Year for year, week for week, hour by hour, has there ever been a better use of American television than "Frontline"?
I just finished watching tonight's episode called "The Tankman". Starting this Friday at 5pm Eastern Time you can watch it yourselves online at the link above.
It was an extended episode, an hour-and-a-half, and the purported theme was to ask the question "Whatever happened to the Tank Man?"
The question it really asked, however, was "Whatever happened to China after the Tank Man?" The answer is the Chinese government offered its citizens a deal: you can have prosperity (or, some of you can have it, mostly those who live in the cities), or you can fight us for your freedom. It wasn't even really an offer of a deal, come to think of it. It was more like: do it our way or we will shoot you.
One of the documentary's scenes concerned construction of a gigantic stadium in Beijing which will host the 2008 Olympic Games. It's being mostly built by migrant workers, people who have come into the city to find work, trying to find a way out of the crushing poverty of China's rural areas. Nearly one billion of China's citizens live outside its cities. Education is no longer free. Young men and women leave their families and go to the cities to try to earn enough money to send back home so their younger siblings can pay for their schooling. The money to be made is rarely enough to cover the school fees.
There is no medical care in the countryside. If you get sick, you either rely on the local herbalist or you die.
To keep the cities from being overrun with migrants seeking work, the government maintains strict rules concerning how you can live and work in the city. You cannot bring dependents with you. You have to live in a special migrant worker's hostel, 12 or 18 people to a room. If you lose your job or the job ends, you have to find another one, or you have to leave. Your days are long, frequently you work 7 days a week. You have no right to negotiate, collectively or otherwise, with your employer.
Meanwhile, the new cities of China gleam with brand name products.
The story of Tank Man is probably not the story you think it is. Most folks believe he was a young student, probably part of the demonstrations that ended in Tiananmen Square the night of June 3-4, 1989. There was a report in 1990 that Tank Man had been identified as the 19 year old son of a factory worker, and that he had been executed. That report turns out to have been dubious at best. The truth is nobody really knows who Tank Man was, or where he is now, whether even he is alive or dead.
If you watch the entire "Frontline" episode, you will understand that Tank Man's famous act of bravery required even more courage than you already think it did. This was a guy that was fed up with the People's Army firing on the friends and relatives and parents of students who had been in Tiananmen Square. They were desperate people looking for their missing loved ones. The soldiers gave them a count of five to clear out and then they started shooting. Shooting people who were running away. Shooting people in the back. That scene repeated itself maybe half a dozen times that day, people were so desperate to find their loved ones.
And the truth is, most of the killing during the summer of 1989 did not take place at Tiananmen Square. Most of it took place throughout Beijing as students and workers and just regular people tried to keep the tanks from getting to Tiananmen. The soldiers and their commanders were ruthless and brutal. They'd already made one attempt to break things up that ended in an embarrassment for the State. The people had gathered around the tanks and trucks and more or less flower-powered the soldiers into pulling back out of the city. The State had determined it wasn't going to make that mistake again. This time there would be no more Mister Nice Guy.
You look at your own life and you wonder, jeez, would I ever have the courage to be like Tank Man? Would I ever have the courage to be that fed up? I live in a fat and happy and, as a consequence, largely lazy and stupid country, politically speaking. All my worldly needs are pretty easily met. I have my complaints. I get on the internet and express my gripes. I post to my blog.
I remember sometime after the World Trade Center was destroyed -- I was there that day -- a friend of mine visiting me from London asked me if I had considered running into the burning buildings to try to help save people. I looked at him, shocked.
"Are you kidding? Of course not. They pay professionals to do that."
But later, I couldn't help wondering... it had never even occurred to me to try to help rescue people. My only thought was to get the hell out of there. The correct decision, I think. Especially since the cops were yelling at me to get the hell away. But still. My friend's question ate at me. No, I had to be honest, it had never even occurred to me to do anything except run for my life. The correct decision. The right impulse. To be sure. But still.
It's no use wondering, I guess, whether I would ever have the courage to be Tank Man. Frankly, I doubt very much whether Tank Man himself had ever wondered if he was capable of doing the sort of thing he did. People just get fed up, you know? And suddenly their view of the world takes on a whole new focus. You do things you never could imagine yourself doing before you got so fed up.
The illusion is, for most of us, for most of our lives, we can't do anything about the way things are. I can't stop my country's foolishness in Iraq. I can't stop my fellow countrymen from re-electing an incompetent, messianic imbecile as President. I'm as helpless as those migrant workers in Beijing. Little guys like us are born to be used by the states we live in, by the employers we work for, by the cultures we inhabit. The tragedy is most of us can't even conceive of facing the choice to be another Tank Man. Before you are faced with such a choice, you are secretly grateful to be so helpless. Once you face it... what happens then?
I started fantasizing...
We have always treated our athletes like heroes. We look to them to be reminded of what it means to live a heroic life. I wonder what it would be like if, for once, they really could be heroes?
The Beijing Olympics are coming in 2008. What if all the athletes of the world went ahead with their training, worked hard, preparing themselves for those games. And what if they all traveled to Beijing, holed themselves up in the fancy dorms built by all of those penniless, beaten down migrant workers, then marched in those glorious opening ceremonies they always put on.
This is China's Big Chance, see? This is her chance to show off her economic miracle to the world.
So what if all of those athletes, from every country in the world, took the opportunity to commemorate a true hero like Tank Man? What if all those athletes showed up for their events and then rather than competing they just stood there holding up the famous picture of Tank Man, for all the world to see.
Event after event, venue after venue, refusing to compete and choosing instead to pay tribute to the notion of Tank Men. Sacrificing all of their hard work to pay tribute before the world to a nameless, iconic hero. A hero who was not afraid to do something serious and brave.
What heroes they would be then, eh? To all of us who feel we have to live in the world as it has been handed to us. Think of all the powerful people freaking out, the world over, that whole week. Governments, network executives, advertisers, corporations... all of them sitting there staring at the T.V. in horror.
And there wouldn't be damned thing they could do about it.
What if the world's athletes, in Beijing, in 2008, reminded us all that whether we believe it or not about ourselves, we've all got the resources within ourselves to be Tank Men. To be Tank Men to corrupt governments. Tank Men to soulless corporations. Tank Men to our own lust for the material things they sell us, the lust that keeps us keeping ourselves in their thrall. Tank Men to all those, not just the Chinese government, who would tell us how to think, or who tell us -- as China tells her people -- that there is no such thing as Tank Man, that he never existed, that, in fact, he never could exist.
But he did exist, and whoever he was and wherever he is now, in my view he's one of the luckiest men alive whatever happened to him afterward. For he had the chance, you see, at least once in his life, to be a Tank Man, and he took it -- an act made even more remarkable when you reflect that he probably had no idea his heroism was being caught on film (by anyone besides State Security, of course) and that he would become an icon because of it.
Now that is a performance of Olympic proportions.