.” “They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.” Those are lessons every university should teach.

But are they lessons every university teaches?

Here is some advice I came across recently from a senior university administrator:

There’s a fine line between being an “Idea Person” and a “P.I.T.A.” (Pain In The A**) to your supervisor or institution. Keep in mind that the primary purpose of any organization, even a college or university, is survival. Also, remember that those above you in the organization may well value predictability and stability over fundamental change, and that they probably had a significant role in building the organizational structures that you may find so burdensome or nonsensical.

This is the voice of the Organization Man. It is the voice of the Organization Man teaching his children how to grow up to be Organization Men. It is the voice of servile education, not liberal education. It is the voice of the tank driver.

It is the corrupt university voice that says, “What a P.I.T.A. these people are who keep questioning the predictable and stable cash-flow coming into our medical school from big drug companies. And how dare they challenge the integrity of our championship sports program and its generous supporters. Or our distinguished trustees, every one of whom is a community leader. And how could they even think of questioning our president’s record of scholarship—I mean, he’s above us in the Organization!”

“How dare they get in the way of that tank—that’s the Organization’s tank!”

[The Tank Man near Tiananmen Square, 5 June 1989; photo by Stuart Franklin]

The Tank Man, lower left, stopping a full armored column on Changan Avenue near Tiananmen Square, 5 June 1989. Photo by Stuart Franklin.

The Tank Man has been pretty thoroughly erased from public life in China today. The Chinese government’s program of censorship has been so effective that most people in that great country have never even seen the image that is known to hundreds of millions around the world. But the arc of the moral universe is long, and the Chinese people will rediscover him one day, and he will become one of their enduring heroes, as he is already a hero to the rest of the world.

One of the Chinese government’s only acknowledgments of the existence of the Tank Man came in a 1990 television interview an American reporter conducted with Chinese Communist Party Secretary Jiang Zemin. Speaking largely through an interpreter Jiang communicated the Party line, that the identity of the man isn’t known, that the government has no knowledge of his whereabouts, and can’t even confirm whether or not he had been arrested. And then he added in English, “I think never killed.”

Jiang got that part right. Tank Man never killed. Never will be.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021