Every day when I sit down at my desk, I look straight at the Tankman.
The Tankman is the unbelievably brave Chinese man who stood before a line of tanks near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, as the Chinese government moved to crush pro-democracy demonstrators in June 1989.
An estimated 2,000 unarmed people were killed. The Tankman – whose fate isn't known – was immortalized in a famous photo. It hangs, as a poster, on my office wall.
This week marks the 19th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacres. The site of the 1989 bloodshed is a central venue for the Beijing Olympics. The torch ceremonies were held there and the Olympic marathon will start there.
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China's government has made this dark page of its history into a taboo subject, forbidding the media to discuss it. Journalists who've done so have been jailed.
Tankman still relevant
An estimated 180 Chinese arrested during the Tiananmen events still remain in prison, according to Human Rights Watch.
An organization of family members of victims has urged China's leaders to publish the facts of the crackdown. Known as the Tiananmen Mothers, the group tries to copy Argentina's famous Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who fought to uncover the fate of their disappeared children. But the government shut down the mothers' new Web site on May 28.
No doubt the Chinese government hopes the Olympics will eclipse memories of the Tiananmen dead and the image of the Tankman. Yet what he stands for has never been more relevant to China.
The Tankman's image is compelling not just because of his courage. His ramrod stiff body, planted a foot from the first tank, cries out for government accountability. The demonstrators in Tiananmen Square were demanding an end to staggering government corruption and a government that was responsible to its people.
Since 1989, the Chinese government has evolved a formula to prevent such movements. Chinese can benefit from the booming economy and enjoy large amounts of personal freedom, so long as they refrain from political or social organizing. Any talk of political reform is discouraged; limited experiments with elections of low level officials were not expanded.
This lack of political checks and balances has spawned economic corruption that dwarfs anything seen in 1989. That corruption was painfully evident as China dealt with the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquakes.
Beijing rushed soldiers and heavy equipment to the quake zone. Yet another set of photographs, with images almost as powerful as that of the Tankman now symbolizes that disaster. The pictures showed grieving parents whose children perished because party bosses built shoddy schools for the poor, while constructing earthquake-proof buildings for the elite.
The most famous photo reached Chinese via Web sites even though the government forbade media to print it. It shows two mothers clutching photos of dead kids, screaming at a party official who knelt before them to ask forgiveness.
Perhaps their anger will fuel a movement that demands punishment for local officials. It certainly highlights the dangers in a system that gives people no means to take officials to task. Such a system ensures that rampant corruption will undercut economic progress and creates popular anger.
After the earthquake, China's top leaders seemed to realize they needed to appear accountable. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao rushed to the scene. Journalists were initially allowed to cover the damage.
But these moves won't make a dent on the corruption that flourishes when local party officials are immune to grassroots pressures.
Pardon the prisoners
Were the Chinese government interested in confronting the accountability problem, the Olympics would provide an excellent venue. What better moment to pardon the 180 prisoners and the journalists who languish for their Tiananmen connection?
Such a pardon is highly unlikely. Yet if it happened, it would burnish China's international stature.
A pardon would reflect a government commitment to tackle the accountability issue. It would meet China's pledge, made when it sought the Olympics, to improve its human-rights record.
Most powerfully, a pardon would revise the image of the Tankman. Rather than evoking China's haunted past, he would stand for China's future hopes.