A few months ago I discovered the photo on Google. There is in it a tremendous sense of depth and expanse, and of menacing power: a wide urban space edged with trees, around 50 tanks parked in rows and deploying along a boulevard in column, and lines of soldiers alongside. At the bottom left a tiny figure stands in front of the foremost tank. It’s the Tank Man, photographed June 5, 1989, in Beijing. Less intimate than other, more famous photographs of this iconic figure, this photo confirms the epic quality of his courage.

His beliefs remain an enigma, and the volumes of commentary piled onto his shadowy figure simply reflect what different political philosophies have made of him. For some, of course, his stand is to be praised as an individualistic act of defiance against repression.

Others temper their praise. They will say that in fixating on the Tank Man we forget the countless other anonymous civilians persecuted during the Communist government’s crackdown on protests in Beijng and other cities just as student protesters were evacuating Tiananmen Square in June; or we substitute his image for informed insight into the events of April-June 1989.

There is also the question of the futility in the Tank Man’s actions, reflecting a disenchanted 20th-century view of the individual’s chances against the modern authoritarian state. Percy Shelley’s “The Mask of Anarchy,” a poem much admired by 19th-century socialists, affirms the power of collective organizing against tyranny with the refrain “Ye are many, they are few.” In the Tank Man’s case the counter-refrain would be “They are many, I am one.”

Then there are those intellectuals who see in admiration for the Tank Man a peculiarly Western preoccupation with anti-authority individualism. For them what is needed in China is neither mass protest nor “everyman” defiance, but a peaceful reform movement that puts the brightest and the most virtuous into political power. These intellectuals see a revamped Confucianism as the solution to authoritarianism in China, and to its rising inequality and rampant materialism. They want a specially selected, educated elite to function as a “virtuous bureaucracy” like the Confucian scholar-bureaucrats of old, and contain the populist urges of politicians.

It’s hard to imagine a full-blown Confucian revival coming about. The communal ways of life, the patriarchal family order and the shared ritual customs supporting traditional Confucian practice have crumbled with modernization and urbanization. The reputation of Confucianism also fell in the 20th century as autocratic and militaristic rulers in East Asia twisted its ideals.

These modern Confucians also underestimate the problem of elite failure. In today’s complex, pluralistic East Asian societies with their highly educated middle classes, it is also hard to imagine such virtuous, unelected elites being able to deal with complex social and economic issues and competing interests very adequately, with dissenting citizens snapping at their heels.

But what of the claim that mass civil society activism and civil disobedience are largely alien to East Asian cultures, where, as Confucian scholar Daniel Bell puts it, most citizens have been content to leave political decision making to “an educated, public spirited elite?”

If that was true of the past, it no longer holds for the vigorous civil societies of Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. The prodemocracy movement in South Korea during the ’70s and ’80s deserves especial mention for its strength and diversity, which included elements of “conscientious Confucianism.”

So when Korean intellectuals and students spoke out against dictators like Gen. Chung-hee Park, there were already traditional Confucian precedents in Korean society for scholars to remonstrate with princes. Korean church leaders invoked Christian ideas of divine law and conscience in attacking the legitimacy of autocratic government- and sometimes they also invoked the Confucian ideal of the “mandate of heaven.”

But there was also an un-Confucian organizing from below. A heady Christian liberation theology, Minjung portrayed the oppressed masses as subjects, rather than objects of political activism and change. This theology had its everyman heroes and heroines, including a young factory worker, Chon Taeil, who tried to organize a trade union in Seoul’s hellish textiles factories in the 1960s, before immolating himself along with a copy of South Korea’s labor laws in a lone act of protest in November 1970.

The Tank Man quickly disappeared from view in China, but Taeil’s suicide electrified Korean intellectuals and workers alike. The strengths of the Korean pro-democracy movement lay in its coalitions of elite and common citizens, of church leaders, students, intellectuals and trade union members, and in its unsteady but powerful mix of oppositional doctrines: Christian, socialist, liberal and — perhaps at a less reflective, habitual level — Confucian.

There seems little prospect for such coalitions to form in China today. Christian communities are small and closely monitored, dissidents imprisoned, and China’s internal security system is more powerful than that of autocratic South Korea 40 years ago. Though there is a large under class of exploited workers, most citizens are acquiescent in the goals of material development and national self-assertion set by the Chinese Communist Party.

China is also living with the uncertain consequences of a double elite failure in 1989. The student leaders at Tiananmen Square, hailing from the nation’s top universities, may initially have appeared to be acting in accordance with the lofty ideals of Confucian remonstrance.

But they gradually degenerated into factionalism and self-righteous intransigence (a vice also not unknown in Confucian moralists); and so they missed opportunities for compromise.

For its part, the CCP politburo lacked the courage to take up the reform opportunity presented to it. It provoked student protesters with polarizing denunciations, ruthlessly deposed those in its midst who supported political reform, and took the path of repression. In its decision to turn Beijing’s streets into a free-fire zone, it bore the lion’s share of responsibility for what followed.

The student protesters were largely spared, though many leaders were imprisoned. It was ordinary citizens like the Tank Man who suffered the most, mown down by the People’s Liberation Army along the streets to Tiananmen Square on June 3-4, or arrested and imprisoned in Beijing and in other cities where protests had broken out.

Despairing at the repression of Chinese student protests in another era, the writer Lu Xun once said “if the dead are not buried in the hearts of the living, then they are dead indeed.” But the memories of 1989 will not fade easily. The ghostly images and voices of deposed reformers Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, of imprisoned and exiled students and activists, of the massacre victims and their families, and of the Tank Man himself haunt the margins of China’s blogosphere and social media.

One day they may flood its closely patrolled borders, and the heavily coded dissident voices there may become bold and direct; the defiant individuals first, elite and common alike, and then crowds will surge toward Tiananmen Square, as they did in 1919 and in 1989.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University and is researching modern Confucianism.

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