Tiananmen Square and Hong Kong- The Information War

Tank Man | 100 Photographs | The Most Influential Images of All Time


Back in middle school social studies, my teacher presented a wide eyed class with an image: that of a lone man solemnly standing in the path of four on-coming tanks with cannons held high. I was fascinated by this image. What did this ambiguous figure, be they truly man or woman, old or young, believe in so strongly that they would stand with such calm austerity in front of that cold, unfeeling, unrelenting metal? It must be that special kind of strength that can only be found after accepting death as the price of immortalizing your stance- but against what?

This photo comes from the Tiananmen Square Massacre, a collision between student protestors in the heart of China, and the validity of the totalitarian one-party system that governed the state. 

Thirty two years later, today, reproducing the words above in China could get me arrested. And the words themselves would certainly be censored, along with all other information and history of the event. In fact, the exact death toll from the protest isn’t even publicly available. Estimates range from those conceded officially by the Chinese government, 200, to figures released by first responders- 2,600 (Time).

I hesitate to make the following point because blindly subjecting other cultures to Western values is a dangerous course of action, and because the narrative about and against Chinese politics is so carefully guided in America, but I’ll hazard it as a personal conviction hopefully forged independently from my background and upbringing. I believe that human beings are rational and logical actors. Therefore, it follows that if a person is presented with a diverse array of ideas, they will gravitate towards the most just, the most logical. If they are given accurate information they will use that information to make just and rational decisions. It follows that if a system can only exist by concealing information from it’s masses, that’s because the best, most logical, and most just values don’t align with that of the system. Therefore that system must not be the most just for its constituents. 

The protests leading to the Tiananmen Square Massacre occured for many reasons, namely a show in favor of open democracy, and an outcry for free speech. I elect to focus on the latter demand, because I believe it is the most basic fundamental right- access to information- of which all others follow, and because the war over information access is just as prominent now as it was during the Tiananmen protests.

Looking back at the massacre itself, let’s ask the question: what resulted? Well, following the dramatic end to the protests, and many deaths, great changes occured in China. A country that was slowly, achingly, leaning towards political and economic liberalization halted and veered backwards. Through the following year “12% of all newspapers” were banned in China (Pei). Today, the written history of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi is banned from textbooks because they discuss civil disobedience (Mahtani, McLaughlin).

Change focus and look now at the underground war occurring in the China owned yet British born city of Hong Kong- where Western values clash with encroaching Chinese control. Here the city’s youth sneak past their slumbering parents at night- by window or by door- and take to the streets with rebellion in their hearts. They were born to a land where democracy was assured, and freedom of speech guaranteed under the proceeding British ownership. Whether or not those values are inherently just, or a product of White Western influence, is an interesting conversation aside. Regardless, however, they are the values that these students hold dearly. So dear, infact, that one protestor under the pseudonym Calvin writes ““I would rather die than be arrested, if I die, at least the fury would sustain this movement”  (Laignee).

This is not a new school of thought, and in many ways is a direct evolution of the brief ideological war that burned in Tiananmen Square back in 1989. Remember the photo of the man standing before the tanks? His posture? That special kind of strength that defines the photograph? I’ll now highlight another similarity between him and our friend Calvin above: their age. Calvin is 21 (Laignee). The man in the photograph, later identified as Wang Weilin, was 19. These brave souls that valued their convictions over their lives were children, driven by the hope that they might live freely expressed lives. One protestor, years after the massacre at Tiananmen Square, expressed expressed the following grief over the death of her corevolutionary:

“When, at seventeen, your breathing stopped—

well, it was like a miracle—

you had not lost hope” (Xiaobo)

Her feelings here, expressed throughout the poem, are grave respect over the loss of such a brief life, that one so young could make such a sacrifice as the rest of their life. She extends this by saying, of herself, that to live in the shade of such a life is a “crime,” that grants her a certain “notoriety” (Xiaobo). Let’s look at another Hong Kong demonstrator, this time calling himself Yannus. Yannus carries a handwritten will in his pocket, with words addressed to his loved ones should he die (Laignee). Yannus is 15 years old.

