Sunday, August 24, 2008

PBS: Frontline: "The Tank Man" at Tiananmen Square, and China's transformation toward authoritarian capitalism


Given the attention paid to China recently for the Olympics, and Ted Koppel’s Discovery Channel series “The People’s Republic of Capitalism” (reviewed on this blog July 9, 2008), it’s a good time to look at the PBS Frontline film “The Tank Man,” directed by Antony Thomas, originally aired April 11, 2006 (transcript link).

The film documents how China converted from statist Communism to statist capitalism, which somehow manages to hide the underlying trend toward fascism. It opens with a shot of the open Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world, treeless, overwhelming, said to dwarf the significance of the individual in relation to the state. The film then accounts for the encounter of an “unknown rebel” (since called “Tank Man” on June 5, 1989, at the close of the Tiananmen Square protests. For about five minutes, the young man challenged a meandering column of tanks by standing in front of it (a kind of one man “sit in”) until some people removed him. One journalist in a hotel (Jeff Widener?) tells of hiding his film in the commode when he realized that the secret police could see him filming. Sure enough, soon they knocked – banged – on his hotel door to confiscate his film, but the commode saved the footage that counts. It got out. No one is sure what happened to the young man, who may have been Wang Weilin, and who might have been executed. But the knowledge of his protests is thought to have helped propel changes in China toward capitalism, and also to encourage protests in Berlin and Romania (and falls in those countries later in 1989) and maybe the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The film documents the history that led to the protests, including a fear by the Communist government not so much of students, but of protests spreading to workers. That led to martial law, but then an uprising of the people led to blocking every intersection along the boulevard leading to the square. The Chinese military used expanding military rounds, appropriate for battle, to inflict maximum casualties on the civilian victims. But, in the aftermath of the Tank Man footage, the Chinese government began to change its strategy. It was willing to separate economics and politics. It told the anti-establishment: you can get rich, but you can’t criticize us or challenge one-party rule. The government began to allow free-trade zones, and eventually “disaster capitalism” (of the Naomi Klein terminology as in my books blog) leading to normal capitalism would start to transform the country. The old egalitarian “ethic” that had led to Mao’s cultural revolution was replaced by acceptance of a new divide between the rich and poor, with a Confucian attitude toward family values (despite the “one child per family” policy).

The film shows city-scapes, like Shanghai’s, that had not existed before. The Maglev trains are the fastest in the world, even if not heavily used. Luxury homes and shopping for the rich abound. But in the countryside, the state “privatized” all the services, which particularly resulted in removing state provision of health care and pensions, and leaving that up to Confucian “family responsibility.” Farmers could lease land from the state and sell crops on the free market, but this did not always work for them.

So some young people went away to the cities to work in 90-hour-a-week factory jobs, often living in dormitories, sometimes twelve to a room. One girl tells of sending money back to the family to pay for education for two younger brothers (it’s not clear what happened to the “one child” policy then, but it illustrates that in China “family responsibility” is not a matter of personal choice). The government hires contractors to do its construction, and contractors don’t pay workers until the end of job (just giving them room and board), and often the workers don’t get paid at all. A few workers have threatened suicide by jumping from forklifts.

China employs about 30000 people censoring and filtering Internet content for over 100 million users, and forces major software companies to comply in order to do business in China. A search on “Tank Man” brings up many references in western countries but is blocked in China. American law prohibits the sale of weapons to China, but it is not clear that it would prohibit software and hardware (or router companies like Cisco) from complying with Chinese terms of use when doing business in China.

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