The year of the liberation of millions in Europe, 1989, was also the year millions were freshly enslaved in China. Tiananmen Square in Peking saw protests mirroring those which were opening up half a world away, but in China they were crushed, cruelly. The echo of the shots is still heard today.
Yesterday Bing’s search engine ‘lost ‘ Tank Man, the iconic image. The reason for that happening we can guess at an they will not easily admit it. It affects us today. Tank Man is an enduring symbol of something about China of which we need to keep reminding ourselves.
Thousands were slaughtered in the city. China began like Europe that year, reaching to breathe free, but as Europe stumbled into the light, China fell into deeper darkness. To some that tells that the Chinese people are radically different, unsuited to freedom. Those with a better appreciation of Chinese culture recognise the stereotype but know it to be untrue.
The end was cruel, but the events which led there disprove a common idea about Chinese people: they are not automata; they can yearn to breathe free like any others. In 1989, Chinese men stood in the street demanding freedom exactly as others did in Central Europe. Tanks rolled in to crush them, and that tells you about their government, but to learn something of the people, watch the man who stood in front of them, with some faith that the men inside were men like himself, with a heart for freedom that could overcome the orders of a tyrant. Would that they had resisted as he did, as the soldiers in Eastern Europe resisted the same demands.
There is no doubt that China is a world apart, with an ancient culture that need not look to the West for lessons. Men are men though, and when Hobbes observed the motivations and actions of men in creating society and a common-wealth, he could write with equal justice of the Chinese as of the Britons.
So then we come to the disappearance of Tank Man. It is an image which is a threat to the Chinese Communist Party: it shows that bowed submission is not inevitable, that a Chinese man can stand up against authority. As such it is suppressed in Mainland China. In a democratic country, images however harmful to the standing of the government are freely circulated, and so accepted it this that it seems ridiculous that I even have to write that down.
It is a most pointed reminder because it happened in 1989, and in that same year communist parties collapsed across Eastern Europe, and in Algeria and Mongolia, the latter on China’s very borders. The Chinese Communist Party may no longer be communist, but it is a fascist tyranny feeling its fragility. There may be genuine belief that China cannot survive without the firm hand keeping it from the murderous turmoil which has regularly engulfed the Middle Kingdom in all past ages. It must be suppressed.
Bing called the disappearance a human error. I doubt that. It would take deliberate programming to exclude that term from a search engine algorithm. Neither though do I think that it was a conscious decision by the company. Any large technology company has a wide range of employees of all backgrounds, and it is no stretch to imagine that among them could be one or more who is an agent, paid or voluntary, of the Peking government, and who would inveigle himself into a position where he could control content. There is precedent for it: ‘social justice warriors’ working in publishing or in Internet companies ensure they are in a position to control output.
The challenge for the West is that this interference crosses borders: the Bing obliteration of Tank Man was effected not in a dictatorship but in America. That power invading our countries is a threat we have not faced in peacetime before.