It’s clear now that a strong spiritual link exists between these young protestors, a shared love of liberty, great respect for their lives, and a willingness to sacrifice it for their convictions. Beyond this spiritual connection, another trend lies hidden across the span of time that connects these struggles: the information war. You see, China learned quickly that to win an ideological war, you must monopolize information. Yu Hau of the New York Times who lived in China during the massacre wrote “One day, the picture on my TV screen changed completely. The images of detained suspects were replaced by scenes of prosperity throughout the motherland” (Hao).

Information about the massacre suddenly dried up. Information about anything related to public dissent suddenly dried up. All the while, through the years, China developed the technology and data processing techniques to initiate mass surveillance on its people (McDevitt). So much so, that the demonstrators in Hong Kong all wear masks and face coverings to conceal their identities, lest the public cameras capture and analyze their faces, and report their crimes to the government (Laignee).

Now you understand the blind spot the Hong Kong protestors are up against. They fight a foe that knows everything about them, while they are armed with only their personal convictions without even the knowledge of past revolutions to learn from and define themselves by. How do you galvanize your cause when your enemy controls the media- all media? It’s hard to imagine a system where the use of social media isn’t a widely available option, but it’s truly the case. The Chinese government is thorough, going so far as to require identification for the purchase of sim cards which were previously used for anonymous communication (McDevitt). The falsification of this registration data can result in a 14 year jail sentence (McDevitt).

The Hong Kong Revolution is not merely the spiritual successor of the Tiananmen Square protest- it’s the same fight revived 30 years later. The times and technology that enable the instantaneous flow of information have evolved across the world- yet lies stagnant in China. Should China unite Hong Kong under the same system as the mainland, it’s all but certain what freedom of information they have will vanish. The youth know this, and value it despite however many years before them they may have to relinquish in the defense of those liberties. The anonymity of the Tiananmen massacre in China teaches us that the liberty of information is indeed valuable- look what atrocities may be hidden in its absence. The information war now faced by the revolutionaries in Hong Kong teaches us to protect our data- in the wrong hands it may be used to control us. It teaches us to value our media outlets, and stand in the defense of our outlets for online discourse because they may be degraded. Such that a photograph that defines the notion of courage against domination to the Western world cannot be freely shared in the country of its origin. And, most of all, the bravery of the youths in Hong Kong and China teaches us to listen to the voices of our young people, from whatever place or platform they shout, because often a respect for one’s long future may inspire convictions in justice, and defiance against a status quo of capitulation.

Works Cited

Pei, Minxin. From Reform to Revolution: the Demise of Communism in China and the Soviet Union. Harvard University Press, 1998. 

Shibani Mahtani, Timothy McLaughlin. “Teachers Face Threats, and Books Are Banned as China Pushes Party Line in Hong Kong Schools.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 7 July 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/hong-kong-security-law-school-teachers-china-patriotic-education-death-threats/2020/07/06/793d813a-ac59-11ea-a43b-be9f6494a87d_story.html. 

Barron, Laignee. “Meet the Young People at the Heart of Hong Kong’s Rebellion.” Time, Time, 23 Jan. 2020, time.com/longform/hong-kong-portraits/. 

“How Many Really Died? Tiananmen Square Fatalities.” Time, Time Inc., 4 June 1990, content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,970278,00.html. 

Xiaobo, Liu. “Liu Xiaobo: For Seventeen (Commemorating the Second Anniversary of 6/4).” HRIC, 27 June 2007, www.hrichina.org/en/content/3776. 

McDevitt, Dan. “China Has Brought Its Repressive Surveillance Tools to Hong Kong.” Nikkei Asia, Nikkei Asia, 15 Mar. 2021, asia.nikkei.com/Opinion/China-has-brought-its-repressive-surveillance-tools-to-Hong-Kong. 

Widener, Jeff. “The Story behind the Iconic ‘Tank Man’ Photo.” CNN, Cable News Network, 5 June 1989, www.cnn.com/interactive/2019/05/world/tiananmen-square-tank-man-cnnphotos/.